How Spider-Man has become the most likeable superhero
Though there has been many different iterations of Spider-Man through the years, fans can't get enough of the web-slinging superhero
In Spider-Man: Far From Home, a computer is instructed to illustrate various incarnations of Marvel’s famed character and “bring up everything you have on Spider-Man”.
It’s a task that even the most powerful of processors might struggle with. The Stan Lee and Steve Ditko-created comic character first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962, and has been reinvented, remodelled and rebooted more times than anyone would care to remember. This latest adventure, starring Tom Holland as New York student Peter Parker and his superhero alter ego, is the seventh stand-alone Spider-Man adventure since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 brought the character swinging into the modern era.
First introduced in Captain America: Civil War, Holland’s exhilarating take on the character propelled Spider-Man: Homecoming to box-office success. He also appeared in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, much to fans’ delight. Then there was last year’s Venom, a spin-off from the Spider-Man universe featuring Tom Hardy as the villainous creature. While Spider-Man didn’t appear in that, Holland has already made noises that he’d “love to team up with Tom Hardy and do a Spider-Venom movie”, an idea surely uppermost in the minds of studio backers Sony Pictures, who also released last December the Oscar-winning animated film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
If you factor in Far From Home and his appearances in Infinity War and Endgame, that’s five films in little over a year that have dipped into this so-called Spider-Verse. Is it overkill? Or can audiences simply not get enough of Spidey?
Why audiences love Spider-Man
“I think there’s just something about Spider-Man, that when you’re a kid, you go, ‘Oh, he’s just like me. He’s a kid too,’” says Jon Watts, who directed 2017’s Homecoming and returns for Far From Home – which pits Spider-Man alongside the enigmatic Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) against monsters called the “Elementals”. The director recalls a video on YouTube of a young boy given a Spider-Man pinata. “His mum gives him the stick and is showing him how to smash the pinata and he just sets the stick down, walks over and gives the Spider-Man pinata a hug. He doesn’t want to hit his Spider-Man. He loves him! And I think that’s a universal feeling towards Spider-Man. You just can’t help but love him.”
I think there’s just something about Spider-Man, that when you’re a kid, you go, ‘Oh, he’s just like me. He’s a kid too.
Skewing the latest incarnation of the character younger also allows the filmmakers to stick to the naivete that makes Spider-Man so likeable.
Maguire was 28 by the time he made his second outing as the character, Spider-Man 2 (2004), while Andrew Garfield was 30 by the time his sophomore outing, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) came out. By comparison, the sprightly Holland has already played the character five times. Refreshing the brand also helps. With more than fifty years’ worth of Marvel-published Spider-Man comics, the character has been reinvented on paper and ink long before the movies ever got hold of him. Some of these incarnations can be glimpsed in the recent Spider-Verse animation – from pig-hero Spider-Ham to Spider-Gwen (in which one-time girlfriend Gwen Stacey gains the same powers) to Spider-Man Noir, a 1933 black-and-white detective.
Meanwhile, lead character Miles Morales, who gains powers similarly to Spider-Man after a bite from a radioactive spider, is merely your average high-school kid, like Peter Parker. First introduced in the comics in 2011, Miles’s Afro-Latino parentage was significant. As co-writer/producer Chris Miller put it: “Thematically, it really made sense … to say to the audience ‘It doesn’t matter where you came from, from what walk of life, young or old … you can be a hero, and you’re not alone.”
It’s this constant sense of identification that explains why audiences are willing to re-embrace Spider-Man. Compare him to the more remote DC Comics signature heroes Superman (an alien from the planet Krypton) and Batman (a reclusive billionaire).
“In the DC universe, you knew that Superman could have anything he wanted,” says Raimi. “He could take a piece of coal and make a diamond. With Spider-Man, that guy is broke; he doesn’t have any way to make money. I can relate to it.”
Although sometimes it doesn't work out either
Despite the unconditional love fans have for Spidey, it’s not always been so harmonious. After two animated series, the character first appeared on screen in CBS’s 1977 live-action show The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Nicholas Hammond.
The pilot for the series was even released theatrically, but hampered by poor costuming and the lack of visual effects available, it had that camp feeling that afflicted so many past comic-book adaptations.
There were other flops – a Japanese-made Spider-Man show which greatly departed from the comics and Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the 2010 Broadway musical with music by Bono and The Edge that was a notoriously expensive disaster. Even Garfield’s two-film run as the character sat uneasily with audiences.
Integrating the superhero into the Marvel’s wider world changed everything, though.
“Sam and Marc never got to have Spider-Man be a part of that universe,” says Watts. “He was always all alone, he was always the only superhero in the world.”
Now, the possibilities for your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man are endless.
Published: July 4, 2019 07:00 AM