By Summaiya Jafri
Who would have thought a nerdy kid from Queens could reach such unfathomable “heights”? According to research conducted by British retailer Game, The Amazing Spider-Man is the most popular superhero in fifty-seven countries, making him the world’s favorite comic book character by a long shot. What makes Spider-Man so appealing to audiences worldwide, and why does it actually matter?
Since his introduction in Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker has always been celebrated by the average man. “He’s the one who’s most like me—nothing ever turns out 100 percent OK; he’s got a lot of problems, and he does things wrong, and I can relate to that,” stated the late creator and comic visionary Stan Lee. Parker, a timid teenager already facing the terrifying supervillain that is high school, comes from the diverse New York City borough of Queens. Stan Lee and his partner Steve Ditko were quick to point out his working-class background. He has a slew of wealthy villains, the greatest of whom is arguably Norman Osborn as The Green Goblin. As the C.E.O of Oscorp, a company dedicated to scientific advances and military technology, Norman Osborn represents wealth and power in contrast to Peter Parker’s humble origins.
In 1962, it was quite rare for teenagers to be the main hero of the story throughout the comic book industry. Teenagers were mostly depicted as sidekicks, like DC Comics’ Robin, and heroes were usually idealistic adult men such as Batman, the vigilante alter ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne. The head of Marvel Comics himself, Martin Goodman, was doubtful of the character’s marketability. “Goodman’s objections were many. Allow me to cite a few: People hate spiders. Teenagers can only be sidekicks. A superhero shouldn’t have so many problems. He should be handsome and glamorous and popular,” noted Marvel writer Ralph Macchio in an article for Literary Hub. No one at Marvel could foresee the success Spider-Man would become.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) showcases a unique portrayal of mental health and demonstrates Spider-Man’s loss of powers due to depression and stress, very rare for a superhero film.
Whether on the page or on the screen, Parker is characterized greatly by his struggles. How Spider-Man is shown on film is largely significant as contemporary audiences are opting to head to the theaters to view their favorite heroes in action rather than purchase comic books. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002) tackles nuanced subjects. Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire, is an incredibly humanized figure who deals with grandiose, supernatural problems as well as everyday ones. His priorities range from supporting his elderly aunt, impressing the girl next door, and defeating scientists gone rogue. Throughout these films, Raimi and Maguire embrace Parker’s background, showing the grittier side of New York City through underground fights and cold-blooded violence. A key component to Parker’s story is the murder of his Uncle Ben in the first film, which dictates his moral philosophy and leads him to use his abilities for the greater good. Ben Parker’s famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility”, exists as a reminder as to why Spider-Man fights to make his city a better place for all. The films also showcase the wealth disparity between New Yorkers through the contrast of the Parkers’ family home and the Osborns’ penthouse. Throughout the series, Parker’s inability to pay his rent becomes a running gag and is reflective of ongoing housing problems in New York City, while his aunt’s home undergoes the threat of foreclosure. He aims to earn a living wage as a journalistic photographer, but his employer at the Daily Bugle, the infamous J. Jonah Jameson, underpays him. Spider-Man 2 (2004) showcases a unique portrayal of mental health and demonstrates Spider-Man’s loss of powers due to depression and stress, very rare for a superhero film. Parker is constantly on the brink of failing his college classes because his civic duties keep him from his personal commitments. His relationship with Mary Jane Watson becomes tumultuous and it takes a toll on his self-efficacy. In the third film, he also finds himself fighting his own best friend, Harry Osborn, who blames him for the death of his father. The emotional gravity of the Spider-Man trilogy makes it a compelling watch, introducing it to mass audiences and ushering in a new era for the superhero film genre.
There is something sinister about making the characteristically working-class Spider-Man the protege of a wealthy billionaire.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), we find the web-slinger juxtaposed with Iron-Man, a cocky billionaire who seems out of place in Parker’s New York. Peter Parker, portrayed by Tom Holland, works for Tony Stark as an intern which greatly derails the development of his character. Previously depicted as self-reliant in both the comics and Maguire’s trilogy, we see Spider-Man operate under the tutelage of Iron-Man and his cutting-edge technology. Homecoming explores the outcome of Stark’s apathy for the common man as it forges the wrath of Adrian Toomes, also known as The Vulture. The opening scene takes place shortly after the battle depicted in The Avengers (2012) and demonstrates Stark’s carelessness, which is uncovered as his company brushes off the salvagers who clean up the mess. When Toomes’s operation is taken over by Stark Industries, he decides to keep the alien technology recovered from the devastation to create powerful weapons. Mass destruction is common throughout superhero flicks, but it is rare for the audience to see its impact in a film. A fifteen-year-old must deal with the consequences of The Avengers’ actions, a villain born from the ashes of their destruction. Stark tells Parker to lay low because there are some things he just cannot handle, such as the illegal weapons being distributed by Toomes’s crew. The Marvel Cinematic Universe diverges from the original purpose of Spider-Man, who was intended to be a resourceful teenager and someone with which working-class children could identify.
As someone from Queens, I can attest that the mythos of Spider-Man has resonated with us on a greater level than anyone could imagine.
There is something sinister about making the characteristically working-class Spider-Man the protege of a wealthy billionaire. There are indeed moments where Parker’s own prowess shines through, such as his web fluid formula or his disablement of a feature embedded in his suit known as the ‘Training Wheels Protocol’ to unlock its full capabilities, but he is still heavily aided by Stark’s technology until the climax of the film. Stark takes away Parker’s suit and he is forced to defeat The Vulture in his own homemade outfit, thereby reminding audiences of the character’s core values. The most compelling aspect about MCU Spider-Man is its slower development of Parker’s character. Although he defeats The Vulture at the end of Homecoming, the next film, Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) presents a return to the same reliance on Stark technology, thanks to the deus-ex-machina Stark plane that rescues him as well as provides him with a new suit. The MCU Spider-Man is at his strongest when he is most authentic. In Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) he combats a multiverse of villains and the return of Maguire and Garfield’s respective Spider-Men. It feels all too natural to see each Spider-Man interact with each other, reinforcing the true spirit of the character we have come to love. At the end of No Way Home, the boy who started out as Iron-Man’s intern is left penniless with no loved ones to speak of. The suit revealed in the final moments of the film reflects his own, independent strength as he designed and created it. Although his journey had a rocky start, the future of MCU Spider-Man looks promising.
As someone from Queens, I can attest that the mythos of Spider-Man has resonated with us on a greater level than anyone could imagine. I was introduced to the character at a young age by my dad and subsequently grew up alongside Peter Parker, reading the comics and watching each film adaptation regardless of who played him. The key to a successful Spider-Man story is highlighting all of his shortcomings without sugarcoating the reality of his hometown. While Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is raw and earnest, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on the character is a colorful, CGI-filled offering that turns New York City into something out of a teeny-bopper flick on Disney Channel. Substituting Uncle Ben for Tony Stark may seem like the right move for audiences who may have grown weary of rehashing Spider-Man’s origin story, but it has proved detrimental to the foundation of Parker’s morality. Unlike Holland’s Spider-Man, Maguire’s version has no one there to guide him in his journey to becoming a hero.
The Amazing Spider-Man has stood the test of time, even with its ups and downs, which is why it is imperative that the rough patches are not glossed over. Spider-Man is deeply embedded in mainstream popular culture, but for reasons one may not expect. No matter which way you spin the web, Peter Parker is here to stay.