Maybe he couldn’t help it. Maybe it’s the sort of comedic voice he was most comfortable using when writing dialogue. But for Lee, a certain sense of Yiddishkeit came out in the cadence and rhythms of the web-head’s one-liners. And, interestingly, no Spider-Man writer has ever deviated from that template. No matter how dark a Spider-Man story has gotten—and some of them are Breaking Bad dark—Peter Parker never loses his particular sense of humor.
This is true of the Spider-Man movies, too. Witness the scene early in the new one, when our hero is battling a bunch of Russian mobsters led by Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). Spider-Man zips around, mocking them with zingers like this: “You can call me web-head, you can call me amazing. Just don’t call me late for dinner.” This is Spidey by way of Henny Youngman, which is probably what Lee had in mind when he and Ditko created the wall crawler. And this is perhaps the most visibly Jewish aspect of Spider-Man in any medium: his reliance on Borscht Belt–style putdowns and quips. He’s Danny Kaye with radioactive blood. (Lee himself has a bit of the Catskills comic in him: He’s a self-described “ham” who revels in his onscreen cameos in every Marvel movie and his guest appearances on shows like The Big Bang Theory.)
And then there’s Flash Thompson, the jock and bully, Biff Tannen to Peter Parker’s George McFly. Spider-Man’s quasi-Judaism most obviously comes to the fore whenever Flash shows up, and it’s hard not to see Flash—who could make anyone else look “ethnic” by comparison—as Lee’s commentary on the WASP establishment. This remains true in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies as well. The fact that Flash is given a bit more depth and dimensionality in Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t detract from the fact that he still appears as the film’s symbol of the Oppressor. As such, he’s a good foil for Peter Parker, the ultimate underdog.
Which brings us back to Amazing Spider-Man 2. Lee has often said that part of Spider-Man’s appeal is that everyone, no matter their ethnicity, can imagine himself or herself under that mask. And this is a major theme of the new movie. Nerdy black electrician Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a Spidey superfan. So is 9-year-old Latino science geek Jorge (Jorge Vega). Both Max and Jorge feel like they know Spider-Man, and they both want to be Spider-Man. Partway into the film, Max acquires electricity-based super-powers and tries to get revenge on Spider-Man for what he sees as the web-head’s betrayal. Toward the movie’s end, Jorge puts on a pint-sized Spider-Man suit and attempts to stop a raging lunatic … until the real Spider-Man stops the kid from getting himself killed.
So while the Jewish signifiers in the Spider-Man character persist, the films highlights his otherness in a more general way: Spider-Man is not so much a stand-in for Jews as he’s a stand-in for all marginalized people—including, and perhaps especially, nerds. It’s worth noting that both Max and Jorge are nerds, as is Peter. Whereas the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies gave Peter Parker a steady stream of damaged father figures to mentor and then disappoint him—like Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn and Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius—the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies posit a world in which Peter, a super-nerd, is alternately pitted against and befriended by other super-nerds. And while you might argue that super-nerds are hardly underdogs these days, it is nice to see a film in which the diversity of geekdom is not only acknowledged, but celebrated.
Which maybe makes Spider-Man less of a Jew, at least in religious terms, and more of a secular humanist. Either way, what a mensch.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Ebola Story
How our minds build narratives out of disaster.
The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics
A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.