What does it mean to be a hero? As often as comic book movies feature superheroes, they consistently fail to give a satisfactory answer. Sure, Batman Begins posits it’s about standing for something and the original Spider-Man touts the line “with great power comes great responsibility,” but what does that mean? What does it really mean to be a hero? The Amazing Spider-Man gives a powerful answer.
As an entry-point into looking at how the film answers this question, the film immediately reminded me of an article I read on Thomas Aquinas and how he approaches the question of evil. Instead of taking the traditional angle of asking why God allows evil, he flips the issue, asking why man allows evil, putting the moral weight and responsibility of evil upon human beings (an outflow of his argument that evil is a lack of good and things are naturally good, man’s full potential being realized by being/doing good).
As expressed in Richard Parker’s (Campbell Scott) personal philosophy, it condenses the argument into the core: if a man can do good, he has a moral responsibility to do it. As his son, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), gains his superhuman abilities and tries to figure out who he is, this simple, almost understated philosophy underpins his evolution from a rampant vigilante out for revenge into a hero.
Early on, his powers allow him to get even. At first it’s the school bully who beats him up. After a lecturing by Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) things reach a boiling point and Peter runs off, trying to figure things out on his own. When put in a moment where a cashier blows him off for not having enough change for his chocolate milk, he looks the other way when a thug robs the cashier. One could argue Peter doesn’t do anything wrong (although he does become complicit in the crime by taking the chocolate milk the thug tosses to him), but for both Richard Parker and Thomas Aquinas, that isn’t the issue, the issue is that he is faced with a moment where he can do good, stop the theft, but through inaction he is in the moral wrong, not fulfilling his moral obligation to do good whenever and wherever he can.
And it blows up in his face. Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is roaming the same streets, looking for Peter, and when the thief trips in front of him and drops his gun, Ben does the right thing; he makes a move to stop him. He could have run away, or turned a blind eye like Peter, but when presented with the evil in front of him, he’s morally obligated to do the right thing. Ben is shot. He dies in Peter’s arms, a Peter whose fledgling powers would have made short work of the evildoer. Peter’s failing is not a failing of the body or the sprit, it’s a moral failing.
It’s to the film’s detriment that the Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) plot that becomes Spider-Man’s trial by fire is perpetuated by Peter being responsible for the shift from Connors to The Lizard, a genetically spliced human/lizard hybrid. When Peter stumbles across his father’s work and tries to pass himself off as smarter than he is, he launches the scientific breakthrough that leads to the creation of The Lizard.
It’s the typical call to action, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, such a cavalier, individualistic understanding of how morality works, that undercuts the true power of what the film is trying to argue. It’s philosophical coddling, asserting a bold proposition that goes against mainstream understandings of morality, which is more about one not doing bad things, or doing more good than bad, which leads to this “safe” form of morality. If Spider-Man can just beat The Lizard and save the day, he can wipe the slate clean, even out the score and be morally upstanding again.
But when does Peter become worthy of the name Spider-Man? It’s not in the early days where he dons a mask and beats up thugs. He’s cocky, arrogant, and fueled by a desire to find the man who killed his uncle. He may be going after bad guys, but he’s motivated by personal interest, taking out the bullies of the world. Nor is it when he puts the suit together. The film doesn’t put much stock in Spider-Man as a symbol. He’s still just a bud in tights, waiting to bloom into a hero.
It’s the moment when he’s faced with the oldest of superhero dilemmas when the shift occurs. His first encounter with The Lizard is quickly interrupted with a distraught father screams for help, his son trapped alone in one of the cars hanging by a webline over the side of the bridge. Peter hesitates. The villain is getting away, if he stays on him, he could potentially end it all now, but there’s someone to be saved, right here, right now. There’s good that needs to be done while the villain slinks away. Peter dives towards the car.
The boy screams in terror at the sight of Peter’s mask. Peter takes off the mask, gaining the boy’s trust by showing that he’s just a regular guy. It’s the film recognition that Peter is still just a teenaged kid, even with his fantastical powers. He gives the boy the mask, rescues him at the last moment from the car and when he arrives with the boy in his arm back on the bridge, the mask is now on again. The father asks him who he is. And, for the first time, Peter calls himself Spider-Man. He is now a hero.
As Tracy Jordan of 30 Rock puts it, “Superman does good, you’re doing well.” Whenever possible, do good. That’s The Amazing Spider-Man’s definition of a hero. It’s not about the responsibility of power or symbolically standing for something, it’s about accepting the weight of a moral obligation. It’s about risking what is easy and self-pleasing for what is good. In terms of traditional storytelling, one might argue the film is sloppy because the vendetta subplot is whisked away. I’d argue it’s whisked away because Peter realizes it isn’t who he’s meant to be. He’s meant for greatness, a weight of greatness.
And it isn’t easy. Having thought about this over a span of years, the weight of a moral obligation to do good is almost unfathomable. And to the film’s credit, it recognizes this. While Spider-Man may be good, Peter Parker still has a lot to learn about this moral obligation and if the last line of the film is any indication, he’s still struggling between what he wants and what is morally right.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing