Wednesday, June 21, 2006

J. Jonah Jameson Was Right

A week late and a buck short but...

So the big news LAST Wednesday was about Spider-Man publicly unmasking in Civil War #2.

A lot of bloggers were really upset about this move, because it "ruined" the character. I argued that publicly unmasking actually made a lot of sense, because:

a) instead of being an unaccountable vigilante acting outside the law (J. Jonah Jameson's perfectly justified objection to Spider-Man), he's taking personal responsibility for the choices and mistakes he's made and will make as Spider-Man. It also allows him to testify at trials, be called in to help the police, and in general be a BETTER protector of the city;

and b) he's not exposing himself and his loved ones to any MORE danger, he is actually helping PROTECT them. Now they know WHY they are being targeted by villains who ALREADY KNOW who he is AND he's scaring off the villains who might want to attack Mary-Jane, supermodel, but not want to mess with Spider-Man, Avenger.

Furthermore, I pointed out there are several successful superheroes in the Marvel-verse whose true identities have never been secret, specifically the Fantastic Four.

I feel that masked vigilante heroes only make sense when, in the case of Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman and V, the hero FUNDAMENTALLY does not trust the established authority. Spider-Man, who is very civil hero, clearly DOES trust in the power of the press and government to protect and help people, so why is he hiding his identity from them?

But Carla at Snap Judgments made a good point. I've addressed the literal arguments against unmasking Spider-Man, but not the metaphorical ones. That Spider-Man, the story and character, lose a lot of their power if Peter Parker is a public hero. And while I agree that this drastically changes the character and story, I don't think it hurts the character at all.

Let's look at Spider-Man metaphorically. Peter Parker is an Average Joe, maybe a little smarter and harder working than most (he had TWO after school jobs, not counting the vigilantism and pro-wrestling). He's low on cash, gets ignored by girls and picked on by bullies.

Spider-Man is his secret talent, the place he can go where he's not only strong and fast, but also funny, admired and feared! And when you consider that Peter was bitten by that spider when he was 15 but was NEVER known as Spider-Boy, you can see that the mask didn't just hide his identity, it also hid Peter's age. As Spider-Man, he was treated as an adult!

So when Peter was a teenager, the duel identity made a lot of sense. He had a talent and a secret life he loved, but one his Aunt would NEVER have approved of, and respect and admiration from a public that would NEVER have taken him seriously if they knew how young he was. Think of a rock singer who hides her talent from her parents, because they don't approve of that kind of music, and hides her age from the band because they'd tell her to go home if they learned she was in high school.

But as an adult, the duel identity becomes metaphorically problematic. You have to ask who is he hiding his true self from, since he's not doing a very good job of hiding it from the Green Goblin and Venom. He's hiding who he is from his friends, the government, and the public at large.

Going back to the singer, if a 25 year old teacher decided to pursue her rock career, would she hide her background because her parents still didn't approve? Or would she say "No, I'm an adult and I'm proud of my talent, AND I'm proud of being a teacher, and I don't care what anyone else thinks"?

Unmasking is a very adult way of taking responsibility for his life and saying to the world, "I am Spider-Man, and I'm proud of what I do." If you're going to argue that he shouldn't take that kind of adult responsibility for his life, that he should hide who he really is from friends and foes alike, then you have to argue that Peter should never have turned 18, graduated from high school and moved out of Aunt May's house. And MAYBE THAT'S TRUE.

But personally, I believe that the strength of an ongoing story like Spider-Man is character growth, that stories build on what came before but shouldn't reproduce them. Growth necessitates change, and it won't always be positive, but, to me, it makes a better story.

That's not to say I don't have specific problems with the context of the unmasking. I think the debate in Civil War, whether super-powered people should be registered and contained by the government, is one-sided (no, they shouldn't) and just off the much more interesting debate, whether all CRIME-FIGHTERS (like, say, the Punisher) should be registered and contained by the government. And* I wish that this change didn't come hot on the heals of three major changes to his powers, living arrangements, and costume, all within the last two years. Each one of those changes is big enough that you kind of wish the writers had two or three years to play out the implications and new story possibilities before the next BIG CHANGE.

But you know what? I like it, and I want Marvel to keep this as the status quo for as long as possible. I think a Peter Parker who tries to have both a normal life and still hold up his great responsibilities, allowing everyone he knows to know why he is the way he is, could show a more complex and interesting character than the repetitive "Oh noes, how can I save day and not reveal who I really am to the people who love me and think that know me so well" stories that got worn out by Superman long before poor Peter Parker picked-up his power.

*Edited after actually buying and reading Civil War. Turns out the debate is exactly what I wanted it to be, just one-sided.


Matthew Craig said...

so why is he hiding his identity from them?

So he can walk away when he needs to.

So he can live a life where Spider-Man is not his whole reason for being.

So he can be the best Peter Parker he can be - and not the best superhero.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's not (just) about hiding from The Man. It's not (just) about protecting his loved ones. The mask is there to protect Peter Parker, enabling him to fulfill the promise he made at Uncle Ben's graveside without entirely compromising his hopes and dreams for a normal life.

Even when the stresses and strains of his life make this impossible.

Especially, even.

Spider-Man's great power is an awareness of the consequences of his actions. His great responsibility is to ensure that, as far as possible, his interaction with the world is a positive one. Why does nobody else seem to understand this?

There is no way for this story to proceed - much less be undone, as surely it shall - without another large helping of contrived plotlines and specious reasoning.

You would think that after five years of such nonsense, people would get tired of it.


carla said...

I agree that unmasking shows a certain sense of taking responciblity, which as we all know is Spider-Man's bread and butter. Maybe it's just me then. The whole thing kind of rubs me the wrong way, like we're losing something to gain something else.

Oh, and possibly the fact that we still haven't dealt with the House of M remifications for him, whatever happened to him because of the Other, the fact he's supposed to be teaching high school somewhere still... It's just one more thing on an already bigger pile of plot that should have gotten taken care of first.

Sure he unmasked but I have no idea who Spider-Man is these days.

Jenn said...

I agree that this may work out better for Peter Parker. They've never tried Spidey as a "public" superhero -- I think this will be a refreshing new perspective on an otherwise stale character.

Although I'm a little skeptical on the "fundamentally trusts authority" thing -- there are many superheroes in comics who chose to keep their identities secret to only protect those they love, so i think it's a valid reason -- although it always made more sense to me to TELL the people you love and keep your identity secret to everyone else so you don't have your family and friends putting themselves into unnecessarily risky situations.