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Of Monsters and Men

by George Estreich, Biopolitical Times guest contributor
November 29th, 2012

To be interested in questions of human enhancement, while also being a sucker for Hollywood blockbusters about superheroes, makes for an odd movie experience. Immersed in a fictional world both saved and threatened by the enhanced, you’re aware of the world you’ve just paid to escape. You feel doubled, like the superheroes themselves—though since you’re sitting on the couch and not saving the world, the division is less profound. You don’t have secret powers, just cognitive dissonance; your perception, not your identity, is split.

A few nights ago, I watched The Amazing Spider-Man on Blu-Ray. (Warning: many spoilers ensue.) The movie reboots the franchise that began in 2002, and this time around, the genetic enhancement of human beings is far more central to the plot. Just as in the first series, the high school student Peter Parker, bitten by a genetically modified spider, develops superpowers; but this time around, the spider comes from a corporation whose business model depends on “cross-species genetics,” and Peter’s nemesis—the scientist Curtis Connors, once the research partner of Peter’s deceased father—is a man with one arm, who not only longs to generate a working limb, but dreams of a world where disability and disease are erased.

For Dr. Connors, pressure from his corporate employer pushes these dreams across a moral border. Oscorp’s namesake CEO—Norman Osborn, whom we never see—needs the technology to extend his life. Facing the loss of his job and funding, Connors injects himself to prove his research can work in humans. He collapses, and in a gorgeously creepy scene, awakens to his new self: Peeling back a dry, plantlike husk, he discovers a new arm both fetal and disproportionately large, the veins visible through translucent skin. In the logic of the fantastic, from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Fly to The Amazing Spider-Man, Faustian choices lead to swift transformations. The hand soon becomes a giant claw, and Connors acquires a tail, reptilian eyes, and green pebbled skin to go with his resonant English accent. Before long, he has torn his way out the back of a taxi and is throwing cars off a bridge.

The special effects are good, but as the plot shows, the movie’s focus on genetic modification is more than incidental. When we first meet Dr. Connors, his research is stalled. What he needs is a key equation: the “decay rate algorithm,” which his former partner, Peter’s father, came up with shortly before disappearing. (In the movie’s opening scene, the young Peter discovers his father’s ransacked office. As we come to learn, his parents were later killed by Oscorp.)

When Peter discovers his father’s briefcase in the basement, then finds the algorithm inside, he’s discovering a literal inheritance, one that soon shapes his biological identity. Driven by a desperate wish to know more about his father, Peter goes to Oscorp, snoops around in a Restricted Area, is bitten by a spider. The algorithm is key to Connors’ transformation too: Peter gives it to Connors, thereby allowing Connors’ research to finally succeed.

Making the algorithm central is a canny plot point, highlighting the convergence of biology and mathematics that characterizes our genomic age. What results is more than a tail, or an ability to swoop through city streets: both Peter and Dr. Connors, because their bodies are partly created by technology, are set outside the ordinary links of human generation. Their relations, to each other, to the species, are warped and almost broken. In a weird way, they become brothers: both are altered by the same code. But then, Connors and Peter’s father are brothers too: one Cain, the other Abel, the evil one killing the good. In yet another view, Connors and Peter are both children of Norman Osborn, the absent corporate dad—or they are corporate products themselves. Or they are the parents of themselves: Connors almost literally gives birth to his new self. (There’s no genetic determinism here. Their transformations are not, at first, deliberately chosen, but their stories depend on what they make of them.)

Interestingly, Peter’s father didn’t destroy the algorithm; he hid it for his son to find. This act suggests that the technology can be used wisely, but only by the right person, by the one either noble or smart enough to recognize it. The sword in the stone is now an equation. (There’s a parallel plot development—spoiler alert—in Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark discovers, in an old World’s Fair diorama designed by his father, the structure of a new atomic element needed to repair his damaged heart. But then, examples are easy to find: Thor’s dad won’t let him play with his magic hammer until he’s mature enough to wield it, and Luke Skywalker, given a light saber, begins making his way towards Darth Dad….In general, magic tools, father issues, and ass-kicking seem to go together. Could be a pattern.)

It’s not long before Connors has discarded his dreams of healthier humans, deciding to focus instead on making everyone else into lizards too. Even though this is a standard career choice for mad scientists, The Amazing Spider-Man pursues the implications further than most. Late in the movie, Peter comes across a video recording in which Connors explicitly rejects one vision of biomedical science (healing disability and disease) and embraces another (improving the species itself).

