Spider-Man becomes Single-Man?

This semester, as we study pop culture and critical interaction with a “text” (really, any medium), I’m making my students write a series of short, informal response essays. And I figured, what’s good for the goose…. So, this is the “sample response” I’ve written for them, in all its shabby inglory:

Last fall, I read an article in The Journal of Popular Culture titled “‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’: Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics.” The latter half of the title is misleading; the article is less about the Cold War and more about the ways in which Stan Lee single-handedly revolutionized the comic book industry and forever changed our idea of the superhero. Not to get too into the article itself, my own favorite section of it dealt with Peter Parker and the invention of the teenage hero.

I wasn’t as obsessive as the stereotypical “comic-book geek” (I was certainly no Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), but I read my share of comics in high school and college (I hung out with Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), and I still have my collection. Spidey was always a favorite of mine, for most of the same reasons this article points to: He was my age — a teenager/young adult — but he was a hero in an adult world and could handle adult villains easily; he was a geek in the world but secretly cool, shy and unsure around his love-interests but hip and sarcastically eloquent as his alter-ego; and, though he was super-strong and super-agile, he often relied on his wits and intelligence to defeat his enemies. Better still, he was troubled: He burdened himself with worries and responsibilities beyond the capacity of normal people and even beyond his own capacity sometimes. (We’ve long acknowledged a mental condition of involved self-sacrifice, wherein a person believes he or she is personally responsible for the salvation of the entire world; Buddhists call it bodhicitta, the compassionate desire to help all sentient beings; psychologists have long called it a “messiah complex”; but I wonder if we ought to start discussing, for my generation on down, the “Spider-Man Syndrome.”)

Anyway, I started thinking about this article a week or so ago when I heard, much to my shock, that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker are splitting up. I caught the announcement on a brief news item on WPR, and for me, it was as earth-shaking as the death and resurrection of Superman, as surprising and intriguing as the assassination of Captain America. And I can’t help wondering, now that Spidey (who is technically in his 40s but who ages slowly) and I are both older, leaving our youth and eying a not-so-distant middle-age, what the ramifications are going to be of Spidey’s new “mid-life crisis.”

I remember following the love affair of Peter and Mary Jane with the same zeal and personal investment with which my grandmother watched her soap operas. Mary Jane was my generation’s ideal woman, for the comic book set anyway. She is smart, self-assured, outrageously sexy, just flirtatious enough…. We all wanted to marry Mary Jane. When I watch the second Spider-Man film (in my mind, the last, because film 3 was a rotten mess), I actually erupt in grinning tears — even now, after multiple viewings — every time Kirsten Dunst looks proud and glassy-eyed at Tobey McGuire and says her character’s iconic love-phrase: “Go get `em, Tiger.”

Strictly speaking, Peter and Mary Jane aren’t breaking up or getting divorced. In a classic bout of comic-book silliness, they’ve lost their memories. Apparently, Peter’s Aunt May was dying, and to save her life, Peter and Mary Jane jointly made a deal with the devil (okay, the comic-book character Mephisto, but it’s the same thing), agreeing to erase their entire relationship. They haven’t fallen out of love; they’ve just forgotten the last twenty-one years. So, Spider-Man is now a swinger in a multitude of ways, free now to engage in more dangerous, more exhilarating adventures, to take on greater responsibilities (though, really, what responsibility is greater than marriage?). And we readers, straight men and gay women alike, ought to be rejoicing: Mary Jane is available once more. But to be honest, I don’t want her available. I prefer them both in love. As my heroic surrogate in super-literature, Peter Parker needs to stay with my ink-colored red-headed icon of sex and romance. Otherwise, I’m left with just another celebrity marriage gone awry, just another undoing of my carefully deluded adolescence.

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