From zero to hero: how the Spider-Man franchise was saved
Created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Peter Parker’s Spider-Man has long been a cultural icon, dominating both merchandise sales and the box office. But big screen fatigue set in and interest started to dwindle. Now Sony is preparing to blow the Spider-Verse wide open, giving the green light to stories that barely involve or aren’t centered on Peter Parker at all – a long overdue development.
When he was first introduced, Peter was the antithesis to other superheroes; he came from a low-income household and struggled with mundane things like acne, bullying, talking to girls and homework. As a boy on the brink of adulthood, his powers were both a gift and a burden, putting him at odds with law enforcement and thwarting his most meaningful relationships, ability to hold down a job and pay rent. Peter may have been an enhanced superhero, but his day-to-day life was relatable, almost painfully so. “After Spider-Man, everyone recognized the formula that Stan Lee figured out – quite correctly – that to make the character in costume more compelling, you have to make the alter-ego as much, if not that much more interesting,” Joe Quesada, former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief, said to ABC News. “You have to show the human side.”
A character who just can’t seem to catch a break yet always does the right thing regardless proved to be a winning formula, and that coupled with a fast-moving, dynamic power set spoke to the kind of hero that audiences wanted to see. His solo run spawned an entire universe of villains, supporting characters, and alternate universe Spideys. When Marvel sold the Spider-Man film rights back in 1999 to Sony, it’s reported that they took on a mind-boggling roster of 900 characters. Within the span of 12 years we saw five Spider-Man films made, each grossing over $700m globally.
The first major film, 2002’s Spider-Man by Sam Raimi, tapped into all the reasons fans loved the web-slinger. Played by Tobey Maguire, Peter felt like he could’ve been any of us. He was a good-natured kid haunted by a single bad decision; a high school genius who finds he’s turned into a rather mediocre adult. Seeing Peter shed his insecurities when he dons the mask was a form of wish fulfillment for many, and the films that brought him to life were relatable, funny and fun.
But in what often seems to happen when art and business collide, studio interference started to shift the tone of the movies. A shoehorned-in Venom, at the studio’s insistence, led to an overstuffed Spider-Man 3 that led to an inexplicable dance number, a Peter who didn’t feel much like Peter at all and almost universally negative reviews. When Raimi and the studio couldn’t agree on one coherent vision for Spider-Man 4, Raimi stepped down. Sony moved ahead with a reboot in 2012, directed by Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield replacing Maguire as the titular hero.
Webb hit virtually the same plot points as Raimi, while also going for a darker tone and a more counterculture-esque Peter. Instead of the unassuming poindexter of the early 2000s, Garfield’s Peter skateboarded and brooded. This Peter brushed up against authority even out of his costume, and in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 he has marked by a streak of selfishness: he continues to involve himself with Gwen Stacy, knowing the danger, and eventually it costs her her life. The films did well overseas, but it was hard to justify why this new rough-around-the-edges Peter was necessary. “This might be a fun summer blockbuster if only it even remotely needed to exist,” wrote Dana Stevens at Slate. Subsequent movies were canned partly due to the films falling below Sony’s expectations, but largely because Garfield ended up being “let go”.
And so Sony tried again, recasting with Tom Holland and making a deal with Marvel that for the first time, Spidey would appear alongside the Avengers in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and then in his own spin-off film, 2017’s Homecoming. But at that point the fatigue was real. “Peter Parker may be an iconic character, but there are only so many ways you can tell an origin story,” wrote Kwama Opam at The Verge. The teen who first burst onto the scene as a breath of fresh air had suddenly become played out.
It’s important then that 2017’s Homecoming did something different with the character. Instead of shuttling Peter straight into adulthood, Homecoming marinated us in the distinct second-hand embarrassment of being a teenager. The youngest to take up the mantle, Tom Holland’s Peter was affable and awkward, no matter how hard he tried to prove otherwise. But he also had a tangible support network: a younger aunt who loved him, a best friend, and a mentor in Tony Stark. And it worked, with the film garnering positive reviews and making $880m globally. It also didn’t hurt that this Peter operated, for the first time, in a New York that reflects present day; he was surrounded by a multicultural cast, and Peter is hilariously aware that out of all of them, he’s probably the least cool of all.
After years of focusing on Peter Parker this shifting of attention is necessary, not just from a unique storytelling perspective but from an audience engagement one as well. Since the 60s Peter has been billed as the everyman stand-in; and while it’s true we can all find threads we can relate to in Peter, the ability to feel fully represented by him falls increasingly short if you’re not, well, a young white guy.
And this is where newer films like Into the Spider-Verse, which tells the origin story of Afro-Latino Miles Morales turned Spider-Man, really shines. Spider-Verse takes the idea that Peter is no longer the Spider-Man of the people one step further: its version of Peter Parker is himself sick of Peter Parker. Sporting a beer gut and a five o’clock shadow, he’s a nice guy who’s self-sabotaged his own life. When Peter begrudgingly takes on the role of mentor for Miles Morales, it’s both literal and metaphorical. Peter is no longer the lead of the film; what the world needs is Miles, and in order for that to happen, Peter needs to let go.
Miles is in some ways similar to Peter, but he’s also everything Peter’s not; he’s athletic and decently popular at school. His essays come embellished with graffiti art and his headphones play a stream of hip-hop and R&B. With a mom who’s a nurse and a father who’ s cop, he’s more well-off than Peter, but his life has the overlay of being a young black boy in America, in a city where racial profiling is a very real problem. Miles has facets to his life that a young Peter Parker would simply never be able to speak to, and that’s why centering him as the protagonist is so important. It’s not that we don’t need Peter Parker anymore; it’s that in 2018 we need more heroes to demonstrate to us what otherwise may have gone unseen.
It seems Sony has finally, really caught up with the times, allowing it’s diverse roster of characters to speak for themselves. They’ve already announced a sequel to Spider-Verse (currently the best-reviewed Spider-Man film to date), which is sure to show us Miles as he gets more comfortable in his role as NYC’s hero. An all-female spin-off is also in the works, and will likely feature Spider-Gwen (who appears alongside Miles in Spider-Verse), among others. Korean American Cindy Moon, who fights crime as Silk and deals with anger issues and unpaid internships in her day-to-day, may also star in it or head up her own spin-off film. Even Venom, which was critically panned but did exceedingly well at the box office, already has a confirmed sequel. There’s even a post-credits scene for Spider-Verse that hints at yet another diverse Spidey whose lived experiences would be markedly different from Peter’s. These movies could all exist without Peter Parker never once walking into the frame, and with Holland currently thriving inside the MCU, and a countless number of stories yet to be told from these alternate universe Spideys, that’s fine.
At the end of Into the Spider-Verse, Miles tells us that anyone can wear the mask. Finally, Sony seems to be realizing that too.