What makes for a good Spider-Man?
Is it the amount of quips? Eh. Spider-Man is a funny dude, but having every fight be Late Night With Peter Parker feels like an effort to out-Deadpool Deadpool, a hero who can make jokes all the time and never have to worry about abandoning the heart of his movie, as he's a mutant dick at his core.
The accuracy of the costume? Not really. If he's got a spider on his chest and a mask, he's doing alright for himself.
The connection to Uncle Ben? Most Spider-Men have been spurred on by this tragedy, but I'm not sure that we have to see Uncle Ben eat it to truly "get" Spider-Man. If Peter says "I had a family member pass away ..." then I'm not gonna "Pics or it didn't happen" him.
The age? Yeah, traditionally Spider-Man has started his Spider-Manning career in high school, but saying that Spider-Man needs to be in the violent throes of puberty kind of ignores the fact that your whole life is a learning process. Putting him in high school is just an easier way to get the "Here's how a dorky teen became a dorky radioactive man" metaphor across.
No, what makes for a good Spider-Man movie is the proper use of wish-fulfillment. Peter Parker and his alter ego, Spider-Man (sorry for the spoilers), cannot both be fantasies. If Peter Parker is already awesome, you need to trash your script, re-read Amazing Spider-Man issues 1 through 40, and start from scratch. If Spider-Man is cool and amazing and Peter Parker is the lame character whom you feel almost uncomfortable about, then congratulations. You've hit upon the secret formula. Get ready for a lifetime of going to interviews for your latest indie film and getting nothing but questions about your opinions of the latest person who played Spider-Man.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is out now, and one of the big selling points of the movie that actor Tom Holland, an artificial being grown in a secret government lab with the goal to create Spider-Man actors, is a goddamn solid Spider-Man. And while he's not my favorite (I bleed red, white, and Tobey), that doesn't mean that I don't like him a ton in the role. And while he checks off on all of the window dressing that I listed above, the main reason I dig him is that I do not want to be his Peter Parker. It sucks to be that kid.
He's got about one really good friend and a bunch of people who can stand to be in the same room as him. Tony Stark, this smart hot billionaire, is hitting on his aunt any chance he gets. And he's a nerd, in the same way that a lot of people are nerds. He doesn't have Mr. Fantastic or Iron Man intellect. Peter Parker is the kind of guy who would get very excited about a new Spider-Man movie.
He's us. We're a legion of Peter Parkers. We know a ton about comic book history, but it hasn't earned us any free belly button shots so far. Some of us are reasonably fit, but we live in a world in which The Rock exists, so f**k me, right? And we have a lot of talents that we wish we could tell the world about, but whenever we do, J. Jonah Jameson gets in the comments section and writes "Daniel's jokes? THREAT or MENACE?"
But when Tom Holland puts on the costume and gets to swing around and beat up crooks, it's thrilling, because he's turning into the person we'd like to be. Peter Parker makes jokes and the cheerleaders look at him like he has snakes for eyes. Spider-Man can make jokes and fight the Vulture at the same time, and he does both reasonably well. I have to pause my conversation when I open a peanut butter jar because my stupid can-tell-duck-billed-dinosaurs-apart-just-by-looking-at-their-crests brain can't handle that kind of multi-tasking stress. I wanna be Spider-Man. But being just Peter Parker? God, no. Thanks, but I know how that one ends.
And Peter/Spider-Man stands out among Marvel heroes in this way. We'd like to be Iron Man, but it we were just Tony Stark, that wouldn't be so bad. And have you seen Steve Roger's biceps? Not being able to put on the patriotic tactical gear wouldn't be a huge loss if I could deadlift a Mercedes.
This all seems really easy to accomplish. But look at the previous Spider-Man series, and you'll see how easily someone can mess it up. When Sony couldn't lift Sam Raimi's Spider-Man out of the rubble of itself fast enough, they decided to just reboot the whole thing with The Amazing Spider-Man. And instead of giving us a Peter Parker we'd never want to step in the shoes of, we got a Peter Parker who was definitely cooler than us.
Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker would be drawing dicks on the sleeping face of Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker. He wouldn't tell Tom Holland's Peter Parker where he got his hair cut. And if he met me, he'd probably say something painfully sarcastic while I fumbled hopelessly for a response. In an effort to give us a cool, millennial interpretation of the webslinger, what we got was a detached Peter Parker and a thrill-less Spider-Man. It was as if they thought that modern audiences were too "advanced" to buy into the idea of the corny loser underdog, so instead they gave us a walking Instagram caption.
Sony Pictures Releasing
I give the Amazing Spider-Man series a lot of flak for its attempt to introduce about a half-dozen sequel ideas in one movie, but its biggest problem is that its Spider-Man does not feel like a triumph. He's an angsty, mysterious, funny loner, and he puts on a costume to become the Amazing Angsty Mysterious Funny Loner. There's no thrill in that. And there's no wish-fulfillment.
More than with Batman, or Iron Man, or Elektra, the mark of a good Spider-Man movie is you feeling the same kind of release and joy that Peter Parker feels when he puts on the costume. The world dunks your head in the toilet at every opportunity, and the best Spider-Man movies tell you "Yeah, we get it. Being Peter Parker sucks. But for the next two hours, you're gonna get to be Spider-Man, and that's awesome. And then a Chad Kroeger song will probably play, signifying that it's time to go home."
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