The Philosophy of Spider-Man – Wisecrack Edition
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”- Uncle Ben’s famous lines have defined the inner struggle of everyone’s favorite web slinger across all of its 17,000 reboots. In this Wisecrack Edition, we explore how this mantra uniquely positions Spiderman as a reflection of American international relations. Just as America struggles with how it should responsibly wield its immense power and resources, so too does Peter struggle with how to responsibly use his powers as Spiderman. By drawing upon thinkers William V Spanos, Sacvan Bercovich and other International Relations theorists, we’ll uncover the philosophies that make Spiderman the quintessential American Superhero, and make some predictions as to how these philosophies will carry over in to Spiderman: Homecoming.
Written by: Tommy Cook
Research by: Guy Risko
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Spider-Man – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Just your friendly neighborhood Jared here. Confession: I’ve watched every episode of the 1977 Spider-Man TV show… MORE THAN ONCE. Don’t judge me. …Ok, maybe your judgment is earned… But in all seriousness – I really dig Spiderman. And the thing that constantly draws me back, no matter how many times the franchise is rebooted, is just how AMERICAN Spider-Man truly is. Now I don’t mean that Spidey loves pickup trucks and double cheeseburgers, but rather, that he embodies fundamental elements of American ideology. So cue that patriotic music and welcome to an ‘amazingly’ Ameri-CAN Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Spider-Man.
Now, yes, many superheroes from Batman to Captain America, embody different aspects of American values: standing up for the little guy, fighting for what’s right, adhering to a strict moral code; but Spider-Man does so in a way that uniquely reflects America’s role in the world. Just look at Peter Parker – a young kid, coming of age, who’s suddenly gifted this insane amount of power. He’s constantly wrestling with how to wield this power or, well, if he even should. Parker mirrors America– a young country, that post-WWII happened upon a massive amount of power, and constantly grapples with how to responsibly wield this newfound power – if it should at all. America doesn’t have a long history to draw upon for moral direction just as Peter doesn’t have any parents to guide him. In fact — the only piece of advice Peter’s ever given comes from Uncle Ben. You know the line…
Uncle Ben’s famous words reflect many ideas inherent to American Exceptionalism, you know, like the idea that America is dope af and thus has a duty to lead the world. This idea is encapsulated in “The city upon a hill,” a metaphor taken from the New Testament by American colonists to describe their mission – to be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It’s use still continues, for example:
“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”
…Or This Ronald Reagan Speech.
“A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and, above all, responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.”
This view of America has been reflected in each Spider-Man film — from Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to likely Tom Holland. In each adaptation, Peter struggles with the weight of his sudden powers yet feels a moral responsibility to use them justly, a dilemma that mirrors two American philosophies: The Reluctant Sheriff and The American Jeremiad. ‘The Reluctant Sheriff’, first proposed by American Diplomat Richard Haass, basically takes your standard grizzled Clint Eastwood cowboy and applies it to U.S global policy. The U.S. doesn’t want to enforce international order, but since there isn’t anybody else as powerful, we gotta suck it up and govern the shit out of the rest of the world. Put simply, the U.S doesn’t want to regulate global politics, but must do so to prevent the rising tide of violence. Similarly, Peter Parker, both the McGuire and Garfield versions, isn’t even sure he wants to be ‘Spider-Man’, yet ultimately feels obligated. Much of the drama stems from Peter’s struggle to balance his personal life with his duty as a superhero.
In Spider-Man, Peter barely makes it to his Thanksgiving dinner because he’s recovering from a fight with the Green Goblin. And in The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter’s late to his own high-school graduation because he’s gotta fight Paul Giamatti. Per Haass, The ‘Reluctant Sheriff’ must also create a “posse”, people who work with the sheriff for the good of their ‘town.’ In Spider-Man, New Yorkers throw debris off the Queensboro Bridge to distract The Green Goblin in Spider-Man 2, the train commuters keep Spider-Man’s identity a secret; The Amazing Spider-Man, all the NYC Crane Operators aid Spidey in web-slinging across town; and in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the fire department helps Spider-Man to fight Electro. Even still, the weight of being Spider-Man is too much for Peter. In Spider-Man 2, Peter just flat out says he can no longer carry on being a superhero because it’s ruining his personal life.
And in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter makes a similar confession to Gwen, and here’s where The American Jeremiad kicks in. According to thinkers Sacvan Bercovitch and William V. Spanos, The American Jeremiad emphasizes that it’s the U.S.’s God-given mission to save this world. It’s like the reluctant sheriff, minus the reluctance. If we lose our focus for even half-a-second, or think that someone else might pick up the slack of of spreading democracy, godliness & morality — the world could literally end… Which, to a lesser extent, is exactly what happens in each Spider-Man film. Take Uncle Ben’s death. When Peter lets a thief get away, his moral inaction leads to his uncle’s demise, forever reminding Peter that if he doesn’t live up to his ethical mission, people will die. Likewise when Peter quits being ‘Spider-Man’, the bad-guy power vacuum immediately fills in. In Spider-Man 2, during our hero’s absence, the crime rate spikes and Doc Ock is able to rebuild his doomsday reactor. When Doc captures Mary Jane and the reactor becomes an existential threat to the city, Peter realizes he MUST be Spiderman to save millions of lives. Even after Peter and MJ become official, they recognize that it’s his DUTY to protect the city.
