Spiderman and Its Cultural Significance
Comics are an exclusively American form of art and culture, which is characterized by grotesque fantasy stories about superheroes. Due to their specific form, they are able to convey a message in a more direct and exaggerated way than other types of art; therefore, they are perfect as a resource of cultural studies. Spiderman is a film that is based on comics and retains their main features, while demonstrating the extraordinary hero’s struggle against the evil. However, it is more than a thriller as it is a compelling product of culture, which reflects some of dominating values of the American society such as the cult of competition, publicity, consumerism, individualism, Christianity and worship of winners.
Researchers point out that Spiderman is “a quintessentially American hero full of rich moral and psychological complexity” (Conway). At the beginning of the series, the main character, Peter Parker, is an awkward student who is ridiculed by his classmates and ignored by a girl that he admires. His sudden acquisition of superhuman power comes as a surprise to him, yet he starts enjoying it quickly. Becoming a Spiderman is far from noble motives at first, although Peter is a kind-natured person. At first, he perceives his new abilities as entertainment and opportunity to achieve some more selfish goals than struggle with the universal evil. First of all, he wants to make money in order to buy a car, which he believes will impress the girl that he likes. Buying a car is an illustration of consumerism in the American society. In fact, he sees that Mary Jane’s friend gives her a ride, and her admiration about that car makes him buy a car too. This example demonstrates the link between success and possession, which is typical in a world of consumerism.
Another aspect about the film’s values is the cult of competition, which is especially visible when considering relations between males. Thus, despite being friends, Peter and Harry Osborne are competitors, because each of them wishes to date Mary Jane. In the same way, two superheroes cannot be equally popular; consequently, there is a competition between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, even though Peter does not seem to be a fan of competition. Yet, the culture demands the struggle between the two, where only one winner is possible. When bullied at school, Peter has to fight in order to prove his right to be counted with. The American pattern of virtue is not a passive acceptance; one has to constantly demonstrate active action in order to be recognized. Thus, Spiderman embodies the active good, which fights in the same way as the evil, yet has different motivation. At the same time, the film demonstrates that having a moral position makes a person vulnerable, and this is probably an explanation to a popular question about why the evil wins too often in real life.
In fact, worship of winners and despise for losers is an aspect of the American culture, which is reflected in the film. At the beginning, Peter is an ordinary loser and looks stereotypically: large glasses, interest in science, physically weak, unconfident. The movie shows a common picture, when a person’s image determines his or her place in the group. No one except Harry wants to communicate with Peter at school because it is unpopular to be friends with outsiders. It is true that in order to be respected and supported, it is essential to be a part of the circle, which includes those who are beautiful, popular, strong and confident. The film questions this model of success, yet it demonstrates that it works within society. Even though it has to convince the audience that Mary Jane prefers real Peter to Spiderman, it is quite obvious that the reason why she finally notices him is because his personality has changed when he became Spiderman. He has become more courageous, more confident, he is no longer afraid of confessing his feeling in an open way. Therefore, the character has to stop being a loser anyway in order to win the prize, so the film suggests this alternative example of a winner.
Individualism is a trait of the American culture that is also demonstrated in the film. In fact, it is closely related to the abovementioned idea of competition. Thus, it is significant not only to be an achiever, but to accomplish something independently. Harry’s father praises Peter for independent efforts to achieve his goals, which is a hint on his son who can gain from his father’s success. Apparently, such insinuations are painful for Harry who tries to make his father content and recognize his value, though he never manages to. There is not a single example of unity for the sake of a noble goal in the film. Everyone acts in an individual way, including Spiderman who prefers to act on his own rather than to affect people and urge them to unite resources. Moreover, the idea of unity is colored negatively, when the Green Goblin offers cooperation to Spiderman. The motivation behind this cooperation is boundless power and manipulation, while no worthy instance of cooperation for the good is demonstrated. Furthermore, the overall concept of superheroes is based on individualism because the prefix “super” has to be omitted in case people act collectively. Thus, the difference between a hero and a superhero lies within their approach to their mission. A superhero is a person whom other people watch acting, while not trying to join him, which actually reinforces individualism. Besides, the very aspect of secrecy gives a touch of loneliness as superheroes have to hide their true personality. In contrast, heroes are part of the crowd; they are loved and respected as “natives”.
