SPIDER-MAN’S OEDIPUS COMPLEX
Thanks to the enormous success of the recent movies about the character, Marvel’s Spider-Man has become more popular than ever. Sam Raimi directed the first three live action Spider-Man films, starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker alias Spider-Man, all of which I’ve reviewed in past installments of “Comics in Context.” Raimi, Maguire, and the rest of the original cast have left the series, and Columbia Pictures and Marvel have now “rebooted” the film series, starting it over from Spider-Man’s origin, in this year’s new film The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by the appropriately named Marc Webb, with Andrew Garfield taking over the role of Peter Parker. And Mr. Webb and his collaborators are taking a strikingly different approach to the Spider-Man saga than Mr. Raimi did, including a focus on Peter Parker’s fathers, both real and figurative.
As usual, in analyzing this film, I will be discussing the entire plot. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, it behooves you to go watch it before reading this critique.
But before I begin psychoanalyzing Spider-Man in his latest movie, I want to address just how long Spider-Man has been a part of American popular culture.
THE MARVEL REVOLUTION IN MIDDLE AGE
Back in college I signed up to take a course in Modern Literature, thinking that I would be studying novels from the previous few decades. Instead I discovered that “modern,” or “modernist literature” is a term used to describe fiction mostly from the 20th century before World War II; postwar literature was instead described as “contemporary.” Years later I similarly learned that the term “modern art” refers to works from the late 19th century up to the 1960s; after that comes “contemporary art.” Thus what is still called “modern” becomes old.
When I was growing up, the classic Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man were the new, cutting edge superheroes of the day. The Marvel Revolution of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their colleagues had revitalized the superhero genre, giving characters new psychological depth, their world greater realism, and their stories greater dramatic and emotional impact. The heroes of the Marvel Age of Comics sharply contrasted with the DC Comics superheroes, who had already been around in one form or another for decades. As time passed, we grew used to referring to the comics of the late 1950s and the 1960s as those of “the Silver Age,” a term that made it sound like a legendary period of past history. Yet probably to many of us, 1960s Marvel still represented modernity in the superhero genre, a new phase in the superhero genre that new writers and artists carried on through the 1970s and 1980s.
But now we have to face a startling fact: this year, 2012, is the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Spider-Man in his origin story, by editor/scripter Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, in Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man and the Marvel Revolution are a half century old. Kids discovering Spider-Man now are fans of a character whom their grandparents read about in comic books. To the new generation Spider-Man must seem to have been around as long as Superman. And when I was growing up, it seemed as if Superman had been around forever. I would have to remind myself that my father was born before the creation of Superman or Batman or Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny or various other characters in cartoon art who seem to be permanent parts of American popular culture.
Nowadays continuity at DC Comics is in continual flux, seemingly changing with the whims of whoever the latest editors and writers are. Back in 1986 John Byrne’s The Man of Steel famously rebooted the Superman mythos, supplanting the Silver Age continuity of Superman comics edited by Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz. The Byrne revamp held form for years, but then started undergoing revisions. Then Geoff Johns set down the new, post-Byrne version of the Superman origin in the Superman: Secret Origin series in 2009-2010. And that held for only a year before the Superman origin got rebooted yet again by Grant Morrison in the “New 52’s” Action Comics starting in 2011.
One of Marvel’s great strengths has long been its strong sense of history. For the most part, Marvel continuity has remained intact for a half century. Indeed, admirably, in recent years, through such books as the Marvel 75th Anniversary titles, The Marvels Project, and the Agents of Atlas series, present day Marvel has even reincorporated neglected superhero characters from Marvel’s pre-1960s history, as Timely and Atlas Comics, into the canon of Marvel continuity.
I suspect that in large part Marvel’s refusal (so far) to give in to the trend for reboots is due to the strength of the foundation of modern Marvel Comics: those classic 1960s stories by Lee, Kirby, Ditko and the rest. Newer writers may tweak and fiddle with them in retellings, but (for the most part) no one wants to replace them, not yet anyway.
Lee and Ditko’s origin story for Spider-Man is still so well conceived, so well told, and so dramatically powerful as to seem miraculous. (It is also concise, telling the origin in only eleven pages, whereas in the contemporary period of “decompressed” storytelling, the Ultimate Spider-Man series took six issues to tell its alternative version.) And to think that Lee and Ditko considered this story to be a throwaway, an experiment to run in the final issue of a cancelled comic, that may well never have led to a continuing series, much less to become Marvel’s flagship series and the source of blockbuster movies a half century later.
That is another proof of the power of the Marvel Revolution in the superhero genre. The Revolution may be a half-century old in the comics, but it was reborn in another medium, movies, in 2000 with the first X-Men movie. Great commercial and creative successes like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, and Joss Whedon’s Avengers film demonstrate that the Marvel Revolution of the 1960s can be translated into vivid, brilliant contemporary work in cinema today. And through the movies, the Marvel characters and storytelling style of the 1960s is reaching a far wider audience, across the world.
Nonetheless, as more time has passed since Lee and Ditko did their classic Spider-Man stories, newer writers will reinterpret the character or be tempted to alter his past saga. In the comics, Marvel launched an alternative continuity in its Ultimate line of comics, starting with Ultimate Spider-Man, while continuing the traditional continuity in the main Marvel Universe line of comics. (The biggest change in Ultimate Spider-Man was the recent death of Peter Parker and his replacement by a new, African-American Spider-Man.)
Moviemakers feel free to revise traditional continuity from the comics; what is most important is that the films get the characters’ personalities and the spirit of their original comics series right, as the recent Marvel movies mostly have. In critiquing these movies, we should examine what they changed and why. In making a change to the original continuity, did the moviemakers make an improvement, or did they miss something important about the way the character and his series work?
