Op-Ed: With great power comes … guilt!

NEW YORK (JTA) — My “Spidey Sense” is tingling! Almost half a century after the comic book superhero Spider-Man was conceived by Jewish writer Stan Lee, a Jewish actor named Andrew Garfield will don the red and blue Spandex for the forthcoming cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man franchise. 

As the self-proclaimed rabbi of all “Geek-dom,” I can tell you that Garfield’s being Jewish is no small matter in the Spider-Man universe. For years, fans have wondered if Peter Parker/Spider-Man was crypto-Jewish, at the very least. Let’s look at the evidence: Living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Queens, N.Y.? Check. Middle name Benjamin? Check. A student at Columbia (30 percent Jewish)? Check. 

Being motivated almost entirely by guilt? Double check.

In August 1962, Stan Lee was basking in the success of the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. He decided to create a new kind of superhero: an angst-ridden teenager who finds himself suddenly blessed — and cursed — with superpowers. He’s drawn as a nebbish — a dark-haired, spectacled, neurotic worrier. 

When Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider while visiting a science museum, he acquires an array of superhuman, spider-like powers: speed, strength and agility; a tingling "spider sense" that warns him of impending danger; the capacity to recover quickly from injuries and poisons; and the ability to scramble up walls and shoot (and swing from) super-strong webs. Originally nearsighted, Parker post-spider bite has perfect vision.

Amazingly, Garfield seems to have been bitten by the guilty bug. The actor noted in an interview, “I have a really big guilt complex in that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being.”  

From Spider-Man’s debut in “Amazing Fantasy #15,” readers learn about the intense guilt that Peter experiences as a result of his powers. At first, Spider-Man uses his powers for his own gain rather than stopping a common thug. Tragically, that thug ends up killing Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, who had once taught his nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  

Sam Raimi, the director of the previous (and hugely successful) Spider-Man movies, understands that this quirk in Parker’s character is the key to the saga’s power: 

“Spider-Man is a character that spends his life trying to pay down his guilt. The only difference is that it’s caused by his uncle, not his mother," Raimi said. "That’s a real classically Jewish quality — to be very aware of your sins in this life and try and make amends for them in this life.”

Spider-Man, unlike other superheroes, is more of a Woody Allen nebbish than an all-powerful strongman, and he suffers from stereotypical Jewish neuroses. In his Clark Kent guise, Superman only pretended to be a nerd. Peter Parker really was one. If early sneak peeks at the new movie, which opens nationwide July 3, are any indication, it looks like Garfield has tapped into his inner nebbish with gusto.

Perhaps the enduring quality of Spider-Man is that we are all in some way like him, continuously “guilting” ourselves because we suspect we’re squandering the gifts we’ve been given.

Personally, I have always been drawn to this challenge. When I was growing up in the north of England, my Hebrew school rabbi admonished me to be “a light onto the nations,” then on the way home from the synagogue I’d get a “wedgie” from the kids from St. Monica’s high school. Often I would quietly invoke the words of Tevye the milkman: “Once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”

But you know what they say: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It may be kitschy and corny, but nearly 50 years later it’s still relevant, too.

(Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is an author who recently was voted “New York’s Hippest Rabbi” by PBS-Channel 13. His best-selling book on superheroes, titled “Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped The Comic Book Superhero,” was recently reissued.) 

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