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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Spider-Man

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Superheroes just want to settle down and get married.

Or at least they used to. Spring-Heeled Jack, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Zorro, Blackshirt, most of the pre-Depression pulp crowd eventually hung up their masks and retired into the domestic oblivion of happily everafter.

Or tried to. Until their readers and publishers and writers demanded sequels. But once you’ve closed the marriage plot, it’s hard to pry it back open. Fortunately the early pulp writers invented a utility belt’s worth of solutions, all still in use:

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1) Poker Night.

Yes, darling, we’re married now, but I still have my manly pastimes.

Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel kept it up for decades. Ditto for Graham Montague Jeffries’ Blackshirt. Just one problem though. No more titillating romantic subplot. The hero is domesticated, all that manly excess bunched neatly into his briefs. For Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s Night Wind, that meant promising his new bride to stop breaking the arms of police officers who foolishly got in his way. By the second sequel, the speedster superman was barely using any of his mutant powers, and his series quietly petered away.

Domestication has proved equally disastrous for modern heroes. The mid-90’s Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman enjoyed stellar ratings, right up to the wedding episode, after which viewership nosedived and the show was cancelled. Marriage is kryptonite. Even Orczy and Jeffries had to switch to other family members (sons and ancestors) to keep their plots going.

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2) Dial M.

Wife holding you down? No problem. Just kill her.

Thanks so much, Louis Joseph Vance, for introducing this heartless trope in the first of your seven Lone Wolf sequels.  Though his 1914 gentleman thief had happily settled down with the law enforcement agent who lovingly reformed him, Vance dispatches her between books, mentioning her death in passing chapter one dialogue. When Hollywood adapted Robert Ludlum’s first Bourne Identity sequel, they made sure we got to witness the girlfriend’s death (Ludlum, in chivalrous contrast, only sent her off to stay with relatives.)

It’s a grim choice, but one that acknowledges narrative logic. For the superhero to marry, he usually unmasks and retires, and so ending the retirement also ends the marriage. Happily everafter is also a hard place to scrape up plot conflict. In 1973, when Marvel could no longer write around Spider-Man’s eight years of romantic contentment, they shoved his girlfriend off a bridge. Gwen Stacy (and the Silver Age of comics) died with a SNAP! of her too happy neck. Gwen’s 2014 death had a similar effect on the Spider-Man film franchise.

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3) Groundhog Day.

Marriage? What marriage?

Johnston McCulley is responsible for the first superhero reboot. When Douglass Fairbanks donned Zorro’s mask and turned an obscure vigilante hero into an international icon, McCulley simply ignored the ending of his own novel  when he wrote his first sequel. Zorro did not unmask, he did not retire, and he certainly didn’t run off and get married.

This solution remains annoyingly common. After two decades of marital bliss between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Marvel signed a deal with the devil (Mephisto in the comic) and rebooted an unmarried Spider-Man in 2008. Like Zorro, Peter had also unmasked publicly, an event erased from the minds of all onlookers (but not, alas, all readers). Lois and Clark, who were married (like their short-lived TV counterparts) in 1996, suffered the same fate when DC rebooted their entire, romantically-challenged universe in 2011. In fact, the very idea of the reboot came from the editorial staff’s frustration with the Lane-Kent status quo and how its innate dullness prevented them from cooking up a new Superman love triangle.

However you handle it, marriage is hell on a writer. But the last solution is my favorite:

4) Perpetual Foreplay.

Frank Packard ended his first Gray Seal book with an implied bang. His proto-Batman waltzes off-stage with his superheroine girlfriend, unmasked nuptials to follow. But when bad guys and good sales returned the hero to active duty in 1919, the door to their bedroom bliss slammed shut. Since the Gray Seal’s do-gooding adventures were motivated not by revenge or altruism but superheroic lust for his bride-to-be, Packard needed to stretch out their romance plot. His four sequels offer increasingly frustrating reasons for why the lovers must remain divided.

