Spider-man and the Curse of Adulthood

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  It’s an obvious statement to make, but it’s the bane of most creators working on popular characters today.  With exceptions like Harry Potter, most iconic characters in western culture, from Homer Simpson, to James Bond, and Superman, have stories that never end.  If they ended, really ended, that would mean the end of some very lucrative franchises.  As a result, those characters stay stuck on the part of their story Joseph Campbell referred to as the “Road of Trials,” where the hero faces a long series of confrontations from a variety of enemies.  When that gets old, they reboot and start over from the beginning.

This continuous publication has been particularly tough on Spider-man.  Marvel has been struggling for years to keep his story engaging, from magically erasing his marriage to having Dr. Octopus take over his body.  Movies and animated TV shows keep rebooting him to a teenager, but the comics’ story is part of the larger Marvel continuity.  You can’t take Peter Parker back to a kid without dragging the whole universe with him.

Every character goes through ruts, but Spider-man’s ruts outnumber his peaks by a large margin.  A truly great Spider-man story is rare.  Think about it: what is Spidey’s equivalent to The Dark Knight Returns or All Star Superman or even The Winter Soldier?  I’d argue the 616 Spider-man hasn’t had much in the way of truly great stories since maybe the Gerry Conway era.

Spider-man is, without a doubt, one of the great fictional characters of the last one-hundred years.  Some would argue he’s the greatest comic book character of all time.  So what is it that keeps him from knocking it out of the park?

The key to understanding any superhero is understanding what their story is about.  Superman’s story is about the ideals of Twentieth Century America.  Batman is about a man of privilege getting a cold dose of reality, and then using his privilege to help his city, no matter what the cost to himself.

Spider-man has a shorter shelf life because his story is about growing up.  In his teenage years, he gets a surprise dose of power (puberty), pays the price for wielding it recklessly (which of us didn’t hurt someone in our teen years?), and then tries to find a balance between being responsible and happy.  Once he becomes a successful adult, the story is over.  So, Spider-man’s problem isn’t that he’s stuck on the Road of Trials.  His story ended and the books just kept going.

So when does he become a successful adult?  When he gets the girl.  The girl in this case being Mary Jane Watson.  Yes, he’ll continue to have problems, because becoming an adult isn’t about not having problems.  It’s about finding a balance between what he must do and what he wants to do.  Mary Jane is an independently successful, smart, and assertive woman who will be his rock when he’s at his weakest.  It’s the ultimate happiness for Peter.  The end.

This puts the character’s writers in a pickle.  In order to keep the story going, it has to become about something else.  If it becomes about something else, it’s not the classic dynamic Spidey fans are looking for.  As a result, the stories tip too heavily towards soap-opera style plots, where superficial threats drive the action.  Only a handful (maybe Kraven’s Last Hunt or The Death of Jean DeWolff) have any emotional punch.

Yes, the McFarlane/Larsen era proved a sales boom, but that had more to do with the book’s visuals and EXTREME (!!!) villains.  Superior Spider-man was also popular, but that was Otto’s story, not Peter’s.  The most highly regarded book about Peter from the last twenty years seems to be Ultimate Spider-man, because it could set the clock back.

I’d even argue that Spider-man 3’s Achilles heel wasn’t too many villains or the part where he turned “evil,” but that Spider-man 2 brought the story to its natural conclusion.  There was nothing left to say.

So what is Marvel to do?  Sure, they can undo Peter and MJ’s marriage, but that’s a temporary, and gimmicky, Band-Aid.  In order to continue Peter’s story, you have to change the theme, and that means moving the character in a direction a lot of fans aren’t comfortable with.

J. Michael Straczynski came the closest to doing this.  He was broadening the scope of what it meant to be Spider-man and challenging the character’s assumptions.  I love when he tells the story of how he learned “With great power comes great responsibility,” the response he gets is, “And then what?”  I’m frustrated to this day that his run crashed and burned before reaching its potential.  It could’ve opened the character up to new worlds of possibility.

As it is, I feel sorry for any writer taking on the book now.  Spidey fans are still asking for Marvel to do something brand new with the character, as long as they don’t change anything.  That is a heavy cross for any creator to bear.

POST NOTE:  I have ideas if anyone from Marvel is interested.  Just saying.


The Not-So Golden Age of Superhero Movies

There have been many times in my adult life where I’ve longed to go back in time, grab my twelve-year-old self, and bring him to the present day to blow his mind.  “What is it,” you may ask, “that would blow his mind?”  I’m sure he’d be impressed by things like streaming films on Netflix and modern video games but it’s superhero movies that would knock his socks off.

Superman: The Motion Picture came out when I was three years old and Superman II followed a short time later.  From there, it was a long wait until Batman in 1989 (June 23, 1989 to be exact).  Outside those three films, every other superhero movie from my childhood was garbage.  And let’s face it, out of the three I mentioned, I’d only consider the first Superman great.

I still read superhero comics on a weekly basis but it’s impossible to love them as much as when I was a kid.  What I wanted more than anything was to see live action versions of my heroes.  There was something about seeing them as flesh and blood people that was exciting beyond measure.  It’s why I, and many others, tortured myself time and time again with low budget direct to video and made for TV versions of my favorite characters featuring men in cheap spandex engaging in not-very-convincing battles with evil.