FROM RAIMI TO REBOOT
When it was announced that director Sam Raimi and his cast were leaving the Spider-Man movie series, one prominent Marvel executive publicly asserted that the next Spider-Man film would not be a “reboot.” But of course that is exactly what The Amazing Spider-Man movie is, starting the Spider-Man saga over again from the origin story, with Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s alter ego, once again a high school student. Director Marc Webb and his screenwriters would understandably want to put their own stamp on this new Spider-Man film series. So they would presumably want to make revisions in the continuity, not only from what it is in the comics, but also to differentiate the new version from Raimi’s. So just what have Webb and company changed, for better or for worse?
For example, one thing that is decidedly missing from Sam Raimi’s trilogy of Spider-Man films is something that all of Spider-Man’s leading writers for the comics have understood and used. Spider-Man has a sense of humor. He continually makes wisecracks. In combat he makes jokes at his adversaries’ expense. As I asserted in a column I wrote way back in the 1980s, Spider-Man is Marvel’s Bugs Bunny. He is a trickster character. Raimi’s Spider-Man doesn’t make jokes when he is in action. Marc Webb’s Spider-Man in the new The Amazing Spider-Man film does have a sense of humor, most notably in the scene when he contends with the car thief and pretends to be frightened of his knife. I wish that there was more of the wisecracking Spider-Man from the comics in the film, but at least he is heading in the right direction. I also like all the comedy that Webb and company get out of Peter’s initial inability to control his new super-powers, sticking involuntarily to things. This is an imaginative and effective new approach to the part of the origin saga in which Peter discovers his super-powers, and I like it.
Actor Andrew Garfield seems to me to be too conventionally good-looking to be Ditko’s high school wallflower version of Peter Parker. But Garfield makes up for this by persuasively playing Peter early in the movie as a withdrawn introvert who is not adroit at social interaction. Over the course of the film Garfield’s Peter Parker gradually grows more self-confident and more at ease in interacting with people outside his family, and it’s a pleasure to watch the character thus evolve in the course of two hours or so.
The Raimi movies and even the Ultimate Spider-Man comics series turned Mary Jane Watson into Peter’s first love interest, going back to their high school days, introducing Gwen Stacy later on. In Stan Lee’s original comic book stories, it was Gwen who was Peter’s first true love, and Peter did not meet either Gwen or Mary Jane until he was in college. Although the comic book Gwen seemed standoffish at first, she evolved into an idealized girlfriend for Peter: beautiful, sweet, devoted, but actually rather lacking in psychological depth. Mary Jane, in contrast, was sassy, flirtatious, funny, openly sexy, but somewhat frivolous. Spider-Man writer Roger Stern used to maintain that Mary Jane was exactly the wrong woman for Peter Parker. However, after the shocking death of Gwen in the comics at the hands of the Green Goblin, Mary Jane, as the remaining important supporting female character who was Peter’s age, emerged as the obvious candidate to be Peter’s new girlfriend. Writer Gerry Conway brilliantly justified a relationship between Peter and Mary Jane through his graphic novel Spider-Man: Parallel Lives, which revealed that Mary Jane’s party girl persona was like Peter’s Spider-Man identity: alternate personas to compensate for the sadness in both their lives. On Stan Lee’s own suggestion, Peter and Mary Jane were married in the comic books and Spider-Man newspaper strip in the 1980s, although the wedding was recently undone in the comic books by Peter’s unfortunate deal with the devil Mephisto to alter past history.
With Gwen long gone in the comics, it was understandable that Raimi cast Mary Jane as Peter’s girlfriend from high school onward in the movies. But I think that Mary Jane in the movies and some other recent adaptations of Spider-Man ended up being depicted as Gwen with red hair, lacking the distinctive personality that Stan Lee and artist John Romita, Sr. had originally gave her.
So I’m glad that in the reboot Webb and his colleagues have restored Gwen to her traditional role as Peter’s first girlfriend. I like the fact that actress Emma Stone has been given a hairstyle and costumes to emphasize her resemblance to comics artist John Romita, Sr.’s version of Gwen. I also appreciate the fact that the movie gives Gwen more substance as a personality than the comics of the 1960s did. She is now a brilliant science student herself, although perhaps as a result Peter’s own talent for science seems less special. No mere damsel in distress, Gwen gets to act bravely in helping Spider-Man against his foe the Lizard. In the movie Gwen initially seems to like Peter because he stood up to bully Flash Thompson to defend one of his victims. I don’t know why she continues to like Peter after he nearly gets her in trouble at OsCorp when he poses as an intern there.
Early in the film, after Peter gets his super-powers but before he becomes a superhero, Peter is distraught over them. So why doesn’t he tell someone he trusts, like his Uncle Ben or Dr. Curt Connors, what happened to him? But instead, after becoming a costumed vigilante, Peter suddenly decides to trust Gwen with his secret identity, even though he doesn’t know her that well yet. Moreover, he does so at a dinner at her home after her father, Captain Stacy of the NYPD, declared Spider-Man to be a menace. In a subsequent scene Peter asks Gwen if she believes what the police say about Spider-Man; if she did, then it would have been a big mistake telling her he is the vigilante the cops are hunting. course Stan Lee got drama out of the misunderstandings between Peter and Gwen because he felt he could not tell her his secret. Still, even if the movie Peter is too quick to trust Gwen, his trust in her is not misplaced, and she works well in the rest of the movie as his confidante.
As Uncle Ben, Peter’s moral guide, the new movie cast Martin Sheen, who brings with him a certain moral authority due to his past roles, notably President Bartlet in The West Wing. To a Baby Boomer like myself it’s startling to see Sally Field—Gidget!–playing Peter’s Aunt May. Ah yes, we’re getting old. Ms. Field’s Aunt May isn’t as elderly as Rosemary Harris’s version in the Raimi films, or the ancient Aunt May of the Ditko stories. But nor is Ms. Field’s Aunt May as youthful and hip (for her age) as the Aunt May of the Ultimate Spider-Man comics and animated TV series; I came across one issue that depicted the Ultimate Aunt May in a miniskirt for a night on the town!