Awkward as it sounds, Packard’s approach became the strategy of choice among 1930s pulp writers facing the titillating prospect of unlimited sequels.

Starting in 1933, The Spider magazine published a novella every month for a decade. Wealthy socialite Richard Wentworth fights crime as a costumed vigilante while also courting (and putting off) fiancé Nita Van Sloan. Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) tells us Wentworth must “sacrifice his hopes of personal happiness” because “the Spider could never marry,” could never “take on the responsibilities of wife and children” while continuing his crime-fighting mission.” Fortunately, Nita, like the Gray Seal’s would-be wife, is endlessly patient.

When William Gibson and Edward Hale Bierstadt adapted Gibson’s The Shadow for radio, they decided the lonely-hearted hero could use a fiancé too. The 1937 premier introduces Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane sipping coffee in his private library, as she begs him to end his career as the Shadow. He’d promised her as much five years ago when their courtship began, but Lamont, like Richard, feels “there is still so much to do” before he can settle down and unmask. “No, Margo,” he explains, “no one must know, no one but you.” And Margo, the ever dutiful (though ever jilted) help-mate, agrees.

But these women aren’t dupes either. They keep their own keys to the batcave. Nita is the Spider’s “best alley in the battle against crime,” “the one woman in the world who knew his secrets.” And Lamont calls the good accomplished by the Shadow “our activities.” Without Margo’s leg work, half of Gibson’s radio plots would stall.

But what other shared “activities” are these couple up to?

Page seems straight-forward enough: “Greatly they loved.” Nita and Richard (would you believe she calls him “Dick”?) share “pleasurable moments together,” though of course “all too brief.” How pleasurable? Page never penned a sex scene, but it’s clear Nina has access to Richard’s bedroom when she leaves him notes while he’s sleeping off a night of adventuring. As far as the Shadow, Alan Moore says it best in Watchmen: “I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it wasn’t near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.”

Since unmasking is the climax of the superhero romance plot, these lovers know each other in every sense. The marriage plots never technically closes, but pulp readers knew what was happening between the covers.

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I had considered Senator Cruz my least-likely-to-vote-for Presidential candidate ever, until Donald Trump robbed him of the title. Worse, I recently learned from his New York Times Magazine interview that the Tea Party favorite and I share at least one interest/obsession: superheroes. Not only did the former “unpopular nerd” describe himself as “a Spider-Man guy,” but he named his company Cruz Enterprises after Iron Man’s Stark Enterprises—a quirkiness that hovers in the sweet spot between adorable and psychotic.

Cruz might be horrified to learn that his arch-nemesis Barack Obama (Cruz likened him to Darth Vader in one of his filibustering rants) is a Spider-Man guy too. When Entertainment Weekly asked the then Presidential candidate to name his favorite superhero in 2008, the Illinois Senator chose both Spider-Man and Batman.  Why? Because, Obama said, “they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit.”

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President Obama has spent his two terms getting knocked around by Republican-controlled congresses, but, like his comic book role models, he’s won many a battle “against insurmountable odds.” That’s how John McCain described Batman, the superhero the former Republican candidate championed when asked the same question.

The standard answer is Superman. When Darren Garnick and his nine-year-old son, Ari, asked the 2012 Republican primary candidates, “If you could be any superhero in the world, who would you be and why?” Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain all went with the Man of Steel (check-out the six-minute documentary Republicans in Tights for the delightful details). Rick Santorum shook things up with Mr. Incredible, the super-dad from The Incredibles (which, unlike Mr. Santorum, is finally getting a sequel). Only Ron Paul, the only candidate older than comic books, snubbed the nine-year-old interviewer.

