Given their impact on the development of values, worldviews and behaviour, Plato argued that one should not underestimate the moral, spiritual and political significance of the stories told to youth. Of special import are tales of heroes—those who save others from undergoing evils. These days, month in, month out, Batman and Spider-Man are among the most published-about hero types around. Their masked faces appear on T-shirts, backpacks and billboards. Over the years, they have been featured in blockbuster films and animated television series, and their status as corner-stones of the popular imagination remains rock solid even if the new James Bond—Tony Stark, that is, not Daniel Craig—is fast approaching their level of fame given his appeal among the female demographic. To commemorate Spider-Man's 50th birthday in 2012, I published a piece in The Weekly Standard arguing for the ethical superiority of that character in contrast with the possibly more popular Batman. To remedy the relative neglect of the religious dimension in that initial outing, I here submit to the readers of Convivium a sequel of sorts, putting the cult back into popular culture.
An apology before I begin: I base the analysis that follows on what I take to be the essence or basic form of each character, assembling evidence from an assortment of depictions. Fans with comprehensive knowledge of publication and broadcast histories will have no trouble nitpicking my points. That can't be helped. Because these characters have thousands of stories told about them, those penning their adventures must keep them fresh by shifting and stretching things. Sometimes creators swerve so far from the core of a character that fans accuse them of betrayal, such as when the movie Batmans (both Keaton and Bale) reveal their identities to their girlfriends or when Peter Parker makes a deal with Mephisto. Even then, the drama of finding these characters in unusual circumstances or acting strangely depends in good part on the audience having a sense of who they are supposed to be and how their stories are supposed to go, no matter how far they stray, and even if they are never exactly restored to their original position in any given iteration.
To recap my argument thus far, my position is that Batman incarnates the willful modern project to end suffering through applied reason, gaining mastery over all things thereby. We may account for the popularity of Batman in good part because modern society is awfully committed to this undertaking, although not wholly. By way of contrast, Spider-Man represents a reflection on the shortcomings of modernity. Modern principles and purposes must be supplemented and tempered by pre-modern wisdom and virtues, such as one finds articulated in the classical philosophical and Biblical traditions, lest they extend themselves without restraint to ruinous extremes. Our conscience is semi-conscious that living well in this world depends on ideas and examples of goodness that a technological orienta tion erodes but cannot erase. Spidey's continued popularity confirms the persistence of their appeal.
Batman wages war against disorder in the nearly chaotic microcosm that is Gotham City. Violently orphaned in his youth, Batman perceives the world as populated by pitiable, vulnerable victims in need of protectors since they can't or won't protect themselves against omnipresent forces of cruelty and corruption. Unlike Superman, who would not rule even though he could, the principle that governs Batman would have him rule if only he could. Clark Kent's Ma and Pa imparted to him a faith in ordinary people and respect for their freedom that billionaire Bruce Wayne does not share. Spider-Man, in contrast, neither could nor would rule.
Batman combats evildoers in a fashion that exemplifies the twin maxims that fear is the passion to be reckoned on and that it is better to be feared than loved. As Montesquieu discerns, fear is the principle of despotism. Moreover, the desire to control has its own basis in fear. When Bruce assures the reader and reassures himself that he could quit the vigilante lifestyle any day he wanted (as in Identity Crisis #4, November 2004), he sounds like a pathetic junkie. One thing a person committed to controlling everything cannot control is his desire for control. Whereas the order that the modern technological project seeks to impose would absolve individuals of the need to practise personal and interpersonal responsibility, responsibility is the central theme of Peter Parker's story. Peter learned from his Uncle Ben that “with great power there must also come great responsibility,” and this lesson guides his life. Spider-Man's sense of responsibility, however, is more moderate and less meddlesome than Batman's. The Webslinger goes on patrol at irregular times and rescues people in dire distress, but he does not presume to save New Yorkers the trouble of taking responsibility for themselves. He leaves his baddies dangling from street lamps for the cops to cart away after his webs have dissolved. Batman deposits his villains at Arkham Asylum, an institution premised on the possibility of healing the mind and transforming character through the application of scientific technique. That he must keep resending them there suggests that this hope is based not in fact but rather in faith—but it's a faith in mundane powers.
