And a lean, silent figure gradually slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!
— AMAZING FANTASY #15, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Every legend has its beginning, and every hero his origin. The Distinguished Competition has long spun tales of modern day Gods and Goddesses who stand tall within our mortal realm, evoking the epics of civilizations past. By contrast, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby introduced the concept of The Everyman to whom wondrous gifts are given, albeit with a heavy price. While it’s hardly new in terms of storytelling, it was revolutionary in comic books. For an identifying character to resonate, his or her backstory must be one that’s relatable, and what’s more relatable than Shit Gone Wrong?
This is the formula that caused the Marvel revolution of the 1960s, and the way in which Funnybooks were embraced not simply by children — the publisher’s initial audience — but shortly thereafter by college students shivering within the lengthening shadow of war, slicing their feet on shattered ideals as they staggered forward into an uncertain future. DC told the earnest stories of mythic figures demanding our awe and reverence; Marvel gossiped about real people who only became mythic when they wore spandex. At the end of the day, those costumes came off, and the mythic figure had to worry about making dinner, walking the dog, and dealing with the flu. They had to pretend they were just like everyone else, and on some level, they were just like everyone else, while also paying the personal toll of their Do-Gooding.
Of all the Superheroes unleashed by the Big Two (to say nothing of the ones later introduced in the pages of Eclipse, Image, Dark Horse, Valiant, or the many independent publishers working out of storefronts and living rooms), no character has an origin story more powerful than Spider-Man. His tragic tale established Peter Parker as an introspective, Hamlet-like brooder prone to inner monologues long before Emo became part of the lexicon; and it’s the story’s OEDIPUS REX-like plot twist that drives the moral home. With great power comes great responsibility, the movies tell us, relating Stan Lee’s narration in a slightly abbreviated and more catchphrase-friendly way; but however it’s communicated, the lesson is one that separates Peter Parker from his many peers, because it’s a fatal lesson, and universal.
We all know the story, right? Socially alienated teenage bookworm Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and decides to cash in on his new abilities. Disguised as “Spider-Man,” he becomes an arrogant TV star, and his success encourages him to treat others the way they’ve treated him. Being then presented with the opportunity to stop a fleeing criminal, Peter chooses to stand by and do nothing; but when he arrives home a few days later, he discovers the kindly Uncle Ben who raised him has been killed during a home invasion. Donning his costume, Peter tracks the killer to an abandoned warehouse, and as he prepares to dispense his own form of private justice, he sees the murderer’s face — and it’s the same criminal he had the chance to stop, and didn’t! Now Peter is forced to live his life with Uncle Ben’s blood on his hands, unable to tell his newly-widowed Aunt May that their life of near-poverty and constant struggle is all his fault. Thus is Spider-Man born, as Peter must use his powers to battle crime, and commit himself to helping others, even at great, ongoing personal cost.
This isn’t the tale of a boy whose parents are gunned down in an alley, and who responds to forces outside his ability to control – this is the story of a boy who had the chance to preventtragedy and didn’t, and spends the rest of his life trying to do penance for a momentary lapse in reason. Push the concept slightly to the left, and the origin of Spider-Man might have been an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, with its shocking reveal and subversion of genre conventions. If ever a Superhero story might be taught in your high school English class, it’s right there in AMAZING FANTASY #15. Take away the leotard, change the setting, and you have something the Bard might have composed for the uneducated audiences of his time, and for whom the story would have taken root as firmly as it has for us today. From rich soil do epics grow.
As a story, it’s perfect. In just eleven pages, the story unfolds in the fashion of all the best shockers: short, direct, and merciless. Later writers like Brian Michael Bendis would reinterpret the tale, decompressing it over a lengthy series of months that both released the tension, and dulled the impact. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko fashioned the origin of Spider-Man in the same way they fashioned the other three stories in AMAZING FANTASY #15 – not as a superhero story per se, but as a thriller. It’s an important distinction. Like an EC SuspenStory, it set up a premise, then pulled the rug out from beneath your feet in an ironic twist -- one that punished the antihero for his hubris, his lust, and his selfishness behavior. It’s classic in every sense of the word, and easily one of the greatest short stories ever conceived, both for its hook, and its resolution. As with any black-hearted joke, it establishes an immediately identifiable and relatable scenario, and then hits you with the punchline. In this case, the punchline is like a cold icicle through the heart. The protagonist (or antihero) doesn’t die in payment for his sins; Peter Parker is forced to live. One might consider this a double climax.
