Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Spiderman Homecoming": An Analysis from Comparative Mythology

*Warning: This analysis of Spiderman: Homecoming contains a spoiler or two.*

Just as I did several weeks ago with the recent Wonder Woman film, in this post I want to make some remarks about yet another entry in the increasing bonanza of superhero films: Spiderman: Homecoming.

Admittedly, my connection to Spiderman is stronger than to the character of Wonder Woman. When I was four years old, I had a rudimentary Spiderman figure that I attached to dental floss as a stand-in for webbing. Peter Parker's earnestness, innocence, and morality ("With great power comes great responsibility") always appealed to me. Even so, I went into this movie with lukewarm feelings. The 2002-2007 Tobey Maguire and then 2012-2014 Andrew Garfield films each had their own problems.

With that said, I was pleasantly surprised with this version. Tom Holland does a wonderful job as Peter Parker and Michael Keaton makes the Vulture (never one of my favorite Spiderman villains) a compelling antagonist. As a minor touch, the film corrects a gripe that I always had with the Tobey Maguire adaptations: Spiderman actually keeps his mask on! There are still some minor quibbles (I am not at all sure what they are trying to do with the Aunt May and MJ characters), but this is an enjoyable film that also serves a role in advancing the larger MCU narrative.

On that point, in a post on my Facebook page related to this blog, I asked if there might be an audience for discussion of superhero stories through the lens of Comparative Religion. The response was pretty positive. As a sampling of what that might look like, for the rest of this post I want to explore a theme in Spiderman: Homecoming that struck me as very evocative of more ancient mythologies: generational conflict.

Going back twenty-five years, in his Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, Richard Reynolds argued that the mythos of Marvel and DC superheroes most closely resembled the Greek pantheon for sheer multiplicity and variety of figures, as well as the narrative continuity (how stories impact and build on other stories). I would add that the same conditions align Marvel and DC with Hindu mythology. Greek and Hindu myths are also "multigenerational" in that the gods and goddesses have progeny, with one another as well as humans (creating "demigods"), who become the main characters of their own stories, creating difficulties or new opportunities for their divine parents. (In the Greek context, think of the stories that revolve just around Zeus, Heracles, and Perseus, then their potential interactions with each other.) The generational interaction thus becomes another layer upon which a mythology can build and become deeper and more complex.

With Spiderman: Homecoming, Marvel takes advantage of this opportunity to grow its mythos along generational lines. In a way, this was always part of Spiderman stories, as he was a kid who often faced older villains such as Norman Osborn (Green Goblin), Otto Octavius (Doctor Octopus), and Dr. Curt Connors (the Lizard). The recent film, though, explores this theme in a more interesting way by having the generational conflict occur not just with another older villain (AdrianToomes as Vulture), but also a mentor: Tony Stark's Iron Man. Stark is shown as a quasi-parental figure for Parker throughout the film, remarking at one point in mid-lecture "I sound just like my father." For his part, Parker both craves but also chafes under Stark's influence, rebelling against the protective protocols wired into the gifts his patron bestows. Similarly, Toomes, who the audience discovers (*here's the spoiler alert*) is actually Parker's prospective girlfriend's father, serves an additional parental role model, albeit obviously the much more threatening one. Still, Toomes more than once expresses admiration for Parker, even as he tries to destroy him. Altogether, the movie portrays an awareness of the larger mythos' growing complexity: having crafted and developed more and more characters since 2008, its universe now contains multiple generations with some having matured into mentorship roles (Iron Man) for the new arrivals (Spiderman).

The way the film deals with tension between generations, though, whether latent or explicit, is almost eerily similar to a Hindu narrative from the classical epic Mahabharata. In the chronology of Hindu myth, the Vedas (going back to 1500 BCE) form the earliest layer, while the epics like Mahabharata (about 500 BCE) form a later strata. Interestingly, most of the main characters in the Hindu epics are considered the literal children of the Vedic gods. For example, Arjuna, one of the most important figures of Mahabharata, is the son of the Vedic thundergod Indra. In an episode from Mahabharata, Arjuna goes on a quest to gain mystic weapons to help his brothers in their coming war with their rivals. He travels to the Himalayas to petition Indra, but his father rebuffs him, saying that his son is not yet ready. Arjuna goes back down to the forest and encounters a mysterious stranger who draws him into a duel. Though the stranger soon appears to be completely invincible, Arjuna refuses to back down, even pulling trees out of the ground to use as clubs when his sword shatters on the stranger's head. The battle ends only when the stranger reveals himself as the god Shiva, who had been testing Arjuna. Pleased with his son's resilience, Indra joins Shiva to provide Arjuna with the weapons he needs.

The episode is a favorite one in Indian temple art, particularly in the southern part of the country.

Here is another rendering, with Arjuna on the right and Shiva on the left.

Let's compare this with Spiderman: Homecoming. Convinced that Parker is unworthy of his hi-tech Spider suit, Stark reclaims the suit and launches into his speech about what it takes to be a hero. Parker, momentarily defeated, must face the Vulture with much more elementary equipment. After a struggle, he triumphs and Stark realizes the boy has proven himself. He returns the advanced spider suit and even offers Parker membership in the Avengers.

The parallels are striking: in both cases, the young hero is spurned by a father figure, with whom he is reconciled only by confronting and conquering a second, and even more threatening, father figure. Even son, in both cases, the hero is additionally reconciled to this second, darker paternal model. As we saw, Shiva applauds Arjuna's tenacity and joins in Indra's praise. In Spiderman: Homecoming, Toomes is ultimately saved by Parker, and earlier in the film Spiderman saves Toomes' daughter. Perhaps because of this (*spoiler alert*), in the mid-credits scene Toomes refuses to divulge Spiderman's secret identity (to a character who most likely turn out eventually to be the Scorpion.)

On a psychological level, then, and from the point of view of the younger generation, each dyad (Indra/Shiva and Stark/Toomes) represents innate ambivalence toward one's elders, of the light/dark, good cop/bad cop role played in one's life. From the point of view of the elder, the conflict (implicit in the case of Indra/Stark and explicit with Shiva/Toomes) represents a certain resentment over the strength portrayed by the hero, which eventually gives way to admiration and then acceptance of the youth's prowess. The fascinating thing to me is the presence of this theme in such a virtually identical structure in two different cultures many centuries removed. This just goes to show that some issues, such as generational conflict, are timeless and simply part of the human condition.

In short, this development was the most exciting part of Spiderman: Homecoming for me. The Marvel producers appear to be aware that their mythos must evolve, build, and move forward with their heroes maturing, taking on new roles, and interacting in more complicated ways as time goes on. It could simply have been a Spiderman-fights-a-bad-guy film and made a tidy sum, but instead they kept the larger, richer narrative in mind by using the story as an opportunity to develop Iron Man's character as well.

Next time, there are a couple of potential topics I might pursue, maybe even with a surprise or two. Until then, take care.

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