Of Spiders and Clones:
Instruction hyphen Delight

Dan Friedman

[Note: This essay contains spoilers for both Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II]

Who knew that the early summer blockbusters would be such political movies? Yes, Star Wars lent its name to one of the more ill-conceived projects of the Reagan-Bush era, but that hardly turns George Lucas into Ayn Rand. Likewise, despite Steve Ditko's objectivist credentials, Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Xena) isn't the first name one thinks of when looking for political insight. It is a measure of the politicization of the U.S. in the wake of the September 11th events that both Spider-Man and Star Wars are unavoidably and intentionally political.

Spider-Man first. Surely it is no coincidence that the Green Goblin is a mechanically- propelled offshoot of the military-industrial complex whereas Spider-Man is a "natural" accident of university-driven research. Although disinterested university research is largely a myth (and the genetic research lab housed in Columbia's Low Library is so slick as to foreground its commercial applications), Raimi follows the original vision of Lee and Ditko that plants Peter Parker squarely into the hope that progressive research can be realized. From the additional scene on the Queensboro bridge where the New Yorkers band together and take on the Green Goblin (who is terrorizing innocents) to the final shot of Spider-Man crouching next to the Stars and Stripes, there is an unmistakably political, quintessentially War-on-Terrorism insistence that "with great power comes great responsibility."

Star Wars also makes certain political reproaches. Attack of the Clones is essentially about how the citizens of the wealthy republic are about to suffer from the successful political machinations of their evil leader. George W. Bush is no Palpatine (more like a Jar Jar Binks) but he too is presiding over an unprecedented peacetime re-militarization that mainly serves himself and his coterie of massively wealthy Sith neo-conservatives. Although there are military clashes in Episode II, they are largely unimportant-you know the battle has really been lost when you are cheering on stormtroopers in the caves of Geonosis/Bora Bora. The good guys (the Jedi) have been out-politicked, and indeed coopted ("Around the perimeter a circle make," Yoda commands the clones) by the bad guys and their military-industrial complex.

But the real political messages of both films lies not in their more apparent political overtones but rather in their deeper, personal narratives. Essentially, both films are coming-of-age films that, using adolescent boys as models, work through the issues of a newly potent superpower coming to terms with its own force in the world. What guides to use? What decisions to make? Whose advice to heed?

The father-struggle Oedipal struggle inherent in these coming-of-age dramas is resolved in very different ways in the two films. Peter Parker heeds his surrogate father, Uncle Ben, a working man of integrity, and, after a brief flirtation with irresponsible egotism (in a wrestling ring), he learns responsibility when his self-interest causes Uncle Ben to die a needless death. Anakin, on the other hand, chafes at the self-righteous guidance of his master Obi-Wan Kenobe, and we know he will ultimately seek his father figure in the Evil Lord of Darkness. Whereas Peter realizes his complicity in Uncle Ben's death and moves him to shoulder his responsibilities, Anakin flips out at his mother's death murdering a whole tribe in a fit of self-indulgent violence (which he later regrets). Peter is brought up in a working class suburb of New York, poor but honest; Anakin is a favoured courtier at the hub of the galaxy, and is intoxicated by his own power.

Anakin's coming of age takes longer than Peter's, and is more interesting as a result. Eventually, we know that at the end of Episode VI, Anakin restores balance to the Force: his gesture of filial love, not to a father but to his son, brings down the selfish, angry Emperor. In Lucas' simplistic universe, morality must be served in the family. Star Wars is a galactic family romance in which the prodigal son returns to the side of light after doing himself and the galaxy untold harm. Darth Vader is just misunderstood, he just wants to fix things (and, like Harry Potter's Voldemort, defeat death through magic/technology), and once he realizes that the Emperor doesn't want that (and will betray Vader) he will fall, finally and tragically, on the side of good.

Yet unlike Anakin who thinks he is choosing love over fate, Peter knows he is caught between the needs of a man and the responsibilities of a superhero. He chooses to renounce Mary Jane Watson in favour of a life spent getting no credit for his good deeds. Perhaps his forbearance would have been tried more by Senator Amidala than MJ the waitress, but let us credit the morality of the decision rather than the lack of temptation. It is an important decision because it acknowledges a limit to the satisfaction of desire and the ultimate impossibility of a reconciliation of the two parts of his life.

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June 2002

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