Wednesday, January 23, 2019

My Life in Spider-Man Movies

I first met Spider-Man in March of 1986 when I was three-years-old.  Mom bought me Web Of Spider-Man #12 from one of those old spinny racks that used to hold comic books in grocery stores and gas stations.  I would meet a lot of costumed crusaders in this fashion but I’d never fall in love with any of them the way I fell in love with Spider-Man.  He’s still my all-time favorite fictional character!  For over thirty years I’ve read his comics and story books; played with his toys; worn his t-shirts, pajamas, gloves, and hats; and watched his cartoons.  But, while the modern age of superhero cinema makes it easy to forget, the ‘80s and ‘90s were a barren wasteland for Spider-Movies.  All I had was Christopher Reeve as Superman to rent and dumb Batman movies to see at the theatre.  I watched them all, as a lover of superheroes, but you can imagine my joy when all this began to change.

The only live-action Spider-Man movie I remember from my youth is a foggy memory at best.  I’ve scoured IMDb and YouTube trying to figure out just what I’d rent again and again but my searches have yielded nothing.  All I have is a vague impression of his suit and a vivid memory of the special effects.  Even as a kid I could tell the actor was just crawling on the floor with the camera above him and someone would throw a net from off screen when he’d “shoot his webs” :).  I don’t know what it was or where it came from.  Maybe it was a few episodes of a live-action Spidey TV show?  But, awkwardness and all, I loved it because he was my hero.

HE WAS FINALLY HERE!  SPIDEY WAS ON THE BIG SCREEN! / Photo Credit - Spider-Man (2002)

Naturally, my heart exploded with joy when 2002 brought Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.  To this day few comic book movies understand their characters as intimately as Sam Raimi and his crew did.  THIS WAS WHAT I’D WAITED FOR MY WHOLE LIFE!!!  He looked like Spider-Man.  He moved like Spider-Man.  Peter Parker was there!  Mary Jane was there!  Aunt May was there!  J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson and The Daily Bugle were there!  And they all felt like they did in the comic books.  Tobey Maguire’s Peter was a brilliant yet awkward outcast who took photos to pay his bills.  And his chemistry with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson created – to this day – the best on screen superhero couple I’ve ever seen.  While he is, admittedly, not a strong comedic actor the rest of this film (and the following Spider-Man 2 (2004)) was perfect.  Even if this Spider-Man wasn’t as funny as he should be, no other filmmaker’s come close to capturing the tone and feel of Spider-Man’s world and his relationships the way Raimi did.

To be honest, if someone came up to me – as a complete newbie – and asked where to start to understand Spider-Man as a character, I’d direct them to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (I’ll leave Spider-Man 3 for the more discerning fan).  Those films honor all that Spider-Man is – perfectly capturing his history and why this character has endured for over fifty years.

Best. Onscreen Kiss. EVER. / Photo Credit - Spider-Man (2002)

Infamously, Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007) sort of came apart.  While I don’t think it deserves the ire it gets, I’ll openly admit its faults.  It was far too crowded (with Raimi wanting Sandman as the villain and the studio pushing for Venom and Harry as a new Goblin) and they lost the thread of who Peter Parker and Spider-Man are.  As the middle piece of a five film series (as it was intended to be), it’s fine.  But as a standalone Spider-Man film it didn’t work and complications with Spider-Man 4 led to Sony pulling the plug on Raimi’s saga and letting Marc Webb – hot off the indie success of his (500) Days Of Summer – reboot the whole universe in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

This time it was Andrew Garfield wearing the webs with Emma Stone playing Gwen Stacy, Peter’s first true love in the comics.  When I think of this series I tend to remember the train wreck that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).  It was as if Sony looked at everything that went wrong with Spider-Man 3 and said, “Yep, we can top that.”  In a ridiculous effort to create an interconnected universe to compete with Marvel Studios in one single film they threw in more villains (Electro, the Green Goblin, the Rhino, and Alistair Smythe) along with allusions to everyone in the Sinister Six, the Black Cat, and anything else they could think of.  I don’t think I’ve watched the DVD once since buying it…

Those mirrored eyes were a bit of a shock but I can roll with costume changes.  It happens in the comics all the time too! / Photo Credit - The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

But The Amazing Spider-Man was promising!  While I never bought Andrew Garfield as the awkward social outcast like I did Tobey Maguire, I adored how funny he was.  I didn’t even realize what I was missing with Tobey Maguire’s performance until I saw Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man!  I often randomly think of the scene in The Amazing Spider-Man where Spidey stops a carjacker.  The humor, the sass, the sarcasm – this is Spider-Man!  His sense of humor was a huge part of why I fell in love with him in the first place.  No matter what threat he faced, Spider-Man always quipped as effectively as he thwipped.  And Andrew Garfield delivered! 

Perhaps someday we'll get a film that gives the Gwen/Peter relationship the weight it deserves... / Photo Credit - The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

If Sam Raimi best captured Spider-Man’s universe for me, Marc Webb best presented the webhead’s hallmark humor.  But the rough critical and fan response to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 meant Marc Webb and company wouldn’t get another chapter to their saga.  This left Sony – much to the elation of Spider-Man fans and superhero movie lovers everywhere – to finally broker a deal with Marvel Studios allowing Spidey to swing into the MCU.  And the friendly neighborhood hero has been exceptionally busy ever since.

