Why Are We All Obsessed with the Friendly Neighborhood Webslinger?
It’s hard to remember a trailer more breathlessly anticipated by the online community than that of Spider-Man: No Way Home. The first teaser for the Tom Holland-starring MCU film destroyed the record for most online views in 24 hours previously held by Avengers: Endgame, and ignited furious Internet chatter with its re-appearance of a familiar, beloved Spider-Man villain.
No Way Home has been trailed by rumors and theories ever since its announcement, creating a groundswell that could easily make it the top-grossing film of 2021 domestically (the closest theatrical competitors in a world of day-and-date streaming are probably Eternals or Top Gun: Maverick or Dune - none of which are a guaranteed smash). Not bad for the ninth solo film to star a Spider-Man (counting both Peter Parker and Miles Morales).
I sometimes wonder what it is about certain comic-book characters that makes them endure. Why do we continue to get excited about movies starring Batman, for example? (do we really expect to hit the highs of The Dark Knight every outing?) How many times can we watch baby Superman crash-land in Kansas?
What is it about these archetypes that keeps us coming back? Is it simple nostalgia? Is it that corporations only know how to maximize their IP, leaving us with no other choice in the content we consume? Or is it something older and more basic to how we comprehend stories?
To understand the fevered excitement for No Way Home, we need to examine the road so far for cinematic interpretations of Spider-Man.
Sam Raimi’s original 2002 film Spider-Man was not the first superhero film of the modern era (it was presaged by Bryan Singer’s dour X-Men), but it did launch the genre into another stratosphere. It broke the record for highest-grossing opening weekend at the box office and left a lasting cultural imprint (remember the upside-down kiss as parodied on The O.C.?) For many people my age, Spider-Man was the equivalent of Tim Burton’s Batman or Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie - a touchstone that established the mold for future “super” stories.
Spider-Man (2002) was also the culmination of a long road to the screen for Peter Parker. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most superhero films were trying to run away from being labeled “comic book movies.” Bryan Singer famously banned comics from the X-Men set, and outfitted the titular Men in sleek leather rather than colorful tights. Pre-Kevin Feige, comic book canon was often changed or ignored in favor of the director’s vision (remember how Jack Nicholson’s Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in the Tim Burton Batman?)
Originally, the only way Spider-Man was going to make it to the screen was with the backing of the King of Blockbusters himself. James Cameron, fresh off Titanic, envisioned Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Peter Parker. Conflicts over rights issues killed that iteration, and after meeting with young hot-shot directors from David Fincher to M. Night Shyamalan, Sony Pictures settled on director Raimi (who had previously made a grittier superhero story with the Liam Neeson-starring Darkman). The role of Peter Parker went to friend-of-Leonardo and future Molly’s Game inspiration Tobey Maguire, while rising star Kirsten Dunst (who was transitioning from child actor roles in Interview with the Vampire, Jumanji and Bring It On) was cast as Mary Jane Watson.
When viewed in the context of today’s superhero films, Raimi’s film (which will turn 20 next year) feels earnest and old-fashioned.
It was made at a time when the success of Richard Donner’s Superman still echoed, and before winking at the audience was commonplace. Raimi came from horror (the Evil Dead trilogy, which also took on comedic elements in the sequels) and genre exercises like the Western The Quick and the Dead, and thus he understands how to deploy tone to make the audience believe in an elevated world. Spider-Man leans into the soap opera elements of the narrative (like the love triangle between Harry, Peter and MJ, and the meme-worthy, over-the-top villainy of Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn). It also treats Peter Parker’s pursuit of heroism with sincerity. The score by Danny Elfman is openly big and bombastic - recruiting a full choir to reflect the the empowerment Spider-Man feels swinging across the city. Raimi can also throw in post-9/11 moments of NYC pride without it seeming pandering or cheesy.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) continued to prioritize character, and treat Peter Parker’s everyday struggles (keeping a job, keeping up with his rent) seriously. The film doubles down on the heart of the first film, with MJ and Peter’s romance getting a brighter spotlight. Even the villain Doc Ock is a more sympathetic character, with a tragic backstory. The film is still considered one of the best comic book films - not only because of the craft or the set pieces (the sequence where Spider-Man stops an above-ground train is an all-time action scene), but because of how invested the audience is in Peter grappling with the expectations of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Even with this emotional heavy-lifting, Spider-Man 2 still feels looser than most plot-focused superhero movies made today, allowing for small character moments in scenes like Spidey delivering pizza.
