Why Movies Always Send Spider-Man Back to School

Spider-Man: Homecoming Still 5 - Publicity - H 2017
Chuck Zlotnick/CTMG
Peter Parker originally spent 1962-65 at Midtown High, and there's a good reason movies from Sam Raimi's trilogy to 'Homecoming' keep going back to that well.

For a period that is continually referred to in movies, animated TV shows and other adaptations and revivals across the decades, it's worth noting that the comic book Spider-Man only stayed in high school for three years originally. What is it about the idea of Peter Parker as a teenager that people can't leave alone?

The cover of 1965's The Amazing Spider-Man No. 28 promised a landmark issue for fans who had been following the hero since his 1962 debut in Amazing Fantasy No. 15. It wasn't the hero's latest villain — "Cloaked in darkness, Spidey faces the mystifying menace of… The Molten Man!" — that was the primary draw, however. Instead, it was the tease at the bottom right of the page: "Also in this landmark issue: You won't want to miss Peter Parker's graduation!"

It was the end of an era: a sign that Spider-Man was about to give up childish things and live up to the second part of his name, in the process going from the "friendly neighborhood" screw-up of the book to that point to something more — if not completely, because why abandon a successful formula entirely — mature and heroic. It's no accident that the iconic scene where Spider-Man fights off his self-doubt to lift tons of machinery and free himself from certain death comes just a handful of months later. "Anyone can win a fight — when the odds — are easy!" he monologued at the time. "It's when the going's tough — when there seems to be no chance — that's when — it counts!"

This scene — repeatedly referred to by fans and creators alike as one of the most potent, important Spider-Man moments in the character's entire history — is intended to show him stepping out beyond the childishness and self-centered nature of earlier issues. So why is everyone so intent on regressing Spider-Man back beyond that point, whether it's in three different attempts at a movie franchise, multiple cartoons or no less than three flashback comic book series? (It's worth noting that Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man left high school behind in the first film, while Andrew Garfield's left it in the second.)  

The high school era of Spider-Man doesn't just show Peter Parker coming into his own as Spider-Man, but creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko working out what is, and isn't, a Spider-Man story. For example, Amazing Spider-Man No. 1 features two stories in which the hero saves a doomed military space capsule ("Instead of flapping your lips, mister — just watch and see what I can do!") and fights a Russian spy — neither of which feels appropriately "Spider-Man-esque" from today's vantage point. That he essentially loses the latter tussle and is seen running into the night with a thought balloon that reads, "Nothing turns out right… {Sob} … I wish I had never gotten my super powers!" just underscores how off-model the early material is.

Yet, for all the awkward growing pains — the cover for Amazing Spider-Man No. 8 proclaims it the "Special 'Tribute-to-Teen-Agers' Issue!!" — the first 28 issues of the series are where the groundwork for everything was laid down: iconic villains Doctor Octopus, Kraven the Hunter, the Chameleon, the Sandman, Electro, Mysterio and the Green Goblin debut during this era, sure, but so did the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, and Spidey's perpetual concern about Aunt May's health and her finances. The amplified soap opera of the series, too, comes into its own during this period, with Peter Parker proving himself supernaturally able to feel existential teenage angst about any given topic required.

In many ways, this is the motherlode of Spider-Man — almost all aspects of the franchise's DNA can be found in this period, even if some would take years to coalesce. (Mary-Jane Watson is only teased, never shown, and the romantic nature of the character wouldn't really come to prominence for some years after; Norman Osborn's unmasking as the Green Goblin was some time away, also.) But that's not the only appeal of this era — after all, the same argument could be made for the earliest Iron Man comic books, yet the movies avoided re-creating that era for good reason. (No one needs to see that much Communist panic today.)

By placing Peter Parker in high school, he gains two things that differentiate him from other superheroes: First, he's literally a kid in a world of adults. Secondly, because he's a kid, he has license to screw up and learn from his mistakes in a way that would seem irresponsible if he were older; we expect kids to do this in a way that adults aren't permitted to. It allows for a different kind of superhero origin, one that takes place over a longer period and gives the audience more chance to empathize with the hero onscreen, confident that they'd take just as long to learn how to do it as this loser. 

Bringing Spider-Man back to basics and turning him into someone the audience can more easily identify with? No wonder that so much time and energy has been spent trying to re-create the high-school days.