Spider-Man

Spider-Man

Sexual habits of the North American Wall-crawler

Why the Green Goblin is the archetypical villain of the Viagra generation—and other sticky issues.

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Three kids stood at the ticket machine outside the Pavilion Theater in Brooklyn, a couple and a third wheel. The little man of the couple kept dipping this credit card into the slot, turning it around and dipping it again. “It says insert all the way before removing . . .” said the third wheel, who leaned against the side of the machine nonchalantly yet nervously like some young acned Arthur Fonzarelli on Ritalin. “. . . Not like you do during sex.” The three of them were manic, vibrating sketches seemingly penned by the same artist responsible for Dr. Katz.

The third wheel was especially unnerving: He had frosty tips and a knee-length leather jacket and kept flipping his cell phone open and closed as if peeved by the tardiness of an expected call. In a high, nervous voice he used the words “fuck,” “putz,” and “dick” to describe just about every action and reaction taking place in his environment. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to punch his cigarette into his nose hole or spirit him away into a desert for forty days and educate him about what it means to be a reasonable human being.

The poor kid. What kind of people, came the inevitable question, were his parents? I kept my horn-rimmed, college-radio opinions to myself, though, and filed through the ranks of fully alerted security guards to watch one of the most splendidly self-aware teen movies ever.

Dramatis Personae

At the beginning of the film, Peter Parker, part boy, part man, not yet part spider, is refreshingly unlike the sputtering little antagonist in line at the ticket machine outside the theater. He’s a fresh-faced approximation of all things teen. His downfalls are Chaplinesque and endearing; he has the benefit of an acute and focused mind; and the girl of his dreams, while not often noticing him, shows good natured and genuine sympathy toward his plight when she does. His parents are presumably dead, but his guardians are a hundred times more functional and more understanding than the real parents of anyone I know.

He is a teenager wearing the mask of a teenager. His future self comments, narrating, that while this boy’s life is about to change, it is not necessarily going to be for the better. He is a teenager who’s about to put on an intriguing new mask.

Meanwhile . . .

Oh Willem Dafoe, you funny-looking little man, you are and ever shall be the greatest villain to grace the screen. From Bobby Peru to drooling vampire Max Schreck, you’ve expertly embodied the golden rule of ne’er-do-welling: A villain is only as evil as he is sexy. What’s more, the classic villain is a sexually frustrated man who can only become sexy at the point of most extreme villainy. Otherwise he’s just a boring, ugly guy. Donald Rumsfeld may be the only other person in the world who understands this principle as well as you do, Willem.

The Green Goblin

Bob Dole: Call your office.

Norman Osborne has hit his midlife crisis, so he takes some performance enhancers and gets himself a sweet new ride. No more taking orders from those overstuffed cowards at the office. No more office at all. He’s going to become a free agent of sorts, a kind of unwanted consultant. He’s going to have more time for the meat and potatoes of existence. Working out and getting involved with his son’s life and stuff like that.

Osborne becomes the Green Goblin, the villain of our times, one we’ve created with our dreams of early retirement and freedom without responsibility and globalist golf and filing off the shackles of marriage or celibacy in favor of Viagra-induced sex romps that make our gay, goth, ecstasy-dropping teenagers blush. (Yes, the film actually refers to the solution being tested by Osborne’s lab as a “performance enhancer.”) Now we can have a real relationship with our sons, the kind where we relate on the same level and go out drinking together and try to pick up the same girls.

Harry Osborne

Aha! Now a real teenager walks on set. It’s the kid from the ticket line, right down to the cell phone, the knee-length coat, and the unfortunate hair. He has that familiar desperation, the existential nervousness of someone whose father is actually becoming an adolescent again and—for some insane reason—is artificially returning to the hormone-imbalanced hell of a fifteen-year-old boy. The world really has gone completely mad and this kid, like the acned-one outside, knows it. The proof is in his living room, or more likely out cruising the city for chicks.

These kids grow up with the stultifying suspicion that adolescence never ends. Girls and cars: these things really are the epicenter of life, the height at which our culture is programmed to plateau. Instead of seeing adolescence as a purgatory from which they will someday escape—something they can dream themselves out of—they see it as a hell, a permanent state of being to be gotten used to. Their only hope is to enter the hierarchy of hell and climb its ladder. Possibly, if they master the arts of manipulation and betrayal while young, they won’t always end up on the wrong end of all the dick moves people pull on each other in hell.

The Girl

Poor, poor Mary Jane Watson. Beautiful breasts conveniently articulated by rain and beautiful legs likewise illuminated by wind. Her role in this movie is made painfully obvious by the shape of her body, her clothes, and her accommodating smile. She’s a comic book chick and, as such, adds to the credibility of Spider-Man in its role as a meta-comic book. She exists only in the minds of the men in the story. She’s a dream girl. Look, the only thing M.J. ever says about herself is that she wants to be an actor—someone whose very job it is to exist in other people’s minds.

Spidey and MJ improperly oriented

What's wrong with this picture?

As a comic book chick, she operates in a continuum of valor, working her way up from the least valiant man, her father, through a series of increasingly valiant boyfriends. Harry Osborne was valiant when he had the guts to approach the beautiful M.J. Spider-Man was more valiant when he plucked her trembling body from a crumbling terrace. Peter Parker was most valiant when he told her how he had always felt about her.

The irony is that the valiant man typically doesn’t know how to provide the response inevitably called for by the voluptuous body of the comic book chick. The Green Goblin, however, does. Hopped up on Viagra and, at the movie’s climax, with weird mechanized sex toys popping out of his exoskeleton, he is basically the man.

