*Spoilers for Spider-Man movies/comics, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and many more pop-culture products your little heart desires.
If Any Character Deserves A Giant Franchise (With a Two-Part Finale), It’s Spider-Man:
Spider-Man is the perfect superhero in terms of relatability. Think about it. Most superheroes start their career as older, more weathered veterans of a cruel world. Peter Parker isn’t molded into a sociopath like Bruce Wayne. He wasn’t given a super-soldier serum like Steve Rogers. And he’s not the last of his species, granted the powers of a god like Superman. Peter Parker doesn’t experience true tragedy before he gains his powers. His parents are gone, sure, but he has his Uncle Ben and Aunt May to look after him. Being bitten by a radioactive spider was an accident. He’s just a nerdy kid who was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained spider-powers. There was no predestined “You were born for greatness” mumbo-jumbo. He starts with real problems just like us and they carry over (and exponentially compound) after his origin event. Peter has trouble paying rent, passing his classes, and making time for his friends and family. All of his mentors turn into villains or end up dead. Even with all of this against him, he perseveres. Peter might not always end up on top, but he’s the definition of a self-made man – nobody pulled Peter aside and taught him how to be a superhero. He made the red and blue tights. He built his own web-shooters and it was his own actions led to the death of his Uncle Ben, actions which allowed him to learn one of the most iconic lessons in fiction, “With great power comes great responsibility.” All actions have consequences, which is an identifiable message worth telling on the big screen.
It’s because of this journey of self discovery that Peter Parker’s story deserves to be told in an ongoing franchise rather than a predefined trilogy. From the moment the spider bites Peter to the day he will eventually retire, room is allotted to pursue countless storylines. I’m not just talking about classic stories either. I’m specifically referring to adapting the nitty (but not too gritty) everyday life of Spider-Man and Peter. At his core, Peter is a good-natured guy who just can’t catch a break. Life doesn’t ever stop for Peter Parker while he’s off being Spider-Man.
Spider-Man 2 nailed the idea of pitting the world against Spider-Man. Being a superhero is fun and empowering, but Peter’s normal life will always suffer. Jonah Jameson continuously slanders the hero’s name in the tabloids, his relationships are falling apart, and Doctor Octopus is causing mayhem in New York. A hero doesn’t require a smorgasbord of villains to be tested. The story just needs to make it seem as though our hero is losing his balance, have him question if being a hero is worth sacrificing a normal life. It’s practically scripture that Peter’s life has to be awful. Apart from Raimi’s masterpiece, most comic book Spider-Man stories don’t reach a high level of success with characterization. However, it can be done.
Peter Parker, Meet Buffy Summers:
Buffy Summers is a vampire slayer located in Sunnydale, California (think of Sunnydale as her New York City). She stands alone against vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness. She’s kind of a big deal. Like Peter, she balances her time between school, family, and foiling the occasional Big Bad. She’s also got a few things that would make Peter Parker jealous. She has a mentor, a loving mother, and a close group of friends that ease the burden of being a superhero. And like Peter, her life comes to be defined the lessons that can only be taught by tragedy.
Buffy’s vampire boyfriend loses his soul, causing him to become one of her greatest enemies. Several of her close friends are killed over the course of the series. And she’s forced to sacrifice a normal life. But the most grounding portion of the show deals with the death of her mother, Joyce Summers. A villain didn’t kill her. She only ever came into contact with a handful of villains. Joyce dies from a blood clot in her brain. Joyce’s death wasn’t just shocking because she was a beloved character. It was because she didn’t meet her end from any ethereal threat. She died from an unfortunate side effect of brain surgery. Even a show as outlandish as Buffy the Vampire Slayer touches on harsh realities, which is what Spider-Man needs and the kinds of stories that Spider-Man is built to tell.
