Spider-Man and Me

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Who wasn’t blown away by CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’s latest trailer yesterday? It looks like the payoff for nearly all of the groundwork of the MCU: Ant-Man on Hawkeye’s arrows! Captain America and Iron Man philosophically reversed! A reprise of “I can do this all day!”

And a certain cameo at the end.

I’m not prone to fangasms or going full-fanboy, but when Spidey showed up, his eyes narrowing just like they did in the comics and cartoon shows, I felt a physical surge of happiness. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was nearly crying. I was 7 years old again.

And as a 7 year-old, I had needed Spider-Man.

That’s how old I was when the SPIDER-MAN animated series premiered on Fox Kids in 1994. My Catholic school had a 1st grade class of 25 kids, and only 8 kids from 3rd-5th grade. Nobody else read comics in my class, or seemingly the entire blue-collar town. Bullies targeted me for my comic-reading and for not suppressing my emotions. The worst bully persisted until 7th grade. My 1st grade teacher was also an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive bully. My parents both worked late, so I spent most of my time alone at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t have any friends, really.

SPIDER-MAN’s cartoon debut was life-changing. Peter Parker was a nerd who, even in high school, was still bullied; had a distant, fair-weather friend; was closest only with his immediate family; was bewildered by crushes; was misunderstood by the whole world; had self-esteem issues; and had a snarky mouth that got him into trouble.

Just like me.

Spidey’s smart-alecking to villains and his giddy freedom in web-swinging cranked my imagination into overdrive. I wrote and drew my own Spider-Man comics. I stood up for myself to bullies and to my teacher to show them they didn’t run the world. I read even more voraciously, dipping into other comics. The world, or at least a small fraction of it, made a little more sense. I honestly thought if I tried hard enough, maybe I could actually BE Spider-Man.

What I didn’t understand back then, was that Spider-Man was his own worst enemy. The cartoon show didn’t hammer on the Uncle Ben stuff, which is key to his social & emotional stagnation. I thought it was ok to have low self-esteem and a martyr complex, and I went through some dark times as a grade-schooler. Bullies did bad things to me, and I thought they were my fault. Sometimes I still catch myself thinking that.

Amazing Spider-Man

But Spider-Man was still a power fantasy for me. No matter how bad things got as Peter Parker, Spidey could still trick Doctor Octopus into walking into a magnet. He could still trap Sandman into a vacuum cleaner. He could still overcome the darkness of the alien costume. Just as Spidey got a little help from his super-hero friends, so did I from my family and the friends I’d make in middle school.

And after awhile, I didn’t need Spider-Man to feel confident. I could do it on my own, and I never apologized to anyone for it.

At the end of 8th grade, I saw Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002), knowing its whole plot from the novelization. It wasn’t my first time with a live action Spider-Man -reruns of the 1977 TV show had seen to that- nor was it “my” Spidey, as Raimi used 60s & 70s comics as his chief inspiration. It was, however, Spider-Man. It marked Hollywood’s slow realization that it was ok to embrace nerdy things. It marked my realization that maybe there might be something more to movies.

I’m glad that Spider-Man was there when I needed him, and I’m glad that there were so many versions of him, even in the 90s. Sure, people who read ALL the Clone Saga hate it, but its characters were great! Ben Reilly, Spider-Man’s clone, had even more trouble connecting to his friends and family. Kaine, Spidey’s monstrous failed clone, was anguished at being cut off from society. With Spider-Man as a struggling adult, it showed that not even grown ups had all the answers. Heavy stuff!

I’m happy that the other iterations exist too: Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Girl, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Silk, and more. EVERYONE should have a character that they can relate to. “I believe there’s 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.”

And Aunt May’s advice from SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) is why I don’t mind having drifted away from Spidey. It’s nothing condescending like saying that I grew out of him, but he’s no longer emotionally applicable to who I am or to what I need. And that’s ok. He shouldn’t have to grow up with me to be special. Because no matter what, he’s like that childhood friend from when you were too small to remember. The one that stuck by you when things were at their worst. The one whose jokes always cheered you up. The one who showed you that the world could be a brighter place.

He’ll always be Spider-Man.

As to CIVIL WAR, I obviously have a lot of assumptions at play. How do I know I’ll like this version of Spidey? I don’t. Haven’t I seen other live-action takes on Spidey? Yep. And I’ve always had mixed feelings about them. Is there extra baggage here, seeing a tonally & near-visually perfect Spidey when other favorite characters are getting reinvented and misrepresented wholesale? More than likely. After all, the last Spider-Man had water socks.

But more than that, the Spider-Man reveal was well-timed. We’d had over a year of rumors that he’d would show up in CIVIL WAR, and every day we wondered: “when will we see Spider-Man?” In the age of movie-scooping, I expected a pitiful behind-the-scenes leak, shot guerilla-style, as happened to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012), which took the wonder right out of the character. Marvel had the whole geek community waiting for Spider-Man, and somehow avoiding leaks, they delivered on their terms, revealing Spidey in all of his angsty glory. We’d been waiting for Spidey.

And maybe we didn’t know how much we’d needed him.

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