McCain was born in 1936, same year as Detective Comics, but most candidates (including Hillary Clinton, who has yet to be asked her superheroic preference) were born in the Golden Age of the 40s.  Obama was the lone wolf, born in 1961, the year the Fantastic Four launched themselves to the moon and Marvel Comics into pop supremacy. But now Ted Cruz has him beat. Not that his birth year, 1970, is an auspicious one for superheroes. The comic book industry was in decline, and Vietnam-influenced antiheroes were flooding the market along with a new breed of horror titles.

Cruz’s birth also marks the first year without Star Trek. A fact that doesn’t stop him from preferring Captain Kirk over The Next Generation’s Captain Picard. Why? Because, he told The New York Times, Kirk is “working class,” and Picard an “aristocrat.” That actually makes Cruz a fan of President Obama’s superhero team. Obama’s other reason for endorsing the “Spider Man/Batman model” (his term) was his dislike for Superman’s lazy privilege: “The guys who have too many powers — like Superman — that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy.”

It also turns out that Obama wouldn’t vote for either Kirk or Picard. He’s a Spock guy. When he met Leonard Nimoy during a 2007 campaign event, he greeted him with the Vulcan salute. When the actor died earlier this year, the President eulogized him:

“Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.

“I loved Spock.”

Cruz isn’t quite so generous about the arts and humanities, but he does like NASA. When he became chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Competitiveness, he announced his desire to expand the U.S. space program—even though he had to laud Democratic President Kennedy in the process. Ensign Chekhov, however, will not be invited aboard the new Enterprise. According to Cruz, NASA’s partnership with the former Evil Empire, Russia, on the International Space Station could “stunt our capacity to reach new heights and share innovations with free people everywhere.”

That’s not as bold as Newt Gingrich’s pandering promise to place astronauts on Mars by 2020 (he was speaking to laid-off NASA employees at the time), but it’s still unclear how the budget-slashing Cruz would finance his space exploration. Perhaps a joint public-private venture with Stark Enterprises? Or is this a job for Superman? Or super-businessman Lex Luthor? Even most comic book readers forget that Lex won the 2000 Presidential race (a fact since rebooted out of existence several times by DC Comics).

A Cruz-Trump White House isn’t more far-fetched, right?

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“Why is it that so many of our favorite characters from film and television wear masks?” asks the Hal Leonard website. “Jay Bocook examines this disturbing phenomenon in this intense yet entertaining medley.”

Bocook is a staff composer/arranger for the Hal Leonard music company, biggest supplier of sheet music to middle schools in the U.S. Including my son’s, Lylburn Downing Middle School in Lexington, VA. Their spring band concert featured Bocook’s arrangement “Who’s That Masked Man?” The company owns the rights to over 200,000 titles, but he whittled them down to just five mask-themed songs.

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The medley opens with “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” the fourth and last section of Gioachino Rossini’s overture to his 1829 opera William Tell. I know it from the black and white reruns of The Lone Ranger I used to watch on my aunts’ ancient TV set. The 1950s series went off the air a decade before I was born, but the Overture had been the masked ranger’s theme since his 1933 radio debut.  The galloping beat originally belonged to the Swiss folk hero known for shooting an apple off of his son’s head with a crossbow—an evil Austrian overlord’s way of punishing Tell for not bowing to his authority. Tell eventually assassinates the overlord, sparking the Swiss rebellion.

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Bocook uses the Overture for a ten-second intro, no saxophones, so my son doesn’t come in till the key-changing transition to Spider-Man. The 1967 cartoon started Saturday mornings on ABC the year after I was born. Disney now owns both Marvel and ABC, but the company that originally produced the show went bankrupt after two seasons. The cost-cutting third season is notorious for its recycled bits.  The theme song is better—or at least better known—than the cartoon, though my son found the sax line repetitious. Composer Robert Harris also scored Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation Lolita—a very different kind of “disturbing”—but lyricist Paul Francis Webster started writing hits in the early 30s, including for Shirley Temple and Duke Ellington. I would love to hear either sing, “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” but it’s always Homer Simpson’s “Spider-Pig” version playing in my head.

