Couch Pumpkin: Sofa Adventures
News and reviews for the big and small screens…where potatoes fear to tread.

Gods and Monsters ~ The Amazing Spider Man (+Greek mythology)

So, I have some things to say about Spiderman.

Which came as something of a surprise. Because I don’t really like superheroes that much, barring some nostalgic attachment as a result of a childhood spent in front of the TV (X-Men, Hulk, New Adventures of Superman…followed by Live and Kicking, of course).

Not only that, but my initial reaction to the news of a Spidey reboot was a groan. Seriously, Hollywood? You are so desperate for cash you are willing to rake over movies that aren’t even a decade old?

Then I fell for a certain goofy, gangly, luscious-eyebrowed actor, as did my dear friend Jodie, who invited me to go with her to see the glory that is Andrew Garfield, fully spandexed, in IMAX 3D. Well, I couldn’t let her go alone now, could I?

Anyway, I promise this won’t be a whole essay gushing over AGar (making chapped lips sexy since 1983) or indeed Emma Stone (boy crush + girl crush = CRUSH OVERLOAD).

What I wanted to talk about was how superhero stories get retold. A lot. This doesn’t just happen in the movies, but also in tv shows, video games and the original comics. They are reinvented for every age. Just look at Batman – from 60s camp to suitably modern ‘Dark Knight’. And, as I realised while watching Spidey’s origins AGAIN in TASM, there’s nothing wrong with that – if it’s done in an interesting way. Because there’s a precedent – and it goes way back.

I don’t think I’m the first person to see superheroes as a modern mythology, but it’s a parallel that works quite nicely. Let’s think about an ancient myth – how about the Trojan War? Plenty of ‘superheroes’ in the Homeric Epic Cycle (although only vestiges survive into the Iliad proper), showing off some superhuman strength and senses. Even Achilles himself could be seen as something of a superhero. So clearly we have always enjoyed stories about people who can do extraordinary things. And we like learning the catalogue of their deeds and enemies, just as superhero fans can reel off a list of the hero’s most common foes.

In each retelling of a myth, over time, things get changed and added to shape it to the author’s vision. Euripides (my favourite tragedian) did this all the time – Medea probably didn’t kill her kids in the previous versions of her story, although in his play it is the central event. So, in many ways, the ‘reboot’ of Spiderman follows a familiar pattern.

Perhaps there is also a link to be made between the prevalence of animal imagery in the superhero genre, and that seen in ancient mythology. In TASM, Peter takes on the qualities of a spider (obviously) to defeat an enemy who has taken the form of a lizard. This idea of changing into an animal is frequently seen in Greek/Roman mythology (as catalogued by Ovid). Both Spiderman and The Lizard’s stories combine a classic tale of metamorphosis with a very modern fear of genetic mutation that finds its roots in the literature of the early scientific period (vis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).The superhero, unlike his enemy, finds strength in his metamorphosis, which gives hope to the audience.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that the gods themselves displayed the qualities of animals. Although not as overt as, say, the Egyptian gods (who had actual animal heads), one of Hera’s epithets was ‘cow-eyed’, and Athena is sometimes called ‘owl-eyed’. There is something fundamental to the exploration of the human-animal hybrid – something which draws on an old fascination.

So, although I’m never going to be a card-carrying member of the comic book fandom, I can really see why people are drawn to them. They fulfil a need in our society to tell stories about people who do extraordinary things, and to explore our fear and fascination of the animal world. Most importantly, these stories are going to be retold time and time again – because that’s the way these shared mythologies work.

And TASM is a fun popcorn movie, so you should go and see it.

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