Four Things the Movies Have Never Gotten Right About Spider-Man


That rejoicing you heard this week? That’s fans celebrating the fact that Sony Pictures has finally agreed to share its Spider-Man with Marvel Studios. Despite the creative success of Spider-Man 2, it has long been evident that Sony has little to no idea what to do with the character — there’s rumors it even considered developing an Aunt May film. The problems are not limited to trivial matters like whether his webshooters are organic or the spiders genetically engineered. Instead, it’s the fundamental way the character has been presented. Can the studios prove that together they understand the core concepts that have made the character Marvel Comics’ flagship creation for 50 years? Here is a list of four key things that the movies have never gotten right about Spider-Man:

4. Peter is an outcast, not a dork

Amazing Fantasy #15 marked Peter Parker’s first appearance in any medium. One of his first lines to his peers was, “Someday I’ll show them! Someday they’ll be sorry!” What made Peter’s origin story so compelling was that he began his life as a self-obsessed know-it-all keen on getting revenge on those who did not understand him. Once he received his powers, Peter found himself on the fast track to villainy. He utilized his powers to make money and become a celebrity, until his self-involvement contributed to the murder of his uncle.

The original Spider-Man‘s best sequence was the exact moment when Peter didn’t bother to foil the escape of the burglar who would later kill Uncle Ben. This decision was an act of revenge against the promoter who had cheated Peter out of some winnings. That scene stings because Raimi made Peter’s choice a cheer-worthy moment for the audience — thereby implicating us in the death of Uncle Ben.

Of course, Peter’s failure there seems like a rare moment of selfishness and entitlement, rather than some more compelling character flaw. Andrew Garfield’s Peter exhibits a cocky and confident attitude that should have cursed him in the narrative of the Amazing Spider-Man films. Instead, his Peter never really changed after his own Uncle Ben moment, and continued down his own path of self-destruction. It seemed as if the writers were attempting to stretch the lessons of Amazing Fantasy #15 over two movies, but it ended up robbing the character of any motivation to continue fighting crime.

Peter Parker is undoubtedly one of the trickiest superhero characters to get right in any medium, but that complexity is why he’s so beloved. Under his mask, Spider-Man could be any one of us, and bringing him to life will require a strong understanding of not only his mythology but also his humanity. Sony and Marvel have some big spider-related decisions ahead of them; let’s hope that the place they start is at the core of the character.

3. Spider-Man is not the people’s hero

It is true that the red, white, and blues of Spider-Man’s costume were modeled after the wardrobe of Superman, but the comparisons between the characters stop there. While Spider-Man has his nobility, he’s not known to the public inside his New York as some beacon of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!” In the movies, however, he might as well be Captain America.

This started with the first teaser trailer for the first Spider-Man. The tease depicted Spider-Man halting a bank heist by catching the fleeing villains in his web between the towers of the World Trade Center. The sequence, filmed before 9-11, was originally intended as the coda to the film but was reshot before the film’s release in May of 2002. It was replaced with a single shot of Spider-Man swinging through the city and landing on a flagpole sporting Old Glory.

The image was a somber tribute, appropriate to the moment, but it would reappear in the subsequent films, which increasingly found Spider-Man championed by the city as its hero. Part of Spider-Man’s appeal in the comics is that even when Peter dons his costume and saves us all he is rarely recognized for his heroism. Instead, he is villainized by the biggest blowhard of them all, J. Jonah Jameson, whose Daily Bugle rails against the creepy-looking masked man, inspiring New Yorkers to view him with suspicion. Spider-Man’s mask protects his identity, but it also ends up turning the city against him.

J.K. Simmons’s Jameson was a wonderful character, but his anti–Spider-Man tactics never amounted to much trouble for the hero. Instead the people of Sony-Spidey’s New York City cheered Spider-Man on, sung his Sixties theme song, gathered to hear him speak, defended him from villains, and even rerouted construction cranes for him to swing from. With all of this support and assistance, it was hard to understand Peter’s struggle to live up to his Uncle Ben’s lessons in power and responsibility.

2. Spider-Man is Peter Parker’s interpretation of a hero — and he’s funny

Spider-Man is funny, exciting, and daring. He is everything that Peter Parker believes a superhero should be. The problem with this interpretation was that Peter himself was also funny, exciting, and daring in the Amazing Spider-Man films. Tobey Maguire’s interpretation of Peter Parker was nearly spot-on, but his Spider-Man was nearly silent in-costume. A smarter adaptation of the character casts Spider-Man as “Peter Parker+.” Spidey is a confidence-boosting put-on that allows Parker to shed his self-doubt and outsider status, if only momentarily. Only when facing truly insurmountable danger does Peter’s Spider-Man persona relent in his wisecracking, and in doing so he reveals his humanity under the mask.

1. Spider-Man is Archie with webs

Peter Parker is an everyman — that’s what makes him such a lovable hero. He’s the superhero that has to do his laundry, pay his rent, and keep an eye out for his financially strapped aunt. Couple this with his built-in “Parker Luck,” the vague and innate force that governs his life and ensures there’s disaster even in his victories, and there’s reason for anyone, from any background, to find common ground with Peter Parker. Yet these struggles, often represented in the films, are not enough: Peter’s greatest challenge is always learning to balance his responsibilities as Spider-Man with his life as Peter Parker. In many ways, the story of Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker, whose life is repeatedly upended by his superheroic responsibilities.

In the comics, this has played out to the most satisfying results in Parker’s uneven love life. One of the defining features of classic Spidey books by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. was the love triangle between Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, and the clueless Peter. So far the films have only portrayed one romantic interest for Peter at a time and have missed out on the fireworks between the two warring teens who saw something more in Peter than the rest of the world did. That’s the Parker Luck: Two beauties vying for him only led to more and greater drama and comedy. In the films, audiences rightly make the assumption that he’ll end up with MJ or Gwen purely because they are the only choices presented. When Marvel reintroduces the character into its universe, hopefully it can bury Peter, as well as Spider-Man, in a mountain of romantic trouble. At the very least, an introduction of multiple love interests would open up Peter’s life to additional complications, awkward situations, unfortunate reveals, and frisky fun of the sort the movies too often miss out on.

Dan Gvozden is the co-host of the Amazing Spider-Talk podcast and the editor of the Superior Spider Talk website.

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