A guilty pleasure

A guilty pleasure

My “Spidey sense” is tingling! Almost half a century after the comic book superhero Spider-Man was conceived by the 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.

Garfield’s being Jewish is no small matter in the Spider-Man universe. So say I, the self-proclaimed rabbi of all “Geek-dom.” For years, fans have wondered if Peter Parker/Spider-Man was crypto-Jewish, at the very least. Let us 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 is drawn as a nebbish – a dark-haired, bespectacled, 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, the post-spider bite Parker has perfect vision.

Amazingly, Garfield seems to have been bitten by the guilt bug, noting 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 instead of 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 pretends to be a nerd. Peter Parker really is one. If early sneak peeks at the new movie, which opens nationwide on 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 that we are squandering the gifts we have been given.

Personally, I always am drawn to this challenge. When I was growing up in the north of England, my Hebrew school rabbi admonished me to be “a light unto the nations,” then on the way home from the synagogue I would get a “wedgie” from someone 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?”

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

JTA Wire Service