In the original comics it was Uncle Ben who taught Peter that “With great power there must also come great responsibility,” though in the Lee-Ditko origin story that line only appears in the narration for the final panel. Since then that line has been ascribed to Uncle Ben (as in Spider-Man: With Great Power #4 in 2008). But the line goes unspoken in The Amazing Spider-Man movie, although its version of Uncle Ben does talk about moral responsibility. Director Webb has said in an interview that he felt the line was too on the nose and unnecessary. I disagree. I think that in a retelling of a classic origin story for a major. mythic character in pop culture such as Spider-Man, there are certain notes that you have to hit. Just as you have to have the spider bite Peter Parker, you have to have the line “With great power there must also come great responsibility,” probably by bowing to tradition and having Uncle Ben speak the words.
Oddly, in the new movie, Uncle Ben ascribes the idea of moral responsibility to Peter’s deceased father. So Ben is just echoing the principle of Peter’s father! I get the sense that The Amazing Spider-Man movie is deemphasizing Uncle Ben’s role in Peter’s saga. That may be because, as Marc Webb has stated in various interviews, one of his goals in this new series of Spider-Man movies is to explore the mystery of Peter Parker’s missing parents. This, clearly, is one of the ways that Webb intends to put his mark on this version of Spider-Man’s continuity, differentiating it from both the comics and the Raimi trilogy.
PETER PARKER AND PATRICIDE
In Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s origin story for Spider-Man, they establish that Peter Parker is an orphan who was raised by his kindly, now elderly Uncle Ben and Aunt May. But Lee and Ditko demonstrate no interest in revealing anything about Peter’s deceased parents. Not until after Ditko has left the series does Lee finally reveal a backstory for Peter’s parents, Richard and Mary, in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 (1968): they were secret agents who were killed during a mission.
Why did Lee and Ditko show so little interest in Peter Parker’s parents? Indeed, why did they make him an orphan in the first place? There is a long tradition of heroes who are orphans, Harry Potter being a prominent contemporary example, or seeming orphans, such as Luke Skywalker before he discovers the truth about his missing father. Superman is an orphan twice over in some versions of his continuity: his birth parents, Jor-El and Lara, died in the explosion of Krypton, and in Golden and Silver Age continuity, he did not begin his adult career as Superman until after the deaths of his foster parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. Batman is famously an orphan. Perhaps heroes are presented as orphans to emphasize how the hero must define himself through his own efforts, without the help of parents. Perhaps, too, there is the implication that the son cannot truly achieve a position of authority as long as his father remains on the scene.
The death of the parents haunts the hero. Arguably, Superman copes with the loss of his parents and their world by becoming a fatherly figure who protects his adopted world, Earth. Batman channels his rage over his parents’ deaths into his never-ending war on criminals. One could also argue that Batman suffers from survivors’ guilt: even though, as a child, he could not prevent the murder of his parents, he still subconsciously blames himself and compensates by fighting other criminals as an adult.
In Amazing Fantasy #15 Lee and Ditko daringly took this idea much further, with a revolutionary effect that still does not seem to be fully appreciated. Traditionally, when a superhero gained his super-powers, he chose to use them to fight crime and to help people. Lee and Ditko took a more realistic approach: when Peter Parker gets his super-powers, he decides to use them to gain fame and fortune, albeit in a masked identity. So as Spider-Man he goes into show business, and is initially quite successful. Infatuated with his new fame, Spider-Man egotistically and selfishly refuses to help a studio guard catch a fleeing thief, claiming it is none of his business. Shortly thereafter Peter learns that a burglar broke into his home and killed Uncle Ben. Enraged, Peter dons his Spider-Man costume and hunts the burglar down, only to be devastated on realizing that the Burglar is the thief he let escape earlier. Hence, through his own irresponsibility, Spider-Man inadvertently allowed the Burglar to kill Uncle Ben.
But let’s phrase this differently. Uncle Ben was in effect Peter’s second father, raising him as if he were his own son. So Peter Parker was an unwitting accomplice in the murder of his father figure: Spider-Man bears the partial guilt for patricide!
Although I doubt that Lee and Ditko thought of this, the death of Uncle Ben echoes the myth of Oedipus, who killed an old man in a fit of anger, became king, launched an investigation into his father’s death, was shocked to learn that his father was the old man he had killed, and was overwhelmed by guilt.
Could it be that Lee and Ditko subconsciously decided to have Ben be Peter’s uncle, not his father, because the idea of a superhero being responsible for his father’s murder seemed too horrific?
Comics aficionados now take Spider-Man’s origin story for granted,. But it must have been shocking to its original readers in 1962. A superhero who, however unintentionally, caused his relative’s death! And that death was real; it was not a hoax or miraculously undone, as a death in editor Mort Weisinger’s Superman comics of that time would have been. Batman is driven by anger against criminals for killing his parents; Spider-Man must direct his anger against himself.
In the workings of Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man origin story, Ben effectively was Peter Parker’s father, so Lee and Ditko had no reason to investigate who Peter’s birth parents were. Aunt May was still alive, but Lee and Ditko portrayed her as frail and ancient, in continual danger of succumbing to a heart attack (as was the much younger Tony Stark in 1960s Iron Man comics; clearly this was a subject much on Stan Lee’s mind). Having lost his uncle through his own irresponsibility, Peter was now obsessively driven by his need to protect Aunt May, and not lose her to death as well.
