Note: This is the first entry in this blog that has nothing to do with the school project that originally prompted this blog. As such, I wouldn’t expect the intertwining with American narrative genres present in the previous entries. It also takes a bit of a left turn from video games, but touches on another point of interest of mine. Not a permanent thing – the next article will swing back around to games!
The very first real article on this blog touched on Spider-Man’s role as a sacrificial soldier identifying with certain ideals present in Western narratives. But lately I’ve been exposed to some Spidey media that really drives that point home, and I think it’s worth a further look, even if it doesn’t directly relate to video games. But then, superhero comics are something that have faced a similar marginalization in Western academia and “high culture” (as much as I hate that stratifying term) as video games, seen as juvenile and puerile when it’s not so in all cases. (Remember the Simpsons episode where Bart gets into a gifted school, and tries to get away with reading a comic book, only to have it taken away and tossed in the trash?)
So here we go:
In the Ultimate continuity, Peter Parker dies. I don’t mean in the hokey traditional superhero way, where they die and are then brought back a few issues later, but really, genuinely dies, and the mantle of Spider-Man is later taken up by someone else. The arc in which he dies, aptly titled The Death Of Spider-Man, is a shocker for that very fact, even if you put aside the numerous Crowning Moments Of Awesome throughout (Electro gets shot to death by Aunt Freaking May and that’s just the tip of the iceberg).
Spidey dies while struggling on against insurmountable odds, as the likes of Electro, Vulture, Kraven, Sandman, and ringleader Green Goblin converge on his home. The Human Torch and Iceman are there to back him up, but it’s Spidey who steals the show. Without spoiling too much of the action for you, he goes down swinging in a brutal battle against the Green Goblin, to keep him from hurting his loved ones. It’s heroic sacrifice in its basest and most literal form.
But then, there’s the old adage: a hero is only as good as their villains. Or, more accurately, you can tell a lot about a hero by their villains. The X-Men fight other mutants; Batman, who presents himself as more of an elemental force of order and justice as opposed to an individual, has foes who embody certain other absolutes: the Joker, who borderlines on being a personification of chaos and discord, and Scarecrow, a totem of fear, for example. Spidey, meanwhile, fights other characters who got their powers through genetic tampering, which has always lent an air of scientific query to the Spidey mythos: it simultaneously aggrandizes and calls into critical question the ways in which we’re scientifically advancing as a society.
But the Green Goblin (who does fit that archetype, having gotten his powers through scientific means) has been Spidey’s greatest foe for a long time coming. If it can be said that the Joker ‘earned his villain wings’ in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Batman arc that turned the previously goofy villain into the nihilistic monster-clown that would come to a head with Heath Ledger’s beautifully horrific performance in The Dark Knight, then the Green Goblin earned his much earlier, with the comic arc The Night Gwen Stacy Died.
Which is…exactly what it says on the tin. Which in the sixties was a true shocker: the superhero lost. If there was a single event that cemented the pathos between Spidey and his audience, it was this. Not only that, but it blew the doors wide open to the idea that to humanize a superhero meant that they could fail, at times catastrophically. And it cemented the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn’s place as Spidey’s greatest foe.
And to this day, he remains just that: Spidey’s arch-enemy in most of their incarnations. But what does that say about Spidey? Maybe for the answer, we should look at Norman Osborn.
He is/was a head of industry, but I’m not going to hammer at some Occupy Oscorp babble about how Spidey represents the 99%. Instead, look at it this way:Norman’s son Harry is Peter Parker’s best friend. Already we see the binaries between the hero and villain in these types of narratives starting to blur.
The fact that he and Spidey know each others’ secret identities breaks down another binary barrier: that of the superhero identity, which is something that certain other comics seem to obey beyond all reason. (I’ll believe that a man can fly, but not that he can fool the world by whipping out a pair of glasses.) That said, the ongoing struggle between Osborn and Parker is intensely personal, despite the ostentatious getups.
