Does Whatever a Teenager Can

The greatest work of American art is, in my opinion, The Amazing Spider-Man.

A comic book originally created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, it chronicles the adventures of Spider-Man, a teenage boy who, having been bitten by a radioactive spider, develops super-powers, including the proportional strength and speed of a spider, the ability to stick to walls, and a sixth sense for danger. He uses these powers to battle evil villains such as Doctor Octopus, a man with 4 robotic arms, and Electro, who can control electricity.

Of course, you already know this. Spider-Man is the perhaps the most famous superhero, and is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.  There have been six major films about Spider-Man and at least as many cartoons over the years.

Most super heroes have a very clear single nemesis. Superman has Lex Luther. Batman has the Joker. The X-Men have Magneto. The Fantastic Four have Dr. Doom. Captain America has the Red Skull. Each of these examples provide not only the means for drama for each hero, but also represent the antithesis of the hero. Batman is the personification of law and order, while the Joker represents chaos. The Fantastic Four are primarily about how science can benefit mankind, while Dr. Doom represents technological progress gone awry and used to repress. The conflict between the X-Men and Magneto is about the how outsiders relate to the community, whether to engage in it or rebel against it.

With Spider-Man, there doesn’t seem to be a single villain the way there is in other comics. You could argue for Dr. Octopus (who was in a very large number of issues, especially towards the beginning of the series), the Green Goblin (the central villain in the most famous story line), or Venom (btw, Venom sucks; the introduction of Venom is pretty much when ASM stopped being good). Other candidates include the Kingpin (a crime lord), and the burglar who originally killed his uncle Ben in Spider-Man’s debut (Amazing Fantasy 14, for those who care).

But none of those feel right. Most are fairly generic, there’s no real reason most of them couldn’t be villains in other comic books. In fact, some of them are, the Kingpin is the central antagonist to Daredevil. The reason that none of the villains feel like the central antagonist is that none of them are the central antagonist. They’re temporary obstacles to overcome; they may provide the drama in any given issue, but they represent nothing in the grand scheme of things. Sure, the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy, perhaps the pivotal moment in all of the comic. But the Goblin’s role was almost irrelevant; the plot didn’t revolve around the Green Goblin killing Gwen Stacy, it revolved around Gwen Stacy dying. There would have been no real change to the Spider-Man character if Mysterio or the Vulture killed her.

So how can I make the bold claim that The Amazing Spider-Man is the best work of American art if there isn’t any real overarching conflict? Simple, Spider-Man did have a nemesis, one better than any other comic book, and infinitely more relatable and relevant to its readers. The real nemesis of Spider-Man is Peter Parker. The central conflict of Spider-Man isn’t between two people with superpowers fighting for good or evil; the superpower conflict is the superficial conflict. The real conflict is between the goals, dreams and ambitions of Peter Parker, a mild-mannered teenager who loves science, photography, and just seems to want a girlfriend, and the responsibilities that Parker has because he’s the only one who can stop whoever the supervillain of the week is.

Peter Parker placed his responsibilities as Spider-Man above his own ambitions; and as is the superhero cliche he felt he could never let anyone know he was Spider-Man, lest they be used against him (ie, a supervillain kidnap his girlfriend,for instance). He gets these awesome powers, and instead of being liberating they’re confining. His mantra, that with great power comes great responsibility, determines everything that he does. He constantly lets people down in his life (standing up dates, for instance) in order to save innocent bystanders. He cannot quit being Spider-Man because that would allow evil to triumph and cannot even depend on his friends or family for emotional support. The great tragedy of Spider-Man is that the more he tries to serve the world, the further he drives himself away from everyone he cares about.

