Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Exceptional Spider-Man!

Today I saw The Amazing Spider-Man. I am not certain to what extent the film was really just that good, and to what extent I was just in a generous mood, but I loved this movie. I really did. I'm putting it right up there with The Dark Knight, at least for the moment while I'm still high on the film. Now, I'm not going to get into everything I liked about this movie, I'm just going to get into pretentious philosophical film criticism, because I do that sort of thing. To preface this: I am not saying that these ideas are what the writers or the director had in mind when making the film, I am saying that this is an idea that occurred to me while I was watching the movie and it made me love it even more. If it does not do the same for you, disregard it.

To some degree, this is the theme that every single superhero movie tackles, but it seemed to me that TASM tackled it more beautifully than any other superhero flick I've seen. This is the theme of how do superhuman individuals relate to the mass of humanity. When I say “superhuman,” I'm not just referring to people with superpowers, I am referring to anyone who is above the masses, whether in fact or in delusion. The Übermensch, Raskolnikov, Ozymandias, or really nearly any great villain but a good number of heroes as well, but I point to the Übermensch, Raskolnikov, and Ozymandias in particular because I think the works that these characters appear in highlight the relationship between great individuals and the universal best. They all are figures who see themselves as no longer being bound by the same rules and responsibilities that the rest of society is expected to follow.

This movie explores how Spider-Man, as someone who has greatness thrusts upon him, manages to find a way to relate to the universal. The universal is the great mass of people, it is ethical norms, it is openness and honesty, it is respect for society, it is law and order. In the earliest scenes we see Peter as part of the universal, when he becomes Spider-Man we see him selfishly place himself above the universal, then when he has to face the Lizard we see him submit to the universal but remain separate from it. In this way, the movie answers the question of how superhumans relate to humanity: superhumans are to be the friends of humanity, but not to be humans themselves.

Peter Becomes a Villain

In the beginning of the movie, Peter Parker stands up for another student who is being bullied by Flash Thompson. Flash demands that Peter take a picture, but Peter refuses and even speaks out against Flash. For this, he earns a beating from Flash. This is a pure expression of universal ethics: no greater good came out of Peter's actions, if anything pain was increased, but Peter refused to take part in the degradation of another person even though doing so probably would not have caused significantly more pain and refusal did not bring about any change to the situation about from his own pain. The stupidity of the action was obvious, but he did it regardless. At this point, Peter is a part of the crowd of humanity, and he excels in that capacity. He lives according to a kind of duty.

When Peter learns from his Uncle Ben about his Father's relationship to Dr. Connors, he violates the ethical by lying about his identity, allowing another person to be thrown out of the building who rightfully should have been there, and jeopardizing Gwen Stacy's internship by separating from the group. It is as a direct result of this violation that he is bitten by the genetically enhanced spider, leading to him becoming Spider-Man. He has now separated himself from humanity, both in a spiritual sense, and in the literal sense that he is now a fucking Spider-Man! His violation in this case could have easily been atoned for and he could have been restored to the rest of humanity (a simple, “I'm sorry,” probably would have sufficed), he did not repent, though, he pressed forward, placing his desires as an individual greater than the laws and policies that people are expected to follow.

After becoming Spider-Man, he humiliates Flash, destroys school property to further highlight his dominance over Thompson, cuts himself off from his Uncle Ben, and neglects to pick up his Aunt May. This is basic teenager stuff, it is all steps in a selfish direction, but not in anyway unbridgeable. The turning point comes after Uncle Ben's death, at which point Peter launches his own violent war against any criminal who resembles the man who killed his Uncle. At this point, Peter is basically a villain who just happens to target petty criminals. He attacks them, brutally, humiliates them, and then only after having inflicted violence bothers to check to see if he even has the person he is targeting. He asserts his own right to behave this way by virtue of nothing at all, just because he is capable of it. On some level, he still believes that what he is doing is acceptable because the people he attacks are criminals, but he does not show any concern for the rightness of his actions until George Stacy openly condemns him. He tries to put together a defense, but it is a pisspoor one cobbled together on the spot, and easily waved away when Stacy explains that Spidey actually ruined a six month operation through his reckless vigilantism.

For the moment, though, Peter is genuinely great enough to live the way he is living. He gets the girl that he loves, he can continue pursuing vengeance, and he can more-or-less continue evading the police. He is like a minor villain with certain moral pretensions, too naïve and apathetic to really worry if he is good or evil. It is only when another great individual arises that Peter must reevaluate how he stands with relation to humanity.

A More Exceptional Being

Curt Connors is not a villain. The only thing you can accuse him of is a God complex: he thinks he can create a better humanity. He is still firmly within the universal, though, there is no indication that he would ever force anything on anyone (although the existence of the machine to disperse a chemical agent suggests that he did believe that any improvements on humanity should be made to humanity en masse), and everything he tries to attain he attains with the understanding that he would share it with everyone. He does not want to regrow his arm, he wants to create a world without weakness!

