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Jennifer Graham

Spider-Man puts Zuckerberg in perspective

Actor Andrew Garfield, who plays Spider-Man in the new blockbuster,  battled villains of perhaps another kind as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network.”

Mike Pont/Getty Images

Actor Andrew Garfield, who plays Spider-Man in the new blockbuster, battled villains of perhaps another kind as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network.”

Even with competition from the X-Men, the Amazing Spider-Man continues his joyous romp through the nation’s theaters, eviscerating the dastardly Electro and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with cheerful aplomb.

True, Zuckerberg isn’t in the movie. His vanquishing occurs off-screen, an incidence of death by typecasting. This is how it goes down:

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The latest Spider-Man is portrayed by Andrew Garfield, who, four years ago, played Zuckerberg’s friend-turned-foe Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network,” the movie about Facebook’s founding at Harvard. When it was first released, I saw it twice and found the cinematic Zuck bullheaded and brittle, yet quirkily endearing. I liked how he pounded out a billion-dollar company late at night while those around him pursued pleasure and pecs. I admired his focus, his unwillingness to be swayed from his vision.

But recently I watched the film again with my teenage son, and everything had changed. Zuckerberg had lost all cuddly qualities and become a pompous, ruthless jerk, a highly functioning, pitiless grifter. That’s because he was no longer facing off against Eduardo Saverin, but was up against Spider-Man. Whatever Saverin got in that settlement, it wasn’t enough.

Such is the power of Hollywood, even in a time of dwindling theater attendance. They don’t call it the big screen for nothing, and a film’s influence is still disproportionate even if we see it in our living rooms. There is no moral conundrum that can’t be made clearer by a good-looking guy wearing a cape or swinging from building to building.

Call it the Spider-Man effect. Like former movie superheroes Christopher Reeve and Tobey Maguire, Garfield has become synonymous — through his two turns as Spidey — with truth, justice, and the American way. By extension, so has Saverin, even though in real life he’s no longer a citizen. When it’s Spidey v. Zuck at the table with their lawyers, even the moral standing of the Winklevoss twins seems to improve. (Terrible treatment those poor boys got in Lawrence Summers’s office.)

It’s classic simulacra, the replacement of reality with a representation of it that, in time, becomes “realer than real.” The thinking of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was invoked last year by someone who knows well its power: the actor Jack Gleeson, who portrayed the wicked King Joffrey on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”.

Unlike Garfield, who assumed the glossy sheen of the righteous when he became Spider-Man on-screen, Gleeson became evil incarnate, prompting ordinarily nonviolent people to fantasize about punching him. It’s as if our brains haven’t kept up with technology and whir late in the night, while we’re asleep, puzzling over which representation of a man they’re to believe.

It appears they choose the best-looking one. In the modern age, history is written not by the victors but by the lookers. Whitey Bulger may yet be redeemed, by virtue of Johnny Depp.

Fortunately for Zuckerberg, and for Gleeson as well, the Spider-Man effect can be overcome with time and diligent effort. Hard to believe now, but Gleeson once appeared doomed to forever be “the kid from Batman,” having played a threatened child in “Batman Begins.”

Being typecast can have monetary rewards, as Dennis Haysbert knows. He played the wise and kind President Palmer on Fox’s old “24” then took our trust to the bank hawking the good hands of Allstate. Sometimes, typecasting loves you, but sometimes it bites you, and for Zuckerberg, there are more teeth ahead.

Jesse Eisenberg, who portrayed Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” was recently signed to play a villain, Lex Luthor, in the upcoming “Batman v. Superman.” This effectively reduces the whole squabble over the founding of Facebook to a scary new question: Whom do you trust — Spider-Man or Lex Luthor?

Note to Wall Street: Don’t value Facebook too high. Be afraid, Zuck. Be very afraid.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.
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