With Captain America: Civil War (2016), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Tom Holland has donned the webs three times, with his fourth and fifth outings (Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home) to follow this year.  I’ve read many pieces – and had many conversations – where Tom Holland is heralded as the best Spider-Man ever.  While I do enjoy what he brings to the role, he isn’t the epitome of Peter Parker/Spider-Man for me.

THWIP! / Photo Credit - Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

First, if I’m being honest, he seems more like Iron Man Jr. than Spider-Man.  “Karen,” his suit’s A.I., has taken the place of his spider-sense.  And all of his tech is built by Tony Stark.  Sure, Tony builds Peter an Iron Spider suit in the comics but Peter was always brilliant in his own right.  He designed his suit; created his web shooters, spider-tracers, spider-stingers, impact webbing, and his spider-signal; developed his web fluid – he even taught college courses and ran a company to rival Stark Industries at one point – all on his own.  But in the MCU everything he is/does seems to exist in the shadow of our favorite genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. 

Second, I prefer my Peter Parker out of high school.  There!  I said it!  I can’t understand the fascination with a high school-aged Peter Parker.  Unless you’re my parents’ age or older, you first met a Peter Parker in his late 20’s or early 30’s trying to balance adulting with superheroing.  When you look at the comics, Peter graduated high school in The Amazing Spider-Man #28 which came out in September 1965.  His first appearance was in Amazing Fantasy #15, released in August of 1962.  So, over the course of the fifty-six years he’s been a part of our popular culture, Peter was in high school for three of those years.  As such, there’s nothing “nostalgic” or “essential” about a high school Spider-Man for me.  I grant that’s a product of my age and comic-centric focus, but it’s my truth nonetheless.  I digress.

OH MY GOSH PETER'S FINALLY IN HIS THIRTIES!!!  And that isn't even CLOSE to being the best thing about this AMAZING movie :). / Photo Credit - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

But THEN last December’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) FINALLY gave me my adult Spidey with Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker!  He is an adult, struggling with his relationships and job, awkward, brilliant, and oh-so-funny.  It was perfect!  I’ve been wanting this Spidey on screen since I first met him in 1986!!!  But Into the Spider-Verse didn’t just give us Peter Parker.  No, he was the hilariously poor mentor to Shameik Moore’s Miles Morales and Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacy and this makes all the difference.  If Sam Raimi’s films perfectly capture Spider-Man’s history, Phil Lord’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse just as perfectly embodies his future. 

THIS FILM!!!!  I am happy to join the well-deserved chorus of praise it’s received when I say I’m in awe of this film.  It’s so brilliant and fun and funny and it far surpassed my exceedingly high expectations.  I’ve seen the future of Spider-Man movies and it is animated.  But what makes this film so special isn’t it’s intelligent, fast, funny, plot.  Nor is it the fact that it features animation unlike anything we’ve ever seen before or a soundtrack you never want out of your head once you hear it.  What makes this film so special is it has all those things while starring some of Marvel’s brightest Legacy Characters. 

Peni Parker (SP//dr), Gwen Stacy (Spider-Woman), Peter Porker (Spider-Ham), Miles Morales (Spider-Man), Peter Parker (Spider-Man), and Peter Benjamin Parker (Spider-Man Noir) / Photo Credit - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In short, a Legacy Character takes an established character – Spider-Man, Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Ghost Rider, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, whomever – and allows someone else to share their mantle.  The new characters behind the masks are often a different gender and/or race and/or religion and/or sexual orientation than the white heterosexual man who originally held the title.  This allows a wider audience to connect with the character in a more personal way.  This is so important!  As a white, heterosexual, American, male, I’ve grown up seeing myself reflected in the characters I love.  Everyone deserves this chance.  Into the Spider-Verse powerfully delivers on its central theme – the idea that anyone can wear the mask – by having Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy be the central heroes.  This allows more kids all over the world to see themselves in Spider-Man in the same intimate, amazing way I’ve been able to my whole life.  Speaking from thirty-plus years of experience, that is a very special gift. 

For this, Into the Spider-Verse will always have my respect.  For being such a perfect Spider-Man movie, Into the Spider-Verse will always have my heart.  Nothing will ever compare to what I felt when I went into the theatre and saw Spider-Man (2002) for the first time.  How could it?  I’d waited my entire life for a film to show me everything I loved about Spider-Man!  But Into the Spider-Verse is showing us everything Spider-Man can and should be.  I know Sony’s already working on Into the Spider-Verse 2 as well as a Spider-Gwen spin-off starring Gwen with Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) and Cindy Moon (Silk).  WOOOO HOOOO!  I say bring it on!  Unlike the dreadful days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Into the Spider-Verse now setting the tone, our cinematic Spider-Man future will be bright indeed.   

Michael Miller writes and rambles about comic books and comic book movies (not to mention Doctor Who and Star Wars and whatever else randomly pops into his head) on his blog My Comic Relief.  He teaches theology at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA – including classes on Star Wars as modern mythology and the intersection of comic books and social justice.  Should it be your thing, you can also find him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief.

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