Even his transformation occurs because of his commitment to the universal. He would rather give up his arm than test his serum on human subjects too early. Upon learning that he is being shut down, he tests the serum on himself rather than allow it to be tested on unknowing veterans. Then, midway through his transformation, his first priority is stopping Dr. Ratha. He is simultaneously always acting with a mind toward the universal, while also coming to believe that he knows what is best for everyone. He is not selfish, his error is hubris. When he steps outside the universal, he seeks to rejoin, he simply plans to do that by making everyone like him instead of rejoining everyone else.

He is evil only because he seeks to impose his will on humanity without regard for humanity's will in the matter. He treats them as means, not ends in themselves. His case is peculiar, though, because he is only going to temporarily treat them that way. He wants to bring them up to his level, so that they can be equals again. If he were successful and all of humanity were made reptilian like him, his suspension of ethics might have been hailed as a glorious turning point in human evolution. In the moment, though, he places his will over humanity, and is therefore evil.

Spider-Man and the Universal

Spider-Man, on the other hand, remains an individual outside of the universal. Upon encountering the Lizard, though, he seeks to rejoin the universal. He wants to repent, and he aims to repent by stopping the Lizard. He does not allow his love for Gwen to dissuade him, thereby putting his selfish desires aside for his desire to atone. He tries to rejoin humanity, but can not. When he goes to Captain Stacy to tell him about Dr. Connors, Stacy refuses to believe him. The universal action would be to give the information he has to Captain Stacy and then leave the matter up to law and order; Stacy's incredulity does not change the fact that Peter acted according to the universal by giving the information he had to those authorized to use force. Peter is not satisfied with this, and continues being separate from the universal by perusing the Lizard on his own.

If Peter had lived according to the universal, everyone would be a lizard man right now.

Instead, Peter asserts himself as an individual and asserts his individual will and desire: in this case the desire to stop Dr. Connors. Because of this, he drives a wedge between himself and Gwen, a wedge between and Aunt May, and a further wedge between himself and law enforcement. He is willing to shoulder this burden, though, so that he does what he believes should be done.

And he fails. He fails badly. By setting himself so far against the universal, he becomes the enemy of the universal. He is subdued by the police and held at gunpoint by Captain Stacy. It is only by approaching the universal (at this point, Peter is literally bowing before Stacy in the film) submissively and agreeing that he will continue to be extraordinary, but that he will be extraordinary in line with both his and Captain Stacy's will (saving Gwen and stopping the Lizard) that he is able to stop the Lizard.

Captain Stacy aligns with Spider-Man instead of against him, and society itself aligns with Spider-Man by arranging the cranes in such a way that he can easily swing to his target. Spider-Man is so weak from the blood loss from a bullet wound that even this is too great a task for him at first, society has to help him get to the Lizard. Spider-Man does not cease to be the extraordinary individual standing apart from the universal, but now he works with the universal. Distinct, but allied.

During the final fight, Captain Stacy has to sacrifice his life to keep the Lizard occupied long enough for Spider-Man to replace the serums that Connors has set to be released into the sky. Neither of them could have stopped the Lizard without the other. And at the very end, Captain Stacy tells Spider-Man what he wants. He wants Spider-Man to be alone. He endorses Spider-Man standing apart from the law, apart from society, apart from openness, but he says that Spider-Man should be alone. He makes Spider-Man promise that he will leave Gwen, which he does.

Curt Connors is incarcerated. He is brought down lower than the universal as a prisoner who is being forced to atone for trying to impose his will on others.

Spider-Man tries to live as an extraordinary friend of humanity. He keeps his promises, he gets Aunt May her eggs, and he seems to give up his vengeance quest against the man with the star tattoo. Humanity loves him in return, Flash wears a Spider-Man t-shirt, a giant spider is shown graffitied on a wall. But Spider-Man is not happy. He wants Gwen. He can not have her, though, without breaking his promise.

The Open Question

The film hints at this dilemma when the English teacher says that there is only one plot in fiction: “Who am I?” Peter walks in late and promises he won't be late again, to which the teacher says don't make promises you can't keep. Then, in a low voice so that Gwen can hear, Peter says, “but those are the best kinds.” Implying that he may break his promise, and once again live spiritually separated from the universal so that he can be with Gwen.

The film leaves the question of the extent to which Spider-Man will live apart from the ethical for the sake of getting what he wants. And we cheer for it, because we want him to be with Gwen and we want him to be happy. We love him and we want him to have what he wants. We also want him to be a good man, which is why there is a little tension when we know that he will have to break the promise he made to a dying man in order to get what he wants.

We will find out in 2014.

And with that, I think I am going to take a break from the Kierkegaard for awhile. Strange blends of strange ethics are creeping into my nihilistic head. But, yes, TASM gave me a philoso-boner, and that was just one of the enriching elements of the movie. The movie won over my mind, and if this rebooted series finds a way to do Venom justice, it will win over my heart!

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