Otherwise than Spiderman; or Beyond Superheroes

This is a serious post, even though it concerns a movie about a comic book. Last week I had the chance to finally read some of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ writings, and I watched Spiderman (all because my wife’s sister watched our son for a couple of days so we got to read and watch movies undisturbed. Praise be to God). Basically I read all afternoon, then I watched Spiderman 2, and then I was disturbed.

At first pass Levinas and Spiderman seems to be in agreement: the nameless face of the stranger, the other in danger demanding responsibility from Peter Parker; the non-reciprocal substitution of the self for the other because the poor citizen of NY can’t help Peter in return (recall the scene on the train when the “people” resist Dr. Oct on Peter’s behalf to no avail). And during Peter’s time of testing, when he forgoes his superhero persona, we see him walk away from a mugging without helping, and all the audience can think (which is the pure manipulation of the movie) is, “This is wrong, Peter. You SHOULD help him. He is your NEIGHBOR!!”

But, unfortunately, even though within the movie Spiderman is the hero, the role model which every kid aspires to, we cannot follow him, and Levinas points the way. Why?

The superhero ethic that Spiderman presents us with ends up justifying our (as in the America public) lack of ethical/moral action. Only superheroes deal with ethical dilemmas, only they have choices. Movies like this teach us that “With great power comes great responsibility” (in the word of uncle Ben the wise), of which the reverse creed, which we the America public live by, is “Those without great power are without any responsibility.” And isn’t this generally the case with these comic book remakes (but I must note the exception of “Unbreakable’ which is exceptional, but not a remake). These movies draws us in as an audience, presenting us with a dilemma which the superhero undergoes, which the audience then determining the good to be followed, and which, of course, the Superhero then does (even Matrix Reloaded follows this logic to a tee with Neo’s choice for Trinity over humanity, which in the trilogy is a thoroughly predicable choice). The audience then feels as if they had actually undergone a moral dilemma (and acted rightly) just because they know how the superhero ought to act. But we haven’t done anything but watch a movie, and more than that, we won’t ever do anything, because only Superheroes have really dilemmas and only they have “super powers” with which to solve them.

So although we all know that Peter shouldn’t leave that man helpless in the alley because he can it without getting hurt, where does that leave us? Would/Should we do the same thing? We might (will probably) get hurt. So, w simultaneously affirm the right thing to do but give ourselves a loophole (we are too weak). And this is the essence of the Superhero ethic, and the perpetuation of the ethics of indifference which makes America go round.

But, things would be different if these movies hinted at the possibility of everyone being a superhero, if they suggested that we were all beyond ordinary. Only then would we all enter into a non-reciprocal substitution with the Other. Only they could we respond in responsibility toward the infinite face of the Other. And what if we all were superheroes, and we all had a super power, might we then begin to act again? But what would our power be? And what transformed us?

And wouldn’t us being superheroes be the perfect supplement to the fact that are all refugees, cast out as bare life? But again, whence this transformation and power?

And to these questions an political activist gives one answer, and the theologian another. (alas, again the division of the subject).