The Problem with Spider-Man
I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming this weekend. This post will contain the mildest of mild spoilers for that film. Like, there are less spoilers for the movie in this post than there are in any given trailer for any movie. If you’re the kind of person who would be freaked out to learn that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a movie about the Marvel superhero Spider-Man, and pitch a fit about not being warned about it, this is the point where you turn away, as I am about to spoil the fact that both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are in the new Spider-Man movie. As I have now fulfilled my societal duty to tell people that a post about Spider-Man will reference a movie about Spider-Man wherein I mention that Spider-Man is in the film in question and a detail or two that have already been present since Captain America: Civil War, I can now move on to the part where I briefly discuss the movie, which isn’t even what this post is about.
Ooops, I forgot to warn people that Captain America: Civil War has Spider-Man in it before I just dropped it into regular conversation. It’s only been out a year, and I believe the current level of spoiler-warning necessity on social media is 75 years after the movie/TV show/book’s death. I apologize for my brazen lack of awareness and total lack of empathy.
So, I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming this weekend. It was a great movie, probably the best Spider-Man movie to date (although I think the first Tobey Maguire one was pretty great, and captured his origin story very well. Plus, Macho Man Savage AND Bruce Campbell were in it, so there’s that. Also, the second movie with Doc Ock was great, and a real high point in superhero movies.). I have a few quibbles about it, which are minor and do not detract from the movie too much, except for one thing I’m a little Eh about and would prefer if they would dial it back significantly, but before anyone gets too excited, the movie gets 5 stars, an A, my full endorsement, all that jazz. It had the most tense kitchen conversation/car ride I’ve ever seen (spoiler: there is a car ride and kitchen conversation in this movie), it was funny, Tom Holland was great, Michael Keaton is probably the best actor alive and I’m grateful he’s picking his roles and not Depping his way into banality/parody/grotesquery. It has action and heart and is very Spider-Manny. Go see it.
Wait, I hear you say, as my hearing is very good, and, yes, I’ve been listening to every conversation you’ve been having for the last couple of weeks, and seriously, I thought you were friends with her, and if she knew what you were saying about her, she’d be really upset, so stop. Also, you were wrong in that one “friendly disagreement” that you both were way more serious about than you wanted to let on, so you should apologize.
Anyway, you said Wait just now because the title of this is The Problem with Spider-Man and I just said it’s a great movie and go see it, and you wanted to know what dumbfuck nerd-ass fanboy bullshit I was going to say about the movie that is critically acclaimed and making bank. The reason for this is because this article is not actually about the movie at all, or at least, not really. Look, it’ll make sense by the end, OK? Which we’ll never get to if I don’t get to the point. But seriously, you’re reading my blog. Why are you in such a fucking hurry? You want to kill time, and I am the motherfucking Time Slaymaster.
(Fine. My one semi-major quibble is the Iron Man-esque suit Spidey has in the film. He doesn’t need a fucking AI powered suit to be Spider-Man, and I think the movie does a great job of demonstrating that fact before undercutting it at the end. He doesn’t need Stark’s bullshit technology, and the coolest thing about his suit is the part he made his own damn self. Let Spider-Man be Spider-Man, not Spider-Iron-Man. There, you now have the Marvel fanboy’s sneering commentary on an otherwise delightful romp.)
The Problem with Spider-Man
Something popped into my head last night, and I kicked it around for about three minutes without mentioning it out loud. Then I went to bed, and when I woke up the thought was still there and I kicked it around for another couple minutes, found I could argue the point for a brief time, and decided that it was worthy enough for a blog post. And that, I’ll have you know, is where all those insufferable and half-baked columns or talking head spots from George Will or Peggy Noonan or every idiot on a cable news channel: a thought sprung into their head, they spent two minutes constructing a flimsy case around it, and pushed it like they discovered the Truth. Also, this how all of my blog posts come to be.
That was the last introduction to the column. I promise.
Spider-Man is considered to be the flagship of Marvel Comics. Where DC has the omnipotent alien Superman (or worse, the bizarrely omniscient mega-rich Batman), Marvel’s face belongs to a scrawny teen with pretty cool powers and a really smart brain, who has a million problems and a girl is always one. He doesn’t have an unreachable Fortress that isolates him from the world, or a mansion with the world’s saddest and most pathetic mancave. Peter Parker has an apartment that he never has the rent money for, he always misses the important events of the folks around him because of his duty as a hero, and every good break is always just around the corner from the next bad one. He’s every one of us, plugging away at life, making incremental progress that is hard-earned, and worried about what an unexpected bill will do to all of his plans. To many, that’s what makes Marvel better than DC: their main character is Just Like Us.