Spider Man 3 got bogged down in studio notes, and thus the tones that Raimi had balanced so well in the first two movies were thrown off. Instead of one villain, now Raimi had to juggle three - Harry Osborn’s New Goblin, Sandman and Venom. It didn’t help that Raimi and his co-writer/brother Ivan decided to double down on some laugh lines in Spider-Man 2, resulting in too much comedy and not enough pathos (remember the famous Evil Peter dance sequence?). It was clear that Raimi had somewhat checked out, going through the motions (unfortunately this is something that is common with third superhero movies - The Dark Knight Rises is nowhere near the classic that The Dark Knight is, mostly because Nolan’s heart likely wasn’t in it after Heath Ledger passed). I remember heavily anticipating Spider-Man 3 in 2007, and even as a 13-year-old being slightly disappointed (not that I’d ever admit to disliking a movie that had Spider-Man in it).
Raimi prepped a fourth Spider-Man, potentially with John Malkovich as The Vulture. This was cancelled in favor of a reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield (then known as the star of The Social Network, and a great Tony-winning actor who could very well win an Oscar one day).
Without Raimi’s vision (or any consistent vision, really), the rebooted franchise fell apart in record time. I remember how director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) originally pitched the new series with practical effects and a grounded high school setting. However, by the second film, that was thrown out the window in favor of a CGI cartoon meant to set up a Spider-Man “universe” and a Sinister Six film. The films encapsulate the worst of big-budget studio filmmaking, attempting to chase the trend of established “universes” while failing to tell an original or compelling story. The Amazing films are only truly notable for the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (this SNL skit is still the fourth most popular video on SNL’s YouTube page, proving that their coupling was memorable). The box office results were also decidedly not “amazing” for the second outing starring Jamie Foxx as Dubstep Electro.
The chaotic aftermath of the Sony hacks allowed a brief window for Disney’s Marvel Studios to strike a deal to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. However, the MCU films almost didn’t star their current leading man, as the Russo brothers and Kevin Feige had to fight to cast Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War (one of my favorite never-confirmed casting rumors is that Sex Education star Asa Butterfield only lost the role because he blabbed about the process on Reddit).
The Tom Holland Spider-Man films, directed by Jon Watts (director of the indie Cop Car and the future Fantastic Four re-reboot), refreshingly allow Peter Parker to be a kid (Tobey’s Spider-Man graduates high school halfway through his first film, while Andrew Garfield graduates at the beginning of Amazing Spider-Man 2). The films take inspiration from John Hughes teen comedies, and thus have a significantly lighter touch than the more dramatic Raimi films. There’s no ghost of Uncle Ben repeating “with great power comes great responsibility” here, or a deeply emotive performance such as the one delivered by Tobey Maguire. Rather, the films are fun to watch thanks to nimble performances from Tom Holland and Zendaya, as well as the ability of the MCU to draw in talent (Marisa Tomei, Michael Keaton, Jake Gyllenhaal).
Still, the Holland Spider-Man films are in their idling teenage years, missing the ingredient that will launch them into the circle of greatness where only a few superhero films reside (Dark Knight, Logan, Black Panther, Spider-Man 2, etc.). The Holland films could use a little more of Spider-Man 2’s seriousness or adult themes. It feels like time for Holland’s Peter Parker to grow up, and truly face a dark night of the soul (maybe with a little help from POSSIBLE SPOILER FOR NO WAY HOME an elder hero who has been there?)
The trailer for the next Spider-Man film suggests that Holland’s Spider-Man might finally be truly tested, as it introduces the concept of the multiverse. Villains from the Tobey Spider-Man films like Doc Ock and Green Goblin and Sandman (as well as Garfield’s Electro and Lizard) will soon collide with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that Holland’s Spider-Man calls home. This is a smart business decision on Sony’s end, as reintroducing these characters will no doubt lead fans to rewatch the original Tobey trilogy and Garfield films (especially among younger generations who missed those movies the first time around).
Interestingly enough, the key to the future of the MCU Spider-Man was actually paved by a different Spider-Man than Peter Parker entirely.
In December 2018, Sony released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This animated film, produced by Lord and Miller of Lego Movie fame, introduced the character of Miles Morales - a biracial teenager who inherits the mantle of Spider-Man - to the big screen.
The film became an unexpected phenomenon thanks to its origin story full of heart and game-changing animation (which resembles actual comic book art). The film also became the surprise winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It was not only a great moment for onscreen representation (and being animated, it’s a favorite with kids who are too young for PG-13 Marvel films), but yielded perhaps the best Spider-Man movie yet. Into the Spider-Verse also introduces the concept of multiple universes with characters from Spider Noir to Spider-Ham, something that audiences responded to.
