The principle of sexual selection, wrote naturalist Charles Darwin, deals with “the advantage which certain individuals have over others of the same sex and species solely in respect of reproduction.” A peacock’s tail, its marvelous length and iridescence sculpted by female choice, is the iconic example. Beetle horns, the elaborate nests of bower birds, and even the human brain, engine of art, music and speech, further illustrate the power of a positive feedback loop. The more refined a trait, the better suited to attracting mates shall a specimen be. Life, when not about brute struggle, becomes both beauty pageant and talent show.
Sexual selection also explains some of the coincidences plaguing Hollywood’s current superhero scene. Envision, if you will, a pasty youth with hatchet cheeks and hyper-quaffed brown hair. Foppish attire hides his lanky frame, and an aura of melancholy, romantic catnip in the adult world, somehow dismays his fellow high school students. Wait- high school? The youth, when nobody’s watching, appears world-weary. Crushed by an immense, unspoken burden. Chances are, he only lingers among the slamming lockers to lighten his existential load.
Vampire heartthrob Edward Cullen, portrayed by Robert Pattinson in the Twilight films, fits the description nicely. He’s an undead immortal (107 years-old, actually), a danger to the young women he captivates, and powerful enough to fight the world’s ills (if he so chose). An even better fit, however, is science whiz Peter Parker, who’s featured in comic books and films as the Amazing Spider-Man.
Created in 1962 by superhero auteur Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man swung boldly through the pages of Amazing Fantasy 15. The saga begins as student Peter visits a science expo with his class. When a radioactive spider gets loose and bites his hand, he awakes the next day with the proportionate strength and speed of a spider. Initially, Peter tries to cash in by becoming a wrestler. Such low-hanging fruit quickly proves poisonous when he allows a thief to run past, telling a cop, “From now on, I just look out for number one.” That same thief later robs and kills his Uncle Ben, leaving his widow, the frail Aunt May, the only family in Peter’s life. Lee and Ditko wrap the startling origin by stating, “With great power there must also come- great responsibility.”
By March of 1963, Spidey had earned in his own comic, where his red and blue costume glued eyes to the page during battles with the Lizard, Doctor Octopus and the Sandman. In time, Spidey became Marvel’s web-slinging mascot, much like the soaring Superman did for rival publisher DC. But far from being an alien, or rich, or even an adult, Peter Parker--at the time of his creation--represented the bulk of comic fans everywhere. As a soulful introvert, he was more sympathetic than Robin, on his own with no Batman watching over him. And Peter struggled not just with super-villains, but with girls, money, and his ailing Aunt May.
This July, Marvel Studios releases The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Andrew Garfield as Peter, Emma Stone as love interest Gwen Stacy, and Denis Leary as her policeman father. At first, this notion crawls across the skin, unwarranted and tickling. It’s a complete reboot of director Sam Raimi’s colorful Spider-Man trilogy, sweeping aside Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Peter and Mary Jane. It’s been said that Raimi wasn’t satisfied with the script presented for the franchise’s fourth installment. And that he wanted too large a budget, and couldn’t get the film finished under deadline for 3D post-production. While this is all true, a subtler logic explains the overhauled series.
In Twilight, when Edward stops a car from crushing Bella (Kristen Stewart) with his bare hands, we see that he isn’t quite human. Trying to explain his super strength, she later says, “I have considered radioactive spiders and kryptonite.” DC has since reacted in their own way (see the 2010 Superman: Earth One graphic novel). But it’s here that you realize Garfield is a cleaner xerox of Robert Pattinson.
The broody Twilight films, in which pouting football Bella flies between Edward and hunky werewolf Jacob, have grossed $2 billion worldwide, hypnotizing women of all ages with the spinning coin of dangerous love. This differs substantially from current Amazing Spider-Man comics, in which an adult Peter works for technology company Horizon, saves the world alongside the Avengers, and has little time for romance. His adventures in the early 1970s, however, went above and beyond in proving how dangerous love can be. Edward and Bella have nothing on Peter and Gwen Stacy.
