Saturday, 12 January 2019

Lessons from the Spider-Verse: All Spideys are Valid

We all have in our heads what we want from Spider-Man.

We all know his backstory, the death of Uncle Ben, how his life is a perpetual cycle of struggle and loss. We all know the words, "With great power comes great responsibility". We all know the costume and the importance of a well-timed quip.

Never forget the hyphen.

Let's zoom in on the quips for a second since this is something I think that people misinterpret: why Spider-Man quips. Spidey wisecracks to mask his fears and insecurities, not to show off how great he is. He is not really trying to be funny or drop a witty one-liner, although he does at times. Rather, this is his response to high-pressure situations, his coping mechanism.

On this note, I can see why Garfield's Spidey didn't resonate with some people. His wisecracks are just a tad too snarky and sarcastic. They feel mean-spirited and he seems arrogant. Of course, this has a lot to do with tone and delivery but still that feeling remains.

Don't get me wrong, I do like Garfield's version of Spider-Man and the major theme of this piece will be getting into the joy of appreciating all Spider-Men. However, it's clear why the stark sincerity of Maguire and wide-eyed wonder of Holland resonates far more with people.

Actually, let's get into it. The reason I wanted to write this. The power of embracing all versions of Spider-Man, even if they are not perfect or fit exactly the idea of Spider-Man in your head.

Wait, what? I can enjoy different versions of Spider-Man?

*Before we go any further there will be SPOILERS for pretty much every Spider-Man movie made in the last 20 years so either go watch them or proceed having been warned. Spoilers ahead.*

One of the great joys of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is recognising that each version of Spider-Man (or Spider-Persona to be inclusive) has their own strengths and brings something unique to the concept of "person bit by radioactive spider and burden with responsibility following the death of a loved one (usually an uncle)".

And it got me thinking about how we determine certain versions Spider-Man as superior or more in line with the general idea of who Spider-Man is as a hero and what he stands for.

So who is Spider-Man? What defines him as a character or anyone who takes on a Spider-Persona? Because unlike Iron Man, who is Tony Stark, Spider-Man is not Peter Parker. Peter Parker is the original Spider-Man of course but the great conceit with Spider-Man is that once the costume is on, it could be anyone under it.

"I could be anyone under this mask. Anyone..."
"Interesting. Tell me more."

Superman's face is fully visible, we can all see Batman's Caucasian jaw-line but Spider-Man's costume covers his whole body and face. He could be any race, age, or nationality. And if his name wasn't literally Spider-Man, any gender. Anyone could be Spider-Man.

But wait, doesn't Iron Man's armour covers his whole body and face. Yes, yes, it does. However, Iron Man's entire thing revolves around Tony Stark. Iron Man isn't a symbol for people to emulate. Iron Man's heroism is about Tony Stark saving the day, not about him inspiring others.

I mean, the whole arc of Iron Man 3 (the best Iron Man movie by the way) is Tony realising that he is Iron Man, with or without the armour. The armour does not make the Iron Man. Tony does.

This is why the first Iron Man film ends with this declaration:

Note the lack of armour.

Now you might be yelling in the back, "The first Raimi Spider-Man movie ends with him declaring he is Spider-Man so you just don't know what you're talking about". Yes, Peter Parker does end that movie by saying he is Spider-Man. In his head. In an inner monologue. To the audience.

This isn't Peter declaring to the world that he is a hero to satisfy his ego. This is Peter internally acknowledging his responsibility and choosing to be a hero. Peter chooses to become Spider-Man in that moment. To sacrifice his own personal happiness in order to do the right thing.

On while we're on the subject, I want to discuss the Raimi trilogy for a bit. Since this leads back nicely to a discussion about what sort of hero Spider-Man is.

Now you can make fun of the campy elements of the Raimi trilogy but those movies were achingly sincere about what made Spider-Man a hero - someone who was willing to give up his dreams to do what's right.

Maguire's Spidey might not have been as quipy as other movie versions but he was one of the purest distillations of Spider-Man's heroism. His Spider-Man always tried to do what was right, even when it made his life more difficult, even when it cost him the things he wanted most.

"It's almost like the Raimi films had a central thesis. Something about there being a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams... Nah, that's silly."

Because the thing that makes Spider-Man a hero is his humanity, not his super-heroism.

To quote Film Crit Hulk on Spider-Man 2 (both his and my favourite superhero film), "It's about the way adults come together to support each other in the nobler pursuits. It's about establishing all the reasons that the world is worth fighting for. And in its pursuit of this theme, Sam Raimi did not make me feel empowered, he made me feel human."

