So… I don’t know if you noticed, but we had a lot of super-hero movies in 2014. There were four films based on Marvel Comics properties, and even more if you count ancillary projects like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Disney’s Big Hero Six. Things got bigger, grander, and weirder than they ever have before, all culminating with the release and success of Guardians of the Galaxy, a property that most comic book nerds, never mind regular moviegoers, have had zero exposure to. If there was once a time when costumed crusaders were under-represented in the big screen, that is no longer the age that we live in. If anything, the conversation is starting to tip in the direction of, “Are we getting to the point of super-hero fatigue?”
Unfortunately for Sony Pictures, the answer to that question doesn’t seem to be so ambiguous when it comes to the super hero that is under their custody. Put simply, if we’re running the risk of super-heroes in general getting worn out, we’re definitely suffering from a bit of Spider-Man fatigue. Eyebrows have been raised around the web-slinging franchise ever since the announcement of the recent Amazing films, directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Those films came hot on the heels of Sam Raimi’s trilogy of (very) successful and (mostly) well-received Spidey films. The incredibly fast turnaround time for those new films might have been easier to swallow if the resulting pieces of art had been cinematic masterpieces for the ages, but the Webb films were met with much cooler reactions (both financially and critically) than their predecessors.
Which is why the recently unveiled news that we have yet another brand-new incarnation of Spider-Man just around the corner has been met with a largely… let’s call it “divided” reception. For those of you who haven’t fully dived into the details of the latest industry scuttlebutt: Sony Pictures, the movie studio that has held the film rights to the Spider-Man character for the past two decades, has recently come to a contractual agreement with Marvel Studios, the burgeoning film production subsidiary of Marvel Comics and Disney that has been responsible for all things Avengers-related for the recent past. The exact details are still in a fair amount of flux, but under this agreement Spider-Man will be introduced into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe in an upcoming film led by an established character (most pundits are currently placing their money on Captain America: Civil War) before headlining his own stand-alone film in 2017. This iteration of Spider-Man will almost certainly be played by a currently unannounced newcomer rather than by a returning Andrew Garfield. (Donald Glover fans, hold your breath.) It also looks likely Spider-Man’s alter ego will be once again in his high school years. How this affects other Spider-Man-related films that are currently in development at Sony, like the Drew Goddard-led Sinister Six film, remains to be seen.
Now, on the one hand it’s easy to understand why lots of reactions to this news have fallen somewhere between indifference and frustration. I mean… more Spider-Man? It’s undeniable that the character’s saturation level is getting to pretty critical levels. With three actors playing the role within a span of ten years, Spider-Man is now turning actors around even faster than James Bond or the Doctor in Doctor Who. The last time you had a character go through so many actors as quickly was when Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher were hashing out their takes on Batman back in the ‘90s (and at least those films offered wildly divergent takes on the character in a way that the recently released Spider-Man films have not). No one is exactly starving for Spider-Man content, especially not when it pushes back projects like Captain Marvel and Black Panther which would do a lot to diversify the super-hero landscape. So wouldn’t it just be better for everyone if Spider-Man went away for a while to let us all get to the point where we miss him?
Well… maybe, but I think that there’s also an argument to be made for the Spider-Man franchise being able to expand the super-hero film landscape in some interesting and appealing ways (and no, I’m not just saying that because of how badass this art of Marvel’s flagship hero fighting alongside the Avengers looks). The fact of the matter is, there are certain aspects of Spider-Man the character, specifically of Spider-Man the person more than Spider-Man the super-hero, that make him very unlike almost every other super-hero out there. And, amazingly, these are not aspects that have always been fully represented in either the Marc Webb or the Sam Raimi films, so there might actually be justification for bringing another take on Spider-Man to the table.
(Although, seriously, Marvel – no more delaying that Captain Marvel movie, okay? Because we need that thing about four yesterdays ago.)
So, why do we need Spider-Man?
For starters, because he’s our best teenage super-hero. A lot of people are griping about the fact that these new films seem to aim the character back towards his younger origins, material that was covered in the first of the Raimi and Webb cycles, but it’s a rather important aspect of the character. Teenage figures are hardly a rarity in the world of super-heroes, but most of the time they are relegated to the roles of sidekicks (the Boy Wonder and his ilk) or the “junior” members of an already established team (think Rogue, Kitty Pride, and the rest of the students in the X-Men franchise). Peter Parker (and current Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales, for that matter) has none of that behind him. They are fascinating figures because they have to hazard their way through the pressures of becoming a hero at an age when they are eminently unprepared for it.