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A very different kind of webber wrote the 1986 The Phantom Of The Opera. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is the longest running on Broadway—over 10,000 performances and counting—but I think Bocook cheated with this one. Yes, the deformed Lon Chaney character wears a mask, but not the heroic kind of Spider-Man and the Lone Ranger. 1925 audiences reportedly shrieked in horror when the Phantom’s damsel-in-distress unmasked him: “Feast your eyes—glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!”But in Bocook and Webber’s defense, my son likes the sax parts.

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Instead of operas and pretend operas, Michael Giacchino is better known for his Pixar films (RatatouilleUpCars 2), J. J. Abrahams TV shows (Alias, Lost, Fringe), and first-person shooter video games (Call of Duty, Medal of Honor). When he scored the 2004 The Incredibles, he was channeling the 1960s. “The Glory Days” theme is an amalgam of retro spy beats. My son is fourteen, so the 30s and 60s and 90s are all the same to him—but he did recognize the James Bond knock-off chords. Director-writer Brad Bird confirmed last month that he’s finally getting around to making the much deserved sequel too.  The Incredibles was my son’s first drive-in movie. He thought it was pretty cool that we could just park the mini-van somewhere and a movie would start playing. He was four.

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His favorite of Bocook’s selections is “Zorro’s Theme” from the 1998 The Mask of Zorro staring Antonio Banderas. James Horner also scored The Rocketeer and The Amazing Spider-Man, but I appreciate how the faux-Mexican melody gestures back to the 19th century, mirroring the medley’s authentically 19th century opening the way “Glory Days” mirrors the authentically 1960s Spider-Man. Zorro is even a revolutionary like the legendary William Tell. He also has the best rhythm for sax.

I don’t have a recording of the LDMS 8th grade band, but here’s another middle school performing the same “Who’s That Masked Man” medley. I admit to wishing the 1966 Batman TV show theme were in there, or John Williams’ 1977 Superman film, or Danny Elfman’s 1989 Batman, or my all-time favorite, the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon theme, “Go Teen Titans!” Our whole family used to watch those reruns. But I doubt Puffy AmiYumi is on Bocook’s list of available Hall Leonard music.

Fortunately, my son is also in Jazz Band, and they closed the concert with “Smoke on the Water.” Which makes up for any other omissions.

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It was fun while it lasted, but let’s face it. The election is over. Why wait till November to vote? In fact, why wait till January for the Inauguration? We could get both out of the way this week.

At least that’s what they’re doing over on Earth-1610. Marvel Comics moved Inauguration Day to Wednesday September 26th.  And who’s that guy in the flag suit with his hand on the Supreme Justice’s Bible?

Write-in candidate Captain America of course.

The Earth-616 version of the character died four years ago, so it’s a hell of a comeback. It also says a lot about Presidential politics.  (Why, for instance, do candidates limit their flag-wearing to lapel pins?)

I’m not sure if Marvel is leaning left or right this election cycle. Their masked Commander-in-Chief has no party affiliation, and his earlier incarnations have bounced all over the political spectrum. In the 50s, he was a right wing Commie-basher. But he thawed into a liberal in the 60s, and even discarded the flag outfit briefly in the 70s.  More recently, he protested against Marvel’s version of the Patriot Act, but then surrendered rather than see his nation further divided. (Not the sort of high minded compromise we see much in our current Tea Party climate.)

Although DC elected Lex Luthor back in 2000, it’s rare for Presidential politics to bleed so deeply into comic book culture. Usually things flow the other direction. Americans love to talk about their politicians in terms of superheroes.

Look at Mitt Romney. Newsweek called him “Plastic Man” for his political shape-shifting (it didn’t help when his own campaign likened him to a human Etch-A-Sketch). The New York Times Magazines went with “all-business man, the world’s most boring superhero.” Rush Limbaugh drew the unfortunate Bain/Bane comparison during the Dark Knight Rises release. And, most recently, James Carville dubbed Romney’s running mate “Wonder Boy,” a thinly masked variation on Batman’s Boy Wonder.

