Jewish World Review May 10, 2002 / 28 Iyar, 5762

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Film puts best spin on USA | This weekend's record-smashing box-office gross for the new movie Spider-Man removed any lingering doubts as to the identity of America's No. 1 cinematic superhero. The Wondrous Web Spinner ruled the multiplex (with an unprecedented $114 million in ticket sales) because he remains the most quintessentially American of all classic comic-book creations - offering a revitalizing vision of national identity that's especially appropriate at this moment of danger and doubt.

In explaining the triumph of Spider-Man, most commentators concentrate on Sony Pictures' brilliant marketing strategies, the sweeping distribution to some 7,500 screens in every corner of the continent, or the undeniable artistry deployed by director Sam Raimi. But more important than salesmanship or cinematic skill, there's the enduring appeal of the character himself - something about this particular fantasy figure that generates populist passions appropriate to this precise point in our history.

After Sept. 11, Americans listened to millions of angry people around the Islamic world expressing their resentment toward this country as a bastion of arrogance and privilege. Spider-Man, on the other hand, speaks to our eternal identification with underdogs. Yes, he reminds us of our almost freakish power, but also of our vulnerability and our stubborn determination.

Peter Parker, the outcast teenager (and orphan) who is ultimately transformed into the Wall-Crawling Wonder, represents the kind of hapless, hopeless Everyman we have always embraced. As portrayed by Tobey Maguire in the film, he resembles other adolescent loners and losers, nursing a preposterous crush on the prettiest girl in his high school. In the grand tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, this gawky youth single-mindedly focuses on lifting himself to heroic, larger-than-life status to impress a glamorous, unattainable female.

The comic-book character, in other words, emerges as a classic American striver. No wonder our most enduring image of this national hero shows him painstakingly crawling up a wall. He doesn't wear a cape, and he can't fly, but he'll do whatever it takes to better himself.

From Horatio Alger to Rocky Balboa, we've always cherished this sort of determination on the part of the downtrodden. Abraham Lincoln remains the most exemplary American icon because of his impoverished, log-cabin past, and even Bill Clinton derived great political strength from his famously disadvantaged origins in Hope, Ark. This is our preferred version of the All-American Boy - not some self-assured, muscle-flexing superman (or Superman), but an eager, aspiring outsider.

Although other superheroes face their own challenges, none exemplifies this homespun, upwardly mobile trajectory in the same way that Spidey does. The Superman story remains an immigrant saga: The Man of Steel is, after all, a "strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men." Like most newcomers to this country, he tries to assimilate in both Smallville and Metropolis, but remains decidedly, inescapably alien, as that big "S" on his chest reminds us.

Batman, meanwhile, touches on another important archetype: the selfless aristocrat with the common touch (think Franklin Roosevelt or maybe even George W. Bush). Bruce Wayne could enjoy his life of comfort and glamour in "stately Wayne manor," but he puts privilege aside to serve the imperiled populace as the Caped Crusader.

Even in terms of the world he inhabits, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is meant to connect more closely with reality than his comic colleagues. He lives and works, after all, in good old New York City - not "Metropolis" or "Gotham City" or some other surrealistic stand-in. After the World Trade Center catastrophe, this big-screen evocation of the real-life Big Apple resonates with timely messages about our society's resilience and pluck in facing down adversity.

At a time when this nation's colossal power - military, economic and cultural - easily dominates the world, the unprecedented popularity of Spider-Man (a character created 40 years ago) should cast clear light on the true and constant heart of America. Envious foreign multitudes may see a brawny bully, but that has never been the way we see ourselves.

We remain, in our own eyes, perpetual upstarts, climbers and romantics, granted superior abilities through a freakish combination of accident and aspiration. The angry mobs in foreign capitals, the suicidal terrorists and their sophisticated sympathizers, can denounce Americans as lazy, arrogant, reckless and spoiled, but this ugly vision contradicts the common experience of those who live here. We see instead a nation of hardworking, ambitious but stubbornly decent people of every ethnic and economic background. America haters besmirch this nation as representative of some domineering international elite, but most citizens understand that this is still a country where a lonely computer geek (as clueless as Peter Parker himself) can become a billionaire entrepreneur, a supermarket checkout girl may emerge as an Oscar-winning actress, or a teenage part-time janitor in Harlem will eventually represent the nation as secretary of State.

Opportunity and mobility remain American realities, not mere fantasies from the pages of Marvel comics. Spider-Man connects with this point in our natural pageant because it reassures us that unlike the aristocratic, power-mad, nihilistic Green Goblins of this world (Osama, anyone?), we intend to use our potent options to benefit ordinary people everywhere. As Peter Parker's wise, hardworking Uncle Ben pointedly reminded him - and the rest of us: "With great power comes great responsibility."

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Michael Medved