Does Whatever a Spider Can
Wednesday, January 11th, 2006
One of the quintessential heroes of all time would have to be Peter Parker from the Spider-Man franchise. He has been idolized and fantasized by many people since he was in the comics and his recent forays into cinema have only helped, but how does Peter Parker and Spider-Man compare to some of the heroes that were idolized and fantasized in ancient cultures? How is his adventure and life like that of ancient heroes? This can be determined by using the information gathered on Peter through the Spider-Man films and comparing his characteristics with the customary characteristics of a hero set up by Edward Taylor, Vladimir Propp, Otto Rank, and Joseph Campbell.
Spider-Man is a very popular character spanning the mediums of comic books, video games, stage, television, and film. For the purpose of this essay, the focus will be primarily on the two recent Spider-Man movies staring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker and Spider-Man. The plot of the first movie goes pretty much as such. Peter is an outcast at school, and on a school trip gets bit by a radioactive spider and gets super powers that are spider like in nature. In the beginning, Peter tries to use his powers for his own personal gain, but due to a twist of fate involving the death of Peters uncle, Peter eventually decides to use his powers to help others. During the Spider-Man film, Peter also faces a villain calling himself the Green Goblin, who is defeated. Spider-Man 2 takes place a place a few months after the ending of the first Spider-Man film. The second film deals more with Peter trying to balance his life as Peter Parker and his life as Spider-Man, but the movie also features another villain by the name of Doctor Octopus who tries to perform a dangerous experiment that could destroy the entire city. As you would expect, Spider-Man stops him before Doctor Octopus destroys the city. On account of these many acts of valor, Spider-Man is a prime example of a modern day hero, and it would be interesting to see how many similar qualities Spider-man has with ancient heroes.
One of the first individuals to establish some of the common traits of heroes in myths and stories was Edward Taylor, and three of his traits were that the hero was exposed at birth or abandoned by parents, rescued by someone or something, and the hero grows up to become his or her peoples savior. In the films, it is learned that Peters Aunt May and Uncle Ben raise him. However, Peter was brought up by his parents for sometime before they died. So Peter was not exposed at birth, but he did become abandoned by his parents due to their death. As a result, Peters Aunt and Uncle did rescue him in a sense, so he is appropriate to that Taylor trait. Finally, once Peter was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained his super powers, he became a savior of his people, the residents of New York City (Spider-Man). He would fight super villains threatening the life of every person in the city like Doctor Octopus with his deadly experiment, and Peter would also try and stop common criminals as well like purse-snatchers and other thieves (Spider-Man 2). As such, Spider-Man is verified as a hero using Taylors model completing all three traits to some extant, but how will Spider-Man compare to Propps qualities which place more focus on a heros actions while embarking off on an adventure.
Another person that came up with some general qualities of a hero was Vladimir Propp. Some of Propps characteristics of a hero are that the hero sets off on adventure, faces a villain on the adventure, employs magic to defeat villain, and returns to acquire his or her rightful place in society. Spider-Man faces many villains, most notably Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin, and he uses his powers of super strength, spider web shooting, super agility, spider or sixth sense, and his ability to stick to any surface which is sort of magic although Peter gains this from a radioactive spider which is the result of science (Spider-Man). However, Peter never leaves the city of New York, so he never really set off on an adventure, and since he never left he cant come back to get a place in society. You could argue that by becoming Spider-Man Peter is embarking on an adventure with the new persona of Spider-Man. This is a reasonable interpretation. Consequently, by using that interpretation you take away Propps characteristic of a hero returning and receiving their rightful place in society. Peter never stops dawning the persona of Spider-Man and thus never returns to just one persona. He may get the recognition and place while Peter is Spider-Man, but as a result of giving the services of Spider-Man he cannot stop with out adverse affecting the city, which would result in a decline of his position in society. Peter temporarily quitting in Spider-Man 2 is evidence for this thinking; the crime rate skyrocketed as an affect of his renouncement of his alter ego. Another point can be made that because Peter keeps his identity as Spider-Man a secret, even if Spider-Man were to get his rightful place in society, Peter Parker would not, unless Spider-Man reveals his identity. If Spider-Man were to reveal his identity, then criminals would try to cause harm to Peter and his loved ones, so Peter cannot reveal his identity. It could also easily be argued that Spider-Man never gets his rightful place in society, due to the fact that J. Jonah Jameson regularly tarnishes Spider-Mans reputation in Jamesons newspaper the Daily Bugle. Jameson makes Spider-Man out to be villainous (Spider-Man). Nonetheless, there are a few examples of Spider-Man getting respect and recognition from the people. In the first Spider-Man film, some New York citizens help Spider-Man as thanks for his help when Spider-Man has a situation with the Green Goblin; furthermore, the citizens commend Spider-Man. A better example comes in Spider-Man 2 after the brief hiatus when Peter reprises his role as Spider-Man. Peter saves a train full of passengers and they revere, defend, and honor him for his actions after he saves all their lives. Thus ends Propps characteristics, which were more centered on the heros actions on his journey, unlike Ranks, which deal more with the heros birth and parentage.