In a very real way this is what being a teenager is like. The system of emotional support children have is, if not gone, changed. Most teenagers won’t run to their parents with every problem the way most children will; if the typical image of children is a screaming toddler, the typical image of adolescence is the brooding teen bothered by something but unwilling or unable to communicate it. For the first time, teenagers decide to compartmentalize their lives, realizing that some things are “cool,” some aren’t; and will start to mold personas to fit in. in doing so, they don a sort of secret identity, being one person at school or in social events, while another very different person while alone. Teenagers struggle with things like romantic attraction and self worth for the first time. “What do you want to be when you grow up” ceases to be a idle question and starts to be something that needs attention and hard work. And the fears associated with these things are often dealt with alone; I remember how horrifying my future seemed when I was in high school. How it seemed like everything I did had an enormous impact on my future possibilities, and how I felt totally unqualified to make any decisions about it, and how I felt I needed to put on a brave face for my parents so they wouldn’t worry, and how all this came together in an incredibly isolating fashion. I had giant concerns and no way to deal with them except to power through and hope for the best.  And more than anything else, even though virtually all of my peers were going through something similar, even though all the adults in my life went through this themselves, I felt that I had nobody I could talk to.  The burdens I bore I bore mainly alone.

Obviously, the things that typical teenagers deal with are (hopefully) not as life or death as the things Spider-Man deals with, but they don’t seem that way to teenagers. With the benefit of hindsight, my first real crush seems almost laughable, but in no way was it laughable to me, it caused me angst and confusion and feelings of joy and worthlessness, of hope and desperation and confusion wrapped up together.  I recognize now how it was foolish, but it meant the world to me at the time.  Eventually I grew up, I learned how to deal with emotions, and I learned how and when to communicate my feelings.

Eventually, Peter Parker grows up, and the conflicts between himself and his alter ego begin to get resolved. Peter marries Mary Jane, and has somebody who he can reveal his true identity to, someone who knows him for who he is and while useless in a battle against a supervillain, provides support and encouragement. The dividing line between the public perception of Peter and Spidey remains as stark as ever, there will always be personal you and professional you, but in private, Peter and Spidey are at peace.

Perhaps the finest moment in all of Spider-Man, or in all of comics, comes in an otherwise weird period of Spider-Man, the mid 1990’s. Most of the comic revolved around the much maligned clone saga, a goofy story line revolving around whether Spider-Man was a clone or not. Meanwhile, Aunt may is dying. In her final issue, she takes Peter to the top of the Empire State Building and reveals that she knows, that she always knew, that Peter is Spider-Man, and that she is deeply proud of him.

What a wonderful message; that we’re never alone as we think we are; that even if your friends and family can’t fight your battles for you, that they still know that you’re facing struggles, and they’ve always been proud of you.

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Moral Courage

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”

-Stephen Covey

Just about everybody thinks of themselves as good people. There are very few people who will admit that they themselves are just bad. Even people whose sole motivation is selfish behavior will often justify their actions, saying something to the effect of “hey, if he didn’t want me to take advantage of him, he should have read the fine print.” That is, its ok to take advantage of somebody who isn’t on his guard – our proverbial speaker has a moral code. It’s not one that the speaker actually follows mind you, I suspect that in most cases it’s one the speaker modifies after the fact in order to justify his actions. But it remains, the speaker at least feels the need to justify himself. Other such justifications are simple, “The world never did anything for me, why should I help out anyone else.” Something that a selfish person would say, but it still reveals a moral code, presumably if the world actually did something for him, he would be bound to do things for other people.

We all have moral codes, some people will use theirs as a guide, some as an excuse, but its very rare to find somebody with no moral dimensions whatsoever. Just about everybody likes to feel that they are inherently good.

There are two main ways to do this; the first is to be inherently good. This is hard for many reasons, it requires sacrifice, discipline, patience, humility and deep introspection. And if the goal is to feel better about yourself, well the first three conditions are hard, and the second two work against feeling good about one’s self.

The second way is much simpler; compare yourself to others! But this is also hard, sometimes people are better than you. In fact, it doesn’t seem to work too well in other fields. Take income or education, for instance. When comparing ourselves against others, we frequently (or at least I do), compare ourselves against the most successful person in a group. “Ugh, why does this person make more money than I do?” Same for education “ugh, that person went to Yale, aren’t I as good as he is?”

Yet it works wonders for our sense of moral superiority. While financially, vocationally, and educationally we always compare ourselves to the best, yet in a bizarre method we tend to compare ourselves to the worst people morally. Part of the reason is that “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” We hold our moral beliefs to be the evidence of our virtue, even when we fall short of these beliefs. This to me is amazing, the loftier our goals, the more we fall short of them, yet the better we feel about ourselves because of it?

