Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Peter Parker Effect - Superhuman Spider-Man Still Feels Our Pain

Everyone wants to write a Superman.  I admit, I was long enthralled with the thought of writing characters who were always stronger and smarter than their enemies, the type of individuals who simply couldn't be killed.

Unfortunately, not as many people want to read about such characters.  When a characters is too strong or too perfect to be killed, then it's nearly impossible to craft a viable conflict.  After all, how do you threaten someone who cannot die?

This is one reason why the character of Spider-Man has become such an endearing individual among the pantheon of comic book heroes.  Unlike Superman, who is pretty much invincible, or Batman, who is shielded from pain and death by a mountain of wealth and weapons, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man lives at home with his Aunt May.  He loves the girl next Mary Jane.  He falls behind in his classes and then never makes enough dough delivering pizza.  Sure, he can shoot webs and swing between buildings and survive all kinds of deadly blows - we're still not sure he can balance a checkbook.  In fact, about the only thing Peter Parker the man has going career-wise is the fact that he can always turn a quick buck by dressing up, rounding up villains, and then taking candid pictures of himself.

The reason Spider-Man works so well as a character is that we're never allowed to forget who he really is: Peter Parker, a boy with potential from New York City.  He's smart but shy, able to round up villains yet unable to follow his heart.  Contrast this with Bruce Wayne, a character who is so disillusioned with life that he would probably preside over board meetings wearing a mask if he could.  Or Clark Kent, another character who, like photojournalist Parker, is "never around" when it's time to report on the hero - Clark loves Lois Lane, but we never get the impression that he's short on cash or otherwise hurt by the world.  If not for the bad guys who show up to put a crimp on his style, it's likely that our buddy Clark Kent would never have anything to really worry about.**

(**Please note - I'm using the trope images of Batman and Superman.  These characters can be and have been written with a great deal of personal nuance, but the icons of The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel don't require the same kind of "down-home" feel of Spidey, Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.)

It's important to consider the "Peter Parker Effect" in science fiction and fantasy because there's always a good chance that one or more of your characters will have a special power.  Stories ranging from the X-Men to Star Wars are built upon worlds were supernatural abilities are considered the norm.  To a certain degree, it would be nearly impossible to write an X-Men story that didn't involve at least one character with mutant abilities - it would defeat the purpose of setting a story in that universe.

Let's take this into the realm of the real, expected world we live in now.  We know that technology is advancing at a very, very fast pace, particularly when it comes to personal access to the internet.  If we were to write a story set fifty years in the future, it would be unrealistic to have a character who had absolutely no experience with technology - at the very least, we'd expect our protagonist to use an iPhone to check facts on Google.  Better yet, this character would have some kind of neural implant making the iPhone unnecessary, and she'd be able to check out her date based on his mental compatibility with iOS-40.2.  Forget eHarmony or speed-dating - characters of the future should be able to date eight people at a time during the same minute.  To your readers, this would pretty much count as a superpower - no one in today's world can manage that feat.  Yet to make this character real, you'd have to still reveal how someone who can talk and interact with eight prospective dates at a time would still have trouble finding true love.  Just because she has instant-download credit from AmEx doesn't mean she'd have an easy time paying the rent, and it doesn't mean her parents wouldn't be calling every other day asking about when she's going to get married so they can Twitter their friends with photos of the grandkids.  (Ugh, Twitter - that is so 2010's.  And marriage?  What is up with that??)

In our readings an in popular media, you'll find many examples of the Peter Parker effect.  Characters like Wolverine from the X-Men never feel comfortable in their own skins, and the traditional Ninja Turtles were some pizza-snarfing party animals.  (And no, I can't believe I had to refer to the "traditional" Ninja Turtles, the ones I grew up with on Saturday mornings - I still haven't seen TMNT, I'm afraid...)  And we of course have Luke Skywalker of Jedi fame, a character who - sorta like Peter Parker - never has enough of the Force to overcome the fear that he will lose his friends and family to the evils of the Dark Side.

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