"Okay," Spider-Man told me last night. "I'll tell you the reason Spider-Man's the one that's always getting into problems. It's the costumes."
This particular Spider-Man was on a quick break from his solemn duty: standing at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue to take pictures with passersby. By day, he goes by the name Paul Smith, and he says he works in marketing for Liberty Tax Service. Just moments before, a pedestrian had shouted at him, "Hey Spider-Man, how come you beat up that cop?"
The pedestrian was referring to some bizarre news from the weekend: For the third time this year, a panhandler in a Spider-Man costume was arrested in Times Square. (None of them were Smith.) The first Spider-Man was accused of punching a mother in the head when she didn't pay him for a photo he took with her kid. (He was later acquitted, but the judge still slapped him with a fine for cursing at the family.) The second one allegedly groped a woman. And this past Saturday, 25-year-old Junior Bishop apparently yelled at a woman who only paid him a dollar for his services, then decked a cop who tried to step in.
Smith doesn't think the arrests are entirely coincidental. He thinks it's simply too easy to become your friendly (or not-so-friendly) neighborhood Spider-Man: "Online, Spider-Man costumes are pretty reasonable and cheap," Smith says. "Instead of buying a $400 Elmo [costume], they can go and buy a Spider-Man costume for less than nothing. They'll buy the really cheap Halloween-costume types."
A quick look around proves his point. Smith is working alongside a guy in an enormous, hard-plastic Iron Man costume, and another wearing a bulky faux-leather Batman outfit with surprisingly large wings. Smith has just a thin layer of spandex clutching his wiry frame (plus sneakers with spiderweb patterns, which he claims set him back $400).
Such cheap access to one of the world's most distinctive uniforms means that pretty much anybody can be Spider-Man, which creates problems, Smith says. "They just ain't been taught, and they don't know how to come out here and conduct themselves in certain ways. You gotta teach them not to hound people. If the people don't got the tips, you just let them go."
In other words, the hotheaded Spideys violated that most sacred, fundamental law of Spider-Man, first spoken in the character's 1962 debut: With great power comes great responsibility. This is, to a watchful superhero fan, rather poetic. After all, Spider-Man was the first truly middle-class superhero to reach mega-fame. Just like his Times Square imitators, the fictional Spider-Man didn't have money for a complex costume, so he made one himself. Unlike Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, or the X-Men, Spider-Man is always struggling for cash. But perhaps there's something else to be learned here about the unique pop-culture significance of Spidey and the burden he represents. Let's indulge and dig a little deeper.
First off, these incidents have been a reminder that "with great power comes great responsibility" is, in a way, not Spider-Man's defining credo. After all, isn't that the unspoken motto of every superhero? How is that even remotely unique to the web-slinging wall-crawler? There's a much more specific lesson that Spider-Man teaches us, one that's much harder to live up to: No matter how much everyone hates you, no matter how much abuse you've suffered, just keep helping folks and making jokes.
That's a harder lesson to live up to, as evidenced throughout the character's history. This is a hero who is chronically loathed and spat on by the populace, the press, and the police. Beginning in 1967, with the iconic one-issue story "Spider-Man No More!," it's become a regular occurrence for Peter Parker to (temporarily) give up the costume after deciding he just can't take the jeers anymore.
There's a lovely sequence in that 1967 story that comes to mind when considering what must have gone through these performers' minds during and after their arrests. After helping nab some crooks, a woman tries to walk up to Spidey and offer her thanks, only to be held back by what appears to be her husband. "Easy, Martha, stay back!" he says. "How can we sure he isn't as bad as the others?"
As usual, Spider-Man fires back with a quip: "You can stop trembling, tiger … I don't bite!" But the incident keeps gnawing at him. Soon afterward, there's a beautiful panel in which a sweating Peter hears voices in his head screaming in block letters, "MENACE!" "PUBLIC ENEMY!" "MENTALLY DISTURBED!" and other cruel epithets. "Perhaps … only a madman would do what I do," Peter says to himself. "Taking the risks … accepting the dangers … and … for what??!"
Peter throws his costume in a garbage can. Of course, by the end of the issue, he's realized there's too much evil in the world for him to sit on the sidelines, and he gets back to his wisecracking, crime-fighting antics. But we've learned a truth: Behind Spider-Man's jokes is a Christ-like perseverance, a struggle to not just turn the other cheek, but to make your abusers smile while turning it. No wonder Paul Smith says performers like him need training. That skill is crucial if you're trying to entertain kids for virtually no money in the most irritating part of Manhattan — all while cops stand watchfully nearby, waiting for a slip-up. The three perps just weren't ready for the web-slinger's burden.
Iron Man and Batman are gesturing wildly at him. They need him to come back for more pictures. They're incomplete without him. After all, how weird and out-of-character would it be for Iron Man or Batman to make a kid giggle? Smith grins, slips his mask back on, thanks me for my time, and swings back into action.
"These other guys, they're not trained and they think they can come and make quick money as Spider-Man," says Smith. "And then they make it bad for the real Spider-Man. That's me."