Commentators throw plenty of leotards at Obama too. A New Yorker essay about the President’s family history was titled “An Origin Story,” and a June New York Times op-ed about his then flagging campaign appeared under the headline: “Captain America?”

Obama has provided a few of the superheroic comparisons himself. His ex-girlfriend Genevieve Cook told biographer David Maraniss that his desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.” While first campaigning for the White House in 2008, he joked at an Alfred Smith dinner that right-wing rumors about his birth certificate were true: “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth.” His website even featured a photograph of the Illinois Senator posed in front of a Superman statue.

Mitt Romney is a Superman fan too. When asked last winter which superhero he like to be and why, he went with the Man of Steel. He didn’t say why, and from his expression (and 1947 birthday), Superman may be the only superhero he’s ever heard of.

Obama had a fuller explanation for his other favorites. He told Entertainment Weekly: “I was always into the Spider‑Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers‑‑like Superman‑‑that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy. Whereas Spider‑Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil.  They get knocked around a little bit.”

Obama has been knocked around a bit himself, but like Captain America or any other good superhero, he’s back from the grave. National polls have him moving 4 points ahead of Romney, and his lead in the electoral votes promise a November blow-out.

But if you can’t wait that long, tune your Bat Dials to Brazil. Their October elections promise to usher in a horde of masked do-gooders. Campaign laws there allow candidates to use almost any name on a ballot, so how better to grab attention than throwing on a leotard?

My favorite is Piracicaba city council candidate “Geraldo Wolverine” and his slogan: “Vote for the guy who has claws!” There are five Batmen (Batmans?) running too. But fear not Obama fans, it looks like the President is going to win big down there too. Sixteen candidates are using his name. One copycat (“Obama BH”) explained:

“Barack Obama is more than a politician; he is an icon.”

That doesn’t make the guy a superhero, but it does look it will get him a second term in the Bat Cave.

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Newt Gingrich wants to be Superman.

In fact, most of the Republican Presidential contenders want to be Superman. Mitt Romney. Rick Perry. Even Herman Cain. To his credit, Rick Santorum only wants to be Superman knock-off Mr. Incredible. But since Santorum’s national polls have never left the single digits, kryptonite is the least of his worries.

Darren Garnick and his nine-year-old son, Ari, recently asked each Republican: “If you could be any superhero in the world, who would you be and why?” (If you haven’t seen the six-minute documentary, you should:Republicans in Tights.)

The question mostly reveals the politician’s age. Santorum was born in 1958, but Gingrich, Cain, Romney, and Perry are all late Superhero Golden Agers, born between 1943 and 1950. They admitted to “showing their age,” naming the first (and possibly only) superhero they remembered growing up. Ron Paul, the one candidate to snub the nine-year-old interviewer, was born in 1935, and so also the one candidate to predate the birth of the comic book.

When Obama was asked a similar question (by Entertainment Weekly, not Ari) back on the 2008 campaign trail, he named Batman and Spider-Man because “they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit.” That’s Silver Age talk. Barack was born in 1961, the year the Fantastic Four launched themselves to the moon and Marvel Comics into pop culture. His opponent John McCain said Batman too, but because he pursues justice “against insurmountable odds,” a good ole Golden Age rationale. McCain was born in 1936, the same year as Detective Comics.

Gingrich is the oldest of the Superman pack, born as the Allies began to retake Europe from the Nazis. I’ll admit the idea of a Gingrich White House frightens me more than a Romney White House (The New York Times Magazine recently dubbed Mitt “All-Business Man, the world’s most boring superhero”). A Gingrich White House would be more like Lex Luthor winning the Presidency back in 2000. An event eliminated in the recent DC universe reboot.