Norman more or less says it himself in the Revenge Of The Green Goblin arc, one of my all-time favourites in how it deals with an antagonist’s mind-games. He says:
We are so alike, you and I. We’re cop and killer – the same psychological profile – one small step removed from being exactly the person we hate the most. Oh, you think you’re so high and mighty…but we’re both a couple of borderline personalities dressed in ridiculous costumes, acting out our power fantasies. The difference between us is that I’ve always been willing to admit it. But now, I’ve made you look at your reflection, and you don’t like what you see in the shadows. One of these days, one of us is going to inevitably kill the other. It’s coming, Parker…sooner than you think. And when it does, you’re going to have to choose. Do you really know which way you’re going to go? [cue evil laughter, end of arc]
And for just a moment, the Green Goblin pierces the veil. Every so often, a character becomes incredibly meta-cognitive, lifting themselves above the tropes that define their station in the narrative. It happened with The Joker in The Killing Joke, with the nihilistic philosophy of “Madness as the emergency exit”, and it happened with the Green Goblin, as he exalts himself for the very act of shattering those binaries that so try to define the superhero mythos.
And then you have the outfit itself: a goblin. Not something real and temporal like the Lizard, who is merely an anthropomorphic reptile with big teeth and bigger claws (again, created by science gone wrong), but a villain based on a mythical creature. There’s something larger-than-life about the Green Goblin: even if he might look silly at first glance, there’s something there, something legendary. And he proves just as resilient as the myths of his namesake, when he returns from death to have chessmastered the entire Clone Saga that dominated a good chunk of the 90s comic continuity. Granted, a lot of fans saw that arc as something that rhymes with Fluster Cluck, but Norman had the clout within the mythos to swing it. If there was one element of the Clone Saga that the fanbase mostly accepted wholly, it was the idea that Norman Osborn could pull off something that huge. What other villain in Spidey’s rogues’ gallery could?
So that brings me back to the question of Ultimate Spider-Man’s shocking turn: exactly what does Peter give his life for, or against, in the Death Of Spider-Man arc?
Maybe we should be looking at the Green Goblin on his own terms: as a force of malevolence, amorphous but willing to cause harm unconditionally. In the quotation up there, ol’ Osborn more or less identifies himself as the villain. Oftentimes in a narrative, it’s the antagonist’s very realization that they are, in fact, doing wrong that causes them to ‘step back from the ledge’, as it were. It takes a special kind of madness to have the cognition to identify as the antagonist, and to fully embrace that role.
That’s why I think the Green Goblin should be considered on the same pantheon as the Joker: he pushes the limits one step farther. This is actually why I thought the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s film continuity didn’t have that raw impact, despite a great performance by Willem DaFoe. The script simply presented us a ‘Goblin by numbers’ that went through the motions of the character’s origin story and The Night Gwen Stacy Died (but without a dead girlfriend this time around), but lacked the truly sinister edge that makes other incarnations of the character so timeless. So while writing this, I’ve been able to come to grips with why this villain is so effective to me: he takes the envelope of an established hero, and then pushes that envelope – physically, ideologically and mentally.
The ancient Hebrew religion speaks of Leviathan, the primordial chaos-monster far beyond any corporeal device that tyrants and men can conjure up. Perhaps that’s why villains like the Green Goblin and The Joker far surpass glorified mooks from their respective canons like Shocker and Mad Hatter: what be the devices of men and tyrants against monsters of a primordial, almost deific nature?
With great power comes great responsibility. That’s the one Aesop fundamental to the entire Spidey mythos. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Ultimate Spidey falls while fighting a foe who embodies the fundamental misuse of “great power”. A foe who, in fact, represents malevolence itself, in both a literal and mythic sense. He is Leviathan, Lucifer and Stalin all in one: a violence against life itself. That’s what Spidey dies for: to protect one final time against a force that not only commits evil deeds, but defines itself as evil, and by extension comes to embody that ideal. So that brings me back to the point – why exactly does Ultimate’s Death Of Spider-Man arc carry so much weight for the entire Spidey mythos?
If a hero is defined by their villains, then he is forced to confront this evil by rising and becoming an amorphous force of good, finite in the strength he can give, but imperishable as an ideal. After all, the spider-symbol carries over to his successor in the Ultimate continuity, showing that he’s already proven his worth as an ideal: as a soldier on a superpowered battlefield, and more importantly, as an emblem that we can all rally behind, be it in the comics, the films, the TV shows or the games.
And that’s a heroic sacrifice I can get behind.