Uncle Ben was the brother of Peter’s father Richard Parker, yet Uncle Ben and Aunt May seemed old enough to be Peter’s grandparents. It’s as if Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, both middle-aged men when they created Spider-Man, were thinking of how old the parents of their own generation were when they created Uncle Ben and Aunt May. I wonder if Lee and Ditko may have had another subconscious reason for giving Peter two sets of parents. Richard and Mary were the idealized young parents, who took care of Peter when he was a small child. But as you grow older, so do your parents, and the young parents who protected you in childhood become the elderly parents who become your responsibility. The absent Richard and Mary represent one’s youthful parents when one is a child; Uncle Ben and Aunt May represent one’s elderly parents when one is an adult.
But if Lee and Ditko did not feel a need to investigate who Peter’s birth parents were, it was inevitable that the question would someday be addressed, as Lee finally did in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5. It shouldn’t be surprising that he decided to make Richard and Mary into heroes. It’s also a familiar trope in the adventure genre to make the hero the son or descendant of other heroic figures. The heroes of myths are in many cases the children of gods: Hercules is the son of Zeus, and Siegfried is the son of Wotan/Odin. Superman is the son of Krypton’s greatest scientist, Jor-El, and Silver Age continuity made Superman’s ancestors in the House of El some of the greatest figures in Kryptonian history. A classic Batman story revealed that Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas once wore a batlike costume himself to combat criminals.
There is also a tradition of heroes having two sets of parents. Though raised I relatively humble surroundings by foster parents, the hero has birth parents from a more exalted background. The ultimate example is Jesus Christ, whose father on Earth is the humble carpenter Joseph, but whose real father is God. Superman’s foster father is humble farmer Jonathan Kent; his real father is Jor-El of Krypton. So if Peter Parker was raised by a ordinary couple in Queens, New York, Ben and May Parker, were his birth parents also of higher status?
In the alternate continuity of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man, Richard Parker was not a C. I. A. operative but a biologist. The Amazing Spider-Man movie takes this further, indicating that Richard Parker was working with Dr. Curt Connors on experiments on transferring the genetic traits of one animal to another. The filmmakers have perceptively noticed that Spider-Man and the Lizard, Connors’ other self, each derived his super-powers from an animal, so it makes sense to link their origins together. So the movie seems to be implying that Peter derived his Spider-Man powers indirectly from his father’s experiments in genetic engineering.
Lee and Ditko’s origin story famously involved a radioactive spider, but the Ultimate Spider-Man comics and the Raimi and Webb films all substitute a genetically modified spider as the source of Spider-Man’s powers instead. This makes sense. In the 1960s, due to the threat of nuclear war, radiation was very much on people’s minds, and Stan Lee used it over and over as a means of endowing people with super-powers, as if it were magic. Nowadays the Cold War has long been over, and the public is probably more aware that nuclear radiation is more likely to kill than to produce benevolent mutations. In recent decades genetic engineering has become a reality and continued to advance; even cloning now is old news. So genetic engineering becomes a more credible explanation for Spider-Man’s powers.
FATE VS. COINCIDENCE
But I’m somewhat uneasy with what seems to be the new film’s implication that Richard Parker is ultimately responsible for his son’s super-powers, and that hence Peter was clearly destined to become Spider-Man. In the Lee-Ditko origin, Peter becomes Spider-Man through sheer chance: the unlikely accident of being bitten by that radioactive spider. And did Lee and Ditko mean to suggest that anyone bitten by a radioactive spider would get those super-powers? Or was Peter developing super-powers instead of radiation poisoning yet another act of chance?
Although in Lee and Ditko’s comics, Peter Parker is clearly brilliant in science (inventing that web fluid), he is basically an ordinary teenager from an ordinary background. He is not a god like Thor, or a wealthy and famous inventor and corporate head like Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is by sheer chance that he gains his super-powers. Amazing as those powers may be, they are limited. Even non-super-powered adversaries, if they are sufficiently adept, like the Enforcers and the Kingpin, can give Spider-Man a hard time in combat. Spider-Man’s super-strength is dwarfed by that of Thor or the Hulk. Moreover, Spider-Man basically operates in the streets of New York City. In the classic stories of the 1960s he rarely if ever traveled into outer space or other dimensions, like the Fantastic Four or Doctor Strange, and when he did, he was clearly out of his comfort zone. Similarly, though Spider-Man had a formidable rogues gallery of weird super-villains, he rarely dealt with the top echelon of Marvel villains, such as Doctor Doom in Amazing Spider-Man #5.
In short, Peter Parker is an Everyman, and Spider-Man, even if he is Marvel the company’s flagship hero, is, within the context of the Marvel Universe, a small time super hero. He is a local New York City superhero, using his limited super-powers primarily to battle crime in the streets, rather than the threats to the planet or to the universe that the Fantastic Four and Avengers deal with. He’s not Superman; he is a superhero on a smaller, more down-to-Earth scale.
Hence, there shouldn’t be a grand destiny that decreed that Peter Parker became Spider-Man. Nor should there be some great mystery involving his parents behind his acquisition of super-powers. The story should be as simple as possible. Peter Parker is an ordinary teenager who got super-powers through a chance event. What makes him a hero is how he behaved after his life was changed by this whim of fate. But though Spider-Man’s powers, background, and adversaries are not on the grand scale of Superman’s, Peter Parker’s life can nevertheless rise and has risen to the heights of great triumphs and tragedies.
Chance and coincidence are two of the themes of Lee and Ditko’s origin tale. Former Spider-Man editor Danny Fingeroth tells me that when he tells Spider-Man’s origin story to people, they roll their eyes at the coincidence that the Burglar whom Spider-Man lets escape turns out to be Uncle Ben’s killer. But simply telling someone the story is one thing; dramatizing it, whether in comics or a movie, is another. No one in the audience laughs when the thief is shown to be Uncle Ben’s killer in the movie screenings I’ve attended. Again, the coincidence is not unlike the one in Oedipus Rex, and the revelation in that play, if staged properly, should be harrowing.
