Nnot a spider – and not a man – but the most powerful teenager in pop culture history. Spider-Man is the lonely, sensitive, adolescent underdog whose high school misery and humiliation, coupled with his secret superheroic triumphs, has captivated generations of fans as comic book crack and a gateway to the Marvel world itself.
He first appeared in Marvel Comics nearly 60 years ago: orphaned young scientific prodigy Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider during an educational exhibit. (Like Godzilla, Spider-Man is a product of the nuclear age.) He gains the proportional power of a spider, a tingling “spider sense” of danger, and the ability to climb walls. He designs his own body-hugging web motif costume and web-shooting wrist modules and becomes a superhero battling the likes of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. But somehow he’s unable to reveal his secret to his high school sweetheart Mary Jane Watson and, as unassuming Parker, is bullied by high school jock Flash Thompson who – ironically – is a fan of Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s victories are thus mixed with despair and depression: he fails to save his uncle Ben, who has been murdered by a street criminal, and his entire superhero career is driven by that primal scene of failure and guilt – a Rosebud of misery. .
Spider-Man is the arachnid Harry Potter (or is it more true to say that Potter is the humanoid Spidey?) and the new movie, Spider-Man: No Way Home, is now crushing the box office and crashing booking websites across the UK. In these times of woe, it seems we want the established favorite: Spider-Man, in his wacky outfit, defying the laws of physics to swing across the big city on his super-strong web. Sometimes he’s a high school student, sometimes he’s a college student, or older, but he always resets and reboots into his true teenage self.
Spider-Man was invented in 1962 by Stan Lee to speak to Marvel’s growing new teenage audience and was first introduced to British fans with the 1973 British Spider-Man Comics Weekly, a spin-off of The Mighty World of Marvel. For 40 years, Spider-Man was a potent brand favorite, with spin-offs from TV and video games. But in the new century, movies took the Spider-Man legend to the next level: director Sam Raimi’s trio of films starring the sleepy Tobey Maguire, culminating in a much-hated threequel, Spider-Man 3, starring the 32-year-old year-old Maguire was clearly too old. Then there were the two reboot movies, starring the smart, clumsy, more emotionally available Andrew Garfield — but Garfield would become disenchanted with the grind of representing a corporate icon. And then another Brit, the fresh Tom Holland, became a hit as Spider-Man as the hero joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, was witty and surreal.
Why are billions of people so addicted to Spider-Man? In part, it’s his excellent and extremely illogical solution to the superhero problem of flight. Superman can fly; Batman can’t (to use two examples from the rival DC Comics franchise), but Spider-Man somehow split the difference. Shooting his streams of super-strong webs that splash hyper-adhesive against buildings, Spidey can swing high above the sidewalks as Tarzan. But wait. In reality, this would require a horizontal surface overhead (or possibly a flagpole); simply attaching the web to a vertical surface such as a wall means Spidey would hit the ground or wall before the downturn was complete. It makes no sense, which is why Spider-Man can only exist on the page or on the screen. When a spectacular Broadway musical called Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was unveiled in 2010, featuring horrific music tracks from U2’s Bono and the Edge, it was an unspeakable disaster – at least in part because the “flying/swinging” scenes were like that. horrible. At one point, Spider-Man flew over the audience to the balcony and a wire jam meant he just stopped (like the infamous photo of Boris Johnson wearing his union jackets) and dangled to death. The real world reveals the absurdity of Spider-Man’s web-borne defying gravity.
Then there’s that web shooting technology itself. Is it all in the, er, wrist action? It has held a terrible, inexplicable fascination for young male Spidey fans for 60 years. Poor lonely Peter Parker, deeply unhappy in love, obsessed with a certain young woman, but now endowed with the ability to shoot jets of sticky stuff with a controlled, spasmodic movement of his wrist. Once you see the psychological subtext of Spider-Man’s webslinger exploits, it can’t go unnoticed. And in fact, part of the fascination with Spider-Man’s superpowers is that they somehow feel like theatrical magnifications or dramatizations of his existing weaknesses.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of identity, that issue that has a new relevance. Shy, cerebral Peter Parker is bullied by someone at school who idolizes Spider-Man. Also, Peter Parker makes a few bucks selling photos of Spider-Man in action to irascible newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson (who will evolve into a horrifying Alex Jones shock figure in the later films) and this media monster hates Spider-Man. Man; is Spider-Man phobic in fact. Some movies are about whether Spider-Man should come out as a superhero or keep his double life a secret. This too has resonated with armies of young people around the world. Spider-Man continues to wrap the audience in his sticky web.