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Spider-Man and the Power of Showing Up

I went and saw the recent Spider-Man flick tonight. Surprisingly, I really liked it. Or at least I really liked parts of it; some parts, I could have easily done without.

I had started out my day planning to see Dark Knight Rises. This in spite of the fact that I still haven't seen The Dark Knight. I did read a synopsis to get ready), and also skimmed my friend Dan's piece on the trilogy's themes (he promised no plot spoilers and I haven't found any, aside from some really interesting analysis of the themes, although as I said I've only just skimmed it). But after an hour on the shrink's couch and another in the pew, I realized I just wasn't up to dealing with the crowds – the epic themes, the crowd, the long length.

So I started for the subway rather than the cinema, but along the way I passed a newsstand displaying this cover, and that somehow got my courage up a bit. I'll be coming back to that horrific statistic in another post, I hope. Anyway, I got to the cinema and Batman was sold out, but I did get a ticket for the most recent Spider-Man.

Without revealing too much, this Spider-Man gives us a thoroughly teenage superhero. He's the geeky, he has something of a moral compass – but he also has a temper, shows off, and is selfish. He's sixteen, and with a past like his, he's entitled to a bit of acting out. I think the director and script-writers wanted to give him weaknesses. (They took no such pains with Gwen Stacy, Spidey's paramour; she was one of my biggest complaints, along with my usual concerns about gross violations of laws of physics, and struck me as one part damsel-in-distress, one part Mary Sue.) I found Peter Parker's journey from personal vengeance to personal responsibility to having a broader moral conscience quite interesting and well done. I came into it expecting something more along the lines of The Avengers, but I changed my perspective quickly enough (my standards for superhero flicks aren't nearly as high as my standards for fantasy, usually), and I was able to enjoy the ride well enough.

There was one scene, though, that really touched me. Following the standard superhero storyline, our masked hero has to get to the final showdown, but in this case he's been injured, and there's a real question about whether he'll be able to get there. At the time the government was trying to evacuate lower Manhattan, and with good reason. I won't go into why (that would take a major spoiler), but everyone who can is running as far away from Manhattan as they can. But this one man – just a minor character, no one special, a construction worker – organizes some crane-operators to get beams in place. Spider-man is able to get where he needs to without crashing into buildings, and things go on from there.

The man who organized those cranes wasn't doing it because he was some moral saint. Earlier in the movie, Spider-Man had saved his child who was trapped in a car hanging off a bridge. So this man had a debt to pay of sorts, but the movie didn't play it like that was what was going on. There's some ambiguity over whether Spider-man is a "good guy" or whether he's a criminal, and the fact that this man has personal experience with Spider-man certainly motivate him to trust Spider-man, no question. But more than that, the movie seemed to recognize the fact that even those of us not bitten by mutant arachnids have a part to play. It's about normal, human virtue.

This scene struck a deep chord with me, precisely I think because it resonated one of my favorite points from Aristotle's philosophy so well. Perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not in a way that would have jumped out at the average movie-viewer. But for me, this scene encapsulated so much about what made the Doctrine of the Mean work.

Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics,

Both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.

What Aristotle is saying here (as I understand it!) is that things like fear can influence us both too much and too little. What's appropriate depends on the situation, including the individual's strengths and capacities. "Right" isn't just a matter of personal belief, but it definitely takes in our individual realities when determining how people ought to act. In this situation, that construction-worker didn't have superhuman speed and strength. But he did have the courage necessary to not run from danger but stand firm so the people with those gifts could do what needed doing.

One thing that always irks me about these superhero flicks is the implication they have that we need a superhero. It reaffirms the rugged-individual-as-übermensch and points to a need for quasi-divine intervention to make things right (which in the real world all too often translates into a kind of nihilism that change is even possible if mere mortals like thee and me are the only ones available for the task). But in Spider-Man the police and jailers are competent. The school Peter Parker attends is public and not without its problems but basically clean and competent – and a place where he goes to school with a police chief's daughter despite the fact that his own family seems to be rather working poor. It's also one where a man with little education can die suddenly and his family isn't crushed under debt from lost income. That suggests a better social safety net than you're likely to find anywhere in reality, even a fairly liberal area like NYC.

That construction worker plays into this whole dynamic. He is inadequate to the task at hand. But he is a human, and a member of a community, and by playing out his virtues he's able to first recognize that Spidey is in trouble and then act on it. No superhuman strength of will (or superhuman strength, period) required – just a decent, functioning human character.

Don't get me wrong, there's lot to hate here. The story ultimately relies on Spider-man, not that construction worker. There's also too much high-school banter and too poor of acting all around from the various high school kids. The way Gwen was handled by her father (and the way Peter just bought into that framework) stunk of paternalism through and through. And as much as I love Martin Sheen, there was something about the Uncle Ben character that just fell flat for me. But there were also parts that were strangely un-superheroish. There's the need for a community and the power of the average person to contribute to the common good – just by virtue of being human.

On that point at least I was pleasantly surprised, and in a good way.

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