This is what makes Spider-Man 'Spider-Man' regardless of who is under the mask. His responsibility as a hero negatively impacts his personal life constantly in a way it often doesn't for other super heroes.

And I will say, this is something that Spider-Man: Homecoming understood expertly. Holland's Peter regularly has to decide between doing normal teenage stuff with his friends or being Spider-Man.

He goes to a party at Liz's house where he intends to later swing in as Spider-Man to impress her but instead decides to investigate a giant blue explosion. He plans to track the Vulture's crew to their base but Liz asks him to join their academic decathlon team as they sneak to the pool and we literally see Peter looking through the skylight at the fulfilling teenage experience he is deciding to miss out on.

Unrelated but I sincerely loved this moment in the film. Just putting it out there.

There is some criticism that Holland's Spider-Man is just Tony Stark's surrogate son or Iron Man Jr. but actually I think this allows for some interesting storytelling aspects in regards to both their characters. Tony recognises something of himself in Peter but also wants him to be better. And the reason that Peter can be better is because he has the same selflessness in him that MCU Captain America has.

As this wonderful video by Reality Punch Studios puts it, "Peter is an almost perfect mix between Steve and Tony. He's got Tony's guilt due to the death of his uncle but he's also got this unbreakable moral code that motivates him to do everything he can to help people as long as he has the power to." And because Tony sees something in Peter, he gives him consequences for making the same mistakes that Tony himself would, consequences like putting him in training wheels, making Happy his handler, and taking away the suit.

In this way, Earthling Cinema notes, Homecoming inverts the traditional interpretation of "With great power, comes great responsibility" - that if you have power you have a responsibility to us it for the utmost good - by "questioning whether the young Peter is responsible enough to wield great power".

Peter starts the film out as impulsive and never thinks through the consequences of his actions. It's because of him that his favourite sandwich shop is blown up. It's because of him that his team nearly dies because of the Chitauri power core he gives to Ned blows up the Washington Monument. It's because of him that the Straten Island Ferry splits in half.

"Maybe I'm not really ready to wield this great power responsibly yet."

That's why at the end of the film Tony tries to give Peter what he (Tony) would have wanted - fame, recognition, a cool new suit. However, Peter rejects it because he sees being Spider-Man as a duty and a responsibility, something that he painstaking learns through the course of his mistakes in the film.

Cycling back to my earlier point, Spider-Man, in whatever iteration or reboot will always have to learn how to navigate his personal and superhero lives. This is not unique to Spider-Man since other heroes have similar struggles but it is an essential aspect of the character.

I mean, Superman's battles with Lex Luthor don't result in him missing a date with Louis Lane. Batman literally uses Bruce Wayne as a false face to the world, playing up the billionaire playboy. Steve Rogers is a man out of time and doesn't really have a life outside of being Captain America.

But Spider-Man's personal life is just as important to him as his superhero life. It is a sacrifice for him to be Spider-Man. Both Peter and Miles at the start of their superhero careers needed to juggle both their responsibilities at school with their responsibilities as Spider-Man.

From the get-go, becoming Spider-Man comes into conflict with Miles' ability to live a normal life.

This is what defines a Spider-Persona as much as cool spider powers. The struggle to manage their private and superhero lives, not to mention losing a loved one who teaches them the importance of using their powers responsibly to do the right thing, even if it means giving up what they want.

Which brings me back to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Firstly, everyone needs to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Honestly one of the most thrilling and engaging cinematic experiences I've ever had. It looks like nothing else. It's like reading the very best comic book but a film. Just unbelievably inventive and colourful visuals with a truly human story to match.

And while there are a lot of Spider-People in the film, it truly is Miles Morales' story. Right from his introduction singing badly along to Post Malone's "Sunflower", we understand what type of person Miles is and the internal struggle he is going through. He is artistic and bright, as well as empathetic but feels he doesn't belong. He wants to please his parents but at the same time wants to break free.

He's a sweet kid with a good heart, who is rudderless and trying to find his place. Pulled in two different directions by the two male role models in his life, his uptight cop father with whom he has a strained relationship and his loose, easy-going (and unbeknownst to Miles, criminal) uncle, Aaron who he looks up to. He is desperate for a mentor, someone to guide him, which is why he latches onto Peter B. Parker when he gets sucked into Miles' dimension.

However, the whole thrust of Miles' arc is letting go of his own self-imposed limitations and being better than either of his male role models or his mentor, Peter B. He becomes his own person who learns from his mistakes and overcomes his self-doubt by fulfilling the promise he made to a dying Peter Parker and learning to use his powers responsibly.

