The narrative tradition of any culture throughout history tends to produce stories that echo that culture’s values, fears, and aspirations. From the fertile soil of mythical conflict springs forth the archetypal hero. Arguably, there is no narrative tradition more distinctly American than the superhero comic. And the caped protagonists of those pages are the embodiment of virtue, strength, and courage. These heroes give us something to aim for, and we are better off because of the ideals that they espouse.
However, these superhero narratives (and video games by extension) reveal a tension that is distinctly American or perhaps just distinct to the Millennial generation. I think there is a lesson to be learned if we closely examine these texts.
In order to unpack this idea, I have to briefly comment on my own personal experience with the concept of heroism.
When I was young, I was introduced to superheroes through television and video games. I loved Batman, Superman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was completely enamored with episodic storytelling and the eclectic characters that took part in it. It would be an understatement to say that I was fond video games. I drew pictures of my favorite characters and acted out heroic deeds in pretend. The seeds of my young imagination were planted in the aforementioned soil of mythical conflict.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like my purpose—my mission—was to do good and help people. Did the Saturday morning cartoons and Sega Genesis games cultivate this moral imagination… or was I drawn to these stories because they resonated with a sense of justice that had always been inside of me?
Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
One of my favorite childhood cartoons is Spider-Man: The Animated Series, which began airing in 1994 on Fox Kids. It’s rock and roll reinterpretation of the Spider-Man theme song was iconic. It featured a memorable cast of villains (and occasional guest side-kicks). I was particularly captivated by the fact that it dared to tell stories that couldn’t be neatly wrapped up in a single episode. This series defined the Spider-Man character for me, and I still have a nostalgic fondness for it.
In spite of the cartoon’s rough edges, the series does a remarkable job of conveying one of the major challenges of life as a superhero. Though they are one and the same, there is always a tension between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. When he throws himself into his hero persona, it comes at the cost of his relationships. Then when he takes the time to clean up his mess of a personal life, some catastrophe pulls him back into the fight. He can’t ever seem to have both, and this inescapable cycle is a constant in the series. Sure… these weren’t the most nuanced stories ever told, but it was surprisingly mature for a Saturday morning cartoon.
In some ways, this children’s cartoon handled that tension much better than Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Take for instance the “sadistic choice” scene.
In this climactic moment, Green Goblin taunts Spider-Man while dangling both Mary Jane and a trolley car full of children over the side of a bridge. The villain rhapsodizes about how the hero can only save one, consciously allowing the other to die. This scene is the epitome of the conflict between Spider-Man’s “great responsibility” and Peter Parker’s personal relationships. Green Goblin makes the claim that Peter will be defined by this choice.
Much to the chagrin of Green Goblin, Spider-Man is able to save both. It makes sense within the wacky universe that Raimi has crafted, but it undermines this conflict that is central to the character. If you are strong enough, you can save everyone… without consequence. So at the end of the movie when Peter tells Mary Jane that friendship is all that he has to give, it rings hollow. Sixteen-year-old me sits in the theater and whispers, “You can give more! Tell her you love her.” The movie seems to make the claim that he is strong enough to be both Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
In 2018, Insomniac Games released the PS4-exclusive video game, Marvel’s Spider-Man. This is the best Spider-Man game of all time. Period. It tells a good story. It reimagines the world and characters in a fresh way, without rendering them unrecognizable to long-time fans. It’s packed with side-quests and easter eggs. The game is an utter delight to play from beginning to end.
But much like the sadistic choice scene, Marvel’s Spider-Man occasionally undermines this tension that defines the titular character. There were a handful of moments in the game when something would come up that required immediate attention. And rather than addressing an urgent priority, I would spend 10 minutes chasing rogue carrier pigeons through Central Park (or some other less important side quest).
Of course, this is no new phenomenon in video game design. It’s expected that the player have agency and choice, especially in an open-world game. It’s also expected that there will not be any negative consequence for deviating from a game’s critical path; in fact, side quests are often where the best rewards are hidden. (I’m not the only one who took a break from the main quest of Final Fantasy VII while the world was on the brink of destruction… only to spent a dozen hours breeding chocobos and looking for summons.)
My generation has grown up on a steady diet of this sort of heroism, and it has most assuredly played a role in the development of our moral imagination. Many of us have a clear sense that the world isn’t right. Pick your issue: climate change, economic inequality, racial tension, ideological tribalism, violent war, etc. The burden of fixing any single issue is too great for any one person, much less the weight of every injustice that flicks across the news ticker.
What’s not explicit in many of our hero texts—video games, comic books, or film—is that justice demands a payment. That is to say that doing good requires sacrifice. These stories resonate most deeply with us when they depict victory within the limitations of our humanity. We cannot be everywhere at once. We cannot fight every battle and still maintain healthy connections with our family, friends, and communities. Spider-Man can’t accomplish this feat, and he is the best of us. In the wildest fantasies of our moral imagination, we are doing what the superheroes cannot do: we are fighting and winning every battle. This manifests itself in our lives as a desire to do everything and to do it well.
It simply isn’t possible to do this, and we do ourselves a disservice to live as though it is possible.
Last year, I read a book that changed my thinking about how I approach doing good work. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes the claim that we must learn to say “no” good things so that we have room in our lives to say “yes” to the best thing.
The most famous line in all of comic books is Uncle Ben Parker’s “with great power comes great responsibility.” In Peter’s story, this is as much a warning as it a mandate. When he gains super-human power, it comes with a responsibility the supersedes that of a normal human being. There is no super power that can lessen the burden of this responsibility, and the result is a tension between the two.
In deriving meaning from the Spider-Man stories, we must consider the ramifications of our own power. For many of us, this means being intentional with the work that we do. If we have the power to do meaningful work, we also bear the responsibility do it to the best of our ability. And that means graciously pushing aside the good things that we could do in order to find the strength to do the thing we must do.