The Caped Crusader's yearning to impress a rational, moral order upon the world so consumes him that he must fight proactively and not simply be reactive. He is limited only by time and means. Regarding the latter, he is, fortunately, unimaginably wealthy. Regarding the former, in addition to his apparent lack of a need for sleep, he enlists an endless succession of Robins, Batgirls, Outsiders and, in recent stories, an international army of Batmen to overcome the problem of being just one man. In contrast, Peter Parker is so poor that he has to sell photographs of himself in action to the Daily Bugle, knowing that the tabloid will invariably use them to portray him negatively—a sort of self-flagellation. He hand stitches his costume and what money he has goes to supporting his Aunt May or procuring ingredients for his web fluid. While there have been clones of Spider-Man aplenty, and an array of Spider-Women and Spider-Girls, none of them are Peter's handiwork or disciple.
The essential difference between Spider-Man and Batman may be detected in how Spidey's banter is full of quips and gags whereas Batman is always grim and gritty. That Batman's archnemesis is The Joker is fitting. One who believes that suffering can be abolished through determined human effort has little patience for humour. To him, joking is an affront. Comedy mocks the vanity of visions of rational control. The person who can joke amidst a confrontation with evil, like the quick-witted Webhead, must be reconciled to the permanent imperfections of a corrupted world populated by fallen creatures.
Batman invents gadgets and prepares concoctions for every possible purpose. He possesses the most powerful computer in the world, hidden away in his underground armoury for his personal use only. He launches a satellite to monitor all superhuman activity worldwide. He turns every cell phone in the city into a sonar device so as to spy on everyone everywhere. He keeps samples of Kryptonite in anticipation of an inevitable showdown with Superman and devises secret strategies for decisively defeating each of his fellow Justice Leaguers. (It is quite imprecise to call them his Super Friends. His partnership with Superman in particular is based on the shrewd assessment that the Big Blue Boy Scout needs him and not so much the other way around. He can barely abide Green Lantern—whose job it is to maintain order in the cosmos, literally, making him Batman's natural rival—not only because Green Lantern is the one human being he cannot frighten, and not simply because Green Lantern is incapable of being inconspicuous, but because Batman can imagine accomplishing so much more with that power ring.)
Despite the “bat” in his name, there is nothing naturalistic about Batman's arsenal. He is an avatar of artifice. In addition to his batarangs and grappling hook, the miscellany in his utility belt, not to mention his many custom-designed vehicles for air, land and sea, his entire body is a finely honed weapon and his brain is a logical machine. Little about the World's Greatest Detective is bat-like, except that he hangs out in a cave and is mostly active at night, plus his cape is scalloped to resemble a bat's wings. Also, he's scary.
Spider-Man's rogues' gallery is a testament to the inherent dangers of modern technology given the myriad ways it is available for misuse and prone to going awry. It comprises ordinary men transformed into supervillains due to technological mishaps or side effects (e.g. Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Lizard, Morbius the Living Vampire) or else bad guys who employ technology so as to become worse (e.g. Beetle, Chameleon, Hobgoblin, Jackal, Rhino, Scorpion, Vulture). Note the recurring theme in their names, which suggests that the very attempt to become more than human through technology tends to make us more like beasts. Some of Batman's adversaries have qualities or MOs similar to Spidey's, such as Killer Croc or Penguin, but what mainly defines them is their crooked minds or outright insanity. Peter Parker gains the proportional strength and agility of a spider due to an accident during a high tech experiment, and his web shooters and spider tracers are products of his own ingenuity. Spider-Man stands out as a marvel precisely because he is a victim of science gone wrong and a manufacturer of technological wonders. Yet neither makes a monster of him. At his worst, the young Peter Parker is merely corrupted by the culture around him as much as any other young man. His first instinct is to use his newfound powers to make it big in showbiz in order to support his family—a selfish but harmless, if somewhat tribal, motivation.
Modern society is marked if not defined by our devotion to technological science. Modernity was explicitly established against traditional ethical theories that prioritized the cultivation of good character and acknowledged the existence of duties that transcend individual will and choice. Its disregard for virtue, hedonistic psychology and related emphasis on subjective rights sets modernity down a potentially disastrous path. I find that the case of Spider-Man turns our attention back toward ideas and practices that predate modernity, in light of which we may better resist its partialities and uphold our apprehensions regarding its presumptions. It is not that modernity is altogether bad and the ancients are altogether good; rather, the ancients understand the upsides and downsides of modernity better than modernity does on its own terms, being too partial toward itself. And what is good about modernity is made better when it is admixed and fortified with elements of premodernity.