Otto Rank also had quite a few ideas for his own characteristics of a hero. Rank had the opinion that a hero had royal parentage, a problematic conception, a difficult pregnancy or prophecy, as a child the hero was exposed in water in a box or basket, as a child the hero was rescued by animals or commoners, the hero would eventually reunite with his or her parents and sometimes take revenge on father, and finally the hero would acquire rank and honor. Many of the traits here dont apply to Spider-Man at all, mostly due to the fact that not much is mentioned of his parents. It was never stated, but it can be assumed that since nothing was mentioned that Peter Parker had a normal childhood with no background in royalty, his conception was unproblematic, there were no prophecies regarding his life, and Peter was not set to sea in any boxlike object. Since Peters parents are deceased theres hardly a chance for him to meet his parents and there would be no reason for retribution on Peters father (Spider-Man). The line of reasoning that Peters Aunt May and Uncle Ben rescued him has already been stated, as was the case about Spider-Man acquiring rank or honor, thus theres little point in repeating the same arguments again.
Joseph Cambell discovered a common outline in most hero myths, and he took the most common elements and created a three-stage sequence of a heros journey; separation, initiation, and return with each of these stages has subsections. The first Spider-Man is the best choice to use as a comparison to these stages and subsections. The first stage and first subsection are separation and call to adventure. Peter shows some signs of mental anguish, like most teenagers, during high school, which would satisfy the call to adventure. Refusal of the call happens when Peter tries to use his powers to gain money and when he doesnt try and stop a robber. Peter receives his supernatural aid from his dieing Uncle Ben, that being the quote with great power there must also come great responsibility" (Spider-Man). The threshold crossing occurs when, for the first time, Peter puts on his outfit and uses his spider webbing to tranport him, and when he finds the man that killed his uncle is the robber he let go earlier. Peter hangs out on a high rooftop and reflects afterwards, this would be the belly of the whale subsection. Now that the seperation process is complete, Peter starts on the initition process. This begins with the road of trials where Peter begins busting criminals and starts to fight the Green Goblin. Peter Parker was always shown to have a liking Mary Jane Watson and when Peter shares a moment with her as Spider-Man it is his meeting with the goddess. Mary Jane also acts as the woman as temptress, when Peter thinks of that moment and reconsiders his new lifestyle. Although Peters real father is dead, Norman Osborn, who is also the Green Goblin, acted somewhat like a father figure to Peter after Peters Uncle Ben died. Norman tries to get Peter to join him, and this completes the apothesis. Peter reaches the ultimate boon when he realizes Uncle Ben was most like a father to him. At this point, Spider-Man seems to go off the track set by Cambell, in that he doesnt really have the return part. Peter Parker never really stops his journey as Spider-Man. Peter desperately wants to stop this new life as Spider-Man, but he is unable to. Since, it never ends he cant experience the refusal of return, magical flight, crossing the return threshold, Peter does not master two worlds, and he does not have the freedom to live. If anything, Peter is enslaved by his life as Spider-Man, unable to ever quit forever. Peter becomes enlightened in this fact that he has to continue as Spider-Man due to having his special gifts, but he never obtains a equilibrium between the two lives (Spider-Man). Peter Parker is still on his journey and who knows if he shall ever finish it, but he is most definitely a hero.
Peter Parker may not accomplish all the hero guidelines of Taylor, Propp, Rank and Cambell, but he does satisfy quite a few of them. Peter Parker was separated from his parents and saved by commoners like many heroes from ancient myths. Peter also eventually becomes Spider-Man and like other heroes helps people and faces villains with his special powers. Unlike those heroes though, Peter Parker and Spider-Man may were never really special as a child, and may never get the respect that he ought to have. Also unlike many heroes, it does not seem that Spider-Man has ever ended his journey as a hero, and as such maybe he will get the status in society he ought to have someday, but only time will tell.
Spider-Man. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perfs. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Wilem Dafoe, James Franco. Film. Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 3 May 2002.
Spider-Man 2. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perfs. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco. Film. Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 30 June 2004.