With everyone’s favorite web-slinger swinging back into theaters this July, ComicsVerse is taking a look back at SPIDER-MAN’s greatest adventures. From the big screen to the small screen to a simple comic panel, we will find out how this ol‘ Web Head has evolved since he first webbed his way into our imagination.
Beware: Spoilers are ahead for pretty much anything SPIDER-MAN related!
With the upcoming release of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, audiences will witness the return of the beloved, light-hearted character that has been adored for generations. Though it hasn’t been long since the last Spider-Man film, Tom Holland’s portrayal has already revitalized the charm that faded from the character in recent films.
Recent films such as SPIDER-MAN 3 and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 misfired in portraying a multi-dimensional Peter Parker, particularly when attempting to portray his demons. So, I look forward to the future of Tom Holland’s portrayal in the hope that Peter Parker will be seen as more than a wise-cracking teenager with superpowers.
A Personal Connection
I have a little bias when it comes to choosing my favorite Spider-Man adaption. My first exposure to the realm of superheroes was through Sam Raimi’s first installment, SPIDER-MAN, in 2002. I was only five years old at the time, and I found the film mesmerizing.
Yes, the film has an abundance of cheesy moments and superhero clichés, but you cannot deny it has a heart. Even then, I felt as though I could identify with the titular hero who was simply trying to figure out how to be a hero in a world that desperately needed one. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was a naïve one who was not entirely willing to accept that individuals could be inherently evil.
An Unfamiliar Shift in Tone
With the light-hearted portrayal of Spider-Man in the 2002 and 2004 films, SPIDER-MAN 3 frazzled audiences through its darker tone. Yes, there are plenty of reasons for that film’s disappointment, but perhaps the most disappointing aspect was the failure to convey Peter’s darkness believably. Let’s not remind ourselves of that jazz club dance sequence, shall we?
Of course, there was the challenge of subverting the innocent and naive characteristics that audiences had grown familiar with. Thus, the objective of the third film was to find a way to engulf these characteristics by something darker and stronger. Sure, the death of Uncle Ben haunts Peter, but was reviving that the only way to challenge Peter’s moral code? Peter goes from being a non-killer to relishing in Sandman’s demise in a short amount of time. With a character such as Spider-Man, a change in his principles would require more development and perhaps more trauma.
The film once again tries to justify Peter’s changes by having Harry Osborn challenge him for Mary Jane’s affections. This method of breaking Peter down worked in the context of the film, but with flawed execution. Sure, the suit plays a factor in the character change, but it only makes Peter’s transformation appear even more superficial. With rushed character changes, there is ultimately no depth to the dark Peter Parker; a flaw paralleled in the reboot to come only five years later.
The Fleeting AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Franchise
Since the reboot developed so soon after the previous franchise, filmmakers wanted to distinguish this new film. As a result, director Marc Webb attempted to delve deeper into the dark side of Peter Parker in his own series of films, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.
They tried this by depicting a mysterious storyline involving the death of Peter’s parents. Personally, I was not a fan of this series as much as Raimi’s films. I found the storyline involving Peter’s parents compelling, but that aspect was not as much of a central focus as it should have been.
Though I respect Garfield as an actor, I felt as though his portrayal of Peter Parker was a tad too broody and arrogant. Yes, Spider-Man should relish in his newfound abilities and even show off a bit, but he should still maintain his childlike wonder and awe.
Perhaps I had simply grown used to Tobey Maguire’s wide-eyed portrayal of the character and felt as though filmmakers were trying too hard to embody the tone of Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS for a character so different from Batman. Because of this, I, along with others, believed that Spider-Man was incapable of having a dark side.
I believed in this incapability until I came across a few of Spider-Man’s greatest comic book storylines. These works depict the titular hero conflicted by his public perception. Peter struggles to uphold that perception of perfection and unwavering morality. Sure, this conflict is present in films such as SPIDER-MAN 2, but these works dig deeper and portray an unfamiliar Spider-Man in an unexpectedly successful manner.
Yes, Heroes Can Feel Blue Too
The first work that delves into Peter’s psyche is SPIDER-MAN: BLUE by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. For those expecting a climactic battle sequence and an emphasis on a scheming supervillain, prepare for a shock. The story Loeb and Sale depict is one of a retrospective nature, a memoir of Gwen Stacy through Peter Parker’s perspective. This formula is present within this series by Loeb and Sale that includes other notable works such as DAREDEVIL: YELLOW, HULK: GRAY, and CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHITE.
By the time the story commences, Gwen’s death had already taken place a long time ago, but Peter still finds himself reminiscing about his first love. He finds himself second-guessing his decisions that contributed to her untimely death. This story embarks on a unique journey for its hero since the story depicts a hero who questions whether his service has benefited anyone at all and whether the costs of life were worth the battle. It is indeed bizarre to witness Spider-Man, unlike his usual optimistic self, particularly for the entirety of a graphic novel.