Now, that description of Spider-Man is one that most of us who are familiar with the character, know not only by heart, but deep in our bones. It is what makes Peter Parker and Spider-Man different among the gods, figurative and literal, that make up the superhero universes. It is also bullshit, and contains the major problem with the character itself.
You scoff. I know, because I heard it, and you can say that was a “chair squeak” all you want, but we both know what you did. You scoff at my assertion that it is bullshit. Peter Parker is a struggling freelance photographer working with the irascible J. Jonah Jameson, barely able to make ends meet, an everyman, while guys like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are owners and heads of multi-billion dollar tech corporations.
Well, go ahead and pick up a current Spider-Man comic. Actually, don’t, because comics are mostly terrible now. But if you do, you’ll find that Peter Parker is the head of Parker Industries, a multi-billion dollar international tech company. He’s just another Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne. He’s as much an everyman as Superman. Sure, he only got that way because Doctor Octopus seemingly killed him, put his own consciousness into Parker’s body, became both Peter Parker and Spider-Man to prove that he could do it better, founded the company, then Peter took himself back over and was like, cool, head of a company. Like I said, comic books mostly suck ass now.
But the funny thing is, that’s not a problem. Parker’s an adult, he’s a genius, has super-powerful and super-rich friends, and it makes perfect sense that he is where he is. It’s a natural character arc. Peter was a teenager in the goddamn 1960’s. He’s been married, had jobs, a ton of life experience and growth and change over his lifetime. This is not a problem (overblown ridiculous storylines aside). The real problem is that a lot of people HATE THIS. They want him to be the myth of Spider-Man, the struggling nerdy kid. And unfortunately, a lot of those people are in charge of him. This brings us to his problem.
Peter Parker is the Reverse Peter Pan
Everyone knows Peter Pan. He’s the kid who never wants to grow up, wants to be irresponsible all day, fears the normal boring adult world. He refuses to age. Peter Parker is the opposite of that. He wanted to go to college, meet girls, fall in love, get married, have a family, get a real job. He was a recognizable person. He really was like us. We met him in high school, watched him overcome bullying and awkwardness, and come into his own. We saw him go to college, become more confident, and meet Gwen Stacy, his first real love, and Mary Jane Watson, his friend and confidant. We witnessed the tragedy of loss when Gwen died. We followed along as his friendship with MJ turned into love. We were at the wedding. We saw them become a young happy adult couple, with new challenges, but they were loving and supportive of each other and were made greater than they were singly. Finally, the happy couple was expecting their first child. They were married for twenty years, in the comics. That was, at that point, more than half of his existence as a comic character – a married man.
And, as I said before, some people fucking HATED that fact. Peter Parker is the struggling kid with girl problems, according to the myth, not a happily-married guy about to have a kid. Now, if most people didn’t like it, they could either a) read the older comics from before Peter got older and experienced character growth, and get the fuck over themselves, b) pound sand and read fucking Superboy or Speedball or some other horseshit, or c) murder the Parker’s unborn child and either cause the breakup of Peter and MJ by making him a clone of the REAL Peter Parker, or hitting her, or making her have an affair, or contriving a scenario where Aunt May is dying and forcing Peter to make a deal with Satan to save Aunt May at the cost of having his marriage to MJ end, not in divorce or by killing her off, but instead ALTERING REALITY so that the MARRIAGE NEVER TOOK PLACE AT ALL, so Peter was not a divorcee or a widower, but instead had been perpetually single the entire time and lalala it didn’t happen, the Devil made sure of it.
Now, option C sounds like sweaty fanfic from an unhinged person who really needs to examine some issues deep within himself. That is what it should have remained. However, that sweaty unhinged fanfic belonged to someone who could do something about it. That person was Joe Quesada, then editor-in-chief at Marvel, and a complete fuckface.
“Peter being single is an intrinsic part of the very foundation of the world of Spider-Man.”
-Joe Quesada, Fuckface
Yes, option C is literally what happened in the comic book world. Peter Parker, everyman hero, literally bargained with a demon and gave away his marriage so he could have One More Day with his Aunt May. For some people, that forever tainted the comic-book version of Spider-Man, as he betrayed every ideal he upheld for selfish pursuit. He used Power without Responsibility. And when I say “some people” I mean Me, because fuck the comic-book version of Spider-Man in the ear for that one. Actually, I dropped out after Quesada’s initial fumbling attempt to retcon the marriage away during the Clone Saga, an actual thing that also happened, and culminated with MJ being poisoned so that their child was stillborn. These are things that fucking happened because Joe Fuckface Quesada thought Peter Parker should be single.