We meet Gwen at Empire State University, in Amazing Spider-Man 31 (1965). High school bully Flash Thompson, and pampered Harry Osborn (son of industrialist Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin), attend also, creating a complex social milieu for Peter, who’s already stressed by crime-fighting and his hospitalized aunt. When the brainy and beautiful Gwen, pursued relentlessly by males of every stripe, finds Peter ignoring her, she takes up the challenge of earning his attention.
The next few years (at least through Amazing Spider-Man 90) feature the rich, organic development of friendship, and eventually love, between Peter and Gwen. They come together despite the instigating of Flash, Harry and party-girl Mary Jane. Spider-Man doesn’t help either, as Peter realizes more and more that his loved ones are easy targets for his maniacal rogues gallery. In the background, as always, is Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, calling Spider-Man a menace, typically in cahoots with the criminals he captures. Retired police captain George Stacy, however, has studied Spider-Man’s career carefully from the beginning. He calmly reminds detractors that the hero’s commitment to saving people is a matter of public record.
The seamless blending of romance, action and mystery make this era one of highest points not just of Stan Lee’s writing career, but of American comics as well. Unfortunately, the late 60s saw America pivot from optimism to frustration. The assassinations of JFK in 1963, and then Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, forced a generation to face dark adulthood. Eight years into his crime-fighting career, Peter’s fictional Manhattan also began hemorrhaging hope.
ASM 88-90 (drawn by John Romita and Gil Kane) starts off with standard fare, as Doctor Octopus escapes prison with the help of his four telepathically-controlled metal arms. After a punishing brawl that leaves Peter exhausted (and Doc Ock on the lam), the young man dons civilian clothes and stumbles home, only to run into George Stacy. The older man asks, “Perhaps you haven’t licked that flu bug yet?” Peter agrees, thankful to be excused his appearance, but wary that his girlfriend’s father knows more than he’ll say.
Once rested, Peter puts his chemistry savvy to work on special webbing that interferes with Doc Ock’s mental control of his additional arms. When Spider-Man catches up with the villain, they battle once more on a rooftop. New Yorkers below, instead of running, cynically hope that “they both finish each other off.” Soon, George Stacy arrives (having tracked the action on a police band), and stands ready to urge jaded citizens away from the area. By now, Spider-Man has THWIPPED his special webbing at Doc Ock’s metal arms, causing them to wrestle themselves uncontrollably. Bashing into a chimney, they send rubble falling to the sidewalk. Stacy throws a stunned child to safety. He himself breaks the bricks’ fall.
Spider-Man vacates the area with Stacy’s limp body. Onlookers accuse him of killing the old man. “I have to talk to you,” Stacy strains, “and there’s so little time.” Spider-Man puts him down on a rooftop half a block away. “It’s Gwen,” he continues. “[When] I’m gone, there’ll be no one to look after her. No one, Peter, except you!”
We share Spider-Man’s shock while reading this panel. “You know who I am,” he exclaims, as George Stacy dies. “You must have always known!” Maddening grief follows. The hero brought the battle to New York’s rooftops, while the student’s ingenuity enhanced the chaos. Consequently, both hero and student lose a dear a friend. After this tale, the tone of ASM darkened substantially throughout the early 70s. Gwen moves to London to cope with her loss, not to mention her hatred of Spider-Man. Harry Obsorn takes the silver spoon from his mouth, the better to steadily dose himself with pills. Flash Thompson goes to Vietnam. Peter, meanwhile, tries to remove his own spider powers with some none-too-careful chemical wizardry. He temporarily grows four extra arms, blurring the line between man and the menace Jonah Jameson always said he was.
But bleakest of all is the return of the chemically-enhanced Green Goblin. In 1966, ASM 38 showed Spider-Man tied up and unmasked by a villain, who then unmasked himself as Norman Osborn, the father of Peter’s best friend, Harry. Years later, after amnesia seemingly squashed the Goblin persona, it resurfaces as Norman glimpses the doorway to a former hideout. Villain and industrialist alike blame Peter for Harry’s plunge into drug-addled uselessness. Revenge means taking someone the hero loves on a long, terrifying trip.