Gwen’s death was a monumental one in comic book history. The death of a popular character was not a common occurrence during this era. The notable death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, did not take place until 1988. Perhaps the most notable major death, Superman’s, would not take place until 1992. As a result, up until this point, heroes were nearly invincible and always made it just in time to save their loved ones from harm.
The Transition from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age of Comic Books
In July of 1973 though, the hero was too late. Some consider the sequence where Spider-Man realizes Gwen has died to be the turning point in which the Silver Age transformed into the Bronze Age of Comics. What is perhaps most poignant about this sequence is the ambiguity of Gwen’s death.
Was it the Green Goblin’s fault? Did the shock of the fall cause her death? Or, was it the force of Spider-Man’s webbing that snapped her neck? Could the hero have been responsible for his attempt to save her? Was he too emotional in the moment to be objective with his tactics?
For once, the hero did not win. Instead, he made a fatal mistake that continues to haunt him into the years SPIDER-MAN: BLUE takes place. Within that story, Peter is happily married to Mary Jane, but he is haunted. He will continue to be haunted, for there is no remediation for a hero’s guilt.
The Bronze Age featured a shift where stories began to reveal the darkest corners of reality, and thus, moral codes became skewed. Death was not only possible now in the comic book world, but rampant. It seemed as though one could not uphold their heroic role without encountering some form of extreme suffering. As a result, writers and artists had to address the way a hero would respond to those moments.
Regarding the character of Spider-Man, this moment was unexpected since the character was a high school student, exemplifying a youthful naivety through his alter ego. This death stripped him of that youthful innocence and exposed the reality of the world he had never truly believed to exist since he had not witnessed it so closely.
The Graduation of Peter Parker
SPIDER-MAN: BLUE reflects on this lost innocence by retrospectively analyzing Peter’s reaction to his first tragedy. Her death exposed the reality of developing relationships with others. That reality, of course, was that his loved ones were in danger by association. Up until that moment, Spider-Man exemplified the idealistic hero. He saw himself as a member of his hometown community despite his abilities being of a superior nature.
Perhaps Peter was too idealistic and failed to acknowledge his weaknesses. Perhaps he neglected to recognize the reality that power invites challenges from those who wish to see the powerful fall. As a result of his abilities and the reality that Peter is distinct among his peers, he experiences a revelation that his powers inevitably isolate him.
His powers have invited secrecy and with secrecy comes an isolation from revealing the truth. Publicly revealing himself to be Spider-Man would render Peter vulnerable. Of course, I am disregarding the events of CIVIL WAR (2006) when I refer to his secret identity. Up until the moment of Gwen’s death, Spider-Man was never intended to be the realistic hero. Thus, Loeb and Sale’s story alters Peter’s perspective of his own role as a hero. He feels guilt and remorse for his duty.
I appreciated the risk that filmmakers took in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 by adapting Gwen Stacy’s death into the film. With another reboot of the character though, we will never witness the true impact of this death on that interpretation of Spider-Man. However, the film includes an optimistic ending in which Spider-Man finds inspiration to live on as a hero through his community. Yes, this is an appropriate response for the Spider-Man that most people know and love. However, it would have been interesting to see Peter’s internal conflict between his suffering and maintaining his public perception.
The Death of Jean DeWolff
Regarding Spider-Man exemplifying a realistic atmosphere that juxtaposes his previous interpretations, “The Death of Jean DeWolff” (1985) is a unique entry in the Spider-Man mythos that explores another tragedy touching Peter’s life. His friend is murdered, and Peter takes it upon himself to solve the crime and pursue his own form of justice.
The vigilante Daredevil makes an appearance as a foil to Spider-Man’s volatile state of mind as well as irrationality. Daredevil counters Spider-Man’s immaturity and attempts to reform Spider-Man’s perspective of justice. The story is notable for its omission of a super-villain that matches Spider-Man in strength, speed, agility, etc. Thus, Spider-Man is displaced out of his abstract realm of super-powered beings and enters the reader’s world.
When it comes to an audience’s admiration for Spider-Man, perhaps it is the character’s idealistic portrayals that are compelling. Perhaps the deconstruction of the character shows that even the most positive, light-hearted superhero is vulnerable to reality’s hardships.
It is unfamiliar to witness a character such as Spider-Man to be so susceptible to dark influences. However, maybe it is reassuring to see that even a hero such as Spider-Man doubts himself now and then just as the people on the outside of the comic book pages do.
On July 7, 2017, we will witness a new take on Spider-Man. Based on Tom Holland’s performance in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, I am confident he will pull off the character well. Ultimately though, I believe we can all agree we are interested in witnessing this new interpretation of a classic character, particularly post-INFINITY WAR.
Spider-Man is not like Batman; he is not like Daredevil, Jean Grey, or The Punisher. He is not like any hero who exemplifies his or her darkness. Despite this, Spider-Man is still capable of being more than what audiences have grown used to on the big screen.
He is capable of doubt, wrongdoings, and questionable perspectives on good and evil. I hope future filmmakers challenge the traditional formula of Peter Parker’s character so audiences can witness a refreshing take on the hero and perhaps the adaption of some great, lesser-known comic book stories.