And that fact of the matter is, neither Raimi’s nor Webb’s films really dive into this aspect of Peter Parker’s life with any amount of depth. Spider-Man zooms Parker up to his high school graduation so quickly that it barely registers against the sharp relief of Uncle Ben’s death, and both entries in the Amazing series get so wrapped up in its various convoluted conspiracies to ever feel grounded in teenage issues. Both of those films wrap their protagonists in some of the accouterments of adolescence but don’t ever spend time tackling issues of adolescence head on. Just like one of the joys of Superman is the fact that the big man can leap over a building no problem but can’t get a date with Lois Lane, one of the things that makes Spider-Man fascinating is that your friendly neighborhood hero is able to defeat larger than life villains but Peter Parker struggles with comparably simple issues like bullying, peer pressure, and high school dating. It’s a dichotomy that has not been properly served by either film cycle, and, unless Marvel Studios has been secretly planning to get a Runaways TV show off the ground, fertile ground for the MCU to explore.
But it’s not just a matter of youth. We need Spider-Man because he’s our most vulnerable hero. And, no, I don’t mean physically vulnerable. Nor do I mean the “I’m an invincible millionaire but there’s a piece of poisonous metal that might kill me” vulnerability of Tony Stark, the loss of personal control exhibited by Bruce Banner, or even the violent discrimination faced by the X-Men. Peter Parker is vulnerable the way that we’re vulnerable. Think about the problems that he faces day-to-day. He’s broke. His boss is an unreasonable rage-a-holic. He’s concerned about his family’s ability to make ends meet. He can’t get a date. He’s an awkward, put-upon dork. He’s… well, he’s just kind of a loser.
And we love him for it.
In this excerpt from an interview with Stan Lee, he discusses what he thinks the enduring appeal of Spider-Man is. For him, the key to the Spider-Man character can be summed up in a single word: empathy. He was crafted as a hero that would face larger-than-life troubles, but would also face problems that readers would recognize from their own life. This, combined with a higher degree of thought-balloons and direct access to the hero’s interior thoughts, created a character that not only seemed more alive, but also more accessible than other contemporary super-heroes. It’s no coincidence that Spider-Man 2, the most enduringly popular of the five films made in the 21st Century, is the one that spends the least amount of time on web-slinging antics but has the most scenes of Peter Parker being late to things. Contrast that with Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2, both films that were criticized for their overwhelming preponderance of villains and the way that they stretched out the plot beyond the point of being properly developed. Perhaps, however, the problem wasn’t in the way the story was short-changed, but in the way that our ability to see the human side of Peter Parker was compromised. We need Spider-Man because he more than any other super-hero in the Marvel stable fits the bill of a fantasy figure we can have fun with while still offering up a mirror that we can recognize ourselves in. And if they can nail that in these upcoming films, rebooting the franchise yet again will have been worth it.
And, finally, we need Spider-Man because he’s our funniest hero. Sure, Raimi’s films have been entertaining and had their fair share of comedic moments. (No, not that one. Or that one. Never bring those up again.) And sure, Webb’s films seemed to do make a conscious effort to kick up the wisecracking a few notches. But pick up any classic issue of Spider-Man and you don’t just get a sarcastic whippersnapper – you get a rocket-mouthed hybrid of a super-hero and a stand-up comedian, with an amazing quip ready to go for every occasion. There are a few recent super-hero films that have been praised for their comedic deftness – Iron Man’s dryly sardonic wit, Guardians of the Galaxy – but none where joyous, zany comedy driven and created by the main character is one of the primary organizing forces of the film. We live in an age that is only beginning to break away from the somber shot of serious energy that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films gave us; we have yet to see a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is an action-comedy film the way that, say, Rumble in the Bronx or other classic Jackie Chan films are action-comedies. It’s a great, untapped genre, and Spider-Man is absolutely the hero to fill that niche.
Even if it does mean I have to wait until 2018 for Captain Marvel.