Saturday, February 28, 2015

I was a Teenaged Marvel Zombie: The Problem with Spider-Man

So big in nerd news earlier this month, Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios worked out an agreement to more or less share Spider-Man. The short version is Spider-Man gets to appear in Marvel Studios movies (most likely starting with Captain America: Civil War next year) and Sony Pictures gets to reference Marvel Studios’ continuity in their Spider-Man movies and maybe some cameo appearances by Marvel Studios characters. Marvel will also be on hand to offer Sony useful advice on making Spider-Man movies that don’t stink.

Actually, Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn’t stink. It did very well, but it didn’t do anywhere near as well as Sony Pictures wanted it to, which is one of the things that opened the door to this deal.
(My take on Amazing Spider-Man 2 was that it was a perfectly serviceable Spider-Man movie that had the last half of The Dark Knight tacked onto the end for some reason. This included killing off the female lead (Rachel Dawes/Gwen Stacy) for no reason other than to clear the field for a romance between the hero (Batman/Spider-Man) and a feline-based anti-hero (Catwoman/Black Cat) in the next sequel and the mostly wasted late appearance of a classic villain (Two-Face/Rhino).)

Anyway, one of the thing both studios agreed to was that there would be yet another reboot of the Spider-Man franchise; this time with a new actor playing a teenaged Spider-Man. This should come as no great shock if you consider that Marvel Comics has spent four of the last five decades rebooting, retconning and doing all kinds of flips and twists to get back to a younger Peter Parker. “Back to basics” they always say.
Somebody once described Spider-Man as a coming of age story that’s been going on for fifty years. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Spider-Man.

In a coming of age story, a young protagonist strikes out into the world and through experience comes to see the value in (or understand the flaws in) the lessons given to him or her by a mentor/parent figure. Thus, Luke Skywalker learned from Obi-Wan Kenobi to trust in the Force and Simba learned from Mufasa that Scar was completely awful.
In the case of Spider-Man, Peter Parker learned from his Uncle Ben that (say it with me) “with great power there must also come great responsibility,” which joins “Play it again, Sam” and “Beam me up, Scotty” as one of the greatest quotes never actually uttered by the character who made it famous. (The other lesson is not to be the parent/mentor figure in a coming of age story.)
When I was a kid, I saw this story on the Spider-Man cartoon. When that criminal ran past Spider-Man, I figured, "Ah, this is where he becomes a hero!" I was wrong of course. That twist at the end blew my mind.
 The problem with telling a coming of age story in an ongoing serial (such as a comic book series) is that the main character has to, you know, come of age. Then what do you do?

This issue first reared its head about ten years into the run of The Amazing Spider-Man. In real time, ten years is not an unreasonable span of time for a coming of age story. In Peter Parker’s case, that saw him from high school through college and living on his own. He had earned his reputation as a hero and had a serious girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, whom it was all but inevitable that he would marry.

Unfortunately, establishing one’s reputation and getting married are pretty much where coming of age stories end. There was only one thing to do:
That's right; they dropped her off a bridge. Some would argue that Captain Kirk getting dropped off a bridge in Star Trek: Generations was a more controversial bridge-related death, but I maintain that this came first, had a longer-lasting impact, and was less ridiculous.

Gwen Stacy’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin remains the biggest failure of Spider-Man’s career, even forty-plus years later. At the time, it signaled that maybe Peter Parker had not come of age yet after all; any hero who can’t even save the girl obviously still has a lot to learn.

Just like that, the coming of age of Peter Parker got to chug on for another fifteen or twenty years.

But time moves on, even comic book time. In 1987, Peter Parker married Mary Jane Watson. This was a thing that was sort of inevitable, just as a marriage to Gwen Stacy would have been. In a story about growing up, getting married is one of the things that happens. Even as it was happening, there were Spider-Man writers and artists who were against the marriage, but it was an editorial decree timed to coincide with the marriage of Peter and Mary Jane in the newspaper comic strip.

Almost immediately, Spider-Man’s writers, artists, and editors looked for a way to turn the clock back to their sweet, sweet coming of age story because nobody wanted to read about a married Spider-Man. When I say “nobody,” I mean nobody in the Marvel bullpen. As far as I can recall, there was no outcry among the fans and readers of Spider-Man in 1987; mostly they were content to roll with the new development.

Early on, the idea of killing off Mary Jane was floated and then thankfully rejected. Killing Gwen Stacy had been a milestone moment in the Spider-Man mythos, but it was something they could only do once. Having Spidey fail the same way twice just makes him look like an idiot.

This is where the ongoing coming of age story starts to get really wacky. In 1994, a story arc called “The Clone Saga” began. To make an insanely long story short, it involved a clone of Spider-Man coming into Peter’s life. The story arc was supposed to run a few months and end with the clone, named Ben Reilly, revealed to be the original Peter Parker and Peter (now revealed to have been a clone since the mid 1970s) and Mary Jane retiring to the west coast to have a baby and end Peter’s coming of age story once and for all (getting married is iffy, but once you have a kid you are by definition grown up) while Ben stayed in New York as Spider-Man as the unmarried young guy finding his way in life.

For reasons way too complicated to go into here, the Clone Saga ran until late 1996 and ended with Ben having turned out to be the clone after all and killed off, Mary Jane miscarrying, and the exact status quo of two years earlier restored. Even Peter’s Aunt May, who had died peacefully in a touching scene early in the arc somehow managed not to be dead. That was the last time I was a regular Spider-Man reader. It was the last time a lot of people were regular Spider-Man readers.

Further shenanigans ensued in recent years as Marvel gave up and literally invoked the power of Satan to keeping Peter’s coming of age story from ending.
I did not misuse the word “literally.” Exhibit C: Mephisto. By this point they are jumping so high over the (metaphorical) shark that they can’t even see the water down there.
So, for reasons, the arch-demon Mephisto erased the marriage of Pater Parker and Mary Jane Watson from history. It never happened, and once again, Peter Parker is a young man alone in the big city trying to find his way and learn the true meaning of great responsibility.

This one may stick for another ten years.

Peter Parker’s coming of age is existential horror story. Like Peter Pan, Peter Parker is also a boy who can never grow up. 

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