Why Spider-Man Means So Much

A Peter Parker superfan recounts highs (and lows) from 15 years of opening nights and considers what he learned along the way.
Courtesy of Photofest
From left: Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland as Spider-Man

Dan Gvozden, a life-long Spider-Man fan, is a Heat Vision contributor and co-host of Amazing Spider-Talk podcast.

Several weeks ago, at my bachelor party, a friend asked me, "Why Spider-Man?"

Out of context, it must seem like a strange question to be answering at one's bachelor party, instead of engaging in male-centric merriment and copious amounts of alcohol. But you see, I'm no ordinary fan of the webbed wonder, I'm what you might call a fanatic.

I will never forget the first time I encountered the character, peeling back the pages of the gold-covered Amazing Spider-Man No. 375. Inside the pages of that comic I met Peter Parker, in a costume that was torn to shreds while investigating a man named Eddie Brock, the host of a creature named Venom. Comics!

I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I needed more, precisely 374 more issues' worth. Since that day, I set out to collect every single issue of Amazing Spider-Man ever printed, now totaling nearly 800 issues. Thousands of dollars, quizzical looks, and close calls later, I've completed that collection.

Along the way, I learned the answer to my friend's question: "Why Spider-Man?" The simple answer is, "Because he's me." That's not to say that I'm a brunette kid from Forest Hills, Queens, who fights tentacled villains with my arachnid-induced superpowers; though I did live in Forest Hills for a couple years, natch. I was, like Peter, a socially awkward kid, unsure of my future, scared of the consequences of my actions, trying to do the best I could … just like everyone else.

That's the appeal of Spider-Man and his alter-ego Peter Parker: He's everyone. Whether he's blasting off into space, lifting tons of steel over his head, running a Fortune 500 company, scraping coins together to pay for laundry, or eating wheatcakes with his Aunt May, his story is our story, his journey our journey. Peter is primed to not only be the "everyman" but to be the stand-in for the audience, no matter the medium.

When, at 16 years old, I was struggling with the loss of my best friend to reoccurring brain cancer, Peter was there for me. His strength in the face of adversity and emotional defeat reminded me I wasn't alone, that the mere act of perseverance was enough and that we carry our loved ones with us every day and reflect their love through our choices. That year I carried dozens of Spider-Man comics around in my backpack, seeking solace and comfort in the reliability of Peter's resolve. The extra weight was never even a thought.

I'll never forget my reaction to seeing Sam Raimi's Spider-Man for the first time. Embarrassingly enough, I wept in the car ride home from the theater (they were not tears of joy). Honestly, the experience was probably too much for me to handle at the time. I had spent my childhood describing to people and outright lying, as a form of wish projection, that I had heard about various Spider-Man films headed into production; including a Venom vs. Carnage film, which seems to actually be happening now (I take it back). Whatever that first Spider-Man film would be, it would have to contend with over a decade of fantasizing, and rarely does art live up to a decade of childish imaginings.

Still, many of my initial reactions to the film still hold true for me today. The film works best when it is focused on the origins of the character, specifically in regards to Peter and his relationship to his family and friends. I still feel that Raimi and his team absolutely nailed the most important part of the story, the sequence with the burglar, Peter, and the wrestling coordinator. Raimi somehow manages to get the audience on Peter's side, cheering for him when he lets the burglar get away with robbing the place. Obviously, this would be undone moments later with Uncle Ben's death, landing a sweet sucker punch on an unaware audience.

After several years of reading Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's Ultimate Spider-Man, a grounded approach to rebooting the Spider-Man character and a smash success, it was hard for my brain to switch back to enjoying a campier Spider-Man representation. As a fan of the character, I longed for my favorite characters to be taken absolutely seriously. To this day, I still have trouble watching scenes like the one where the Goblin ties up Spider-Man and talks to him about "owning this town," like some kind of third-rate mobster. My negative emotional reactions were so bent out of shape, when a friend had a birthday party to see the film, I joined them in the lobby and then ducked out of the film just so I wouldn't have to relive it.

I was more prepared for 2004's Spider-Man 2, with my expectations rightly brought down to a more realistic place. The film was everything I could have dreamed of and remains my favorite superhero flick. My friends encouraged me to see the film opening night, but I was hesitant; no one likes to be the spoiler to a group of excited filmgoers. Attending the screening were dozens of people in various Spider-Man costumes, and I remember feeling like I had made a mistake in not embracing the enthusiasm of the moment.

