Is Spider-Man a realistic role model?

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

I have distinct memories of dragging my 8 year old finger-tips down the wall of my bedroom praying that, eventually, my spidey powers would kick in and I would be able to climb on to the ceiling. Sadly, they never did and I had to resign myself to sitting down on chairs and going to school, like all the other normal (non-superhuman) children . We all have those characters growing up - people we would love to be. For some, it's the dream of one day being able to execute a free kick like David Beckham, or play a guitar solo like Jimi Hendrix. For me, it was shooting spider webs out of my wrists and swinging from buildings, just like our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.

As you may already be able to tell, there is something of a divide between role models such as Beckham or Hendrix, and those role models of the more fantastical realm, like Spider-Man. Harry Potter is another one that might spring to mind when thinking of a strong role model with supernatural gifts. By the time I was 11, I had given up trying to glue my fingers to brick walls, and instead turned my attention to forcing green lightning to come out of twigs and attentively monitoring the letterbox to see if my enrolment letter from Hogwarts would fly in and confirm my belief that I was, in fact, a wizard. There is a clear motif then, that runs through these pop culture phenomenons. What do these strong characters with their clear stories and huge fan bases have in common? They all posses powers that are completely unattainable for anyone living in the real world. Flying on broomsticks is Impossible. Now, that isn't a word I use lightly. Normally I would spit in to the face of anyone who told me something was 'impossible' and find my own way of doing it anyway, "Piss off Dad! I will be a Dame of the Realm one day!". But alas, when it comes to destroying the seven souls of the Dark Lord Voldemort with my gifted magical powers, I must admit it is...impossible.

It could be said that these supernatural protagonists are the exemplification of a heightened and more abstract metaphor for the battle between good and bad forces within the real world. However, the majority of 9 year old's aren't likely to be familiar with that concept and are more drawn in by the highly attractive aesthetic gleam of spells, wands and spider-webs that the film makers try so hard to create. So where then, are the more obviously down to earth, 'realistic' protagonists that we should be letting our kids look up to. Well, I draw your attention to J. R. R Tolkien. Tolkien is not the only person to ever tell tales of down to earth protagonists who live in a slightly more mystical realm, but Peter Jackson's early Noughties classic trilogy has firmly rooted Lord of the Rings in the collective consciousness of at least one generation. So what is it that's so special (or perhaps bland and ordinary) about Tolkien's characters. Well, take for example, Frodo Baggins, our friendly neighbourhood Hobbit. Frodo drives Lord of the Rings' plot: from finding The One Ring at the start of the first movie, to throwing it in to the fiery depths of Mount Doom in the final instalment. Frodo evades murderous Uruk Hai, a giant man-eating spider and the eye of Sauron and still manages to stop himself from being taken over by the seductive power of the ring. Yet, there is nothing special about Frodo. He is a 3ft 6in tall half-man with disproportionate feet, not a magic spell or genetic mutation in sight. Frodo overcomes the evil of Mordor through sheer determination and sense of character. He intellectually and emotionally understands the importance of the task at hand and sets about using will power and brains to defeat the evil he knows is out there. Mr. Baggins doesn't even receive much supernatural help. His best friend Gandalf (the wizard) does little more in the way of magic than blow animated pipe smoke. Gandalf's main assets are his wisdom, courage and political savvy.

Credit is also due to the filmmakers here. They never reduce themselves to finding visually pleasing aesthetics that become synonymous with the character. Dressing like a hobbit does not give you the courage and will power of Frodo Baggins. On the other hand, dressing like Spider-Man, well, you're half way there. Aside from their powers, Peter Parker and Harry Potter alike are very ordinary people. Intentionally so. We see both characters early on in their journey, before a scent of the impossible even touches them, making us feel as though it could so easily be us that gets bitten by a mutant spider, or turn out to be the most powerful wizard the world has ever seen. Sadly though, magical powers and supernatural abilities are not something we can 'work on'. No ten-year-old in the world will ever be able to be Spider-Man or Harry Potter or Superman or Captain America or The Hulk or Wolverine or even Mr. Incredible. Because what makes all these characters great, is the fantastical, the magical, the impossible.

So, lets tell our children stories about people that were not ordinary, by any means, but that stood up for themselves, that fought darkness, that were courageous and wise, and did all of this within the realms of human capacity. Let us not belittle what it is to be a human being. We need not strive to stick to walls, or shoot lightning from sticks, or fly through the clouds, because every one of us is capable of real magic and we needn't look no further than Frodo Baggins, Jimi Hendrix, or even David Beckham to find it. There is a fine line we must tread, as beings of this earth, between the ordinary and the supernatural. Strive for greatness within the realms of capability. Don't look for a glitzy, glammed-up image of the perfect super-hero. Be you. Be bold, be strong and most of all keep it real.

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