Letting Go of Superman: Wrapped up in the Spider-Man Story
On a restless summer day, right on the spot, I made the decision to watch The Amazing Spider-Man. With too many things that needed to be done but nothing I wanted to do, it felt like the only right course of action. And I liked the film. The action was well done, the homage was evident, and romantic chemistry was not wanting (I love you Emma Stone). But something was missing.
It took me a while to realize what troubled me was they really did change the origin story in a big way for me personally. The essentials were there but for me it was dramatically different. I’m not talking about emphasizing the absence of his parents. That actually gave more nuance to his character and added something that really wasn’t done well before. And it wasn’t even how they changed him from a nerd to a geek . This portrayal I think speaks more to our time where the dynamic in high school isn’t the rift between the nerds and the jocks. I’ve met my share of intelligent jocks and some charming four-eyed smarty pants. Some might say I was such a smarty pants (By some I mean me, only me). Really today, it’s just a series of clichés in an abundance of categories and you’re an outsider to some group.
What was different was Uncle Ben’s death. The revelation of the killer was no longer the pivotal moment that changed Peter’s life. In this version, there’s no sorting out of any guilt after the murder when he realized he was partly responsible. Instead, Peter is vengefully looking for the killer and doesn’t seem to wallow on the possibility that he could have prevented it. And he only becomes honestly heroic a significant time afterwards, but not exactly with the same motivation. It’s still a nice hero’s journey but just not the same.
And it’s important to me because it was this origin story that I think seriously kept me hooked on superheroes into my prepubescent, believing they had something more to offer. When you were a toddler, you just wanted to see heroes do amazing things and pretend you could do them yourselves. You put a cape on, stretched out your arms and made whooshing sounds like Superman. But as you grew a little older, you craved deeper stories that spoke some essential truth about life even if the story were sensational.
The original was the perfect origin story, a classically moving moral tale. To find out that when you unmasked the killer it was (oh my god) the same guy you could have stopped earlier, got to me. You can argue that it might be more a story not about how with great power must also come great responsibility as much as how fate can be a fickle mistress. Regardless, it did show that just because you were an outsider, smart and picked on, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t susceptible to being petty and irresponsible. It sure as hell doesn’t save you from tragedy. But more than that this story spoke metaphorically to that feeling of being split in two after a life-changing event.
The real major change in Peter wasn’t that he got bitten by a radioactive spider, but that he played a part in his uncle’s murder. And while outwardly he was still Peter Parker, inside that experience completely changed him. So despite how absurd it was that someone would start dressing up in a costume with a spider motif, we excused it because it spoke to our experience of feeling transformed and divide by a tragedy. It’s a transformation that at the same time feels counter to what is actually happening. Inside you understand you’ve changed dramatically, your view of the world has changed, who you are is different, while outside to everyone else you look exactly the same.
It was the same feeling I felt when I was 13 in English class, where I was still the same nerd as far as everybody was concerned. But in my mind I was still wrapping myself around the idea that my grandparents were both dead. As I sat there answering questions maybe about Twain, Steinbeck, or Shakespeare, I was still coming to grips with the idea that just a week ago I was in Philippines. That just a week ago, I was on that pew giving a eulogy that became harder and harder to finish but did. That just a week ago, I couldn’t help it fall to tears and bury my head in my mom’s lap when it was over.
We accept the story of a man taking on another persona after someone they loved died, not because it was completely about living out our fantasy of escaping into someone else. We accept the story because we could relate to feeling transformed into someone else, even if after looking into the mirror we still look like the same person.
Cesar R. Bustamante Jr.
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