It’s a one-and-done that easily works as a self-contained morality tale, while also laying the foundation for ongoing soap opera developments. But with an O. Henry-style short story, the trick is retaining the brevity when adjusting for feature- length presentation; see any of the films adapted from Stephen King’s NIGHT SHIFT collection for an example of how the punchline loses its effectiveness when the build-up becomes bloated to the point of absurdity. Additionally, the story of Uncle Ben’s death can’t function as the entirety of a cinematic Spider-Man adventure – it needs to be worked into an overarching plot involving an iconic super villain. Tricky stuff. But while that overarching plot needs to be worthy of the venture, it’s inconsequential if the audience doesn’t buy into Peter’s primary motivation. Act One is imperative.
There have been two official cinematic retellings of Spider-Man’s origin, and not only is Sam Raimi’s 2002 recitation the better of the two, it’s also a masterclass in faithful adaptation, and in exposition of both character and narrative. While heavily criticized for the film’s looser second half, the front end of SPIDER-MAN is unparalleled as a cinematic translation of comic book iconography, and like AMAZING FANTASY #15 before it, unwittingly created a template so many later films continue to follow. In this case, the content is borrowed less than the form, though attempts are occasionally made to siphon the story’s themes even when they aren’t earned.*
While the death of Uncle Ben has been dramatized in animation — most notably Ralph Bakshi’s first episode aboard the ‘60s series, and then again for SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS — these were, like the comic itself, told in short form. Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp had to find a way to weave it into the larger narrative. James Cameron’s legendary scriptment showed a Peter Parker whose newfound powers were largely used as an icky metaphor for puberty; how this would have nested within a tale involving Businessman Electro is fortunately unknown to us. E.G. Swackhamer more or less ended the origin once the spider chomps Pete on the hand, and has the transformation from student to crime fighter happen for no other reason than because it’s a show about Spider-Man, and presumably because kids don’t want to see their favorite superhero colored by a very dubious heat-of-the-moment decision. As such, Uncle Ben doesn’t live here in the land of CBS.**
Raimi presents the origin story more or less intact. There’s some cross-cutting in which we see the birth of the Green Goblin, and both Harry Osborn and May Jane Watson are introduced early on; however, the bulk of the film’s first half is dedicated to playing out the events as depicted in AMAZING FANTASY #15. In fact, one of the most notable aspects is the sheer efficiency of the film’s first ten minutes, in which every character, theme, and story point are introduced in rapid, yet seamless, fashion. By the time Peter has received his transformative spider-bite, we know everything we need to know about everything there is to know, and the rest of the film simply builds upon this structural foundation. In that alone is SPIDER-MAN’s screenplay worthy of comment.
If Lee and Ditko’s tale is accurately realized, it’s not simply through hitting the beats. Raimi and his team create a wonderfully corny world for Spider-Man: one that contains then-modern items like cell phones, and a Macy Gray cameo in which she mewls like a cat choking on a baby’s soul; and yet there’s something comfortably old-fashioned about it all. Maybe it’s Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris, embodying the idealized parental figures of bygone Nick at Nite sitcoms; the fact that neither actor is rendered in the black and white hues of an ancient tube television transmission is almost perverse. Perhaps it’s the Parker home, which is enveloped by that same aura of safety we all felt when we visited our grandparents, back before they had condos and embarrassing Facebook accounts. Maybe it’s a New York in which criminals dress like criminals, but who remain a minority amongst its diverse but unified collective. Maybe it’s the idea of community. Of people fighting to protect the things they love, whether in a Spider-Man costume, or by throwing shit at the Green Goblin. SPIDER-MAN is almost a Capra film in a (spider) sense, and like Donner’s SUPERMAN, it wears its earnestness on its sleeve and dares you not to like it.
And all of this succeeds because of that origin story, and how it’s told. Yes, there are the necessary updates. That whole “radioactive spider” thing barely worked in 1962; forty years later, it’s eye-roll-worthy in its charming idiocy, but eye-roll-worthy nonetheless. Now we have Peter getting his powers from an escapee from a collection of fifteen – note that number, folks – genetically-modified “super spiders.” Merging traits from three kinds of arachnid into an enhanced hybrid is likely a notion we’ll find equally stupid in 2042, but science has never been important in these stories except as a plot motivator, right?