Thus, so long as we mean well, we are excused and even rewarded, but when others act unfairly, we seize upon the example to remind ourselves that we are better than they are, as their actions must be a reflection of their beliefs, and therefore their beliefs aren’t as good as ours.

But it gets worse. We choose sides on controversial issues, and then believe ourselves better for taking whatever side we take. We feel good about ourselves just for supporting (or opposing) gay marriage, even if it requires no personal sacrifice or courage or risk of ostracism to support (or oppose) it. (I’m not saying that nobody ever faces these things for their opinions on gay marriage or whatever else, I am merely saying people hold themselves up as good merely for holding opinions). There are people who sacrifice things for their beliefs, and there are people who have labored for years on causes and, when they finally win, feel a sense of triumph and vindication. However, my guess is that the majority of people who changed their facebook icon to become a rainbow weren’t facing any real risk retaliation for doing so.

Going along with the crowd in any one instance may occasionally (or even often) be the right thing to do. But its virtually never a courageous thing to do. So if you’d like to advertise on facebook how much you dislike the fact that Cecil the lion was killed, by all means do so. But if you’ve never sacrificed anything to prevent poaching or preserve habitats or save the lions, you don’t really have anything to brag about.

Now while I could go on talking about morals or politics here, and one can seriously argue that what I’ve described is benign or even beneficial. After all, choosing sides is a political activity, and political activity is one way things can change. Take, for example abolitionists in pre-civil war America. If they really all had the courage of their convictions, they would have helped organize the underground railroad and help escape fugitive slaves; yet only a very small percentage of them actually did. Yet, if the abolitionist movement were confined to those people who were willing to break the law and face serious punishment for really enacting what the believe, slavery never would have ended.

This works for taste and art too. They want to be original, but lack that ability to be original, so they instead join a movement. They co-opt the opinions of somebody who was original, then try to impress their friends by repeating these opinions. Its most pronounced on the internet, where we, depending on where you surf, you’ll find people with whole allegiances to hating various movies; (is there any reason that so many people hate Inception or Prometheus? They’re not bad movies).

To form actual intelligent opinions about art is tough, to parrot opinions is much easier. If part of your identity is to talk a lot about culture on the internet or even in person, its a lot easier just to repeat things than it is to think for yourself, especially if you’re trying to impress others.

Its easier to appear sophisticated than to actually be sophisticated. Likewise, its easier to appear moral than to be moral. This is true even if you’re only trying to appear moral or sophisticated to yourself.

Keeping up With the Carcosians

Things used to be so much better, right? Whether its movies, or music, or books, all the good pieces of art have already been created, and we’re left with the bottom of the barrel.

Is this really true though? Movies are a non-starter, they have declined in quality in all levels except the number of explosions or some such nonsense. Music is an interesting question, which I may tackle at some point; I would say yes music has declined, but a: it’s arguable, and b: I’m not versed enough to really comment. Books and visual arts I’ll ignore. Video games are so new that its not really an interesting question – do we really want to compare video games of today to video games of 1990?

That leaves TV. Has TV declined in quality? I think the answer is absolutely, probably more than even movies. So called “reality” programs have taken over every channel, what started as an interesting idea (MTVs the real world), has moved into competitions which could be interesting (Survivor), now it is only talent shows (the cream of the crop, btw), way past their prime contest shows (I had to check, but apparently Big Brother is still on!), staged TV shows featuring some obscure occupation (Storage Wars, Pawn Stars), a whole genre of television which seems to do nothing but exploit rednecks (albeit with their enthusiastic consent), (Duck Dynasty, Swamp Loggers, Axe Men), and worst of all, celebrity worship of the worst kind of people who I can’t really figure out how they became celebrities in the first place (anything with the word Kardashian in the title). That is the majority of TV, and I think it is borderline frightful. Sitcoms are largely horribly stale, doubly so for network dramas, which seem to consist entirely of crime procedurals (CBS currently has CSI, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and NCIS: New Orleans, not to mention Criminal Minds (a procedural with a slightly different twist!) and Blue Bloods (although to be fair, I can’t really comment on Blue Bloods because I’ve only seen part of it while doing laundry once).