I loved the film, and who couldn't. Spider-Man 2 remains the most enthusiastically faithful representation of any comic book character in film. The film loves Peter Parker, while also beating him up at every single possible moment. I left the theater, went home, bought tickets for the next morning, and this time wore every piece of Spider-Man gear I could assemble from my closet. I read comics while waiting in the line to get in, bought the catchy soundtrack, and cursed at myself for not getting onboard this hype train years earlier.

This would be my undoing for 2007's Spider-Man 3. Dressed in full Spider-Man regalia underneath a Peter Parker photographer get-up, I was ready to be impressed by the third outing in this trilogy. A large group of excited friends and I camped out in Times Square for the midnight premiere: taking photographs, speculating on how the Harry Osborn plot would resolve and saying a silent prayer that they would handle Venom (a fan favorite) appropriately.

We were devastated.

I don't want to relive the disappointment of Spider-Man 3, but its failures were important to my development as a filmgoer and were the base for a growing cynicism that I'll admit still has a strong hold over me. Even a layperson could quickly put together what likely happened behind the scenes of the film, and the deleterious effects to the characters could not have been more devastating. To turn an audience against Peter Parker, Mary Jane and Harry Osborn, while sloppily introducing Gwen Stacy, was an incredible feat and one that I felt would undermine any future installments in this series. The silent walk back to the subway and subsequent ride to Forest Hills was not how we expected the night to end.

My screenings of 2012's Amazing Spider-Man and 2014's Amazing Spider-Man 2 were met with a similar apprehension and excitement. I loved the cast they assembled, was optimistic about director Marc Webb and writer James Vanderbilt, and hopeful that with a relaunch they could veer more towards my beloved Ultimate Spider-Man and avoid the mistakes of the past. I didn't expect the films to invent a whole new series of problems that underlined what was becoming a crystal-clear misunderstanding of the titular character.

This Peter Parker reflected me and my values in no way. When challenged to live up to his great responsibilities he flaunted his decision to go in the opposite direction. When bullied and bruised by his peers and enemies he decided to hit back stronger, with a vengeance. A young Peter Parker once said in the comics, "Some day I'll show them! Some day they'll be sorry! Sorry that they laughed at me!" It's the ravings of a potential villain and a warning about who Peter may have become without learning a powerful lesson in power and responsibility from his Uncle Ben. This Peter Parker was that villain.

Still, it was exciting to see Spider-Man, with the aid of CGI, move and fight in a way that I could have only dreamed of. I also have to admit to tearing up during Amazing Spider-Man 2 when Spider-Man approaches a bullied child, scaring off his bullies, and asking him to tell him a bit more about himself. When that child returned in the final moments of the film in a Spider-Man costume, it definitely hit me hard. I later learned that Andrew Garfield had advocated for those scenes to be added to the film and it makes sense. As a lifelong fan of the character, Garfield understood the power that superhero comics can have on a bullied child, eventually empowering them to stand up for the values they hold dear.

On Thursday, I attended the first screening of Spider-Man: Homecoming I could find. Dressed in a Scarlet Spider hoodie, to aid in finding fans with as deep a knowledge of the character as myself, my wife and I nervously sat down for the film. Between all the back-and-forths between Sony and Marvel over the future of this character, I was ready to just see what they had to offer, pushing back any of my knowledge of the complicated dealings that made this possible. It was hard to watch Spider-Man: Homecoming without any baggage, but I was determined to do so.

To put it succinctly, I loved the new film and its very unique take on Peter Parker and Spider-Man. This was no longer the Tobey Maguire, mopey Peter Parker that was representative of Spider-Man from the 1960s comics, but a fresh remix of every generation of Spider-Man stories, with some seriously deep continuity digs. My love of the character is very much rooted in the more soap operatic interpretations of the source material that Sam Raimi also seems to love, but there's no way not to embrace Tom Holland's fresh take.

We've gotten six Spider-Man films, with three different actors, three different directors, and three different continuities in 15 years. It's a lot for anyone to take, especially if you're a diehard fan like myself. But just as Peter had to learn a few lessons to find himself, the cinematic representation of Spider-Man's journey has been equally as valuable.

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