Who is the Amazing Spider-man? On Identity, Weakness and Power
SPOILER ALERT. I went to see the latest Spider-man film during the week. The Amazing Spider-man is the Spider-man story ‘re-booted’: a new version of the original Spider-man rather than a fourth instalment of the Spider-man series which starred Tobey Maguire.
It seems to me that identity is always a central theme of the entire superhero genre, because the story hinges on the alter ego of the main character: who is Peter Parker? Spider-man or a geeky kid? Who is Superman? A titan from another planet or mild-mannered Clark Kent? And so on. Out of all the superhero cartoons and their movie spin-offs, the identity theme has been most strongly explored in the Spider-man series because Peter Parker is a teenager, and so his discovery of his super-powers coincides with his adolescent search to discover who he is.
Critics would probably dispute about whether the latest installment plays down the identity theme or actually treats it more subtly than in the earlier trilogy of Spider-man films. I am inclined to think the latter. While it underlies the whole of the film, it is only in the last scene that this theme becomes absolutely explicit when one of Peter’s teachers says that some people argue that there are ten plots in all of fiction. She then says that there is really only one plot line: Who am I?
Peter’s quest to find out what happened to his parents is a crucial part of his search to discover who he really is. And the scenes of Peter trying out his newly acquired spidey abilities like climbing up walls, testing his super-fast reflexes or utilising his superior strength serve as a sort of parable for the journey of adolescent self-discovery of one’s gifts and talents that all teenagers must negotiate. When Peter fails to remember his familial responsibilities to his aunt and uncle as he pursues his own ambitions and plans we get a glimpse into the frequently bumpy process of individuation that a young person undertakes in order to discover who they are beyond their family dynamics and patterns of behaviour. Yet another part of the theme of identity is explored as Peter painfully discovers that his moral failures can have catastrophic effects when he fails to stop a burglary.
All of the strands outlined above can also be found in the earlier films. The novel contribution of The Amazing Spider-man to the theme of identity is found in the character of Dr Curt Connors, Spider-man’s nemesis in the new film. We are told several times that the goal of Connors’s scientific research is to ‘eliminate weakness’, a goal born of his desire to re-grow his amputated arm. Connors makes it clear that he wants to transcend humanity’s limits… with tragic consequences.
Peter’s relationship to his weaknesses is different. His deepest wound – the loss of his parents – can and does cripple him relationally at times, such as when he storms out of the house after an altercation with his uncle Ben about his father. And his grief at Ben’s death sends him on a vigilante-style quest to avenge him. Significantly, it is his encounter with a child that brings about a moment of ‘conversion’ for Peter: as he plucks the child from a burning car he realises that Spider-man’s mission cannot be simply about revenge. After this encounter it seems to me that Peter’s weaknesses no longer cripple him, but are now the wellspring of creative, life-giving energy that now motivates him. His purpose is now to do good and not to simply find his uncle’s killer. Paradoxically, while his superpowers make him in some sense more than human, Peter’s true humanity is found in his desire to use his gifts in the service of others. And Peter’s true power lies not in the elimination of his weakness, but in the desire to allow those wounds to be life-giving rather than destructive. Contrast this with Dr Connors whose mission to eliminate weakness results in him becoming far more profoundly crippled than his amputation ever did.
This motif of power in weakness is deeply biblical of course. In 2 Corinthians Paul tells us that his thorn in the flesh is the locus for the Lord’s power to be made manifest, in his life, and for the sake of others (2 Cor 12:9). We don’t know what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was, but it became the place of grace for him, the place where the creative power of God was made visible in his life. We all have wounds, weaknesses, and Paul’s point is that they can cripple or create us. For Paul, the answer to the question, ‘who am I?’ is most profoundly answered by the God who is strangely more profoundly present in our wounds rather than in our triumphs. I think The Amazing Spider-man makes more or less the same point… with spandex, spider-webs and spectacular stunts of course.