All of which leads to the most thrilling scene in the film as Miles fulfills his character arc by taking a leap of faith and becoming Spider-Man - his version of Spider-Man, one who strives to be better.

But more relevant to my overall point, as I said earlier each Spider-Persona in Spider-Verse brings something new or interesting to the concept of Spider-Man. However, here's the thing: each Spider-Persona is valid.

Peter B. Parker presents us with a tragic older Spider-Man burnt out from too many years of constantly saving the city again and again, stunted and unable or unwilling to grow, afraid of moving into the next phase of his life. Gwen Stacey shows us another side of the emotional toil of being a Spider-Person, following the death of her Peter, she refused to allow herself to make personal connections, saying she doesn't do friends.

Peni Parker loses SP//dr (her psychically-powered mech suit) in the climax and it is treated like a legitimately sad moment with pathos. Noir Spider-Man is a heavy drinker who wrestles with the moral ambiguity of his violent actions.

Hell, even Spider-Ham is treated seriously in the film despite the fact he is a literal cartoon.

"Miles, the hardest thing about this job is you can’t always save everybody."
This is something Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham says in the film.

From this, I started thinking about how we categorise the 'best' version of Spider-Man. Things like:
  • Maguire was the best Peter Parker but his Spider-Man didn't quip or feel like the comic book.
  • Andrew Garfield was a great Spider-Man because he quipped a lot but his Peter Parker felt arrogant and too cool. 
  • Tom Holland felt like a teenage Peter Parker/Spider-Man but his story didn't have the same dramatic weight as Maguire or even Garfield. 
  • Or whatever your critique might be.

There are arguments and counter-arguments for each of those statements of course, and I don't even believe each one, but my point is to highlight how even if there are criticism for each portrayal, they all have something to offer to the concept of Spider-Man.

Although I know The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been relegated to the trash heap of superhero movies, let's cycle back to it since the triumphant score and cinematography of the web-slinging scenes are actually fantastic?

Now, it does takes seven and half minutes in the film for Spider-Man to show up but when he does, wow, what an entrance does he make. Even the movie seems happy he's here, using body-cam footage to show us what it's like to be Spider-Man and the score is just so joyous, you guys.

Like, some of these shots are truly gorgeous and seamlessly fluid in motion, just, ah - *chef's kiss*.

Also, I really like how Garfield's Spidey is a Spider-Man who tries to talk down his opponents before the inevitable fight. When he first meets Electro in Times Square, he spends a while trying to deescalate the situation, relating to Electro about how he is feeling and attempts to get him away from the crowds. It doesn't work due to a trigger-happy police sniper but the effort is still appreciated.

This in what is generally considered to be the worst Spider-Man film, and with good reason since there is a lot wrong going on structurally and thematically. Plot threads and character motivations are introduced but seem to have no real impact on Peter's arc, such as his promise to ghost Captain Stacey. However, even with its flaws there is quite a bit of Spidey stuff to love.

I mean, that film had the utterly sizzling chemistry between Peter and Gwen.

So I ask, is there any worth in debating who is the best version of Spider-Man? Or arguing about the best anything, really? We position 'best' as though it is somehow an objective descriptor when it is actually the most subjective thing.

Because we often conflate our favourite with best. If something is our favourite, surely it must be the best or why else would it be our favourite. But that's not how it works. Your favourite whatever can be your favourite for a multitude of factors, half of which you may not even be fully conscious of.

I think we need to take a step back and reason that favourite does not mean best, it just means favourite. i.e. the one which resonates with you the best. 'Best' doesn't even mean best in the way people tend to use it.

Best for what puprose? Best in what way? Since very few things are the best in every way but some might be perfect in some ways or in ways which resonate the most with certain people. I think 'best' is at best subjective, at worst unhelpful.

Rather than trying to quantify which is the 'best' and relegating the rest to the 'worst' pile, which is already a false dichotomy, we should recognise that sometimes things have worth even if they are not perfect. To understand that different versions might not be good in each aspect and still have aspects which work.

There are a number of coherent, concise themes in Spider-Verse but one that stands out is that “Anyone can wear the mask”. There’s room for so many Spider-Personas. The universe isn’t one thing. It’s many.

When we look at different versions of Spider-Man to see what each brings to the concept, we should break down what works and what doesn't, not to determine some objective 'best' but rather to gain a better understanding of what makes Spider-Man the hero he is, the humanity underneath the costume.

Since it just might helps us better understand the humanity within us all.

And I repeat - Never forget the hyphen.


Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Spider-Man & The Marvel Fatal Flaw

Steve & Tony - Marvel's Big Picture Storytelling

Alien's Guide to Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse screenplay PDF