“Is he strong? Listen bud: he’s got radioactive blood!”
-Theme to ‘Spider-Man’
Within years of his first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 back in the early sixties, Spider-man became Marvel Comics’ most popular character and the company’s flagship property. In the fifty years that Spidey’s been slinging his webs across New York City, his popularity has rarely waned. Even in a time when comics were considered to be a niche medium, his red-and-blue costume became every bit as iconic as Mickey Mouse’s silhouette or Charlie Chaplin’s moustache. For a character that’s half a century old, Spider-man hasn’t ever gone out of fashion or become irrelevant. And in many ways, that longevity can be attributed to Stan Lee.
Although he is known these days from his cameo appearances in Marvel films, in the 60s he was at the forefront of a revolution that completely changed the comic book. In the decades before Stan Lee, Superman was America’s favourite superhero. Handsome, smart and morally incorruptible: he stood for truth, justice and the American way. As a Nietzschean ideal, Superman was the complete package. With a bit of hindsight, we see those early superheroes as modern gods. The man of steel himself was some invincible messiah sent down from the sky to save the human race.
In some ways, his stories catered to the fantasy of young readers who wished that they were stronger, publicly adored and capable of punching Adolf Hitler in the kisser.
But as ingrained as Superman is in modern culture, he is also terribly dull. Most iterations of the Last Son of Krypton portray him as a giant boy scout who never has to deal with moral quandaries. He never gives in to self-interest or is struck by fear except in the storylines where chunks of coloured kryptonite would magically make him evil or powerless.
Apart from his will they or won’t they relationship with Lois Lane, there is NO internal struggle in the Superman character. (SIDE NOTE: Lois Lane is an terrible woman. She spurns the advances of her colleague Clark Kent because she’s saving herself for Superman. It seems like the only man good enough for her is A GOD.)
In Spider-Man, Lee and artist Steve Ditko created a superhero comic that its young readership could finally relate to. A young orphaned boy who lives with his aunt in a working-class area of New York, Peter Parker has to deal with everyday ordeals like bullies, high-school crushes and money troubles. Whereas Clark Kent never had to deal with the editor of the Daily Planet giving him grief for submitting sub-par copy, Peter Parker’s boss at the Daily Bugle was a hard-ass who was constantly short-changing him for his photos. As a near deity, Superman never seemed to have money troubles; Batman was a billionaire, as was the Green Arrow.
In a lot of the Spider-man stories, he’s torn between doing using his powers to earn a bit of money on the side and doing the ‘moral’ thing. Perhaps that’s why Spider-man has seen so many successful screen adaptations: his character can support a three-act structure where he learns things and changes.
As we eagerly wait for May’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, starring Andrew Garfield as the masked web-slinger, let’s take a look at Spidey’s long and storied history on the big and small screen.
Spider-Man (TV 1967)
Here’s the theme we all know, from the cartoon none of us will admit to remembering.
The Electric Company (1974)
In its fourth season, this educational kinds show debuted a recurring segment featuring Spider-Man, who spoke only with thought bubbles. In this scene, Spidey hunts down a villainous sack with the help of Constable Morgan Freeman!
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)
Roughly around the same time Superman made his jump to the big screen in the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve picture, CBS took a punt on a Spider-man series.
Thanks to the constraints of TV budgets, Spidey’s main superpowers were ‘falling from ceilings in reverse’ and ‘walking very carefully along rooftops’.
Roughly around the same time that CBS were bringing Peter Parker into American homes, the Toei Company were doing the same thing for Japanese audiences.
This Spider-man was a lot more athletic than his Western counterpart and would fight petty criminals with the help of… a giant robot called Leopardon?
Spider-man and his Amazing Friends (1981)
Airing for over three years, this animated series was sort of a response to the popularity of DC’s Super Friends. In this show, Spidey was joined by his good mates Iceman (from the X-Men) and Firestar (a character created for this show)
Like all good crime fighters of the era, their living room was filled with furniture that flipped around to reveal reel-to-reel computer equipment.
There would be a number of Spider-man cartoons throughout the 90s and early 2000s. None of them were better than this series from 1994 that faithfully adapted classic story-lines from the comics.
The show would spin plot arcs that would sometimes span five episodes. This kind of heavy serialisation was pretty rare for children’s TV at the time.
Directed by Sam Raimi and starring that kid from The Ice Storm (Tobey Maguire), this film was the first to prove that comic book movies weren’t just for nerds in their mothers’ basements: they were big business.
It grossed over $800 at box offices worldwide, becoming the #1 film of 2002, beating out Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
This is where we are now: with a Spider-man who’s a true millennial. As played by Andrew Garfield, Peter Parker is smart, but not geeky in the way that defined Maguire’s take on the character.
He’s cool enough to ride around on a skateboard but intelligent enough to fashion the most sophisticated glue-dispensing web-shooters the world has ever seen. Surely if he were to put a patent on that invention, he could retire rich at the age of 19. Right?