So on the week of The Avengers premiere,  a movie the twelve-year-old still inside me can’t believe is actually happening, I thought take a look back at what we had to settle for back in the day.  If, like me, you have a young child who shrugs at the sight of The Incredible Hulk swatting a space ship out of the air, take him through some of these movies and shows.  Maybe then he/she will understand why you’re so excited.

We’ll start with DC’s offerings:

I missed these two one hour specials as a kid but had heard of them and daydreamed about how awesome they must’ve been.  They were produced by Hanna Barbera to capitalize on the popularity of the Superfriends cartoon series.  Starring almost every member of the Justice League, except Superman, these were shot mostly on one stage, on videotape, with a laugh track.  The first special was a straight (kind of) adventure story featuring a Legion of Doom-style super villain team.  The second was a “hilarious” roast of the heroes with special guests such as Hawkman’s mother and Ghetto Man.  Yes, I said Ghetto Man.

You can check out the intro here.

I saw this one on reruns when I was really young and later thought it had been a figment of my imagination.  I was an adult when I discovered that yes, it had been a real show but upon seeing it, I wish it had been a figment.  In the show, Billy Batson and his mentor, named Mentor, traveled around the country righting wrongs.  Unfortunately, these wrongs involved things like stopping a kid from stealing cars with hooligan friends.  Sounds like a pulse pounding adventure!

Now those were terrible but at least DC had the old Adam West Batman show, the Wonder Woman show, and the Superman films to hang their hat on.  Back in those days, the words “Marvel Superhero Movie” were synonymous with a steaming pile of horse manure.  It’s true.  I looked it up.

Now Marvel did have The Incredible Hulk to its credit.  The show hasn’t aged gracefully but it’s on par with other shows from its era.  Plus it’s still fun to watch Lou Ferrigno toss around 1970s criminals and hillbillies in slow motion.  The same thing can’t be said of these others:

From 1977-1979, CBS aired thirteen episodes and a feature-length pilot of a live action Spiderman show.  Now, even as a DC kid Spiderman was all kinds of awesome to me and I flipped my lid when I came across a rerun of this.  The show would float in and out of UHF schedules and I was always keeping my eye out for it.  I guess the idea of a “real” Spiderman was all it took to make me happy because this show is awful.  Spiderman doesn’t talk past the pilot, he shoots unconvincing nylon spider webs, and it’s all so damn boring.  If you ever feel bad about the hours you spent watching Spiderman 3, just watch this and you’ll feel better.

While the Spiderman show was wrapping up, CBS produced two live action Captain America movies.  These movies are just….I’m not sure how to put it into words.  Making Cap’s costume look good in live action is a tall order but I know you don’t do it by replacing his mask with a bulbous motorcycle helmet.  He looks like a lollipop on a motorcycle.  And, oh, the action!  Thrill to the sight of Captain America fighting…..(wait for it)…..two dogs!

I mentioned The Incredible Hulk above.  As popular as the show was in its prime, it was cancelled before it could conclude its story.  To rectify this, the cast was reunited in the 80s for three made-for-TV movies.  That was exciting enough but to make it even better, the first two teamed him up with other Marvel superheroes.  The first one, The Incredible Hulk Returns, featured The Mighty Thor!  Well, he was Thor but not so mighty.  They played him as a unlikable jackass who looked more at home in a hair metal band than The Avengers.  Also, not to nit pick but would it have been too much to get him a decent hammer?  I have a hard time not laughing when he throws it at The Hulk.  There aren’t great clips of this out there but here’s one featuring the “showdown” between the two main characters.

Now this is one I was really excited about.  Daredevil had become a favorite character by the time he showed up in the second Hulk movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.  I think one of the biggest issues with this is the costume.  I guess he was supposed to look like a ninja but it looks more like a ninja Halloween costume purchased at Kmart.  Also, if he’s not dressed in a devil costume, why would they even call him Daredevil?  Clips are really hard to find but here’s a video someone made using clips from the movie and the feature film, which stunk in many of its own, unique ways.

Most discussions about this movie center on the fact that Cap’s cowl has rubber ears.  Why this instead of just having holes in the side his ears would go through?  Figuring it out would take more brainpower than this awful train wreck deserves.  It was supposed to be released into theaters but the executives couldn’t bring themselves to do it.  What did they expect when they hired Albert Pyun?  The guy directed Cyborg starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.  I thought that movie was awful back when I thought Bloodsport kicked ass.  You can see the trailer here.  Don’t bother with the movie itself.  It’s not even “so bad it’s funny” bad.

I haven’t seen this movie, so I can’t tell you for sure it’s terrible.  That said, I’m pretty sure it’s awful.  How can I be sure?  Well, it was made for a super low budget by a production company who never intended to actually release it.  Their production rights on the film were set to lapse if they didn’t use them so they slapped this together at the last minute, lying to everyone involved about their intentions.  So, yeah, I’m confident putting it here.  Check out the trailer here.

That gives you an idea of what we had to deal with growing up in that era.  Superhero comics had never been more exciting and we would’ve given anything for the movies to be even half as good.