Publicity and popularity is, in fact, a interesting aspect of the American culture which can be traced in the film. On the one hand, Peter has to hide his identity as Spiderman, and he does not look like wanting popularity. Yet, there is some controversy about his behavior, as he is actually quite interested in what people think of him. He needs recognition which he lacked for his whole life. There are details which suggest that Peter wants to be liked by other people for who he is and what he does. For instance, he sometimes leaves messages with greetings from Spiderman, a neighborhood friend. Such cases occur when people do not know their savior, so it looks like Peter wants to establish his reputation. In most cases, however, he acts openly as many people are usually watching him. He seems to like this attention and being in the spotlight, which is impossible whenever his mask is off. Thus, the mask of Spiderman is Peter’s opportunity to compensate for his inferiority complexes which are revealed in a hidden vanity of Spiderman. One more fact that confirms this idea is Peter’s making photos of his own deeds and bringing them to a newspaper for publishing. A good explanation for this is the necessity to earn money and his desire to become a professional photographer. Yet, there is also a hidden motive whereas he wants to make sure that appropriate and valid image of him is present in the media. Although he cannot affect the scandalous content of papers, nevertheless, he seems to be pleased about having true pictures at least. Besides, he does not seem disappointed at all about being published at the first pages, being a headliner secretly pleases him. Thus, popularity is a value of the American culture reflected in the film which gives several versions of what true success is.
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One aspect about Spider-Man, which reflects the mood and challenges that society has, is his disappointment about his own life and the world on the whole. His attempt to make the world better is based on his own guilt and unhappiness; therefore, he chooses a path of helping others secretly while hoping that he will be forgiven by himself in the first place. The critic notes that “existentialist figures like Spider-Man have a worldview in which an individual’s idealism and the ugly, absurd realities of the world clash. As a result, existential heroes tend to reject god, have troubled relationships with father-figures and live on the margins of society” (Conway). It is known that Peter is an orphan and that he is brought up by his uncle. No circumstances of his father’s death are disclosed in the first film, yet the viewer understands that this loss of his parents is the key to who he is. This is why he has mixed feelings about people who play the role of a father: his uncle and Dr. Norman Osborne. There is a controversy of their relationship with Peter, because he appears to rebel against both of them in a real or symbolic way. He claims that Uncle Ben is not his father, so he has no right to preach to him how to live. When he indirectly causes his death by letting go a criminal, who kills his uncle eventually, his guilt grows. The situation with Norman Osborne is even more controversial, because he perceives him as the Green Goblin. Even realizing that he has no other choice than destroying the villain, Peter is startled when he discovers his personality. Indeed, there is an ambiguity, since Dr. Osborn is a person who supports Peter throughout the story, yet the same person appears to be a monster. Being responsible for his death makes Peter’s guilt triple as he seems to cause all fatherly figures’ death.
Some critics believe that the idea of guilt is closely related to the feeling of shame, which roots the film in religion: “Spider-Man not only employs pastiches of famous scenes from the Bible but also examines the theology of Christian belief. The film’s narrative, like Christian ideology, centers on the hero’s shame for his flawed and lustful flesh and his attempt to transform shame into atonable guilt” (Conway). One should also mention in the cultural and religious context, that the two sides of Peter are polar towards each other: one is restrained, good and modest; meanwhile, the other is wild and uncontrolled. In terms of religion, being a spider symbolizes being a dark one as Peter unleashes his wild nature, including freedom, aggression, body and sexuality. These aspects seem to be tabooed by religions, and the clash between them creates a tension that is typical for the whole society. People’s neurosis has roots in the bans imposed by religion, which makes them control what cannot be controlled, and these unconscious impulses can become destructive as it happens to Dr. Osborne.
In fact, the Green Goblin can be interpreted as a negative incarnation of science that is devoid of morality. There is a clash with religion for both Spiderman and the Goblin, because they dare to become superheroes in the first place. Being a superhero means vanity, rejection of humility that a truly religious person should possess. In fact, both Osborn and Peter are “sinners” in this context, and they are punished in different ways. Becoming a superhero is challenging God in terms of being higher than other people, and this also causes a belief that one can rule the world. The moral question arises if a person has the right to change history and fate of other people. Maybe, the evil is part of a bigger plan; consequently, superheroes should not interfere. Having superheroes means that one does not need God; in fact, this reflects the trend of the contemporary Western culture, American in particular. The belief that a person can be almighty in ruling one’s life is one of the values reflected in the film, yet the outcome is not always positive, despite a happy ending for Peter.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that Spiderman has layers of culture reflected in its plot, characters and symbolism. First of all, it worships individualism in achieving one’s goals without other people’s help, which is a borderline between a hero and a superhero. This individualism is closely linked to vanity and competition that shape the American pattern of success. Overall, the film demonstrates the culture’s sympathy to winners rather than losers, so before winning the audience’s appreciation a character should transform in the way to meet the criteria of a winner. Being physically attractive, popular, outgoing, confident are among the features that attract people. Besides, the story focuses on consumerism as a feature of today’s world that can rule communication between people. The film also demonstrates the split of identity that is characteristic for society today: having a good and a dark side of personality leads to an internal conflict that character has. Religion dictates “good” behavior, while suppressing instincts can lead to violence and destruction. Overall, the fill highlights the American appreciation of the active good, which is opposite to passive acceptance of a situation.
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