An act of chance sends Peter Parker’s life off in a wholly unanticipated direction when the spider bites him. That works in Lee and Ditko’s story because it represents how unexpected, sudden events can greatly alter our lives. Remember Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, which offers a possible origin of the Joker and compares it to Batman’s, and makes the point that the events of a single day can turn one’s life upside down.
There is also dramatic power in the coincidence that the Burglar that Spider-Man failed to stop went on to kill his uncle. It demonstrates how our actions—and inaction—can have effects that we cannot foresee. It shows how our small sins can lead to major consequences. It shows how an individual’s actions affect those around him, for good or for bad. Yes, it is a coincidence that the Burglar killed Uncle Ben. But the point is that it is not an impossible coincidence. And Spider-Man should have realized that by not stopping a fleeing criminal, he was allowing that criminal to perpetrate more crimes, which could well have included the murder of one or more people. The horror in Lee and Ditko’s story is that someone close to the hero proved to be the criminal’s next victim.
People think of comics’ Silver Age of the 1960s as a more innocent and optimistic time in the superhero genre. But Lee and Ditko’s origin story for Spider-Man is one of the darkest, bleakest stories in the genre. It ends unforgettably with Spider-Man trudging away into the darkness, realizing that the man who acted as his surrogate father was dead, and that it was his fault. Had the Spider-Man saga ended with that story, we would see it as ending in despair. Spider-Man is the villain of his own origin story.
POWER AND IRRESPONSIBILITY
Spider-Man’s origin story is famously about how “with great power there must come great responsibility,” as its narration states in the final panel. It is because of Spider-Man’s irresponsible refusal to catch the Burglar that Uncle Ben died. But Spider-Man’s refusal to act is only one example of a pattern of irresponsibility, which takes a different form in the new movie than it does in Lee and Ditko’s original story.
I believe it was writer/artist John Byrne who once described the Peter Parker at the beginning of Amazing Fantasy #15 as “the good son.” Peter is devoted to his studies and to his loving uncle and aunt, who have raised him as if he were their own son. This is a boy who plays by the rules, and does what he is supposed to do. And his reward is that he is an outcast at high school; we see on the first page how he is shunned and mocked by the supposedly cool kids. It is clear that Peter is a shy introvert, who, though he longs for social acceptance, follows solitary pursuits (his studies) and closely bonds with only a few people (his uncle and aunt).
Gaining super-powers enables Peter to break free of the pattern of his life up to that point. Whereas Peter Parker was an introverted bookworm and wallflower, as Spider-Man he goes into show business to become rich and famous. In part he intends his new career to help earn money for his family, a noble motive. But it becomes increasingly clear that as Spider-Man he is feeding his own ego by becoming a celebrity. Why does he assume the costumed identity of Spider-Man rather than perform as Peter Parker? On the surface his reason is that the masked identity of Spider-Man is a gimmick to attract public attention. But perhaps subconsciously he chooses to perform in a masked identity to distance his new self from “puny” Peter Parker, the object of ridicule in school. As Spider-Man Peter constructs a new identity for himself in which he can act out, act entirely differently than the shy and quiet Peter Parker. Up until now he has followed the rules, and been the “good son,” and been frustrated by social rejection; now, as Spider-Man, he can go in the opposite direction, and make his own rules. As New York’s newest celebrity, Spider-Man indulges his own swelling ego. You could say that he is becoming as smug and arrogant as Flash Thompson and his other high school tormentors; now that he is “cool” he is acting as badly as the cool kids among his classmates did. A victim of bullying, he is developing a bully’s mentality himself. He lets the Burglar escape because he considers it to be beneath him to help the security guard catch a thief. Spider-Man is preoccupied with himself and his career; he does not care about strangers. Spider-Man has a severe case of hubris, that traditional failing of tragic heroes who are about to undergo a fall.
Neither Sam Raimi nor Marc Webb chose to show Spider-Man going into show business. But I wish that someday, in some future cinematic retelling of the origin, that filmmakers decide to dramatize this. Wouldn’t it be entertaining to watch Spider-Man’s rise in show biz? Imagine if the filmmakers hired one or more of the late night talk show hosts to appea in the film, showing Spider-Man perform on their shows? Or what if Spider-Man had his own “reality” show?
In Sam Raimi’s retelling of the origin, a masked Peter Parker experiments in using his new powers in the wrestling ring, as he does in Lee and Ditko’s origin tale. When a man in charge pays Peter only $100 for winning, not the promised $3000, Peter lets the Burglar rob him. This is not the full-blown case of hubris that Lee and Ditko give Spider-Man; this is Peter just going into a snit over being cheated.
In Lee and Ditko’s version, it took the temptations of fame and fortune to turn a “good” kid like Peter Parker into a dangerously self-centered, irresponsible one. Surprisingly, in The Amazing Spider-Man film, Peter Parker was rather irresponsible all along. Learning about the connection between his father and Curt Connors, Peter sneaks into a high school interns’ tour of OsCorp labs, where Connors works, by lying about his identity and usurping a real intern’s ID. Parker looks on without guilt when the real intern shows up and is carted off by security guards. Gwen Stacy, who is already an OsCorp intern, recognizes Peter but warns him not to get her in trouble and not to wander off from the group. Peter immediately proceeds to wander off; in snooping about he goes into a room he shouldn’t, which is full of genetically altered spiders, one of whom bites him. So Peter acquires his Spider-Man powers as a result of disobeying instructions.
After gaining super-powers, Peter uses them to humiliate his nemesis, bully Flash Thompson, on their high school’s basketball court. And goes too far. As a result he and Uncle Ben have to appear in the principal’s office, and Peter is assigned punishment. Ben is not happy, since he had to rearrange his work schedule to go down to the school. Since Ben will have to work that night, he instructs Peter to pick up Aunt May at her job after dark. But Peter meets with Connors instead, ignores a cell phone call from Ben, and fails to meet May, forcing her to walk home after dark through what Ben considers a dangerous neighborhood.