And this is where I think the problem with Spider-Man lies. People want the myth of Spider-Man. They want him to be forever young, struggling with love and his own confidence. They don’t want him to grow up. This is, however, a major fucking problem. A good character NEEDS growth. An arc. A journey from naïve and inexperienced to adulthood and understanding. It’s what human beings do. It’s how we identify with them.
One reason superheroes get a bad rap storytelling-wise is that they really do not grow at all. Their arcs are temporary, always resetting back to their beginning. Most superheroes appear (origin story aside, and that’s a reason why it’s called an “origin story” – it’s a brief blurb to get us where the storytellers want us to be, at the Good Stuff) fully-grown, with their superpowers, doing their thing. Their thing never changes. There are ups and downs – battles with alcoholism, being de-powered, getting depressed and retiring, getting killed – but they always come back to the status quo, even if the entire multiverse has to be destroyed over and over again to get us back to that point.
Sadly, for Peter, he began as a teenager, and so a teenager he must remain. His growth and maturity must be undone, so that we can return to the point where fuckfaces like Joe Quesada feel happiest, heaping misery on the shoulders of a kid who can never age because they wish they themselves could be single forever, never aging, never changing, never having to grow the fuck up. They are subverting the only good character arc comic books ever fucking had, from high-schooler through college into adulthood to marriage and just on the verge of becoming a parent. I WANTED to see the Peter Parker I grew up with become a Dad, raising a kid and instilling his values in them, watching them grow up to become sullen teens with posters of Venom on their walls to finally getting it and just maybe becoming a hero in their own right. I wanted that a lot. I still do. There are zero role-model parents in comic books that last beyond an origin story. Spider-Man could have been the fucking best, and Joe Quesada and fuckfaces like him destroyed that because they wished THEY could be Peter Pan, only with babes and superpowers.
This is a problem with the movies as well. We’ve had, what, six or seven movies with Iron Man and Cap now. We’ve seen them become heroes, overcome adversity, develop friendships, seen them come under strain, and break into sad and unwanted conflict amongst themselves. They have had character arcs, and they are still ongoing. This is part of what makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe great. It’s enough growth and change that it resonates. Now, it can’t last forever, unless they are willing to let the universe keep rolling as the current stars age out. I hope they do. But we see character arcs.
In contrast, we’ve had six Spider-Man movies (plus a cameo, but we won’t go into that much). In the first, Peter Parker is a high-school senior and gets his powers. He lives next to MJ, has always had a crush on her, battles the Green Goblin to GG’s death, gets MJ to fall in love with him, realizes his life is too dangerous, and makes MJ just be a friend. In the second, MJ is engaged to someone else, Doctor Octopus comes to be and battles Spidey, MJ learns that Peter is Spider-Man, Doc Ock is killed (why superhero movies kill off the iconic villians of a character in their very first appearance is fucking mind-boggling to me), and MJ runs away from the altar to be with Peter. In the third, Peter is going to propose to MJ, ends up kissing Gwen Stacy, battles the Hobgoblin (child of the Green Goblin) and Sandman, gets taken over by an alien suit, wears a bad hairstyle and dances like a moron, MJ gets with Harry, Spidey battles Venom, Harry dies, and MJ and Peter are reconciled (this movie tried a little too hard). In the fourth, Peter is a high school student again, this time with Gwen Stacy there, they fall in love, Uncle Ben dies again, Spidey battles the Lizard, exposes his identity to people because he’s really dumb for a genius, and breaks it off with Gwen until the end when he decides he might not. In the fifth, Spidey is crimefighting, graduates from high school, breaks up with Gwen, fights Electro, gets back with Gwen, kills Electro, fights the Green Goblin, Gwen dies, Peter quits being Spidey, the Rhino appears, and Peter goes back to being Spidey (this movie tried way too fucking hard). In the sixth movie, Peter is fifteen, has a crush on Liz (a nod to the fact that Peter Parker’s first crush was Liz Allan, who actually WAS in high school with him), and fights the Vulture.
That was a lot, and I’m sorry, but I think it’s representative of the same Peter Pan problem. The first Spider-Man movie began with him in high school, and the last movie ends with him being younger than he was at the start. Is Peter Parker going to be able to age at all during his current movie run? Go to college? Get married? I doubt it, and I think that’s the Problem with Spider-Man. He will never grow. I’m worried that, as Marvel’s Cinematic Universe becomes more important than the comics they came from (the opening of Marvel movies no longer using comic pages – it’s all movies), Spidey will be locked in forever as an awkward kid, because some people simply refuse to allow Peter Parker to grow up.
Just like that fuckface Joe Quesada.