And now, back to our hero

Peter Parker has been through some changes over the course of the movie—changes with which I’m sure my fifteen-year-old antagonist in the ticket line is quite familiar. When Aunt May knocks on Peter’s door wondering what’s going on in there, the young wall-crawler responds with the universal “Nothing!” although he’s shown sitting on the corner of his bed with his hands—and impressively most of the room—covered in a gooey white substance. During this segment of the movie, Parker explores his newfound talent by shooting the gooey substance at skyscrapers, construction machinery, and billboards. He ends up with sticky, and inevitably hairy, palms that he cleverly uses to climb sheer surfaces. Spider-Man the movie consciously plays up this allegory—à la American Pie—in a way the comic book never did.

The point is that, unlike Norman Osborne, Peter Parker’s transformation comes from the inside and is joyously goofy. It’s natural (sort of, coming from a bioengineered spider bite), while Osborne’s is artificial (involving an exoskeleton and a flying boomerang-type vehicle) and therefore laden with wrathful side-effects.

That exoskeleton gives Spider-Man and the Green Goblin complementary elements of arachnid defense. Gobby’s shell makes him impervious to the elements, while the squishy, vulnerable Spidey survives on his spider-sense. Spider-sense: what, exactly, is that? None other than the crucial tendency of a genetically successful male spider to know and worry about when he’s pushing his luck with the notoriously carnivorous ladies . . . all “woo-hoo” coupled with a little “uh-oh,” as James Nicoll recently said somewhere on the Internet.

But where's the womanly threat in Spider-Man the movie? Mary Jane is no femme fatale. But the Green Goblin has already had his run-ins with the opposite sex. He warns his son about getting involved with M.J., blatantly prejudging her—and showing how badly miswired is his spider-sense. Still, what better portrayal can there be of the American male than the spider? Frantically desirous of sex but terrified of its social and biological implications: family, commitment, and the abject mess of childbirth.

The millennial adolescent

But for all his wonky stumbling and rueful transformation, Parker is not a real adolescent in the way Harry Osborne is. He’s an ideal. Over the course of Spider-Man, he mutates from the ideal of adolescence in the 1960s to the ideal of adolescence in the 2000s. He starts out loveably nerdy and well-intentioned. His failures among his peers are winning and cute to adults. He’s kind of like Paul from The Wonder Years. The fact that he is an orphan means there’s no parental blame to be dealt out for anything that befalls him. His whole life is a shiny, lovable, post-World War II package. This is not the kind of hero who has anything constructive to say to the dysfunctional Harry and Norman Osbornes of the world. Nor even, really, to the lost M.J.’s. He has no great responsibility yet and so, as a hero, can have no great power.

What is today’s ideal adolescent? Look at today’s movies. Take, for instance, Panic Room. Sarah Altman, played by Kristen Stewart, is smartly sarcastic, self possessed, sexy, and precocious. She is everything her discombobulated and recently divorced parents are not. She is a beacon of sanity in the life of her single mom. Her only weakness is a physical one: hypoglycemia, an Achilles’ heel that neatly allows her to remain dependent on her mother for at least something.

We want our kids to be adults so that we can be kids again.

And this is what Peter Parker, tempered by the burden of being Spider-Man, has become: the kid-adult up on the cross for a fat, self-serving society with all the power and none of the responsibility. He ends up bearing the burden for the death of Norman Osborne, who poetically stabs himself between the legs with the very engine of his own midlife power trip. Parker ends up unable to reveal his identity to his own best friend, Harry, who vows revenge on Spider-Man for his father’s death. He ends up unable to get together with the beautiful M.J., who would endanger them both if she knew who he really was.

Someone’s got to be responsible here

That Spider-Man ends in the castration of the villain and the apparent abstinence of the hero is no accident. This isn’t the sixties anymore. No one supposes, not even Hollywood, that lust and sex are innocent of contributing to the desperate, outrageous, and cartoon-like condition of our society.

What we may not have realized is who is having all the sex. Who’s involved in these short-lived melodramatic relationships punctuated by fits of hysterics, jealousy, and greed? Who’s cruising around in ego cars, obsessively working out in gyms, and spending hours in front the mirror to improve their chances of scoring? Mindless pursuit of action is no longer the exclusive domain of the teenager, if it ever was. Our children are, in fact, supposed to save us from the squalor of our condition. Wasn’t the deal that once we had kids of our own we’d start living up to our responsibilities?

A symbol and a proverb are juxtaposed at the end of Spider-Man. The stars and stripes flutter alongside the spoken phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is not, as at first glance it might appear, some old adage dug out of Winston Churchill’s autobiography and then dusted off to be hurled vaguely in the direction of Afghanistan. Power is responsibility. Responsibility is, in a way, power.

What responsibilities do American adults have left? Are we responsible for the well-being of our children? Are we responsible for the development of the American landscape? The fate of American cities? The fate of our poor? The carriage of justice? The quality of our culture? Are we responsible for the wars our government fights in places we know nothing about? The way our food is prepared?

We’ve hoodwinked ourselves. Even the simple responsibility of self-control in the face of urges like eating or sex has been farmed out to specialists, self-help gurus and talk show hosts. It seems as if the only people we still expect to make their own decisions—about sex and abstinence and education and drugs and friends and life—are kids like young frosty-tips from the ticket line.

Good luck, kid. If your dad gives you any trouble you can tell him I said to cut it off.

Matthew Kirby lives in Brooklyn. His favorite movies are Baxter (1989), Hana-bi (1997) and Jesus’ Son (1999).
posted by editor ::: May 17, 2002 ::: philms ::: (1) Comments