'Spider-Verse' and Why It’s Time to Let Peter Parker Grow Up

Marvel kept Spider-Man young as a way to appeal to younger readers, but the animated film shows there is a benefit to doing the opposite.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]

The history of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in print is more than 55 years old and nowhere close to stopping. Every year, the scope and reach of the character continues to expand, attract the imaginations of people young and old, and wrap modern pop-culture more firmly in its web. And yet, it took a film like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to push Peter Parker, as a character, into a territory that Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe seem terrified to go. As a thirty-something adult, older than nearly every interpretation of Peter Parker, it moved me to tears.

When choosing a favorite, non-Miles Spider-Man from the new film, it’s hard to look further than Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker, given that he’s got enough screen time to essentially be the co-lead of the film. But suggesting that he’s the best non-Miles character in the film purely because of screen time would be to do him a great disservice. This Parker Parker stands as a stark rebuke to the Marvel Comics and film interpretations of the character, which have him stuck in a sort permanent adolescence.

In the comics, Peter and MJ retire, unretire, get pregnant, suffer a stillbirth, get married, sell their marriage to the devil, become Avengers, leave the Avengers and none of it sticks. That’s the nature of comics, but the takeaway is that Marvel doesn't ever want Peter to grow up or make a lasting adult decision, lest he become unrelatable to the same age of audience who first discovered him in 1963.

In 2006, Marvel rebooted its Spider-Man to be marriage-free and released a manifesto on the character, written by executive editor Tom Brevoort. In that manifesto, he writes that “the fact that he was a young character” was partially responsible for Spider-Man becoming Marvel’s flagship character. I can’t necessarily argue with that, but it can sometimes be taken to absurd lengths. In a recent comic, Spider-Men II #2, during a team-up with Miles, Peter suggests, out of nowhere, “I’m three years older than him. Kind of.” In a comic from this year, Peter and MJ go to a fair where Peter orders Fruity Pebbles, only to be dressed down by MJ for being “the only adult male I’ve ever met who considers cereal dinner.”

Continuing this trend, when Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and company had a chance to reinvent Spider-Man for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they stuck him back in high school and put him at the mercy of Iron Man, a B-lister in the Marvel comics before the films shot him into the stratosphere. The decision makes sense, considering it would have been odd to have a fully-operational Spider-Man quietly fighting villains in the MCU, but one can’t help but feel like the choice was a bit safe, even if the rest of the movie isn’t.

That’s not to say that Marvel hasn’t toyed with the idea of an older Peter Parker who can face new challenges, associated with his maturation. One could spend most of the day listing alternate continuity series where this has occurred. Marvel Comics gave us excellent stories with a geriatric Spider-Man whose very biology killed his family in Spider-Man: Reign, a combat-injured Peter Parker whose daughter took up the mantle in Spider-Girl,\ and most recently a Peter Parker who fights crime alongside Mary Jane and their daughter in Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows. If Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse taught us anything, it is that all these alternate characters are equally the most important Spider-Man, but one can’t help but wish they would be so bold in the more mainline Spider-Man comics and movies.

I started reading Spider-Man comics at the age of 7 with Amazing Spider-Man #375, the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the series. In that book, Spider-Man was married, dealing with the return of his thought-to-be-dead parents (they ended up being robots), and facing mortal peril at the hands of Venom. As a child, none of those things resonated, but it didn’t matter one lick. Peter was faced with a series of bad choices to make and that made sense. I empathized with him anyway because those conflicts, no matter how buried they are in comics' weirdness, are always relatable. Marvel felt otherwise and within the next 15 years, Peter Parker made a literal deal with the devil and all the things that made him “old” were undone.

In stark contrast, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gives us not only one future projection of the character, in a way we’ve never seen before, but two different versions with very different choice-based outcomes. The appeal of Spider-Man is that we see how his superheroics interfere with his already complicated life as a New Yorker, as we all experience setbacks in our own quests for happiness. Here we meet both a hugely successful, widely-beloved Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) and a down-on-his-luck Spider-Man who has allowed his lack of faith in himself dominate his life and ruin his marriage.

Both versions of the character allow for choices that Marvel has never truly made for the character in any real or lasting fashion, suggesting new readers couldn’t connect to this version of the character; as if getting older means facing less daunting life decisions than one finds during their early adulthood. As someone who is contemplating the responsibility and sacrifices of modern fatherhood, in the face of all the typical reasons (climate, debt, career, time, etc.), this approach to the various Peters allowed me to consider the choice through the sometimes-clarifying lens of fiction. It’s an angle and dilemma a high school-aged, “youthful” Peter would never face, no matter the ultimate decision (both Peters here don’t have kids). Besides, Into the Spider-Verse proved that Miles is the perfect new Spider-Man to fill those shoes.

I can’t help but think that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with its unique approach to the various Peter Benjamin Parkers, boldly declares why Spider-Man as a character should be allowed to grow and would still remain a timeless character that appeals to all ages: life never stops challenging anyone and the choices we face never become less daunting. The rest of Marvel should take note.