Of course, you protest now. What about Mad Men? Breaking Bad? True Detective? Other new show?

IMDB ranks tv shows by voting, and while I’m hesitant to give those rankings too much credence, you have to get all the way to number 19 before you get an American TV show that wasn’t made primarily in the 2000s. Just about any list of great tv dramas will be dominated by those TV shows which have come out on cable, within the past 15 years, which are serial in nature (so you are expected to watch all episodes in sequence), and which don’t typically have to conform to censors or worry about network reputations. (Of course, not all lists agree. Some lists recognize that perfection in TV was only reached by Season 2 of Murphy Brown)

To answer the question of whether TV has gotten better or worse, we really have to define the question. Has the average TV show gotten better? Have the best TV shows gotten better? Has the average TV show, when adjusted for ratings (ie, the average TV show that people watch), gotten better?

Two things stand out to me in regards to this, the first is that the cause of the greatness is the same cause of the mediocrity. We now have hundreds of choices in entertainment at any given time (during classic TV, the option was 3 to entertain and 1 to educate). Networks had to target the average viewer because specialist programs just wouldn’t work, you couldn’t afford to waste a valuable time slot on something that wasn’t proven, and you couldn’t risk making a show which 10% of everyone thought was great, but 90% of everyone would find offensive.

That changed, now instead of the making tv shows for average viewer, TV shows are nothing but specialist programs. With fifty channels, if you have something that 5% of everyone likes, then you’ve got a chance at winning the time slot; at least in cable anyway. This fragmentation leads to what the cultural critics call “appealing to the lowest common denominator,” although what it really means is that every network is going to be making trash. It means that a cable network can make a show entirely about the Kardashians and it will find an audience, if most people are disgusted by it, who cares?

But it also means that the same system which can afford to produce TV shows that you don’t need a brain to enjoy can also make TV shows which are challenging, complex and engrossing. They can make the TV show which gets weird or maybe just violent. The release from the control of the big three networks has made TV more diverse, dumber on average but more intelligent at its peak.

One other thing to note is that there is a similarity between all the great shows which have come out of cable in the past 15 years, and that is they are almost entirely dramas. While there have been some comedies which people love recently, (30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, The Office), I think the pale when compared to the number and quality of dramas. If you ask people what the best TV drama of all time is, my guess is you’ll get a lot of Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Mad Men (not coincidentally, I wrote up that list, then decided to Google it to at least get somebody else’s opinion on it. The first link I clicked, here:  (and the first hit on Google), had those as the top four). You won’t get too many people saying that Hill Street Blues or ER.

If you go the other way, and ask what the best TV comedy of all time was, my gut feeling is that you’ll get a lot of people saying I Love Lucy, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, and Friends. First, we should questions whether my statement is true, you can argue that the office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, 30 Rock etc are funnier than anything that has come before them. Comedy is more subjective than drama though, what one person finds hilarious is what another finds merely amusing and while these may be the funniest shows on now (or recently), they’re not the most popular. Two and a Half Men and the Big Bang Theory are the most popular sitcoms, and as far as I know they’re not terribly well liked by the critics. Seinfeld was not only the funniest show of its time, but the most popular comedy as well. Same with Cheers and I Love Lucy.

I think a big reason we don’t have the funny, popular sitcom is that humor is, much more than drama, a social reaction. We not only like to watch comedies, but we like to watch them with other people. Drama takes us to a place we’d never experience; a whether it’s a meth lab in New Mexico or Carcosa, comedy takes us to a place we’re totally familiar with – a parking garage or a Chinese restaurant. To be dramatic, you must be unusual, to be funny, universal. Becoming more splintered as a society we don’t have that common connection anymore, or at the very least the artists of today can’t exploit the fragmenting of cable TV to create a comedy which reaches everyone. That is why we seem to be getting more and better dramas while comedies seem to be moving along at a much slower pace.

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