Speaking of science, there’s also the pesky issue of web shooters. Stan Lee didn’t write this story to be hopelessly scrutinized by hordes of angry Internet Nerds decades later, nor was he (at the time) entertaining the notion of Hollywood adaptation. Comic books were pulp. Most tossed them away once they were finished; Marvel was the first publisher to actively encourage its readers to follow ongoing continuity. But by that same token, there was no real effort to explain how a fifteen year-old designed liquid webbing, or the wristbands that dispensed it. The fact that Peter Parker would find himself a millionaire by selling the patent never seems to have crossed the writer’s mind during later melodrama over Aunt May’s increasing financial woes.
If a story point requires a writer to leap through hoops to explain it, then it’s probably best done away with. Unlike the AMAZING SPIDER-MANtelevision series, Raimi chucked the concept of web shooters, and went with Cameron’s original concept of organic webbing, shot from Peter’s wrist through an application of pressure on his palm. It’s pretty gross early on when objects are sticking to his hands due to what can best be described as “leakage”; most teens will understand Pete’s plight immediately.
Incredibly, these are the only real changes to the story. Anything else is compression. Peter no longer discovers his powers by instinctively leaping out of the way of a speeding motorist, but the rooftop revelations remain intact. Raimi even borrows a scenario created for Bakshi’s animated series, in which Peter’s strength is discovered during an act of aggression; in the cartoon, some thugs go after what they consider a nerdy weakling, and in Raimi’s flick, Flash Thompson is just being Flash Thompson. Aside from the glaring plot hole caused by Peter demonstrating his new abilities in full view of his classmates,*** the narrative allows for a series of playful scenarios showing our protagonist realizing these capabilities in fun and funny ways. Nearly every superhero movie that followed SPIDER-MAN has attempted to reproduce this, as the new powers are experimented with, largely to humorous results. It’s now an accepted part of an origin film, and expected.
Peter’s career as a TV act is condensed to his initial, on-page wrestling match; Ditko’s non-descript, makeshift costume retains the mask element, but Raimi has outfitted Peter in a primitive, rough draft of what will ultimately become Spidey’s official uniform. It’s a great reveal, and most importantly, one keeping in tone with the proceedings up to this point. SPIDER-MAN is making us laugh. We’re letting our guard down. It’s okay to be watching this – it’s cheese, but it’s cheese on crackers, and everyone else in the theater seems to be eating it up, so we can chow down, too. We’re all having a good time…
…until we’re not. Things turn unexpectedly dark. Rather than being the petty and insolent jerk from AMAZING FANTASY #15 who lets a thief run past Just Because, Peter’s given a fairly sympathetic reason: he gets ripped off. The fight promoter who owed him three grand? Turns out the guy is a crooked asshole, and stiffs Spidey all but a hundred bucks due to a pretty lame technicality. So when ten seconds later, the same crooked asshole gets pistol whipped and taken for all he has, it’s like The Righteous Buttfuck of Ironic Justice. And when Pete steps aside and lets the thief get away, who can blame him? I certainly didn’t! And the movie doesn’t want us to. We like Peter. He gets pushed around by his classmates. Even the bus driver takes pleasure in humiliating him day after day. There are people in this world who get away with so much, and never seem to pay for it; and right here, in this exact moment, the wrestling promoter is forced to pay, literally and figuratively. Rather than a plot contrivance, it feels wonderfully cathartic to think of that bitch in payroll who we say hello to every day, and who never says hello back, and think, Yeah, fuck you, too, Sally! It’s glorious, and why we like movies where people die.
But we all know what happens next, right? And once again, the compression of events turns a fast-paced story into something building inevitably toward explosion. Uncle Ben doesn’t buy the farm after waking up to find a burglar in his home; he’s gunned down and left to bleed out on the pavement as his stolen car races away into the night. In another Spiderverse, perhaps those days between Peter's act of irresponsibility and the death of his paternal figure might have played out differently. The killer might have crossed the street at the wrong time and been flattened by a speeding cement mixer. Maybe he might have said, Nah, fuck it, and decided not to rob any more houses in Forest Hills. Any one of a series of circumstances might have changed the outcome of Peter’s choice, and by that same token, outside influences might have been directly responsible for Ben Parker’s death in a far more immediate way than anything Peter did or didn’t do.
