Saturday, January 22, 2022

Why "The Amazing Spider-Man" is the Most Tragic


File:The Amazing Spider-Man theatrical poster.jpeg

Spider-Man has always been a tragic character.  It is one of the reasons that there is a such a devotion to him.  He has constant problems, great and small.  He has trouble with jobs, trouble with girls, trouble with school, trouble with rent.  These are all incredibly relatable.  But he also deals with crushing loss in love and in life.  

But the reason we love Spider-Man so much is that despite the tragedy, he continues to push forward and act as a friend to the neighborhood.

In the movies, we see this in his three live-action incarnations.  But the most tragic of all of them is Peter Parker from The Amazing Spider-Man series.

All of the Spider-Men are born in the crucible of loss.  The original and amazing ones both tragically lose Uncle Ben due to their apathy and inaction.  The MCU Spidey does not mention Ben, so we do not know what role, if any he played in his development as a hero.  

But in that loss, they start on a lonely journey that necessitates taking on a secret identity.  

The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man is burdened by this secret.  He will save people's lives, but then get fired because he cannot tell anyone it was him.  He wants to be with MJ, but he knows it will put her in danger.  In the final scene from the original movie, MJ pours out her heart to him and all he wants to do is give himself over to her.  It reminds me of a scene in the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Harry is under the invisibility cloak on his way to his death.  He sees Ginny and he wants to say goodbye, but he knows that she will talk him out of going.  And he wants her to talk him out of laying down his life, so he restrains himself for the greater good.  In a similar way, Peter sacrifices romantic happiness to keep her safe.

The MCU Spider-Man also tries to keep his identity a secret.  He desperately just wants to have a normal teenage homecoming dance.  But instead, he breaks Liz's heart and allows himself to be perceived as a jerk in order to do what is right.  He fortunately does have support from people who happen to find out who he is like Tony Stark, Ned Leeds, Happy Hogan, and Aunt May.  He does reveal his identity to his MJ, but not for his own happiness, but because he needs her help to save lives.

Back to Maguire's Spidey: Mary Jane does eventually discover his secret, but only through happenstance.  And even after this encounter, he tells her to forget about him and have a normal life.  But, knowing everything that a life with Spider-Man would entail, she chooses to be with him.  True, there are relationship problems that come up in the third movie, but it ends with the idea that she makes a free choice to accept the danger of the relationship.

When the MCU Peter has a chance to reveal himself to the memory-wiped MJ, he chooses not to.  This is a decision like the original Peter from the first movie, where he chooses her safety over his own happiness.

This brings us to The Amazing Spider-Man.

One of the biggest differences with him, and it is an important one, is that he reveals his identity to Gwen Stacey.  She does not discover it on her own or have it revealed for a greater good.  Peter is lonely and he is in love.  And so he reveals his biggest secret to the girl of his dreams so that he can have some level of happiness in his tragic life.

But this invites the worst tragedy.

Briefly, this Peter understands this when he makes a promise to Gwen's father to stay away.  But this Peter is also different in that he is a promise-breaker.  When you make a promise, you bind your character in a way that is uniquely human.  To break a promise is to break yourself.  

All of this may not be excusable, but it sure is understandable.  We all feel isolation and alienation, and Peter especially so.  It makes sense that he would want to cling to someone who could make all of that go away.  

But the great tragedy is that in many ways Gwen's death is his fault.

If she had found out on her own and then made the informed decision to stay with him, it would be less tragic.  It is true that after their break-up at the end of the first movie that she knowingly returns.  But that Peter knowingly pursues her, whereas the Peter from the original movie does not.  The original Peter still makes the sacrifice of love.  It is only after this when MJ returns that the decision is completely in her hands.  Gwen is pursued by her Peter.  If she was not, she would still be alive.

The nagging problem with the MCU Peter is that he makes a unilateral decision to not tell his MJ.  Unlike the original Peter who was holding back his own personal secret, the MCU Peter is withholding MJ's own memories against her original wishes.  It is true that he is choosing this sacrifice for her own good, but removing her agency may be a problem.  Regardless, his motive is still the same as the original Spider-Man: sacrifice my own happiness to keep those I love safe.

The reason why The Amazing Spider-Man is the most tragic is not because worse things happen to him.  He is the most tragic because his bad decisions lead to the tragedy.


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