The Goblin kidnaps Gwen. He leaves her slumped atop one of the Brooklyn Bridge’s towers. Thoroughly insane, he says to an approaching Spider-Man, “Your presence in this world has been a source of constant agony to me. I wish you to leave it--permanently.” That, or Gwen dies. Of course, Peter is incensed by the gall of his nemesis, and heads straight for his girlfriend. During the ensuing battle, she’s knocked from the tower and plummets toward the East River. Instinctively, Peter THWIPS a web-line at her ankles. He doesn’t hear the SNAP that follows.
Those aren’t cobwebs dulling your memory. This scene played out in Raimi’s first Spider-Man film (2002). But the director used Mary Jane, not Gwen. He also didn’t have Peter accidentally break his girlfriend’s neck while saving her. The memorable, mature storyline was softened to bring in both comic fans and children of all ages.
Raimi’s entire trilogy, in fact, seems an exercise in pleasing everyone. The result, catering mainly to children, is heavy on the ham and cheese. Willem Dafoe is an excellent Norman Osborn, and his constant scenery-chomping is great fun, reminiscent of the villains from Raimi’s Evil Dead films. His Green Goblin attire, unfortunately, is a goofy compromise between armor and Halloween costume. You expect the Power Rangers (or even Freddie Prinze Jr. and the live action Scooby Gang) to rescue M.J. before Spidey himself can.
Spider-Man 2 (2004), co-starring Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, is a vast improvement, if only because there’s more for adults to enjoy. Peter’s life is a truly chaotic balance between normalcy and crime-fighting, as the comics instruct. Doc Ock’s origin, unaccompanied by music, is epic and horrifying. His mechanical arms whip surgeons and nurses screaming through the air, and the scene is filmed in the signature style that Raimi’s fans love: quick zooms, twitching frames, and even quicker cuts.
Spider-Man 3 (2007), sadly, is an awkward experience that demonstrates exactly why a reboot is necessary. The problem lies not with the pacing, which is rather deft, as several plots are juggled smoothly. Nor is the acting to blame, with the chemistry between Maguire and Dunst at its most believable. The trouble is that George and Gwen Stacy appear with no hope of doing their comic book counterparts justice. They are reduced to window-dressing in a film featuring three villains: the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Venom (Topher Grace) and a revenge obsessed Harry Osborn (James Franco). A fourth movie by Raimi might have put the Stacys to use, but with his penchant for camp, a worthy adaptation of their tragic tales never seemed probable.
The reboot by director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) brims with potential. After all, a Spider-Man film including the Stacys should be like a Superman film featuring kryponite. They’re a core component in the hero’s mythos, and if used properly, can elevate the material from adrenaline rush to high art.
But that’s a crucial if. The reboot’s main goal, judging by trailers which seem to hide nothing (certainly not the climactic Lizard fights), is to feature intensely romantic encounters between its stars. Garfield makes for a tragically hip Peter Parker, and Stone has charisma to spare, pushing ASM on the late-night T.V. circuit. Their pairing somersaults over the frumpy Maguire (bitten by a radioactive shoe-salesman?) and Dunst, who utterly plasticizes the girl-next-door schtick.
The stickiest question remaining, then, is how dreary can the revamped Spider-Man franchise afford to get? If you consider The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, which earned a billion dollars worldwide, the answer is monstrously dreary. Rachel Dawes, a Bruce Wayne love-interest created for the screen, was first given life (barely) by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins (2005). Maggie Gyllenhaal infused the role with spunk and charm in the 2008 sequel, making her much more real by the time Nolan incinerated her in a warehouse explosion. This stark brutality helped The Dark Knight become the highest grossing comic film ever (until this year’s Avengers surpassed it).
Comic book films usually evolve in reaction to each other. That Marvel Studios and Sony have lengthened their reach, borrowed some sexy from the teen franchise Twilight, is a welcome development. That Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have fallen for each other off-screen (much like Stewart and Pattinson) is less so. Endless exposure on gossip rags like US Weekly is never a good thing, especially where the integrity of a film series is concerned.
Yet, if The Amazing Spider-Man can snare Twilight‘s audience, dazzle it with some storytelling that isn’t trite wish-fulfillment, then the reboot will be a financial and cultural coup. That’s why I beg you, Mr. Garfield, on behalf of bookworms everywhere--THWIP high. Stay polite when interviewed. Try not to suck.
Justin Hickey was an editor at Open Letters Monthly, and writes regularly for Kirkus Reviews.