Thoughts on adapting Spider-Man

by Tom Ingram

Despite having an arachnophobia that extends as far as an aversion to touching the word “spider” in print, I have a certain fondness for Spider-Man. Not the comics, which I’ve never read, but the deeper essence of the Spider-Man character of which the comics are a mere instantiation. For me this is best displayed in the 1967 animated series.

Superheroes are like the heroes of Greek myth in that they appear in many different incarnations: each writer does his or her “take” on Spider-Man, Batman, etc., and this take is informed by some central idea of what the character’s about. But this central idea may not be incarnated anywhere—that is, there may be no quintessential version of Superman or Theseus (just as there is no quintessential version of any commonly played jazz standard) even though there is a concept of what is essential to those characters.

I don’t think that any recent Spider-Man adaptation really gets at the essential Spider-Man. However, I think that this latest cynical, soulless, and incompetent movie was actually closer than the previous three watchable ones. In no particular order, these are my ideas about what is absolutely important for Spider-Man as a character.

The first and most obvious problem is the era. Spider-Man is very much a creature of the sixties and early seventies. The teenage angst of the Vietnam war is important, but there are other reasons why the character is tied to that period. The near-Singularity revolution in human communication had not yet happened. I think we underestimate the narrative importance of this: certain types of story just won’t work anymore. When Spider-Man goes out crimefighting, he has to be out of contact with the real world. He can’t own a cell phone. This is a pretty big consideration that leaves any potential adapter with two choices: either change the character or set your adaptation in the past.

This brings with it two risks. If you change the character, you risk senselessness by taking things that were designed to make sense in the 1960s and transplanting them to the modern era. In a broader sense, you risk pointlessness, because unless you can use these 1960s ideas to say something apt about modern culture, you might as well just create your own character better suited to the setting. If you set the adaptation in the past, you risk irrelevance. It may be the greatest superhero movie ever made, but no one will care, and they’ll be right.

One feature of Spider-Man’s native decade that doesn’t translate well to modern times is Peter Parker as the bullied science geek. This is a stock character that survives to this day, long after any stigma attached to knowing about science and technology has died away. I can attest to this because I was the only person in my high school who could write a program worth a damn, and I was never bullied. The amount of tormenting, as opposed to ostracizing and teasing, that is meted out to science geek characters also strikes me as absurdly high, but this may be a Canadian versus American thing. In any case, that whole aspect of Peter Parker’s character has to be dealt with in any adaptation that transplants him to today’s world.

The other major problem is the scope of the story, which is, if you think about it, a subset of the problem of the era. Spider-Man is essentially about colourful not-too-bad guys committing small-scale crimes like bank robberies. He is the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, and his story is entirely contained in the independent fiefdom of New York City. A lot of old-school comic characters are like this, and it’s a difficult way to write in today’s much smaller world. You always have to resist the temptation to invoke the CIA or the Russian mafia.

At any rate, the important thing is that Spider-Man is humorous and never dark, and the stakes are never particularly high from a global point of view. When The Lizard in the recent adaptation decided that he was going to take over the world and turn all of humanity into lizards, it was both an absurd attempt at being dark and an upping of the ante beyond what Spider-Man is capable of sustaining.

The Avengers springs to mind as a near perfect example of a successful comic book adaptation. Iron Man, Black Widow, and to a lesser extent Hawkeye have aged well. Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America are timeless. They handled the scope of the Avengers well—they operate cross-country, but their usual fights are localized to one city. The tone is exactly as dark as it should be: not very. The technology angle was handled well (and the Avengers were always high-tech anyway) and they dealt with the spectre of terrorism in New York without denying it or making fools of themselves.

If you want to make a good movie, sussing out the essentials of the source material is not optional. If you’re going to try to be faithful, you have to know what’s essential so that you can include it. If you’re going to deviate, you must know what’s essential so your deviations can make sense. If you don’t do this homework, you end up with a confused mess, and that’s what many adaptations of Spider-Man turn out to be.