I recently returned to China after a few weeks back home in the good ole U.S.A. On the plane, I watched The Amazing Spider-Man for the second time. It’s still not as good as the first Spider-Man from 2001, mostly because I really don’t like the reinvention of Peter Parker as a hipster skateboarder, but nonetheless it was enjoyable because, hey, it’s Spider-Man.
I was struck by one of Uncle Ben’s lines in the film. He tells Peter that his father believed that “if you could do good things for other people, you had a moral obligation to do those things! That’s what’s at stake here: not choice, but responsibility.”
I immediately thought of a scene from Total Eclipse, the biopic of Arthur Rimbaud starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Paul Verlaine, upon finding out that Rimbaud no longer writes poetry, says “But you have a gift!” to which Rimbaud coldly replies, “It’s my gift. I can do with it what I please.”
As a child, my hero was Spider-Man. I collected his comic books, watched his cartoons, played with his toys and Colorforms, and even drew my own comic adventures. But then, as an adolescent, I attempted to grow out of it and get better heroes. I started reading the Beats, and from them I got into Rimbaud. (Actually, the first I’d heard of Rimbaud was from the film Eddie and the Cruisers.)
Rimbaud is a prime example of the sort of character that appeals to artsy intellectual adolescents, but whose life example leads absolutely nowhere. He stopped writing poetry either in his late teens or early twenties, after producing some extraordinary work, and then proceeded to traipse all over Europe and Africa in an attempt to get rich or die tryin’. He died tryin’ at age 37, from cancer.
His refusal to use his talent is often lauded as some kind of supreme integrity or gesture of ultimate rebellion. Writers as diverse as Albert Camus and Julius Evola have praised him for it. But I think it’s better to see it as a tragic mistake. While Rimbaud’s way with words and Spider-Man’s way with webs are hardly the same thing, it’s worth considering what Spider-Man would be without his morality, his sense of responsibility that comes with his great power.
Actually, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko dealt with this question in the very first issue, where Spider-Man initially uses his powers only for his own gain, before his Uncle Ben dies as a direct result of his actions, or rather inaction. It wasn’t just the bite from the radioactive spider that created Spider-Man, but this tragedy as well. It’s an integral part of Spider-Man’s origin story, because his morality is an integral part of his identity as Spider-Man. After all, the difference between a superhero and a super-villain is only their morality.
In Buddhism, the path of spiritual development leading to enlightenment is divided into three yanas or vehicles, called hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana. Hinayana means “the lesser vehicle” and denotes Buddhist practice which is undertaken solely for one’s own benefit. One recognizes the truth of Buddha’s statement that every aspect of existence is tinged with dissatisfaction, and so one strives to free oneself from this situation.
Mahayana means “the greater vehicle” and denotes Buddhist practice undertaken for the benefit of all sentient beings. One necessarily begins as a hinayana practitioner, but through practice one realizes that one’s own happiness is inextricably bound to that of others, because the distinction between self and other ultimately does not exist.
The third vehicle is vajrayana, which is the superhero path. This is the part where practitioners develop all kinds of cool siddhis – “magic powers” – like sitting naked in the frozen snow, being able to eat anything, drink copious amounts of liquor without effect, walk through walls, levitate, and fly through the air leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop. Or so the texts say, anyway. But they also say something more important and fundamental, which is that the mahayana is the necessary basis for the vajrayana.
The goal of the mahayana is to become a bodhisattva, someone who works ceaselessly for the benefit of other beings. In order to undertake vajrayana practice (also called tantra although the two terms are not synonymous) one must have the motivation of a mahayana practitioner; that is, to benefit others. Without this purity of heart, acquiring the siddhis of the vajrayana practices with selfish motivation will make one not a buddha but a demon. Or a super-villain.
The question of selfishness vs. altruism (or, if you prefer, loving-kindness) is at the center of the Spider-Man character in more ways than one. The co-creator of Spider-Man and the first artist to draw him was Steve Ditko. I’m not sure whether it was Ditko or Stan Lee who came up with the famous “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but it would only be a few years later when Ditko would stop drawing Spider-Man, leave Marvel altogether, and fully embrace the philosophy of Objectivism developed by Ayn Rand.
Rand is the author of, among other books, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Ditko’s later work often features characters who embody the Objectivist ideal. (The most extreme, and my personal favorite, is Mr. A, who is basically a precursor to Dirty Harry but without the badge.)
Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not supposed to be a justification for villainy (although it did inspire Alan Greenspan) but it nonetheless would be difficult to cast Spider-Man as an Objectivist superhero. The Fountainhead, one of Rand’s two most famous novels, is centered around a philosophical position which is essentially that expressed by Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, and which is diametrically opposed to what Uncle Ben tells Peter: one’s gifts are one’s own, and there are no moral obligations to help others.
While I like The Fountainhead’s emphasis on artistic integrity – it’s actually an anti-materialist book in that it values creativity over money – Rand ultimately ends up championing business moguls and tycoons as the highest form of humanity, as in Atlas Shrugged (an inferior novel and a truly awful set of films.) I can’t help but be reminded of Rimbaud, who forsook poetry and creativity in favor of a cold, objective view of life and a pursuit of material wealth.
The fact is that if Spider-Man held Objectivist beliefs, he’d be a rich and famous wrestler, not a crime-fighter. He would be, like Rimbaud, just another wasted talent.
Postscript: For those who thought there was a misspelling and this post was going to be about Spider-Man vs. Rambo, I sincerely apologize. Actually, I would love to see Sylvester Stallone cast as Kraven the Hunter in the next film.
P.P.S. Why hasn’t anyone else noticed the similarity of this line from Kraven – published in 1964 – and the letter from the Zodiac killer in 1969?
Could it be that Zodiac is … Steve Ditko?