I’m sure Newt would like to reboot a few facts in his timeline too. Like that affair he was having while his first wife was dying of cancer. Or that other affair he was having while trying to impeach Bill Clinton for hiding his own extramarital activities. If the guy’s going to wear a letter on his chest, it’s Hester Prynne’s, not Superman’s.

But Professor Gingrich doesn’t need a comic book to rewrite history for him. Superman spun the earth backwards on its axis to reset time. Newt does it with a pen. He’s published two alternate universe novels. One reboots the Civil War so the South wins at Gettysburg (thanks, we needed that). The second prevents the U.S. from entering World War II so that Germany can conquer Russia and face the U.S. in a new cold war.

And where would Newt be without a cold war? If elected, he plans a return to a comic book universe of pure good vs. evil. Instead of battling the nefarious Soviet Union, he’s casting the entire Muslim world as his new arch nemesis. Even Israel endorses a two-state peace with Palestine. Not Newt. On Earth Gingrich, Palestinians are a fictional people, no more deserving of self-determination than molemen, doombots or any other subset of evil minions.

President Obama’s other reason for endorsing the “Spider Man/Batman model” (his term) was his dislike for Superman’s lazy privilege: “The guys who have too many powers — like Superman — that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy.”

Isn’t that what Occupy Wall Street’s been shouting all year?

Leave it to the Republican field to emulate the ultimate 1%, Superman, the superhero of all superheroes. George Bernard Shaw (the guy who coined “superman” from Neitzsche’s “ubermensch”) prophesied that “the real Superman will snap his superfingers at all Man’s present trumpery ideals of right, duty, honor, justice, religion, even decency, and accept moral obligations beyond present human endurance.”

In other words, Superman’s sense of right and wrong will have nothing to do with what the rest of us think. Superman is only worried about his fellow Supermen.

Sounds like the Republican party to me.

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The box of 70’s comics in my attic includes a mangled copy of DC and Marvel’s first publishing team-up, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man.  The battle should have lasted one panel. Little Peter Parker might have held his own against the less godlike 1938 Superman, but the 70’s Man of Tomorrow could have squashed Spider-Man like, well, a spider. The fight ends in a draw, but only because Superman pulls his one punch. His fist never makes contact, but the shockwave sends Spider-Man sailing across town.

Julie Taymor suffered the same fate earlier this year.

It requires a lot of ubermensch hubris to transform a comic book into a musical, and Bono, who co-wrote the lyrics for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and ex-director Julie Taymor, who co-wrote the book, share it. I noted last week the eugenic shadow Nietzsche casts over the songbook. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin is a 21st century Frankenstein breeding supermen into evolutionary supremacy. Bono never puts the phrase “God is dead” to melody, but it’s been the favorite refrain of supervillains for a hundred years.

In 1911, an American eugenics organization issued their first “Preliminary Report” for improving the human race. They recommended the prevention of “unfit breeding” through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.”They envisioned a gas chamber in every Smallville, an idea Hitler liked so much he improved on it.

If God is dead, then the Green Goblins of the world are free to take control. Nietzsche thought that would be a good thing, a race of supermen rising to replace obsolete, god-hobbled humanity. Fortunately, Bono and Taymor swing to our rock ‘n roll rescue. Their Spider-Man is no superman. Instead of assuming the throne God left empty, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark restores the old world order.

Real old. The Broadway Spider-Man is an offspring, not of homo superior, but Greek mythology. This Peter Parker sings about Icarus and gives class presentations on the spider goddess Arachne. It wasn’t a random universe that transformed Peter into a web-slinging mutant. It was a divine plan. In the final song, Arachne, “the queen of dreams banished to a shadow prison,” reveals to him that she has been watching and waiting all along. “The fates have delivered you,” she intones. “The gift you’ve been given binds you to me.”

God isn’t dead. She was just sleeping.

