A thought was once presented to me that stuck in my mind to this day: the idea that costumed superheroes are a contemporary answer to the chivalric romances, the ‘knight in shining armour’ tales that adorned the parchment of medieval scribes. They embody certain narrative tropes that have long been a staple of Western fiction: sacrifice and American exceptionalism, two tropes that have long been intertwined in themselves.
In particular, a certain video game adaptation ofNew York’s wall-crawler caught my eye in regards to historical American narratives. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions follows the story of an incident that breaks apart the dimensional fabric, forcing four Spider-Men of alternate dimensions to work parallel one another to restore the realms to their rightful state.
The game, then, is divided into four distinct stylistic fragments: you’re presented with the colourful, cel-shaded (almost like a comic book, get it?) world of Amazing Spider-Man, before being drenched in the shady, saturated environments of Noir Spider-Man’s world. From there we kick off to the heavily cyberpunk future-world of Spider-Man 2099, and then once again to the colourful hues of Ultimate Spider-Man’s comic-book realm.
These elements play off against one another in-game for a stunning stylistic effect, but each of them has roots in long-standing American genres.
Noir Spidey plays off like if in The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade webbed up toughs rather than questioning them. The gritty, Depression-era urban landscapes of Noir’s world go far towards capturing the ideals present in noir media.
Amazing Spider-Man’s cel-shaded world takes us not only through a graphical style that will surely make comic fans breathe in misty-eyed nostalgia, but it deals with several levels that depict areas that will be familiar to any connoisseur of American genres. Spidey swings through an Amazon jungle, fighting off various white men and in search of a white man (Kraven The Hunter, for those so inclined). The “third world”, the other, is essentially turned into a setpiece and backdrop for the struggles of white males – at the expense on my part of trivializing just how fun these levels are. This is an immensely fun game, but it is bound nonetheless by the tropes and conventions which have defined the Western superhero genre to this point. The level in which he chases down the Sandman is an Old West frontier town, which looks as though frozen in time, a memory of the time of McTeague and other such media of the period.
For those not versed in the lore of Spidey 2099, it’s worth noting that in that timeline, a mega-corporation called Alchemax rules over society and is present in most facets of everyday life. This is presented as a distinctively negative thing a la Orwell (especially in the game’s direct sequel, Edge Of Time – but that’s a different topic entirely) in context, despite the clear vibe of exceptionalism flowing through the cyberpunk landscape: it’s implied that Alchemax has had a heavy hand in moving society towards its current hyper-advanced state.
None the less, all these stylistic representations of the Spider-Man mythos – from the classic comic style to the more recent and admittedly obscure Noir version – play up the ‘lone ranger’ ideal, that of the solo hero who, bolstered on his own merits, takes on a grander scheme by his lonesome. The superhero genre as a whole, right back to Superman (And indeed, right back to the chivalric romances of the Arthurian legends, if one is so inclined to see the superhero genre as a spiritual successor), thrives on the idea of one man or woman who stands head and shoulders above the masses. They often represent ideals that many would consider worth giving lives for.
Which leads us right back around to the concept of altruistic sacrifice. It’s a term that gets thrown around in academic circles when discussing the mindset of soldiers on a battlefield, which in itself is deeply rooted in American culture: it was a country forged by war, which participated in both world wars and in many other conflicts around the globe. And make no mistake, Spider-Man in his various multimedia incarnations is a soldier on a super-powered battlefield. He is – or rather, must be – the hero who is so willing to make the sacrifice of his life for a greater ideal.
Just look at Spider-Man 3, for instance: the moment when Spidey swings back into action at the climax to save Mary Jane from Sandman and Venom, there is a remarkable shot where he actually lands right in front of a massive American flag in a heroic pose. There’s no possible way that this wasn’t intentional on the part of the crew, even if they may have been consciously unaware of its meaning.
After all, the Spider-Man mythos as a whole is intricately tied with the concept of putting others before oneself, and making a symbol out of yourself (the latter of which also being a running theme of Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight trilogy). “With great power comes great responsibility.” The implication of that famous mantra being that if you are gifted with abilities that raise you above the masses, that you must exist for the constructed and rather Westernized ideals of ‘freedom, truth, democracy’.
Ultimately, Spider-Man has done a remarkable thing for Western culture: his representation is as a deeply flawed, inexorably human character, rather than the glorious demigod that Superman is depicted as, a character whose very abs could act as a bulletproof shield alone. However, notice that even Superman has been depicted in a very human light lately with the show Smallville: it seems that we as a culture no longer want our heroes to reach levels of perfection that we cannot ourselves attain.
That in itself speaks volumes to the American ideal that if you just pull yourselves up ‘by your bootstraps’ and work harder, then you’ll attain a kind of superhuman stature. It’s interesting: in the 40s, when people were consuming Superman comics, they were watching the newspapers and keeping an ear on the radio to hear news of the brave men fighting on the front: aspiring to merely root for the ‘boys in uniform’, who were an amorphous mass designed to both take bullets for and represent the pride of a nation’s people. (Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony deals with this issue in a very well-defined way and is worth a look if one is so inclined towards these ideas)
But as the sixties melted into the seventies and beyond, and without a wholly loathsome enemy to fight overseas (Though the Vietnam war kept the nation’s attention, there’s no doubt that the Vietcong were less-easily caricatured and turned into a true-blue Green Goblin or Doctor Doom than the Nazis – the SS, you can easily say, exhibited a level of cruelty and wanton contempt for humanity that very few villains in the comics scene short of Carnage would dare touch), attentions turned to heroes who were less than perfect: heroes that we could aspire to be, rather than simply cheer on from the sidelines.
Heroes like Spider-Man.
Uncle Ben said that with great power comes great responsibility. Some days, I can’t help but wonder what he really might have meant.