The release of The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) on DVD and Blu-Ray affords us a good opportunity for a close reading of yet another retelling of one of modern mythology’s most enduring myths.
Ever since its theatrical release, fans and critics have been debating the merits and faults of this latest version and comparing it to Sam Raimi’s 2002 version. Although it’s tempting to get into a similar discussion, and I do have my opinions about the technical and artistic aspects of the film, that will not be the focus here because Pop Mythology is about using the power of narrative, symbol and myth for personal development, not critical analysis. This particular discussion, therefore, will be about some of the mythic and spiritual meanings of Spider-Man as encapsulated in this reboot.
The primary message of Spider-Man the character, of course, has always been that “with great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a beautiful aphorism but the problem is that many people feel that it has little relevance for them because the last thing they feel like is powerful. If literal power in the social, political, economic and militaristic sense was what the Spider-Man mythology was all about, then indeed this tale would not be relevant for most of us. But Spider-Man is and always has been about the Everyman.
The “power” in question therefore is not social and political power (though it certainly can be for the fortunate few). And while there would be nothing intrinsically wrong with pursuing such power, the kind of power that most of us can most realistically attain is the awakening and cultivation of our own unique talents and skills.
With this perspective I have singled out three pivotal scenes that highlight the best of what the 2012 film has to add to the modern mythology that Raimi’s trilogy had previously already established. (Why three? Because three is one of mythology’s favorite numbers.)
Scene 1: Waking up to your power
Physically, adolescence doesn’t usually last past the teenage years, but a certain kind of spiritual adolescence can last and even recur long after we think we’ve outgrown it. Certain questions persist, questions like, “Who am I? What do I believe in? What are my gifts and talents? Do I even have any?”
There are two gateways to personal revelation that the film, consciously or not, beautifully symbolizes and they are: (a) following one’s natural inclinations and interests, and (b) personal crisis.
Peter Parker’s natural interests lie in science which, appropriately enough, is also connected to his father. The discovery of his father’s old briefcase triggers his old insecurities and feelings of abandonment and a desire to find out who he is by finding out who his father was (a common motif in both ancient and modern myth). This marks the beginning of a personal crisis.
Both his natural interests in science and his personal identity crisis lead him into a series of incidents that culminate in the famous spider bite which, at the symbolic level, does not magically give Peter his powers but is simply the catalyst that opens his eyes to the latent abilities already within him.
To fully appreciate the magic of this scene, you must watch the film and the exposition that leads up to it. Though many great trials yet await Peter, this is a brief moment of triumph for a young man waking up to his potential and realizing, for the first time, its staggering promise. Think back to the time when you did something, anything, you either loved or were good at, lost yourself in it completely and then almost felt, if even just for a moment, a sense of awe at your own potential and the possibilities therein.
The scene above is the visual poetry of you in that moment. And I swear by everything I hold dear that whether you understand this at the deepest level or not, you are Peter Parker. Watch as he skates, leaps and swings and then inwardly shout and revel as he shouts and revels for the only thing that has held you back all this time is your own lack of faith in yourself. Try to feel, just for a second, what it’s like to be free of that.
Scene 2: The Mask of the Hero
Symbols contain enormous power. The superhero’s mask – a central motif in all the great superhero comic books – is itself a symbol of the power of symbols.
There is such a wealth of anthropological meaning associated with masks that I can’t even begin to graze the subject here (though maybe in a future post). Let it suffice, for now, to say that masks were – and still are for some cultures – one of the most important props in that most perennial human act of creating meaning where there might not be any: the ritual.
In many cultures in the past (and some still), theater and performance were ritualistic. It was not entertainment. It was worship, sacred and religious in a way modern people usually do not understand. This was particularly true in the animistic, shamanistic religions which far predate religions which we normally consider as being ancient like Judaism and Hinduism. Once performers donned masks of their heroes, gods, or totem animals, they were not just pretending to be the gods and totem animals in question. As far as they were concerned, they became them.
In this scene in Spider-Man, from within the framework of just the story itself, Spidey is using a clever ruse to get the kid to work up the courage to climb through the car—this and nothing more. But at the deepest level, this is not just a superhero character addressing a kid. It is an archetype from our collective unconscious, wearing the mask of a pop cultural icon, addressing us.
The boy in the scene above is none other than us. The burning car, well, it can symbolize so many things and situations that we could find ourselves in. And the black water underneath the suspended car is the abyss of pain and despondency that we are so terrified of falling into.
But the Hero archetype, in this case who happens to wear the mask of Spider-Man, comes and calls to us.
Do not be afraid, he says. You can do it. I know life can feel like being trapped in a burning car and hanging over a bridge by a thread. But you can do it. Put on my mask, the mask of the Hero. It will give you power.
And so you climb. You climb and you embrace and merge with the Hero archetype and, in so doing, you now become Him. You are no longer just little ol’ you, John or Sally, the frightened Victim of life. You are something greater than you. You are the Hero who walks through life like a colossus.
What does all this mean? It means that we can psychologically harness and use the superhero archetype (actually, any hero) for self-empowerment and to claim a feeling of power when we feel like we don’t have any. This was the power in the rituals of transformation that I mention above which some cultures practiced. Before the ritual, they were just a normal, weak, limited human (actually that’s not true either but that would be their self-perception). After the ritual, they were now something…bigger. They would return to their problems with newfound courage and confidence for what fear did a god walking on earth have of life’s ordinary blows and insults?
The superhero archetype can be serve as kind of psychological talisman. Talismans, as you know, are objects with purported mystical properties that grant certain benefits to the bearer. Before combat, a fighter pilot puts on a watch that his father gave him. A student takes his lucky pencil into an all-important exam. In the 1941 Disney film Dumbo, the title character believed that a magic feather gave him the gift of flight. These are talismans. The trick, of course, with talismans is that they contain no such inherent power. They simply help you tap into your own. But since human beings seem to have a much easier time placing faith in external objects than in themselves, the talisman is a clever way to use this natural tendency rather than fight it.
Talismans exist in mental forms as well as physical ones. Ideas and belief systems can be like talismans in that they grant us a sense of safety and security and ward off the terror of the unknown. There is nothing wrong with this and it will always be that way. The pragmatic approach is to use it if it works for you.
And so it is with the Hero archetype. We all have within us a capacity to do good and be great in our own way. But we sabotage ourselves with lack of confidence and belief, sometimes with self-loathing. The roots of these negative beliefs and feelings run so deep that it’s almost impossible for most people to use ordinary means – conventional psychotherapy, positive affirmations, etc. – to eliminate them.
The alternative is to not even try to eliminate them. They are your Shadows and Shadows will never stay banished for long (which is why, in the comics, superheroes never get any rest as one bad guy keeps appearing after another). We simply face them as best we can again and again. Where talismans, physical or mental (and they are all ultimately mental) can help is by lending us the extra burst of imaginary confidence to get through it when we feel like we cannot.
For those who are attracted to heroes and mythology, I offer the idea of the superhero archetype as a psychological talisman. By watching and reading stories about them, by thinking deeply about them, and then by superimposing the archetype of the Hero and its associated meanings onto your daily consciousness – “putting on the mask” – you can borrow from a source of strength that comes from the collective unconscious and is therefore as old and primordial as humanity itself.
Sound silly? Tell it to the Tibetan monks. Among one of the esoteric practices in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition is a ritual that we could call deity meditation. They concentrate on an imagined image of a chosen deity, a yidam, and contemplate it so intensely that the dualistic sense of observer and object dissipates and there is a kind of merging. Just like with the more ancient rituals of animistic traditions, man becomes god/superhero and goes forth to vanquish his demons.
Scene 3: The Mentor’s Message
The third and last scene is when, after defeating his Shadow archetype the Lizard, Peter listens to the voicemail message that his Uncle Ben (the Mentor archetype) had left for him shortly before his death.
With the soulful voice of moral authority, Martin Sheen delivers a beautiful little speech that marks the film’s coda.
“If anyone’s destined for greatness,” he says to Peter from the grave, “It’s you. You owe the world your gifts. You just have to figure out how to use them.”
Of course, you also have to figure out what they are first, a process that takes time and trial-and-error. But it doesn’t have to be an agonizing process. By studying the Hero archetype – the “mask” – we can learn to be patient and embrace the process of self-discovery like the adventure it is. And once you realize your gifts, the responsibility part comes naturally. You want to share them with the world.
This, dear heroes, is the true meaning of Spider-Man and a deeper, fuller meaning behind the statement, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And as if that weren’t enough, in the very last scene we are given another sweet bonus.
As Peter stumbles tardy, presumably after another late night of catching thieves like flies, into his English literature class (quite appropriately), the teacher addresses the class with a bombshell of a line that almost verges on metafiction. (Also check out the quote by Victor Hugo written on the chalkboard behind her):
“I had a professor once who liked to tell his students that there are only ten different plots in all fiction,” she says. “Well, I’m here to tell you he was wrong. There is only one. ‘Who am I?’”
This one plot is what my hero Joseph Campbell would call the Monomyth. While various literary theorists have proclaimed everything from there being just seven basic plots to “thirty-six dramatic situations” that keep reoccurring in different forms, I also believe that, ultimately, at the deepest. deepest core of them all, there is just one.
Who are you, indeed?
First, listen to the sound of your struggle and triumph below. Then put on the mask and find out.
Key Points Summary:
• Spider-Man’s “power” represents your own personal and unique talents, skills and abilities. If you already know what they are, cultivate them. Share them with the world. That is your “responsibility” (“With great power comes great responsibility”). If you don’t know what they are yet, keep looking, be patient and don’t give up though it may take a very, very long time to find them. It may even take a great personal crisis for sometimes you must fall before you find out you can actually fly.
• Once you do discover your talents (or, having already found them, once you commit to them), you will feel alive and passionate like never before. Your old fears will remain but you will feel more confident in overcoming them.
• When in need of extra strength or will, tap into the power of the hero archetype. We modern people have forgotten how to do this but our ancestors got through the most difficult periods of their lives using the powers of myth, ritual and imagination. Superheroes are just modern myths. Use them. (Future posts on this blog will discuss more specific, concrete ways to do this).