Spider-Man and the Joys of Life
Spider-Man: Far From Home is a perfectly acceptable movie. It’s a B-grade movie that hits all the right spots within the patented Marvel Band of Competence. Tom Holland is charming, as is Jake Gyllenhaal. Marisa Tomei and Jon Favreau have a surprising amount to do, and it’s all pretty nice. And, of course, there’s a final battle against essentially a Sky Beam, the writing is extremely uneven and a lot of the comic interludes feel very forced. Like I said, it’s a B-grade Marvel film.
But this is mostly important because it gives me an opportunity to look back on a Year of Spider-Man! From being the main touchstone of Infinity Wars, to the Spider-Man PS4 video game, to Into the Spiderverse, Endgame and now Far From Home, Spider-Man hasn’t had this much cultural relevance since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Finally, the apocalypse of Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spiderman 2 have been excised from our collective memory, clearing the way for new versions of the friendly neighborhood wallcrawler.
And for the most part, these new versions of Spider-Man are all really good! Somehow, Sony went from running Spider-Man into the ground to establishing an excellent, coherent tone across their properties, the MCU films and video-games. So let’s celebrate a Year of Spider-Man, and look at what makes our favorite webhead so great!
Being a Superhero is Fun
When you’re a kid dreaming about being a superhero, you mainly think about how fun it would be to have super strength/flight/teleportation/whatever. So it’s a little weird that so few superheroes today just have fun.
Everyone bags on the DC universe for being a dour sulk fest, and that’s entirely true. But Marvel characters aren’t necessarily having the best time either. They might be funny — Tony Stark quipping up a storm, Rocket Raccoon insulting everyone, Thor being hilarious — but they’re not having fun. Tony is a bundle of neuroses. Rocket feels alone in the universe. Thor has huge daddy issues.
Spider-Man, by contrast, is having FUN all the time! It’s not that he doesn’t take things seriously, it’s that most of the time he appreciates how awesome it is to be Spider-Man.
In Infinity War, Peter Parker cheerfully accepts Tony’s explanation “He’s from space and he’s looking for a wizard’s necklace,” before diving into the action. Even being in space can’t stop his enthusiasm for how awesome the Iron Spider Suit is. Faced with the self-serious and insufferable Dr. Strange, Peter can’t help accidentally owning him. When he’s fighting Thanos, Peter keeps yelling “magic!” every time he jumps out of a portal.
This sense of fun and entertainment carries over to other Spider-Man properties. In Spider-Man PS4, swinging around the city is fun! It’s deliriously entertaining to jet around the city, flipping and spinning head-over-heels as you swing from skyscrapers in Midtown or zip over rooftops in the East Village.
Combat is similarly a zippy breeze, as you dance around lumbering goons, dodge deadly bullets and throw hands with balletic grace. The game encourages you to improvise — dodge the pipe-wielding goon, use your webs to rip the gun out of his friend’s hands and beat him over the skull with it? Or zip over to the gun-user, launch him in the air, jump up and web him in mid-air, then throw him down at his pipe-wielding comrade?
If you aren’t laughing as you rain havoc down on the evildoers of NYC, you’re doing it wrong.
When Miles Morales becomes Spider-Man in Into the Spiderverse’s electric “What’s Up Danger” scene, he yells “WOOOOOO!!!” as he swings up to the top of the highest building. He’s having the time of his life, and we are too.
The only time we don’t really see Spider-Man having fun is in Far From Home, and even here, he’s more burned out than anything else. The second Mysterio’s real plan is revealed, he jumps into battle with a tricked-out wingsuit yelling “WOOOOOO!!!” No matter how dark and bleak things are, Spider-Man always has time to remind us that being a superhero is really, really fun.
Real Life is The Biggest Enemy
The biggest enemy in the best Spider-Man stories isn’t Doc Ock, or Kingpin, or the Green Goblin — it’s real life. While various villains might knock Spider-Man around or threaten to destroy New York City, it’s life that consistently blindsides Peter Parker/Miles Morales with devastating results.
In Spider-Man PS4, after defeating Mr. Negative, a traditional game would have let you enjoy taking down a big boss. Instead, the game immediately jumps into a horrifyingly accurate rendition of what it’s like to text someone you like and not know if they’re going to text back.