In fact,with Spider-Man there are 50 plus years of tragedies to explore onscreen. Perhaps the most famous Spider-Man story ever told, Gerry Conway’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died (The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122), serves as a harsh reminder that anyone close to Peter will never truly be safe. But there’s another story that captures a tragedy which truly illustrates the types of stories that an ongoing Spider-Man can and should tell: Roger Stern’s The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man (The Amazing Spider-Man #248). The story follows Spider-Man as he interacts with a young boy, Tim Harrison, whom The Daily Bugle designates Spidey’s biggest fan. Spider-Man tells the boy his identity as Peter Parker, what happened with Uncle Ben, and how his great power taught him great responsibility. Spider-Man leaves and we find out that the Tim will soon die of leukemia. It only spans a single issue, but if you don’t cry when reading it, there’s a good chance you don’t have a soul. The story doesn’t serve to remind anyone of that infamous “Parker Luck” instead focusing on the harsh reality that even the that sometimes punching a villain into submission won’t get the job done, indeed there isn’t always a villain to punch.
Looking at more recent comics, Dan Slott’s excellent run on Superior Spider-Man just wrapped up with a series of events so emotionally and physically draining that Mary Jane renounces her love for Peter. She still cares about him, but what does that matter when people are switching bodies with him every week? Or when super villains threaten to kill everyone he loves? Sure the couple will undoubtedly end up back together (they always do) but it’s just another example that life doesn’t stop for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Even in constant grief, the world spins on for Buffy and Peter (Read: Above quote about power and responsibility). Time waits for no hero and that’s the way we like it.
Super and Hero Aren’t Synonymous:
The villains and world-threatening plots are only secondary to these characters and their struggles. Again, it’s why Spider-Man 2 has incredible re-watch value. It gives us a relatable story, awe-inspiring action, along with a great hero and a great villain. Doctor Octopus continues his experiment that almost destroys New York; buildings still catch on fire, and people are still being mugged in alleyways. But the heart of the movie will always be Peter Parker asking himself if being Spider-Man is worth sacrificing his normal life. This journey of personal discovery would be the beating heart, the life-line of an ongoing franchise.
It’s why I’m disheartened to hear Sony producers, specifically Avi Arad, are focusing on Spider-Man villains and spending an entire trilogy building up the Sinister Six. Every hero deserves a worthy villain, there’s no denying that. Hell, Buffy rarely had unmemorable villains (let’s not talk about Adam), but the best stories were always the ones that focused on her version of the hero’s journey. The reason Spider-Man is such an enduring character is because his everyday struggles hold more weight than his fight with any Big Bad. The majority of his villains might be physically imposing or visually interesting, but only a few rank among the better comic book villains.
Creating a super villain team to challenge Spider-Man is tricky. The problem with this approach is the risk of undercutting the Peter Parker development from shy teenage nerd to confident adult nerd (The nerd is synonymous with Peter Parker. Take that away from him and you have a James Dean wannabe). The villain fights are good fun but a Spider-Man movie needs to be first about Spider-Man, and not a group of villains that want to destroy the world. Movies don’t need to focus on a universe-changing story every time to raise the stakes. They just need to present characters worth investing in. There needs to be investment in the smaller details, such as romance, comedy, and character growth. This way the sporadic world ending events pack a punch filled with excitement and emotion. Who doesn’t want to experience the bliss of watching their favorite superhero do what they do best? And sometimes what they do best is struggle with day to day life, just as we all do.
Peter Parker’s journey as Spider-Man has never been fully chronicled. Comics will continue forever and necessarily cyclical (different discussion, move along), so I’ll be surprised if we get a full telling in that medium, but movies have a definitive end. Once this series of Spider-Man movies is over, maybe someone with a vision will come along to tell the tale of Peter Parker. We’ve already seen a pseudo attempt at this in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. But there is really no hero better positioned than Spider-Man for a full chronicle spanning his early days learning how to crawl (or swing or whatever, shut up you know what I mean), to the everyday struggle to balance his commitments, before the day wearing the Spider-Man suit kills him, or he swings off into the sunset.