Of course when Bono ended their Broadway team-up and punched the amazing Taymor across town, most of Arachne went with her (one reviewer estimates that actress T. V. Carpio’s role was snipped by more than half). Bono and the Edge composed a new song for their Nietzscheian Goblin to fill the god-shaped gap in the show’s running time, but Spider-Man still triumphs and the eugenic future is thwarted once more. Instead of striving for ubermensch excellence, the producers settled for everyman mediocrity.

Alex Pappademas in The New York Times Magazine recently bemoaned the sorry state of the mass market superhero, wishing the genre would be handed over to auteurs, to directors with bold artistic visions. That didn’t go so well for Ang Lee and the Hulk. Tim Burton invented the modern superhero film, but Warner Brothers still punched him across town after one idiosyncratic sequel. Bryan Singer managed to crash the Superman franchise in a single bound. And apparently none of Taymor’s preview audiences could comprehend her superhuman vision either.

The common man doesn’t want the superman. They want Spider-Man.

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My daughter’s Latin teacher told me this joke over a pitcher of beer:

While an angel is giving a tour of heaven, a new arrival sees someone in a leather jacket and shades slouching in a corner and acting cool.

“Oh my God,” he asks, “is that Bono?”

“No,” says the angel, “that’s God. He just THINKS he’s Bono.”

Everybody at the table cracked up. Bono is bigger than God. Even God thinks so. It’s a good joke, even without the beer. But I swear I’d heard it before. Was it Lennon who said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? Or was that the other Lenin? The one who called religion an opium for the masses?  (Or was that Groucho Marx?) Either way, Nietzsche made the joke first. Except his punchline isn’t half as good. “God is dead” never gets a laugh.

The comic book Superman was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s adolescent response to Hitler, but his namesake, “the Superman,” was Frederic Nietzsche’s adolescent response to Darwin. Nietzsche, slouching in a corner of the 19th century with his shades on, saw that the world no longer needed supernatural forces to make sense of itself. And if God’s dead, it’s up to humankind to replace Him. Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton made the same leap. The year Nietzsche introduced his ubermensch, Galton coined the term “eugenics,” the pseudo science of human-controlled evolution. They both envisioned the rise of the planet of the supermen.

And, apparently, so does Bono.

I finally gave in and downloaded the U2 soundtrack to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to listen to on my daily jogs. A lot of rock ballads belted out in well-enunciated Broadway style, no surprises there. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin thankfully muscles in around the halfway mark, usually leading an ensemble of toe-tapping supervillainy. Nietzsche and Galton sing harmony.

It turns out the Goblin’s “life’s work” is “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” directed toward the creation of “new men,” a “new species.” The military wants a “new breed of Marines” (same as Captain America’s old handlers), but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings become the “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

Man wants to evolve himself into God.It’s as if U2 were adapting Also sprach Zarathustra for the stage.

As the fates would have it, another Green Goblin (James Franco played him in the first, soon-to-be-extinct Spider-Man films) assumes the same Frankenstein role in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s the lure of the superman (this time in the form of super-intelligence) that puts his research on the fast track and results in (spoiler alert!) the creation of a new species and the extinction of humankind. What Nietzsche and Galton were singing about over a century ago.  Except without the cool CGI.

Neither of them read Frankenstein very closely. The first superman was bred in Mary Shelley’s writing laboratory, looking not like a stitched-up corpse but a towering Greek god (the original illustrations depicted him in tunic and sandals). Unlike James Franco, Shelly’s mad scientist realizes his mistake in time and prevents his creation from breeding, because “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” Nietzsche and Galton and the Nazi eugenicists who followed them made that terror their goal.

Reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark do not prophesy the rise of a new breed of musical anytime soon.  And while “Rise Above” makes a nice superstar spectacle on American Idol, a superhero is still an odd creature to put to song. But then most musicals are. Shelley’s novel was so big, the Victorians made a musical out of it too. An act of hubris even Bono wouldn’t attempt.

(Next Monday: Spider-Man vs. the Superman, Round 2)

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