As you’ve probably heard, Marvel recently introduced Miles Morales, the half-black, half-Hispanic (and possibly gay) Spiderman to replace the recently deceased Peter Parker in its latest incarnation of the legend, Ultimate Spiderman.
The Washington Post article asserts that Marvel’s decision reflects an attempt to be forward-thinking about what American superheroes should look like, as well as a response to the perceived whitewashing of race relations in the most recent set of “period-piece” comic book movies.
Cynthia Wright of the Atlanta Post sees in the decision (and the inevitable response from our most ignorant louts) evidence that despite Michelle Obama’s best attempts (or those by Glenn Beck’s bizarro-Michelle Obama, queen of the multiverse and secret head of the Legion of Doom), we have yet to stamp out the scourge of half-baked, casually racist tweeting.
Among more reasonable persons, this whole hullabaloo has been written off as just another cheap salvo in the culture wars we so desperately need, particularly when the news swings from aw, hell to JESUS CHRIST! and back again, every day, and while we have too few jobs and too many TVs not to fret, fuss, and freak the fuck out.
And they all may be right. Except for Glenn Beck, of course, who is never right. After all, in a world where the majority of our new movies are remakes (of comic books, old movies, television shows, mind-numbingly tedious board games), we must be mindful to keep our pop-culture somewhat reflective of our real culture; otherwise, what’s the point?
But I think there’s something far more interesting at stake in Marvel’s decision about who should be behind that mask, and it has nothing to do with the American moviegoer’s potential delight at upside-down and interracial (and gay!) kisses.
The conflict at the heart of the Spiderman mythos is an old one: what does it mean to be good if everyone thinks you’re evil? How long can Spiderman continue to fight crime when the newspaper sensationalizes him as a vigilante menace, the cops want him hauled in, and everyone with a Tesla coil and a Swiss bank account wants to prove they can kill him? Will our most virtuous man, without a reputation for virtue, continue to do the right thing? Contained in that question is a broader concern about the nature of virtue: is it sustainable as a thing-in-itself? Is it a thing-in-itself at all, or just a matter of perception?
In the early sixties, when Spiderman first leapt fully-formed from Stan Lee’s brow, Peter Parker was an awkward, nerdy (but still, it should be pointed out, white) teenager with dead parents and no money. In the early sixties, that was enough to put him on the edge of American society (while still keeping him relatable) and give him no refuge but an overwhelming desire to do good, which is the beating heart of the Spiderman story.
Peter Parker, in the last five decades, has faced every possible way for life to shit on him–his girlfriends have died, sometimes by his own fault, he has committed unspeakable crimes while under the control of a parasitic symbiote and, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche (himself something of a supervillain), he has done battle with monsters while being careful not to become one. He has tested the bounds of goodness, and we have seen in him the thin veil that separates justice from a just life.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates, Glaucon, and (the coincidentally named?) Adeimantus discuss that veil–the idea that to judge the justice of a man, we must first see where justice ends and the trappings of justice begin:
As to the judgment itself about the life of these two of whom we are speaking, we’ll be able to make it correctly if we set the most just man and the most unjust in opposition; if we do not, we won’t be able to do so. What, then, is this opposition? It is as follows: we shall take away nothing from the injustice of the unjust man nor from the justice of the just man, but we shall take each as perfect in his own pursuit…So the perfectly unjust man must be given the most perfect injustice, and nothing must be taken away; he must be allowed to do the greatest injustices while having provided himself with the greatest reputation for justice. And if, after all, he should trip up in anything, he has the power to set himself aright; if any of his unjust deeds should come to light, he is capable of both speaking persuasively and using force, to the extent that force is needed, since he is courageous and strong and since he has provided for friends and money. Now, let us set him down as such, and put beside him in the argument the just man in his turn, a man simple and noble, who, according to Aeschylus, does not wish to seem, but rather to be, good. The seeming must be taken away. For if he should seem just, there would be honors and gifts for him for seeming to be such. Then it wouldn’t be plain whether he is such for the sake of the just or for the sake of the gifts and honors. So he must be stripped of everything except justice, and his situation must be made the opposite of the first man’s. Doing no injustice, let him have the greatest reputation for injustice, so that his justice may be put to the test to see if it is softened by bad reputation and its consequences. Let him go unchanged till death, seeming throughout life to be unjust although he is just, so that when each has come to the extreme–the one of justice, the other of injustice–they can be judged as to which of the two is happier.
–Plato’s Republic, Book II, 360e – 361d
Spiderman is that “just man, stripped of everything except justice.”
(I would also argue that Batman represents the unjust man who has all the trappings of justice–Bruce Wayne is little else than a psychopath who kills and destroys Gotham with impunity, and relies upon his money and glamour to retain the public’s fascination. Batman operates almost exclusively at night, hiding his unhinged psychopathy, while Spiderman operates almost exclusively during the day, trying to keep his goodness in plain view of those who continue to revile him.)
To fully explore the idea of a hero stripped of everything except justice, to tell his story, we must first systematically alienate him. We must kill his Uncle Ben, give him a demeaning job with a mustachioed nutcase for a boss, and pile on a seemingly endless string of villains to fight. We have to politically marginalize Spiderman, portraying him publicly as a masked menace, but we have to marginalize his alter-ego, as well.
After all, for a superhero to have a comfortable civilian life is to leave him with a refuge, and to make the superhero a family man with a really hard job does not make for good comic-reading.
So, instead, we get our classic Spidey storyline: as soon as Spiderman starts to build a good reputation, he’s accused by the newspapers of exacerbating New York’s run-amok, supercrime-riddled ills, or framed by a supervillain and forced into fugitivity or, to quote Stan Lee in Mallrats, “the Green Goblin show[s] up and pumpkin-bomb[s] the hell out of the place.” He finds no rest, and he endangers all of those he loves most. For fifty years.
Then, after decades of taking everything from him, after he’s all used up, they kill Peter Parker, making good on the Platonic promise to “let him go unchanged till death, seeming throughout life to be unjust although he is just.”
They killed Peter Parker because there was nothing left to take away, and because it’s become too difficult to see in a white guy the nothingness, the isolation, and the sad, restless compulsion of someone whose only haven is virtue. And in our world of Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses, of Jesse Eisenberg’s creepily awkward Mark Zuckerberg and, perhaps most importantly, Tobey Maguire’s hunky Peter Parker, it’s gotten really tough to see nerdy white guys as socially marginalized and politically derided, and in order to administer Plato’s test, Spiderman must be both.
And that test is still important. It asks us an urgent question. For fifty years, the Spiderman mythos has occupied every major American artform and American imagination. Spiderman asks us, what does it mean to be good? Where does goodness come from and how far can it be pushed? The entire Spiderman oeuvre, taken as a whole, can be seen as one enduring document exploring that question with greater or lesser seriousness, and that’s a question vitally important to those of us with heroes, and superheroes.
So Spiderman gets back to basics with Miles Morales. With him, it can recreate itself and tell its story more purely, and ask its question more directly. I cannot think of someone with less a sense of innate belonging, and therefore a greater capacity for web-slinging, than a half-black, half-Latino homosexual. He’s a man of the middle distance, occupying no one culture completely, and he can find no refuge. If he’s anything like Peter Parker, the only Spiderman we know, all he has is a compulsion to do good, whatever the cost, and it’s a compulsion even he doesn’t fully understand.
Miles Morales, the American without a country, could be a truer Spiderman than we’ve had in years. He could add new relevance to that very old, and very important, question. He could be our Spiderman for generations.
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