A point is made about Peter forgetting to bring home eggs after he was asked to do so. Really, it becomes hard to understand why Ben and May are so devoted to Peter considering that he keeps screwing up and angering them.
After arguing with Ben, Peter goes out to a nearby convenience store, and tries to buy chocolate milk (I think), but because he is short by two pennies, the cashier won’t let him have it. This is when the Burglar appears and holds up the cashier. This version of Peter is also in a snit, and lets the robbery proceed as his own act of petty reprisal. In a nice touch, the Burglar throws something (money?) to Peter as a thank you gift, reinforcing the idea that Peter has just been his accomplice. Again, this Peter isn’t acting out of excessive ego and pride like the Lee-Ditko version; he’s just getting even with a stranger in a petty way.
Leaving the store, the Burglar immediately runs into Ben, who tries to stop him, so the Burglar shoots him. Well, that certainly does away with the coincidence in the original story in which the Burglar turns up in both a Manhattan television studio and the Parkers’ home in Queens. Of course Peter is shocked by Ben’s death, but he never expresses any sense of guilt over it. Did Webb and the screenwriters feel that it was obvious that Peter would blame himself? I don’t think it is; Peter has to say it, and in this film he doesn’t. Moreover, Lee and Ditko staged this much more dramatically. In their version, on learning that Ben is dead, Spider-Man vengefully hunts the Burglar down, and Lee and Ditko build to their powerful dramatic climax, as Spider-Man, shocked, realizes that the killer is the same thief he previously let escape. Then Lee and Ditko show us the unmasked Peter, distraught, overwhelmed by guilt.
The new movie’s Peter Parker appears motivated not by guilt, directed at himself, but anger, directed at the Burglar. So Peter begins hunting down criminals, creating first a mask and then a costume to disguise himself to avoid reprisals. But, as has been pointed out, the masked Peter is specifically hunting criminals who look like the Burglar. As a result of Ben’s death, he hasn’t decided to use his powers responsibly by fighting crime in general. Instead, he’s hunting down one individual, and, along the way, capturing any criminals who look like him.
In the new movie Spider-Man never captures the Burglar. Perhaps the filmmakers are saving that for a future film. But the result is that the film seems to forget about the Burglar as it moves on to other matters. The film also appears to forget about Uncle Ben as it progresses, although his recorded voice is heard at a significant point later on. But again, we hear no soliloquies from Peter, or conversations between him and Gwen once she becomes his confidante, about any guilt or sense of responsibility he feels over Ben’s death. This should be the motivation that propels him through the film, but it’s absent.
Instead the film builds towards a different turning point. There is a well-crafted sequence in which Spider-Man saves a boy from a car that is in danger of falling from the Williamsburg Bridge and bursts into flame. To calm the frightened by, Spider-Man takes off his mask, showing him a friendly human face, and has the boy don the mask instead, telling him it will make him “brave.” By implication, the mask has also served to make the formerly withdrawn Peter Parker courageous in his new costumed identity. And now Spider-Man has to accomplish an important feat without the mask and the psychological crutch it provides him. Although he is forced to let the car fall into the river, Spider-Man rescues the boy. His mask back on, Spider-Man returns the boy to his father, who wants to know who he is. It is at this point that the masked Peter calls himself Spider-Man for the first time. He has found his new identity, and it is defined by his using his powers to save people from danger; he has learned how to use his great power with great responsibility. This scene thus prepares the way for the last act of the film, in which Spider-Man acts to save the entire city from the Lizard.
THE CASE OF THE MISSING FATHER FIGURES
One of the themes of the movie seems to me to be the way that Peter Parker needs, but keeps losing, father figures. He is trying to learn about his deceased birth father Richard. He loses his foster father, Uncle Ben. Captain Stacy is Gwen’s father, making him a potential father-in-law for Peter, and is also a father figure in the sense that he represents authority. Captain Stacy spends most of the movie as a father figure as adversary, until he becomes a benevolent father figure, helping Peter and giving him his advice and blessing, towards the end of the film. But Peter loses him, too, since Captain Stacy sacrifices his life in helping Spider-Man battle the Lizard. Even Curt Connors is a potential father figure, since he is linked to Peter’s real father, Richard, and becomes Peter’s benevolent mentor. Connors becomes a nightmarish version of the father figure as adversary when he turns into the Lizard, thus enacting the mythic situation of the symbolic father who attempts to kill the symbolic son. So it is appropriate on a mythic level that the symbolic son, Spider-Man, with the aid of a formerly adversarial, now benign father figure, Captain Stacy, defeats the nightmare father figure, the Lizard. Spider-Man even redeems both adversarial father figures: Captain Stacy becomes his ally once he realizes that Spider-Man is Peter Parker, and Spider-Man literally cures the Lizard, allowing the benevolent personality of Dr. Connors to return. The clearest example of the theme of the son redeeming the adversarial father is George Lucas’s Return of the Jedi. That film and the new Spider-Man movie are both dealing in what Joseph Campbell described as the hero’s “atonement with the father.” Arguably, The Amazing Spider-Man movie is also about Peter Parker learning to assume the role of the father himself, as in the scene in which he rescues that small boy from death in the fiery car. Indeed, by the end of the film Spider-Man has taken over Captain Stacy’s role as protector of the people of New York City.
