Look, up in the sky! While the well-known phrase is from the comic book and movie hero Superman, it could be applied to the world-wide blockbuster Spiderman 3 as well. The movie, which broke box office records in its opening weekend, is set in New York. To the extent that the broad masses of New Yorkers are represented in the film, their primary function is to gaze helplessly upwards, waiting for Spiderman to swoop in to save the day. If the movie Sahara is any benchmark, the neck massage budget for extras must have been astronomical.
In the movie's climactic scene, Spiderman jumps from in front of an American flag on a rooftop into the heat of battle with his nemesis -- the cult of the nation combined clumsily with the cult of the savior. Looking up from the street a woman exclaims, "The prayers of the city have been answered."
Like most super hero movies, Spiderman is a poor man's Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle, a 19th century English essayist, praised the role of "Heroes" throughout history. Carlyle wrote that in all periods of world history, the "Great Man" -- they were exclusively men -- were the "indispensable saviors" of their time. Great men, he wrote, were the only ones wise enough to determine what the times required and willful enough to shape society in their own image. Carlyle scorned politics and advocated moral character as the underpinnings of individual or national strength.
The makers of Spiderman 3 scorn politics too. Despite a rampaging destructiveness that sweeps across New York, there is no sign of the government outside of a desultory police force. There is no Mayor to bolster morale, no Governor to declare an emergency and certainly no President to scramble Air Force fighter jets. Rudy Giuliani should be outraged. Politicians, it is implied, would only make things worse. In other superhero moves like Superman and Batman, politicians were portrayed as corrupt at worst and benign at best. In Spiderman 3, the everyday wielders of political power are banished completely.
There is a curious religious dynamic at work in Spiderman 3 that reinforces the absence of viable social networks. Spiderman's struggle with the dark seductions of power is an isolated and individual one. His triumph over internal evil takes place alone in a Cathedral tower, the church bells literally stripping him of the black sin of hubris. If power corrupts, then masculine power (women gather round when Peter Parker wears the black Spiderman suit) corrupts absolutely. This is comic book Nietzsche, Christianity feminizing -- through sympathy, guilt and forgiveness -- Spiderman's temporary embrace of the will to power.
There is an optimistic gloss that can be applied to the proliferation and popularity of movie superheroes. The phenomena may indicate a subconscious desire to return to a more polytheistic religious culture. Like the ancient Greek and Roman Gods, today's cinematic superheroes have human foibles and they constantly intervene in the affairs of our world. If human beings are somehow genetically hardwired to look to the sky for salvation, then at least we have an array of exotic choices. And as historian of religion Jonathan Kirsch points out in his recent book about the war between monotheism and polytheism, "The core value of paganism was religious tolerance..." You prefer Superman, I prefer Batman. Someone else warms up to Wolverine. If a rain of new Gods is falling from the sky, at least they aren't demanding singular and supine obedience.
But Spiderman 3's central and perhaps subliminal message is reactionary and anti-democratic. The mass of people are inert, victims of vast forces that are beyond their control. The debris of shattered windows and skyscrapers caused by these warring forces descends from above -- as does deliverance. This is the antithesis of the democratic promise, that people freely joining together in a common cause can make history and determine their own fate.
I've noticed that the next rendition of the Harry Potter series is opening soon. A central component of the movie is the students of Hogwarts school organizing an underground "army" to challenge the unjust and unwise authority of their superiors -- Merlin the Magician meets Che Guevara. A recent Los Angeles Times story indicated that the movie will deal with issues of political repression, fundamentalism, fascism and racism. A picture accompanying the story showed the rebellious students standing in unison, their eyes focused on the challenges in front of them. This, at least, is the gaze of democracy -- straightforward and non-deferential.
Democratic culture cannot flourish if we keep looking to the sky for answers. I'm hoping Harry Potter teaches Spiderman a thing or two about the uses of solidarity.
Kelly Candaele produced the documentary A League of Their Own and the recently released When Hope and History Rhymed about the Northern Ireland peace process.