The success of the animated film clearly gave Sony and Marvel the confidence to do a live-action “Spider-Verse,” the extent of which has yet to be revealed in the trailers.
So why do people love Spider-Man so much?
Why does a character first introduced as a teenager in 1962 continue to be a point of fascination in both films and comic-books?
Part of the reason for this is generational. For many comic-book readers, Spider-Man was the first character they were drawn to and could identify with. In the original Stan Lee-Steve Ditko comics, Spider-Man juggled the trials of being a teenage while also fighting a rogue’s gallery of criminals. It’s easier to relate to a kid from Queens than a celestial God like the heroes that populate DC Comics.
Then there’s the animated cartoons, the lunchboxes, the memes (hello am spooderman) - the things that make Spider-Man a constant presence in the lives of both Gen X and Millennials. I personally have nostalgia for Raimi’s Spider-Man films because they remind me of growing up in the early ‘00s - the time of “emo” culture and My Chemical Romance and teen angst that had yet to be blown out to Euphoria levels. When I think of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, I also think of the rise of Hot Topic, of the Spider Man 2 soundtrack that has now been canonized on T-shirts, and of this incredibly dated MTV Movie Awards parody with Jack Black.
However, there has to be a larger reason why everyone from James Cameron to Sam Raimi to Lord and Miller has been fascinated with the heroes who wear the Spider-Man mask.
It’s because all Spider-Man stories are coming-of-age stories
Even in the films and comic books in which he is an adult or married, Spider-Man is always learning - always trying to live up to what Uncle Ben saw in him. This makes him distinct from the more stagnant superheroes like Captain America or Superman (characters whose values are immobile).
Spider-Man is the perfect character for a cinematic adaptation, as he has a built-in arc. Most modern comic book films (such as the average Marvel Studios film) fail to pack the same emotional punch as the Raimi Spider-Man movies. Because these films focus on protagonists whose comic book personas are mostly static, the screenwriters often have to manufacture character arcs whole-cloth (not to mention the fact that they have to write toward maintaining the status quo of a cinematic universe).
It’s no wonder so many directors are eager to use Spider-Man as a character - for a filmmaker, he is the Antoine Doinel of the Marvel universe. Spider-Man presents the opportunity to depict a character on an actual journey, not simply another “mission.”
This dynamism is partly responsible for the re-watchability of Into the Spider-Verse. Miles Morales’ origin story is so impactful because he is not “destined” to be Spider-Man in-universe - he goes from an ordinary kid from Brooklyn to a superhero not just because of a genetically modified spider bite, but because he comes to recognize his own potential.
That said, none of the cinematic Spider-Men have yet been able to complete their arcs. Both Tobey and Andrew’s Spider-Man characters were sidelined before their planned sequels, and Holland’s future is perennially in flux due to the terms of the Sony-Marvel deal.
Hopefully we will one day be able to see a true ending to a Spider-Man saga, before another inevitable reboot.
But one thing’s for sure - Spider-Man will continue to be resurrected again and again, (even while his Uncle Ben stays dead).
Other Stray Thoughts
Will Kristen Stewart beat Robert Pattinson to become the first Twilight star to win an Oscar? There’s almost no way she doesn’t get nominated based on this trailer (“From the acclaimed director of Jackie,” slow cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” - it has all the ingredients for an awards contender).
I saw CODA on Apple TV+ this weekend. This is a polished, winning delight - its sights squarely set on make you feel and shed a tear (crazy how Sundance films now are just identical to the films that studios used to make). The direction from Sian Heder is understated and capable (something that is becoming increasingly rare in this type of small movie, as the direction can often distract). Hope people who like feel-good movies that are actually good discover this - it's perfect for a family movie night.
Thanks everyone for the feedback on my assessment of Lorde’s new album - I’m really proud of this one (particularly as the Solar Power discourse continues). Check it out here if you haven’t yet.
Vary, Adam B. “‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Trailer Shatters ‘Avengers: Endgame’s’ 24-Hour Viewership Record.” Variety, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/spider-man-no-way-home-trailer-avengers-endgames-24-hour-record-1235048973/
Motamayor, Rafael, “The Russo Brothers Recall Sony Being Hesitant To Casting Tom Holland As Spider-Man.” The Playlist, https://theplaylist.net/russo-brothers-tom-holland-casting-spider-man-20210227/