I think the hardest thing to accept in the original Lee-Ditko Spider-Man origin is the idea that Peter Parker was able to invent the fluid he uses to create his artificial webbing, something that is portrayed in the comics as a unique discovery that no one else has duplicated, and moreover, does it so quickly. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies got around the problem by having Spider-Man produce organic webbing directly from his hands. I kept wondering whether he would dehydrate himself by using large quantities of webbing, like when he uses webbing to stop the train in Spider-Man 2. In The Amazing Spider-Man film Peter Parker acquires (steals?) some “biocable” from OsCorp to use as his webbing. Later on Spider-Man claims he came up with the webbing himself, so I suppose he must have modified the biocable, converting it into webbing form. Still, I don’t like this. Did Parker steal the biocable from OsCorp? That’s not right. Will he have to acquire more from OsCorp in order to replenish his webbing supply? Will someone at OsCorp figure out that Spider-Man’s webbing is biocable? Will that mean that OsCorp can duplicate Spider-Man’s webbing and even sell it to other people? Lee and Ditko’s making Peter Parker brilliant enough to create his unique webbing does seem like a stretch of credibility, but maybe it is indeed the best answer.
I was surprised and disappointed when I learned that J. Jonah Jameson would not be in the new Spider-Man movie, but the Daily Bugle newspaper is shown prominently at one point. Moreover, Peter Parker is established as an amateur photographer early in the film. Perhaps the intention is to have the Daily Bugle and Jameson appear in the next Spider-Man film in the rebooted series, and then Peter will become a freelance photographer for the paper. Considering how many characters filled Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, perhaps it was wise to limit the focus of this first film in the rebooted franchise to a small number of characters.
I was also disappointed at my first looks at Captain George Stacy, as played by Denis Leary, in trailers and preview clips of The Amazing Spider-Man. As depicted in the comics by Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr., Captain Stacy was a wise, gentle, elderly man who became a father figure to Peter Parker. In the film Captain Stacy is not only much younger, but he seems at first to have usurped J. Jonah Jameson’s traditional role as Spider-Man’s implacable nemesis, convinced he is a menace and determined to end his career. Moreover, the relationship of Captain Stacy, his daughter Gwen, and her boyfriend Peter seemed to echo the similar nightmarishly Freudian triangle in the 1960s and 1970s stories of The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner is in love with Betty Ross, the daughter of General “Thunderbolt” Ross, who is obsessed with hunting and capturing Banner’s alter ego, the Hulk.
But in the end the movie’s Captain Stacy ends up in the same place as the Lee-Romita version: as a benevolent father figure towards Peter. You may recall that the Lee-Romita version of Captain Stacy figured out Spider-Man’s secret identity but protected it. Moreover, both the Lee-Romita and film versions of Captain Stacy die heroically during Spider-Man’s combat against a super-villain. I even thought that Leary’s final speech as Captain Stacy was more moving than Martin Sheen’s farewell speech as Uncle Ben.
Mr. Leary has been saying in interviews, including on David Letterman’s show, that three decades ago his fellow comedian Jeff Garlin told him he looked like Captain Stacy. Really? Would Mr. Leary in his twenties look anything like the sixtyish or seventyish George Stacy as drawn by John Romita, Sr. in the comics? Too bad that Mr. Letterman wasn’t a fan of superhero comics so he could have pointed out that this is nonsense.
It’s ironic that Sam Raimi kept setting up the eventual appearance of the Lizard on screen through the appearances of actor Dylan Baker as Dr. Curt Connors in his Spider-Man movies, but it is director Marc Webb who got to use the Lizard instead. I used to think that when the Lizard finally appeared onscreen, he would look something like the velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movies. So I was disappointed that the movie’s Lizard lacks the reptilian snout that Ditko gave the character. Instead he has a humanoid face, and looks to me more like Batman’s reptile-like foe Killer Croc; one reviewer observed that the movie Lizard looked like the Thing in the live action Fantastic Four movies. Director Webb has explained that he wanted the Lizard to have a humanoid face to enable actor Rhys Ifans’ emotions to come through; it seems that motion capture technology was used to translate Ifans’ performance into the CGI Lizard. I still feel disappointed: without the inhuman, lizard-like head, the movie Lizard looks as disappointing as old-time movie werewolves whose heads look more like those of apes than of wolves. Watching the movie, I was thinking I was going to write that I was also disappointed that the movie Lizard didn’t wear a lab coat, like the Ditko version, but in one scene he does! Ditko also had the Lizard retain Dr. Connors’ pants, though I eventually realized that when the Lizard turned back into Connors, there must have been a big hole in his pants where his tail had been! Good thing the lab coat was so long. In the comics the Lizard is bulletproof against low-caliber firearms, but I was surprised that he survived such a fierce gun attack by police in one scene. Perhaps his ability to regenerate limbs also enables him to recover nearly immediately from gunshot wounds?
Speaking of werewolves, I was somewhat confused by the film’s depiction of Dr. Connors’ personality. In the comics, Connors and the Lizard are very much like the traditional depiction of the werewolf. Dr. Connors is a good and benevolent man; the Lizard has an entirely different personality, savage and vicious. In the new film Dr. Connors seems to be a good man at first, befriending Peter, although it is hinted that he has willingly blinded himself to the way that his employer OsCorp treated Peter’s father Richard. (The film seems to hint that OsCorp arranged the plane crash in which Peter’s parents perished.) In the movie once Connors first transforms into the Lizard, he shifts back and forth between his human and reptilian forms; in the comics, the Lizard must take an antidote to revert to human form. We are shown a video in which the human Connors rants about the weakness of humans and how he prefers the power of his reptilian form. But towards the end of the film, after Spider-Man exposes the Lizard to the antidote, Connors, reverting to human for, saves Spider-Man’s life. Moreover, in the movie Connors/Lizard finds out that Spider-Man is Peter Parker, yet, though Connors is jailed at the end of the film, he apparently keeps Peter’s secret. I would assume, then, that the serum that transformed Connors into the Lizard distorted his personality even when he is in human form, and that the antidote finally enabled his real, benign personality to reemerge. I wish that the film had made this clearer: while I was watching the movie, considering his earlier rant, I didn’t understand why Connors saved Spider-Man’s life towards the end.
