Here is a thing with me: I haven’t owned a TV in so long that whenever I’m in the same room with one, I can’t seem to stop watching. Our last night in Venice one of the hotel movie channels was showing the 2002 version of Spider-Man, the one with Tobey Maguire as the lead. I’d also watched the films from the 2012 reboot starring Andrew Parker – The Amazing Spider-Man, which I hadn’t seen – during the days at sea on our cruise ship.
Robin, a friend, not Batman’s sidekick (at least I don’t think) wrote an essay last year on what makes a particular novel a particular novel, the Moby Dickness of Moby Dick. It reminds me of other kinds of stories, of mythology and folklore like, say, the stories of African bush tribes, in which there is no Melville to helm an original text. These tales have unknown authors and are transmitted horizontally across regional peoples and vertical through generations of speech, song and memory. Through repetition, the canon emerges. The stories are recipes, with basic ingredients – it should have eggs, cheese and bacon or it’s probably not a carbonara – and each chef adds their own flavor.
Somewhere between Moby Dick and the African bush story is Spider-Man. Superhero tales are prone to adaptation, evidenced by the movies and dozens of version of the comics. But the retelling is also sanctioned. There is someone steering the ship, bet it Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Marvel, etc. By watching the decade-apart Spider-Man renditions back to back, even having never before come across the story, you see the common ingredients – some concrete details of plot, others more abstract factors of character and tone: Peter Parker has to be bitten by a radioactive spider at Oscorp; he has to crawl on walls and swing from buildings; he has to indirectly effect Uncle Ben’s death, indirectly effect the creation of the villains he is to face; there has to be sarcasm, brooding, loneliness; he has to choose between saving the city and saving the girl; he has get help from the common people of the city and realize that no, he is not alone after all; Aunt May can come close to but should not – despite the fact that many others, especially love interests and billionaire-best-friend-turned-supervillains, do – discover that her nephew is Spider-Man.
Watch the movies one after another and you see the divergences, where each writer and director applies their own sensibilities toward the franchise. You see the trends in filmmaking, advances in technique and technology. You see the influx of Dark Knight Realism. The web-slinging sequences in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man have by today’s standards comically bad CG: the camera movements feel awkward, CG Peter/Spidey is overly floppy, to the point of appearing not to have bones. Marc Webb’s 2012 Spider-Man, on the other hand, references first-person shooters and skydiving and base jumping; when Spidey falls, before he grips with his web another building, it is as though he is in freefall – the ups and downs of his web swinging become symbolic of the ups and downs in Peter’s emotional state. Spider-Man in 2012 isn’t just gritty; it’s manic-depressive.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man also tends toward melodrama, because superhero comics themselves tend toward melodrama. Here’s a snippet of dialogue between Peter and Mary Jane in the 2002 film:
MJ: I wanna … I wanna act on stage. P: Really? Well that’s perfect. You’re awesome in all the school plays. MJ: Really? P: Yeah. I cried like a baby when you played Cinderella. MJ: Peter, that was first grade. P: Well, even so. Sometimes you know people. You can just … see what’s coming.
Compare to this exchange between reboot Peter and Gwen in all its 2012 nervous-teenagerness:
P: Um so you want to … uh … I don’t know. Um … G: Want to what? P: I don’t know … just uh … I don’t know. I don’t know – we could … Or we could do something else, or we could – If you don’t feel like, we could – G: Yeah. P: Yeah? G: Yeah, either one. P: Really? G: Alright, good. Sounds good. P: Okay.
I’m not suggesting that one version is better than the other, necessarily. That would be unfair: Sam Raimi did not have Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man as a reference point. Marc Webb did. Raimi might have been trying to create a Spider-Man film that was as faithful to the comic as possible, whereas Webb was making a Spider-Man movie that was faithful to the comic but also clearly not Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Such a task requires subverting old tropes and cliches of franchise and genre. When Peter discovers Uncle Ben, shot and lying in the street in 2002, Uncle Ben stays alive for just long enough to grab his hand and utter, “Peter. Peter …” In 2012, Peter is denied those last words. By the time he gets there, Uncle Ben is already dead.
Within each Spider-Man movie, then, is also a commentary on Spider-Man movies. And the next Spider-Man, when it is made, will have to recognize the staid patterns in the current films and invent ways around those. Each retelling reveals the temporality of the previous tellings. What will the next one say about ours?