Aspects of Spider-Man's character remind me of Socrates. His spider-sense, alerting him to approaching danger, bears some resemblance to the daimon that warned Socrates against making bad decisions. Socrates' proposal in The Republic that justice never involves harming anyone is reflected in the way that Spider-Man's webs—his weapon of choice—are primarily defensive and cause no permanent harm. Also from The Republic, Glaucon's hypothetical “man of perfect justice,” described as one who always does the right thing, in terms of complying with conventional morality, even though he always earns a reputation for doing the wrong thing, brings Spider-Man to mind. Nobody who would wield great power nobly, intending to work on behalf of justice, can avoid earning a bad reputation among many. Spider-Man gets accused of being an accomplice in any bank robbery he thwarts. The headlines of the Bugle regularly prompt readers to ask themselves whether he is a “Threat or Menace?” Nevertheless, Peter chooses to keep up the good fight. The language of choice, however, falls short here, as Peter regards what he does not so much as a matter of choice but as a responsibility, a duty he must meet irrespective of his preferences and desires. This way of understanding him accords with the classical notion of virtue as demanded of us by our very nature. It is not something that anyone can indifferently opt in or out of.
Given that Spider-Man's ethical ideal is to be an upright, stalwart, long-suffering man who faces everyday travails with dignity and integrity, one cannot help but wonder if the pre-modern roots of his character are not better located in Jerusalem rather than Athens. Uncle Ben's ethic of responsibility certainly calls to mind Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Spider-Man's origin story brings to mind a passage from the Gospel just a few verses before that one: “And this know, that if the good man of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through” (Luke 12:39). There's something Christian sounding about Spider-Man's “friendly neighbourhood” sobriquet. He comes to the rescue of any and all people indiscriminately, implying that he treats every person in the world as his neighbour. He will even rescue his enemies from mortal danger.
The fundamentals of Christian ethics are, of course, prefigured in the Old Testament, such as in the rules found in Leviticus 19 about justice, alongside commandments against mistreating foreigners and strangers. Roughly speaking, I think that one way of paraphrasing Uncle Ben's famous dictum is to render it simply as: “Be a mensch.” While Spider-Man's savvy creator, Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber), would have understood that an explicitly Jewish superhero in 1962 probably would have gone over like veal parmesan at Passover Seder, the idea that he might have imbued his most famous character with some recognizable Jewish qualities is hardly implausible. You might call them stereotypes, and comic books still shamelessly trade in those to this day, but I don't think I need to apply Gematria to his name to ascertain that Peter Parker's even more secret identity is that he is Jewish. Sometimes, however, comic book characters' “real” names contain cute, coincidental connections to their alter egos. Would it stall the advance of Christianity to put Peter in park? Before continuing in this vein, I feel obliged to admit that in an era of postmodern identity politics, I cannot help being wary as a gentile discussing Judaism. I'm only a goy and not very knowledgeable about such things. I can only avow that I take my bearings regarding Jewish identity primarily from Jewish teachers, thinkers and poets in the broadest sense. I rely also on Judaism's tradition of amicable debate regarding matters of interpretation, a leading reason why Jews are such good liberals.
Naturally, there are Jewish superheroes in the Marvel Universe. One of Stan Lee's most popular creations, Benjamin J. Grimm, a.k.a. Thing, introduced in November 1961, is now known to be Jewish. Co-creator Jack Kirby acknowledged that he thought of that character as Jewish from the beginning—he is plainly a golem, after all, an earthen monster tasked with protecting Marvel's “first family”—but it wasn't until Fantastic Four vol. 3 #56 (August 2002) that his religious upbringing was explicitly disclosed. The first explicitly Jewish major Marvel superhero was Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, a sheyne meydel whose mutant power is intangibility—that is, to be inviolate. Pvt. Izzy Cohen of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandos was conceived earlier and deserves a nod of recognition, but he was one of an ensemble of ordinary—okay, extraordinary—soldiers, not an iconic or feature character with superhuman abilities.
