Spidey Is 50!: What’s Done is Done
Just in the last year alone, there have been two attempts at retelling Spider-Man’s origin: the graphic novel Spider-Man: Season One and the Hollywood reboot Amazing Spider-Man. Before that, there had been so many variations across comic books, animated series, video games, and movies that one could almost turn the basic plot into a genre unto itself, with a large amount of its output being within the decade since Spider-Man first hit theaters. This has led to a certain amount of pushback both within comic book culture (“We’re tired of origin stories!”) and in the general audience’s souring towards remake after remake (“Reboot? Didn’t the first one come out a decade ago?”). It is safe to say that Peter Parker’s early days have been thoroughly explored from every possible angle – to the point Paul Jenkins opened the Spider-Man Mythos one-shot he did with Paolo Rivera with the line “You already know the story” – yet, like El Nino, we’ll see another interpretation in a few years. Why is this?
Beyond the obvious, capitalist motives in churning out remakes of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original tale from Amazing Fantasy #15, there is a certain pull to it. An irresistable charm to so deceptively simple a concept: a boy who gains powers, uses them wrongly and suffers for it by losing someone he loves, and resolves to use them for good. Spidey’s origin is as iconic as Superman and Batman’s, and has a touch of Shakespearean tragedy to it: the infamous musical’s original director, Julie Taymor, compared Peter Parker to Prospero regarding the pull between “ris[ing] above yourself” and “stay[ing] with your earthly loves and desires”; she’s not wrong, though that could be any superhero, really. Myself, I think of the origin in terms of Macbeth, where one man’s hubris leads to karma giving him a swift kick in the ass. It also has served as a great de facto blueprint for superhero narratives for decades after Amazing Fantasy #15 was published, whether it was Moon Knight, the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, the first Iron Man movie (the original comics held a kinder view of Stark’s weapons development), and certainly for the Noir, 2099, and Manga versions of Spider-Man (if Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be turned into Forbidden Planet, than Spidey’s origin seems appropriate for a genre mashup, too).
This tragic element is in most versions of the story told, whether it’s the reviled Chapter One (John Byrne’s attempt to relive his Man of Steel glory days with Spider-Man) or the more successful Ultimate Spider-Man from Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. Both also add convoluted backstories to the spider bite and sinister conspiracies involving Norman Osborn to the mix, positing that Cold War theatrics and government-big business collusion have left Gen Xers and Millenials with cynicism and a surveillance state – Lee and Ditko were more interested in the rise of the teenage outcast in the social consciousness and the gap between the Boomers and the GI Generation, before that franchise-friendly-sliding-timescale hurled such subtext down the mountain – but didn’t change the core idea of Peter being (in)directly responsible for Ben Parker’s death. Another version, J. Michael Straczynski’s retcon asserting the spider-bite was part of some mystical fate for which Peter was destined, had the effect of marginalizing the roles of the Burglar and Ben in the story since, hey, Spider-Man was destined to be a hero anyway.
For my money, the definitive retelling is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and it’s all because of this one scene:
Where Lee and Ditko leave the sage advice off-panel so that Peter’s realization is more a surprise twist, Raimi adds a whole new layer to the Parkers’ relationship by having Peter snap back at Ben after being given the speech. Suddenly, the tragedy becomes two-pronged: the last thing Peter says to Ben before the shooting is to “stop pretending” to be his father, and that same selfishness leads to his uncle’s murder? It’s a much more bitter pill to swallow. Especially important is the subtle, hurt look Cliff Robertson gives, while Tobey Maguire’s Peter has the quiet realization that he’s said precisely the wrong thing, but is too stubborn to apologize. For being only a two-minute exchange, it brings so much to the movie and the character. Like Macbeth, he has to face down a sin he can never make right. No conspiracies and no destinies, just incredibly human moments, and that’s always what drove the better Spider-Man comics. This might be what makes the origin so indispensable, and why it’s such an easy story for Marvel to come back to even fifty years later.