That this is more than boilerplate bad guy-talk, that questions of science are being deliberately raised, is clear from an interview with the producers. Discussing the Oscorp Tower, a fanglike sliver inserted via CGI into midtown Manhattan, the producer Avi Arad says, "It was more of a symbolic idea of the world of science." He continues, "It's a place where his father worked. It's a place where Connors works. And most importantly, it's a place where Peter aspires to be. One, because his father worked there and two, it stands for the ultimate advancement of science and biotechnology."

Yet we should not mistake The Amazing Spider-Man for a radical or comprehensive critique. Despite its clever plot, the movie expresses the “technology is neutral” point of view that’s standard for the genre: the technology of enhancement isn’t good or evil per se, the user is, and the technology merely expresses the user’s heart. That dichotomy between good and evil is rendered in visual terms. The Amazing Spider-Man has two instances of “cross-species genetics,” but only one becomes grotesque. Unlike Dr. Connors, Peter Parker still looks human: he has super strength, better vision, better reflexes, and the ability to stick to walls and ceilings. He doesn’t grow extra eyes or limbs, and his love life improves significantly, something which is difficult to imagine for Dr. Connors, at least in the human realm.

The same pattern holds in other movies of the genre. In Captain America, the technology is neither mechanical nor genetic—it’s a kitschy blend of colored liquids and high voltage—but it too reflects the heart of the man it is applied to, a point made explicitly by the scientist at the controls. Steve Rogers, the hundred-pound weakling with a good heart, becomes Captain America. The Nazi Johan Schmidt becomes an even more evil Nazi: Red Skull, who, like Dr. Connors, is physically grotesque. In Iron Man, the weapons manufacturer Tony Stark becomes himself a weapon—but for good. His nemesis, the corporate master Obadiah Stane, uses the same kind of super-suit for evil, and Stane’s suit is Goliath-like, monstrous and imposing, as opposed to Stark’s human-sized and human-proportioned suit.

The movies reflect the culture: if they suffer from double vision, it’s because we do too. We have conflicted feelings about technology, its effects on people, and the companies that provide it; in the movies, we see the mirror of that conflict. Technology is scary (dehumanizing, intimidating, world-threatening) and really cool (super strength, glittering 3-D simulations, blue ray guns in 1945). Human enhancement is playing God (Red Skull, Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane, Dr. Connors) or discovering your true humanity (Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers). Large corporations are faceless, powerful, and nefarious, but at the same time sleek, luxurious, and impressive.

There are many practical reasons to have a corporate bad guy—for a start, no one really gets offended, since corporations aren’t actually people—but at the same time, the movies themselves, sophisticated, effects-laden, are celebrations of the corporate application of technology: the power to make a lizard talk, a human being fly, a new skyscraper appear in midtown Manhattan. In the movies, if not in our bodies, the human-encoded creatures interact with the regular ones, the enhanced with the unenhanced.

The Amazing Spider-Man, more than most, leans towards a cautionary note. Its plot embodies the law of unintended consequences, the dangers of intermingling profit and research, and—in the person of Peter’s father—a principled decision not to follow up on a discovery. But this cautionary approach, as convention and the market dictate, is swaddled in a plot about heroes, in which the fate of crowds depends on the heart of a single man.

Therefore, the plot’s very structure offers reassurance: it tells us that not only will justice prevail, but that individuals have agency, that what they do matters, and that a good heart wins in the end. These are comforting nostrums for those worrywarts among us who think that our power risks outstripping our wisdom; that it is not a single evil user, but billions of ordinary consumers, following ordinary desires—driving cars, wanting healthy babies—that actually shape our world; and that from climate change to genetic modification, we have already taken on too much risk for any single individual to manage or repair.

So what’s an amphibian viewer to do? How to enjoy a simple blockbuster, when it distills the most troubling aspects of the world around us? Do movies like The Amazing Spider-Man—a corporate product with a corporate villain—normalize human enhancement, or warn us of its dangers? If the prospect of enhanced human beings concerns us, what are we to make of powerful entertainments where our salvation hinges on the enhanced?

I don’t think we should be hyphenating ourselves with spiders. As entertaining as the result is on film, I don’t think we should engineer people at all. But if we wish to direct our technologies towards cures and not tails, then we will need to think about the assumptions we absorb.  We will need to think and act for ourselves, and to recognize that solutions to our problems depend on the decidedly undramatic world of common-sense regulation and law. As appealing as the heroic outsider is, the idea that one man can save us is the greatest fantasy of all.

George Estreich received his M.F.A. in poetry from Cornell University. His first book, a collection of poems entitled Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. His memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye, was published in SMU Press’ Medical Humanities Series. Praised by Abraham Verghese as “a poignant, beautifully written, and intensely moving memoir,” The Shape of the Eye was awarded the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Estreich lives in Oregon with his family.

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