On the more positive side, Far From Home’s most triumphant scene isn’t when Mysterio is finally defeated, or when EDITH is returned to Peter. It’s when MJ kisses Peter, fulfilling their adorable adolescent crushes on each other.
In both these properties, defeating a major villain is a much more minor impact than the personal relationships that boost Peter up or bring him down. This is a pretty significant departure from the rest of the MCU, where characters like Tony/Steve/T’Challa have major love interests, but they aren’t central to their stories.
Peter Parker and Miles Morales, by contrast, are defined by their relationships to other people — to their friends, their families and their love interests. And so Spider-Man stories explicitly center on the fact that while it’s cool to save the world, it’s nothing compared to having a girl you like text you back.
This focus on the personal goes beyond romantic challenges. In Into the Spider-Verse, everything about the transition from Miles’ house to his school makes you understand how uncomfortable he feels in his new school, with all the racial, economic and social pressures that implies. Miles has to fit into a new school that he doesn’t particularly want to go to, in a school where you can see the gentrification in the clean halls and perfect uniforms. It’s a lot for a kid to take in! And it’s not surprising that he struggles at first.
One of the best missions in Spider-Man PS4 has to do with Peter getting evicted from his apartment. Because the real world doesn’t care that Spider-Man has super strength, or the agility of a gymnast, or can shoot webs out of his hands. But the real world does care if Peter Parker is one month late on his rent, and it absolutely does take him to the cleaners. In Spider-Man’s stories, it doesn’t matter if you have superpowers — the world is always going to mess you up somehow.
Always Get Up
So what do you do if you’re a hero who constantly gets knocked down, both by the real world and by the villains you’re fighting? What do you do when being a superhero isn’t fun any more, and you’re at your limits?
If you’re Spider-Man, you always get back up. No matter how bad things get, and how badly Spider-Man’s been kicked around, he always gets back up. This theme is in Into the Spider-Verse, where Miles recovers from a devastating blow, gets up and faces down Kingpin. Far From Home has another good version, when Happy patches up Peter after he was wrecked by Mysterio. Even the trailer for Spider-Man PS4 calls this out, as Spider-Man gets pummeled by a series of villains before bouncing back and destroying them all.
But for my money, maybe my favorite version of this motif is this scene from Homecoming:
At the start of the scene Spider-Man is completely broken up and busted down. He’s had a literal building dropped on him, and was completely destroyed by Vulture. He is so badly hurt that he cries for help, an injured and hurt child.
But then he realizes no one is coming to save him. And no one is coming to save the rest of New York City. So he gets up. And through sheer force of will he lifts a goddamn building off his back.
It’s relevant, too, that Peter doesn’t just say “Get up Spider-Man,” he also says “Get up Peter.” Spider-Man has the strength, and the speed, and the webs. But the kid who gets up again and again, no matter what? That’s all Peter Parker. Because no matter how badly Spider-Man gets knocked down, Peter Parker and Miles Morales always get back up.
Anyone Can Wear The Mask
These three things combine to form maybe my favorite thing about the Spider-Man franchise. Because those three things — have fun, deal with the struggles of real life, always get up — I mean, anyone can do that. Anyone can be Spider-Man. You can be Spider-Man.
This is the central theme of Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s echoed across all the Spider-Man properties. Whether it’s Peter Parker taking Miles under his wing in Spider-Man PS4 or his memory pushing Tony Stark to be more self-sacrificing in Endgame, Spider-Man inspires everyone to be better. As Flash Thompson says in Far From Home, “[Spiderman] looks out for the neighborhood, has a dope suit, and I really respect him.”
I’ll let Miles close it out with the central lesson:
That, I like to think, is part of why Spider-Man has had such an amazing resurgence in the past year. Because anyone can learn the lessons of Spider-Man. That life is supposed to be fun. That even if you have superpowers, life will knock you down. And when it does, always get back up.
So as I hit one year in New York City, and enter the second year of my MBA, I’m not really that worried.
I know to have fun and enjoy my life, my friends and my family and everything around me, to never forget just how fun it is to be me in this life.
I know that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try or how strong I am, at some point life will knock me down.
And I know when life does knock me down, no matter how bad it gets, I’ll always get back up.
Because I’m Spider-Man. And I’m not the only one.