In the Raimi Spider-Man movies Spider-Man became a local hero in New York City, and there was even a “Spider-Man Day” in his honor. In Webb’s film Spider-Man is very much the outsider, hunted by the police as an outlaw vigilante. I assume that though Captain Stacy changed his mind about Spider-Man, the New York City police will continue to hunt Spider-Man as an outlaw in the next film. Will there be a new police character to lead the manhunt? Will this be the time to introduce J. Jonah Jameson, who could use the Bugle to continue to whip up public opinion against Spider-Man? Or might the next film adopt Jameson’s new role in the comics as mayor of New York, a fine position from which to direct the police’s attempts to capture Spider-Man?
The movie changes the name of Peter Parker’s high school, Midtown High, to Midtown Science High. “Midtown High” never made sense as the name of a school in Forest Hills, Queens; New Yorkers use “midtown” to refer to part of Manhattan. Would Midtown Science High be a special high school for science students? Are we to assume that Peter commutes from Queens to this school in midtown Manhattan? But if it’s a school specifically for students who are especially talented in science, what is a jock like Flash Thompson doing there?
New York City has been an important real-life location for Marvel Comics stories all the way back to 1939. Whereas Sam Raimi shot his Spider-Man movies extensively in New York City, The Amazing Spider-Man was filmed primarily in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, there was some location shooting in New York City; for example, I can add to my list of real life Marvel locations the U. S. Customs House, with its beaux-arts architecture, that “plays” the role of New York City police headquarters. There are also references to real life New York City locations, notably the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as shots of New York cityscapes (some added through CGI?). I notice that Peter stands in front of a sign reading “3 Columbus Circle” when he visits the fictional OsCorp building. Is there an in joke here? In real life Columbus Circle is the site of the new Time Warner Center, the headquarters of the corporate owner of Warner Bros. and DC Comics, the rivals of Columbia Pictures and Marvel Comics. And so in the world of this film, the headquarters of Spider-Man’s enemy, Norman Osborn, stands on the location of Time Warner’s HQ!
I was happy to see that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko get a credit up front and in nice big letters early in the film’s credits sequence as the creators of the comic book on which the movie is based. How strange that Sony is better at this than Marvel Studios; one has to search and not blink to find the credits to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and other creators of the original comic in the credits for The Avengers movie and related films. I prefer Stan Lee’s cameos in Marvel movies when he is given lines to say, but his silent cameo in The Amazing Spider-Man as a school librarian wearing headphones, who pays no attention to the fight going on behind him is perhaps his funniest.
AN OMINOUS CONCLUSION
I’m surprised that I haven’t read more about the very end of the movie. In his dying speech, Captain Stacy makes Peter/Spider-Man promise not to involve Gwen in his life. The Captain clearly foresees that Spider-Man’s life will endanger people close to him; after all, it has claimed his own life. There is a graveyard scene for Captain Stacy’s burial, but Peter does not attend. Angrily, Gwen goes to confront Peter, who will not explain why he did not attend and has been avoiding her. Surely the filmmakers are aware that this echoes the end of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film, which had a graveyard scene. Peter attended that burial, but it was there that he broke off with the bewildered Mary Jane, since he believed that his life as Spider-Man would continue to endanger her. At the end of Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane convinces him to reverse that decision, though, of course, she continues to be endangered by Spider-Man’s enemies in both Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3.
I didn’t understand why Peter just didn’t tell her that her father made him promise to stay away from her, and that he agreed it was for the best. But it comes as a welcome surprise that Gwen figures this out for herself. But later, in class, there is a reference to “promises you can’t keep,” and Peter whispers to Gwen that those are the best kind. That implies that he is not going to keep his promise to the Captain, and that their relationship will continue.
It appears that the filmmakers are already setting up future developments in this new series of Spider-Man movies. As noted, this new film establishes that peter is a photographer and shows us a copy of the Daily Bugle, thus possibly laying the groundwork for J. Jonah Jameson showing up in the sequel. Norman Osborn’s company, OsCorp, figures prominently in the new movie, and Osborn is mentioned, but not seen. And who is that shadowy figure who appears in Curt Connors’ jail cell in the teaser sequence during the closing credits? Could that be Norman Osborn himself? Maybe not. We don’t see this figure’s face, but we hear him talk in a voice that I can’t identify. Surely the filmmakers will cast some prominent actor in the role of Norman Osborn, and haven’t done it yet. So more likely the shadowy figure is some Osborn underling. Still, the filmmakers are obviously setting up the introduction of Osborn into the film, and presumably his other identity, the Green Goblin, as well.
Moreover, Emma Stone, who plays Gwen, has hinted in two interviews I’ve seen (including the one on PBS’s Charlie Rose), that Gwen will meet the same fate in the movies as she did in the comics. If that’s right, then Gwen will be killed by the Green Goblin in a future film as his vengeance on Spider-Man. I wonder if moviegoers who don’t know her comics history will be as shocked by her demise as readers of the comics were in the 1970s. This new Spider-Man film series has already killed off Captain Stacy, as in the comics. If they plan to kill Gwen off, too, then this rebooted series will be far darker and more tragic than Sam Raimi’s brightly optimistic Spider-Man trilogy.
So if Gwen dies in the movies, then the ending of The Amazing Spider-Man movie becomes morally ambiguous and ominous. Peter Parker has already brought about the death of Uncle Ben by failing to follow this father figure’s teachings about power and responsibility. Now he is about to break his promise to another deceased father figure, Captain Stacy. And the result will be the death of Gwen Stacy.
“Comics in Context” #246
Copyright 2012 Peter Sanderson
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