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The Amazing Spider-Mensch

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by Violet LeVoit
July 10, 2012 9:13 AM
11 Comments
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Spider-Man is great at saving the world, but somebody please save Andrew Garfield from himself—judging from interviews, the poor guy's an ulcer waiting to happen. His quotes page on imdb.com is a minefield of self-deprecation: “I'm very neurotic and self-conscious.” “I think too much.” If I watch myself, then I suddenly have a bunch of things that I'm scared to do. It just upsets me.“ “I'm probably going to be the guy in the movie theater shouting abuse at myself.” “I was genuinely expecting 'You're just a shit actor' instead of 'We want you to [play Spider-Man].'” Where'd this guilt complex come from, Rob Carnevale of IndieLondon asks in an interview? Garfield doesn't mince words: “Being Jewish.”

Yes, Garfield is the first Jewish Spider-Man in movies, a fact that's not gone unkvelled over in publications like The Jewish Journal and the Jerusalem Post. (Naomi Pfefferman sums it up in the former by observing how Garfield “reminded me of the kind of gangly geeky-cute guys you’d develop a crush on at Jewish summer camp.”) While Garfield makes a serviceable action star (his wide-shouldered yoga teacher physique, sleek underneath Cirque du Soleil-designed spandex, certainly sweetens the deal), his best moments in The Amazing Spider-Man could only befit a Nice Jewish Boy—hypochondriacally fretting over his spider bite welt, stammering out his secrets to Gwen Stacy before tangling her up in a kiss, abjectly apologizing after laying waste to an entire subway car because of Spidey-sense jumpiness. He, more than any other Spider-Man—and certainly more than Tobey Maguire—understands the joke-away-the-guilt core of Peter Parker's uneasy being.

As conceived in the early ‘60s by writer Stanley Lieber (known professionally as Stan Lee) and artist Steve Ditko, that part of the character was right there from the beginning. Lee was a New York-born Jew, and Spider-Man was a new breed of superhero  – utterly urban, exiled, neurotic and conflicted, subject to all of the Age of Anxiety's assaults that rolled off the back of less complicated, more assimilated heroes such as Captain America. Also, since Spider-Man had no sidekick, he talked to himself, rendering the reader privy to an inner monologue full of doubt, fear, and insecurity. No wonder he's so full of jokes when he's doing away with bad guys: we laugh to keep from crying. (Lee originally worked on the character with Jack Kirby, a Jewish artist born Jacob Kurtzberg, but grew dissatisfied with Kirby's designs and turned the nebbish-y character over to the non-Jewish Ditko. But it's Kirby's pencils on the cover of Spider-Man's first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, swinging across the New York skyline with a rescued man in his arms, a pose we still see as prototypically Spidey.)

That's the thing about Spider-Man: his considerable gifts are only as good as his surroundings. Sure, he can cling to walls and swing on webs, but how impressive is that against the skyline of Omaha or Peoria? Sure, Superman left Smallville because Metropolis offered more opportunity to do good, but he'd still be perfectly superpowered back there. Spider-Man, on the other hand, reaches his full potential only in synergy with the hospitable habitat of the endlessly tall buildings of Manhattan.  He’s not even operating at his peak in his home borough of Queens. How many other superheroes are “bridge-and-tunnel”?

Spider-Man’s story is similar to the great exodus of Jews at the turn of the century, fleeing shtetls to flourish in New York City, a city whose Jewish population is still second only to Tel Aviv. (Israel has its charms, but for many American Jews the real Holy Land is a place where you can find a decent bagel on any corner.) The Jews’ impact on New York's culture and history is so great that Lenny Bruce said it best: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish." (Indeed, Peter Parker wears a Ramones t-shirt in his first big fight scene, invoking another game-changing group of Jews from Queens who also besieged Manhattan.)

Judaism reveres the tenet of areivut: the onus of mutual responsibility, spelled out especially in Shavuot 39a:  Kol Yisroel areivim zehl'zeh, translated as “all of Israel (meaning, all Jews) are responsible for one another.”  That concept of “responsibility” is crucial to Spider-Man: it's what accompanies great power, whether you like it or not, a guiding aphorism with much greater moral subtlety than “Hulk SMASH!!”, and near-Talmudic in its grace and simplicity. If Spider-Man's Jewish, then he's looking out for other Jews—and, like Lenny Bruce said, that includes everyone in New York City. Don't worry, five boroughs: Spider-Mensch has your back. His tikkun olam is defeating Doctor Octopus when needed.

An actor can't play Spider-Man without understanding areivut in his gut, without understanding that heady brew of neuroticism, guilt, humor, social responsibility, and a symbiotic love for big cities where reinvented exiles can thrive, swinging free. Even though a UK-raised actor is an unconventional choice for an American icon, Garfield's tribal memory extends deeper than his passport. His Jewish roots inform the truth of Peter Parker, and his portrayal conveys Spider-Man's essence more than any other actor's has previously. In that same IndieLondon interview, Garfield was quoted as saying, “I feel like I have a really big guilt complex, and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being.” Peter Parker would say the same thing. Mazeltov, webslinger. Today you are a Spider-Man.

Thanks to Adiel Levin, Jessica Leshnoff, Ben Korman and Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin for contributions to this blogpost.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.