Koepp and Raimi aren’t going to let Peter off the hook that easily. There’s no room for doubt, and no way to rationalize or justify the outcome. One short elevator ride into the future, Ben Parker is dying a disgraceful public death as bored, momentarily interested pedestrians stand by and collect enough detail to have The Best Story of the Day to tell their friends at the bar that night, or to entertain their co-workers or spouses. The result of Peter’s decision creates an immediate fork in the road, away from a fairly bland, mashed-potatoes-with-yellow-gravy existence into one forever permeated by guilt, pain, and danger. The same way we enjoyed when the wrestling promotor Got His, we now want to see the killer pay; and as Uncle Ben dies, and Peter rises to his feet, Spider-Man is born, and we tell him to hurry. Hurry, before that guy gets away. Even if this is our first time seeing this story and we haven’t figured out what’s coming, we know that Ben was only there because Peter lied about going to the library, because Peter wanted to make a quick buck, buy a car, and impress Mary Jane; and because Ben’s last words to Peter were loving and instructive, and Peter’s last words were to reject both the lesson, and the kind soul who offered it. So hurry, Peter. Hurry, because you’ll never be able to live with yourself if he gets away.
And from tragedy comes triumph. Considering how fun SPIDER-MAN was up until about, oh, five minutes ago, how could it be possible to bring that sense of wonder back into things? Raimi answers. Peter does hurry, and the only way possible: he climbs to the top of the nearest building, fires a web line, and once again has to make a split-second choice that will determine his future. In one possibility, he can swing to the street below, where Uncle Ben’s car is wrecklessly fleeing the pursuant police; in the other, he can fall to the street below, resulting in a Spider-Man that’s literally an example of ‘60s Pop Art. We watch him frozen there, running out of time, and weighing these options. The last time he tried this stunt, he did an EVIL DEAD right into a billboard; this time, it isn’t funny. This time, the foggy suspicions of destiny have lifted, and the way is clear. There’s no other choice.
He leaps. There might not even be faith to speak of; the leap might have the backup plan of suicide built in, just in case he’s forced to spend the rest of his life wondering why, oh why did he have to choose a stupid wrestling costume that was red, so he can’t even make out the color of his Uncle’s dried blood on the sleeves…? Why did it have to be red?
AMAZING FANTAY #15 never shows us this moment. One minute Peter is building web shooters in his bedroom; the next, he’s demonstrating his marksmanship on a lit candle for a stunned television audience; then, he’s in hot pursuit of the Burglar, swinging from building to building. For such a key component of Spidey’s iconography, it’s almost as if Stan and Steve didn’t know what they were onto. Sam does. If any one thing had prohibited a convincing live-action Spider-Man movie up to this point, it was the swinging; Nicholas Hammond’s stunt guy demonstrated this back in 1977. But here, in 2002, anything was possible, and we’ve built to this moment. It’s what every kid, and every adult who used to be a kid, came to SPIDER-MAN to see; and for a split second, after jumping from that roof, it looks like Peter’s going to go face-first into a concrete wall – and then he shoots a second line, and SPIDER-MAN has gone from fun to tragic between stuttered heartbeats, and now becomes something greater: it becomes transcendent.
If ever there was a moment to stand up in the theater and cheer back in the summer of 2002, it had nothing to do with Yoda and a lightsaber. In this moment, Spider-Man – a character, a franchise, a crossover, and a phenomenon – was born.
There are so many countless people responsible for the execution of a motion picture; so many names that fly by during the closing credits, unread and unknown. SPIDER-MAN works because of everyone from Tobey Maguire to the third caterer from the left. But it’s that origin story, and the adaptation of that origin story. It’s allowed to breathe where on the page it sprinted; then it hits the gas during its buildup to The Big Twist and never looks back. The overall film seems at times episodic – in a lot of ways, it feels like reading a collection of key issues – but that origin story is as close to perfect as we’ll ever see. We’ve seen it copied countless times, and its impact diluted by inferior imitation; but of the modern era of comic book origin films, it’s the first, and the best.
With great power, comes great responsibility, Uncle Ben tells Peter during their final conversation, and it’s a lesson to guide our everyday lives in even the most seemingly mundane ways. One might also consider it a lesson for the current handlers of any long-running, beloved Pop Culture icon. Sam Raimi has shown us both.
*See: MAN OF STEEL.
**The first episode of the series proper features a bizarre scene in which Peter unloads his feelings of weariness and responsibility to a chick he wants to bang, framed as Problems My Friend Spidey Has to Deal With. He goes on and on about how the Wallcrawler is incredibly lonely and burdened with a secret he can never share, and has no choice but to live the life of a tortured hero. Considering the chief component in Parker’s life – guilt – is completely omitted in this particular incarnation, there’s absolutely no reason why Spider-Man has to live a double life: he could cash in, get rich, and live the life of a celebrity. After all, one need only look at the location shooting to realize it is L.A., after all.
***As shown in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, a comic series that should never should have been called ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)