Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Spidey, Inc.—Great Power and Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man

By Matt Yockey, editor of Make Ours Marvel: Media Convergence and a Comics Universe 

Due to corporate machinations—which, from the outside, can seem as arcane as any supervillain plot to take over the world—Spider-Man, one of Marvel Comic’s flagship characters, didn’t make the leap to the Marvel Studios fold when the company took on translating its stable of comic book titles into hugely successful blockbusters beginning with 2007’s Iron Man. Having licensed Spider-Man to Sony in 1999, Marvel’s enduring “web-head” existed in his own universe in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Spider-Man 3 (2007), and in yet another spider-verse in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). While these films combined for well over a billion dollars in domestic box office receipts, Marvel itself got only a small percentage as their cut. And while the company was left out of this financial windfall, Marvel fans themselves were deprived of seeing one of the company’s most iconic characters rub shoulders with his super-powered compatriots, as he so often has in the comics. 
If a Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed incomplete without Spider-Man (and certainly the introduction of second-string characters such as Ant-Man couldn’t quite fill the gap left by Spidey’s tenure at Sony), Marvel took steps to correct this by reacquiring the film rights to the character and introducing him into their cinematic world in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. As played by Tom Holland (who was 19 when shooting began), this Spider-Man rings truer as an earnest high school geek than a then 27-year old Toby Maguire did in 2002 or the more conventionally handsome Andrew Garfield does in the Webb films. What’s perhaps most fascinating—and different—about this latest movie Spider-Man is how he’s ushered into the MCU. As the Avengers fracture internally, a beleaguered Tony Stark turns, apparently, to YouTube for help and discovers a red and blue-clad super-being caught on cell phone footage fighting crime in New York. Stark corners Peter Parker in the Queens apartment the high-schooler shares with his Aunt May and applies his passive-aggressive shtick (“So, you’re the … Spiderling? Crime-fighting Spider? You’re Spider-Boy?”) to win him over. This meeting between the two is funny in part because the dynamic—like that of a big brother catching his younger brother with a well-worn copy of Playboy—is both embarrassing and flattering to Peter. He has a secret that he desperately doesn’t want his aunt to know about but which also makes him quietly proud of himself (in this case, for actively fighting bad in the world). As he stutters to Stark rather uncertainly, “I’m Spi-Spider-Man.” He is in fact a boy hoping to become a man and the longstanding appeal of Spider-Man has been that, unlike, say, Batman or Superman over at DC, he is always in the process of growing up. Thus, his everyday struggles (he initially rejects Stark’s offer to jet to Germany, incredulously asserting that he has homework) have always distinguished him as one of the most identifiable superheroes ever.

All of which makes his tutelage under Tony Stark in the MCU all the more significant. In his previous movie iterations, Spider-Man had a vexed relationship with corporate America. Oscorp was the source of both his powers and his adversaries, marking the corporate enterprise in distinctly ambivalent terms. By recasting Peter Parker as a kind of ward of Tony Stark, the MCU-version of the character is much cozier with corporate power. Stark gets him a new suit and, perhaps more importantly for Peter, a place at the grown-ups’ table. Peter belongs and he immediately has the approval of the coolest guy in the room, who also happens to be the richest. Of course, as a symbol of corporate America, Tony Stark individualizes corporate power, making it both familiar and flawed (his smarmy charm is as much a weakness as it is a strength). Audiences embrace Tony Stark in these films because he seems to be constantly learning the same lesson that Peter is learning: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

As a perpetual teenager haunted by the death of his uncle and tasked with caring for his aunt, Peter Parker balances the taciturn grimness of Batman with the enthusiastic naiveté of Robin and the result is greater than the sum of its parts. He is at once determined and self-doubting, and in that emotional mix of civic and familial devotion with private insecurity, Peter Parker represents the best—and most human—qualities of all of us. His credo “With great power comes great responsibility” is as relevant to a teenage science nerd as it is to a billionaire playboy superhero (or as appropriate to the average movie-goer as it is to a world leader). It’s an ethos that in recent superhero blockbusters has been questioned (Captain America: Civil War ponders the exact nature of that responsibility) or, for a fatal moment, forgotten (in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of the Steel). If Spider-Man’s integration into the MCU seems to require the oversight of that world’s richest but perhaps most emotionally impoverished character, we are being asked to recognize the necessity of the Everyman at the heart of the fantastic world of both superheroes and global corporate power. Just as Stark needs Peter, Marvel needs its fans and our encounter with Spider-Man this summer in Spider-Man: Homecoming reassures us that in the midst of an increasingly polarized economic landscape, it’s the little guy who still counts the most.

Make Ours Marvel is available now from your favorite bookseller, or purchase directly from the University of Texas Press here.

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