Like heroes of past eras, today's superheroes are never created ex nihilo. Our culture empowers them with their superpowers at the same time it instills them with our values and ideals. But unlike Achilleus, Arthur, or Kal-El of bygone days, today's heroes weren't born demigods. They aren't of noble blood nor gods sent from far-off worlds. Today's superhero is not blue-blooded. He is the everyman.
Peter Parker has always epitomized this Silver Age archetype. He is the quintessential outsider. Not born to be a hero, the role was thrust upon him and was a mantle he reluctantly chose to pick up. He was not the perfect, bulletproof Man of Steel from Krypton. He was a flawed, quirky, nerdy kid from Queens that didn't fit in and, through a stroke of fate, was gifted with incredible abilities. But it was never his web-swinging that allowed him to connect with readers. While Spider-Man's powers awed us, it was Parker's flaws that allowed many young men over the past five decades to see themselves in him.
It's the reason that Parker's story--his rise from nerdy, uncool outcast to stellar superhero--has been told and re-told again and again (and why it's being re-told again, only a decade removed from the last silver screen iteration of his origins). But the latest incarnation of Peter Parker, portrayed by Andrew Garfield in Mark Webb's superb reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, doesn't match up with his uncool predecessors.
Today's Peter Parker wears Nikes.
Even before receiving the familiar bite, Garfield's Parker is unfamiliarly cool. He rocks Nike Dunks, skateboards everywhere, snaps artistic photos (albeit on a film, not digital camera) and listens to what I can only assume is amazing music on his noise-cancelling headphones (Reasonable Doubt? Food & Liquor? What's the over-under on the amount of times he bumped the fourteenth track off Stankonia?).
Perhaps that's the most remarkable aspect of this latest offering of the Spider-Man mythos. Not the stunning visuals, the gritty color scheme or the touching chemistry between Garfield's Parker and Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy. The most remarkable aspect of Webb's tale is the recognition and adaptation of the narrative to fit our own cultural shift.
Nerd has gone mainstream. What was uncool or socially frowned upon for prior generations is now cool. Nerds, whether it be Kanye or Zuckerberg or Obama, now rule the world. Far from being mocked, nerdiness is celebrated. In this light, the new Nike-adorned Parker is not an outcast by default. He's an outcast by choice.
Pre-bite Parker seems relatively comfortable in his uncoolness. He isolates himself from the world by hiding behind his hoodie, simultaneously muting the criticism and a love of others with his noise-cancelling headphones. He even goes out of his way to be the only Bing-user on earth (the product placement cuts both ways).
While he possesses all the tools to click with the in-crowd, he chooses this outsider status and, despite the new kicks, it is this that allows us to recognize Parker across generations. His flaws, the shy stumbling over his own words, the loss of his parents that subconsciously (and occasionally consciously) weighs him down are the imperfect aspects that make him human at the same time that they make him more heroic.
The fact that a hero is flawed lends to the possibility that he may well fail. But it is the failures, his shortcomings, that make his moments of triumph all the more amazing (pardon the pun). And while there is never a real sense that our hero will fail on a large-scale in AM1 (that will have to wit until the tragic fate of Gwen in the sequel), these flaws allow us to see ourselves reflected in him. We see the best of ourselves in Peter. His goodness, his values, his ability--they all reflect the epitome of our aspirations.
But his flaws make him real. They allow us to fully see ourselves in him. Parker in this iteration and across generations has always come full circle, a vessel for our ideals and shortcomings alike.
This reflects a greater shift in our culture's values than its nerdification. Today's heroes are not demigods or saviors sent from the heavens. They aren't kings or philanthropic billionaires with too much time on their hands. In today's democratic society, the layman is hero. Today's hero can be a teenager. They can be anyone. Today's hero can wear Nike Dunks.
Peace, Love, & Spider-Man,