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11 Comments

  • Steve Buchanan | July 21, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    I have to second SAM on this. And I'm weary of authors overinterpreting with the "Superman-Jewish-Roots" buisiness (and I'm Jewish). Superman isn't anything like the Golem. Siegel and Shuster were science fiction writers, not Talmudic scholars. Superman came from another planet(Probably)because it was a good sci-fi premise-it's a stretch to tie it with the "Immigrant experience".

  • Aaron | July 12, 2012 10:57 PMReply

    Love this. As a non-Jewish person I had never made these connections but I hope they were in the mind of Stan Lee and Ditko. This post is brilliant and has by far the best understanding of Peter Parker I've seen any movie blogger come up with.

    Keep up the good work.

  • junkie92 | July 11, 2012 11:42 PMReply

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    http://funnyblips.com/2012/07/darknight-rises-latest-trailer-unveiled.html

  • bee | July 11, 2012 2:24 AMReply

    Well, you know, it's not like Andrew Garfield was breaking a long tradition of non-Jewish Spider-Man movie actors... ha ha (reminds me of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the "first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court" - there was only one other woman before her!).

    Spider-Man had a very good chance of being Jewish this go-around. The big front-runner for most of 2010 was Logan Lerman, a young Jewish guy who shows a lot of chutzpah in some of his roles (and he could still play Spider-Man if they reboot again in 10 years!). Other Jewish candidates included Alden Ehrenreich and Anton Yelchin. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not an official candidate apparently, but many fans' choice.

  • Sam | July 10, 2012 9:31 PMReply

    All I can see that this article is doing is actively trying to perpetuate and strengthen tired Jewish stereotypes. Neuroticism, guilt and anxiety aren't exclusively Jewish, and neither are they present in all Jewish people. They're universal, and all I can see that is being done here is to apply them to a major character in attempt to 'claim him for the side' since there are no major Jewish characters in popular culture.

    The character, if you have read Lee's autobiography, was created as an antidote to the untouchable superheroes that existed before such as Captain America and Superman. Lee wanted a hero that the main audience of comic books, teenagers, could relate to. In fact I'd say that neuroticism, anxiety et al are more a trope of teenagers than Jewish people. And he put him in Manhattan for the same reason - because no one can relate to Gotham City or Metropolis because they don't exist.

    Just because the character is full of anxiety doesn't mean he's Jewish. And just because a Jewish person plays him definitely doesn't mean he's Jewish. The 'is spiderman Jewish' debate rarely, if ever, came up before Garfield was cast (In fact I remember multiple scenes in christian or at least non-denominational churches) in previous stories.

    The fact is the character was created as an everyman and an attempt to claim him as Jewish is also an attempt to alienate anyone else from him which is just missing the point entirely.

    I'm Jewish, by the way. I don't appreciate the stereotyping. And this: "Garfield's tribal memory extends deeper than his passport." is probably one of the most ridiculous sentences I will read this week.

  • mattzollerseitz@gmail.com | July 10, 2012 8:21 PMReply

    Dan and Helder: An early draft of this story bought into the Kirby estate's claim of Spider-Man as one of the Marvel characters that he helped create. Stan Lee has disputed that claim, saying instead that Kirby played a role in the character's early designs but that Lee rejected his work, and that Ditko, who came in next, deserved co-creator credit. The story has been corrected to give more weight to Lee's claim, and to take into account that Lee ended up asking Kirby to pencil the cover for Spidey's first appearance. We've also included a link to a story about Kirby's role in Spider-Man's development.

  • Luis | July 10, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    Spider-Man is Jewish, Black, Indian... Spider-Man is that rare character (because his suit covers his whole body) that all creeds and colors can identify with him. Just because his creators happen to be of the Jewish ethnicity doesn't mean they were creating a Jewish character. They were (like all good writers and artist in the US) trying to create something that would sell and be receptive to an American audience! Superman is the perfect example of this. Superman is the Hitler Aryan ideal and two Jewish kids created him. They knew what his symbols could have been interpreted as; however, because Superman had an American theme (all men are created equal) Superman is still fighting for truth, justice, and the American way for over 70 years. Spider-Man, and all of America's superheroes, are that one last place were the American dream can be shared by all who understand what they really stand for (the success for the culture they defend). So, the next time I see a Spider-Man, Superman, or even a Batman, I hope he/she is fighting as an American defending that dream no matter of ethnicity.

  • João Solimeo | July 10, 2012 7:39 PMReply

    Very interesting. I think this "new" Spider Man film had nothing really interesting to offer, but I like your point of view. And I had never thought about the fact that Spidey and NYC have such a symbiotic connection as you pointed out. Cheers.

  • Bill Kilpatrick | July 10, 2012 7:34 PMReply

    If the Spider-Man story resonates as Jewish, I'd look more at the backgrounds of the writers than of the actor playing the lead. As happened with Twilight, which was subjected to lots of silly questions about its author's Mormon background, you can project anything into anything. Of all the stories that struck me as reflective of somebody's Jewish heritage - from Where the Wild Things Are (whose Wild Things included Carol, Ira and Judith) to Crazy, Stupid, Love (a simple love triangle between Cal, Emmily, Jacob, Hannah, Jessica and David) - The Amazing Spider-Man seems a little low on the Judometer.

  • Dan | July 10, 2012 6:52 PMReply

    Jack Kirby was not the co-creator artist. It was Steve Ditko.

  • Helder | July 10, 2012 6:50 PMReply

    Spider-Man was co-created by Steve Ditko, not Jack Kirby. Credit where credit is due, please.

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