Similarly, After Gwen’s death forces Peter to quit in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Green Goblin builds up a network of super-villains; including weird mech-rhino Giamatti. The film ends with Peter realizing that without Spiderman, the city is doomed to escalating violence. Even with this consistency between adaptations, some elements seem to shift in conjunction with American values. After all, the political climates surrounding each series were pretty different, so it’s not surprising that there would be a shift in how heroics are displayed. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man largely uses what’s known in international relations as hard power— he rushes into battle, relying on brute strength to stop his foes. There’s no time for negotiation with The Green Goblin, Doc Ock and The Sandman. Just some good ol’ fashioned fisticuffs. Andrew Garfield, however, offers a “soft power” version of Spider-Man—he’s constantly trying to persuade his enemies to stop their nonsense. This difference highlights a central contradiction within the discourse of the American Identity—moral righteousness through strength versus moral righteousness through leadership.
In the face of 9/11, moral absolutes were demanded with the Bush Administration’s “with us or against us” rhetoric. Obama’s election, however, brought with it a youthful feel, tied to messages of “hope” and “change”. As such, Garfield’s Spider-Man uses more persuasive tactics to deal with foes. So how will the newest iteration reflect the American values of today? Well — there’s really no telling until we see Homecoming, but it seems that Tom Holland’s Spiderman may distance itself from the American Jeremiad or Reluctant Sheriff. Unlike the Maguire & Garfield films, Holland’s Spider-Man’s no longer the only hero on the block, but one of many. This shift reflects different models of how the global stage can, and should operate.
You see, in a “unipolar world,” there is one central power that keeps everybody in line. Many argue that our current world is exactly this, and the US is not only that central power, but it SHOULD be the that central power aka- The American Jeremiad. But the world wasn’t always unipolar, and some argue it shouldn’t be. In a multi-polar world, there is no head honcho, but an assortment of nations with varying economic and military strength who who coalesce into alliances. Sort of like, say, the Avengers. Holland’s Spider-Man, now just one of many super-heroes, imagines this multi-polar vision. He’s no longer needed to be the beacon for hope and goodness because there’s a dozen other heroes who can pick up the slack. Heck, Spider-Man’s even told by Stark to “sit out” the remainder of the Civil War fight.
In the trailers for Spider-Man: Homecoming – Tony double-downs on this advice, telling Peter that he’s in way over his head and that he should just stay in New York. Aside from the political shift between Maguire-man and Garfield-man, there’s also an economic shift reflected between the two series. The Maguire films constantly highlight Peter’s working-class status. Peter lives in a small house, within a blue collar neighborhood, that Aunt May struggles to pay off. His poor Uncle Ben has recently been fired and everyone in the family is looking for work. In Spider-Man 2, Peter fails as a pizza delivery boy, lives in a flophouse with a shared bathroom, and makes a pittance from the Daily Bugle. Yet the original trilogy valorizes Peter’s poverty, endowing objects like Aunt May’s modest wedding ring with a certain sentimental value that trumps any kind of monetary value. Peter’s money problems are often used as a source of levity playfully affirming the idea that struggling is just a step towards The American Dream.
Just look at the difference between Peter and Eddie Brock. Peter keeps his head down and just does the work; whereas antagonist Eddie uses flattery and fake photos to get ahead. Of course – by the end of Spider-Man 3, Eddie gets unceremoniously fired and then, well, blown the hell up. The valorization of humble poverty becomes especially obvious at the end of Spider-Man 2, when Mary-Jane rushes away from her marriage to a successful astronaut and chooses instead to be with the broke-as-a-joke Peter. This resonates with the early 2000’s economy— while it wasn’t terrific, there was arguably a semblance of hope. The idea of keeping your head down and working your way out of poverty was a bit more popular than it would be during and after the Great Recession. Yet by the time The Amazing Spider-Man came around in 2012 – four years after the 2008 Great Recession, being “poor” lost much of its glamor. The housing crisis that Aunt May fictionally fights against in Spider-Man 2 becomes all too real for much of the US.
As such, Peter’s ‘poverty’ is rarely spoken of in these films. His dad’s now a rich scientist with a private jet; and his Uncle Ben and Aunt May have a nice house. Instead The Amazing Spider-Man highlights Peter’s nerdy ingenuity. He’s a science wizard, designing his own web-shooters and assisting the genius Dr. Connors at Oscorp. This Peter doesn’t have to grind away at Joe’s Pizza. So what will Spiderman Homecoming have in store for us?
We’ve seen major political changes in the last year, and the economy seems to be doing pretty well or at least, the stock market is. Will Homecoming reflect this in its own unique way, or just offer us some good ol’ fashion mindless asskicking? Will the younger Aunt May be characterized as a struggling single parent? Will the Daily Bugle look like Buzzfeed? Let us know what you think in the comments. Thanks for watching guys. Peace.