Peter Parker grows up in Forest Hills, a neighbourhood in Queens known for its historically Jewish population. In Amazing Spider-Man #240 (May 1983), an exaggeratedly long-nosed tenant from his apartment building refers to Peter as “a real mensch… if you know what I mean.” “Nebbish” is plainly the right adjective for describing the panty-waist bookworm that Peter was before he gained his superpowers. What with all her histrionics, hypochondria, doting and fretting, Aunt May is not far off the caricature of a Jewish Mother. Of course, Peter has to keep his costumed identity a secret from her—can you imagine the kvetching he'd endure? “What, we raised you to be a superhero? You couldn't be a lawyer like that nice Murdoch boy? You're jumping off buildings, crawling on ceilings, what kind of meshuggah life is that? So enough already with the mask and the webs. If your uncle could see you dressed like that he'd plotz.”(Aside: it is regrettable how the Jewish mother has been maligned simply for being so motherly. Her main failing is in supposing an easy coincidence between her child's becoming affluent and eminent and his being safeguarded against all danger. I would note that in conceiving of modern political science, Thomas Hobbes sought the same conjunction of prosperity and security.)
Writer Brian Michael Bendis has stated in interviews that in updating Aunt May for contemporary storytelling purposes, he modelled her after his ima. His version of Peter regularly utters commonplace yiddishisms and oys of exasperation also. When the widowed Aunt May's new fiancé, Nathan Lubensky, and Peter first spend time together, they head out to enjoy the best brisket in town (Spectacular Spider-Man #50, January 1981). One might make an issue of the fact that Peter's mother's name is Mary to counter the proposition that Parker is only exoterically gentile, but I seem to recall that the most celebrated Mary of all was Jewish. So, too, was the most distinguished of Peters. Finally, if I am right that Peter Parker is esoterically Jewish, then it explains why the animal parody, Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, is supposed to be funny.
In a somewhat more political direction, I would hazard the conjecture that the difficulty Spider-Man faces in winning over the public, in overcoming people's instinctive aversion to spiders while still dressing and acting in ways that advertise his peculiar differences, bears some resemblance to the struggle of Jewish immigrants to overcome historical prejudices and be accepted as part of North American society without relinquishing their distinctiveness. Consider further Peter's best friend, Harry Osborn. Some readers have suggested that Harry's cornrows, like his father's, are highly suggestive, as if readers are supposed to read his race between the lines. On that assumption, it is a barely concealed civilrights era victory, a hopeful anticipation of a society where racial differences are socially irrelevant, to have Peter and Harry room together and go out on the town with a blonde, blue-eyed shiksa and a pale-skinned, green-eyed redhead. Others have opined that the Osborns have wavy curls of a sort not uncommon among Jews, but I dislike that theory since it makes Norman out to be an evil Jewish industrialist.
There is also something about Parker luck—whereby things always seem to go from bad to worse for Peter; and even when he wins, he loses—that is reminiscent of the history and situation of the State of Israel. And Lord knows how many motions in the United Nations stir up debate over whether Israel should be classified as threat or menace. To be sure, Spider-Man is lucky that his New York is not as corrupt as Gotham. Batman's narrative depends on our accepting Gotham as an unvarnished representation of the actual human condition. Spider-Man's stories depend on imagining that even New York is not quite so bad. I like to think that Peter would not become like Bruce if he resided in Gotham, but I also wonder how long he would survive or how long he would wait to flee. It is like asking what turns the descendants of Fiddler's dramatis personae into soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces and agents of the Mossad. I hesitate to mention the toothbrush moustache on J. Jonah Jameson, Spider-Man's principal persecutor.
Peter Parker is not only haunted by the memory and beholden to the counsel of his Uncle Benjamin, who in his imagination becomes a sort of ancestral super-mensch, he is consumed by unrelenting guilt for falling short and letting his uncle down when it mattered most. He transgressed against a transcendent rule of righteous behaviour, and no number of good deeds will ever fully atone for it. In both Sam Raimi's trilogy and the rebooted film franchise, Peter's moral failure is magnified by his behaving disrespectfully toward (that is, not duly honouring) his adoptive father shortly before he loses him. Bruce Wayne is right to feel grief that his parents were shot in an alleyway as they left the theatre, but he would be wrong to feel guilt. Unlike Peter's refusal to apprehend the burglar who would later kill Uncle Ben, Bruce did nothing that can be rightly regarded as blameworthy leading to the death of his parents. When Jason Todd, the second Robin, died, it finally gave Bruce something to feel guilty about instead of just being angry, ennobling his raison d'être. Whereas Batman fumes at the world and its wrongdoers, Spider-Man is burdened with unremitting disappointment in himself. He does what he does in response to feelings of guilt and shame and to avoid feeling even more regret, forgoing the satisfaction of his ordinary desires to succeed in grad school or be with his girl, for instance.