Spider-Man, as the famous theme song from the 1960s animated series explains, “does whatever a spider can.” But, as Gawker revealed in newly uncovered documents from last year’s Sony hack, he can also only do whatever Marvel approves — which includes restrictions on torture, killing and alcohol use.
Two sets of mandatory “character traits” have surfaced, featuring Marvel Entertainment’s do’s and the don’t’s for both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Yes, they are separate entities; Spider-Man is officially classified as “Peter Parker or an alternative Spider-Man character,” interestingly enough. In comic book mythology, the three primary Spider-Men have been Peter Parker, Ben Reilly — actually a clone of Peter Parker — and Miles Morales, the half-Black, half-Latino Spider-Man of the company’s Ultimate Comics imprint, each of whom has held the role for a number of years in addition to a variety of short-term Spider-Men.
For Spider-Man, Marvel determined that he must be male and “not a homosexual,” with the interesting addition that the latter would be invalidated if “Marvel has portrayed that character as a homosexual.” Additionally, he does not torture, does not kill “unless in defense of self or others,” doesn’t smoke or abuse alcohol, sell or distribute drugs, or have sex before the age of 16 or with anyone below that age.
Peter Parker, meanwhile, has a stricter set of rules; his full name, race and sexual orientation are defined (Peter Benjamin Parker, Caucasian and straight, respectively), as are details about his origins as a superhero — although, interestingly, his age is up for grabs with regards to the origin; he “gains his powers while attending either middle school or college,” Marvel insisted — and, oddly enough, where he was raised, has to be Queens, New York. (Sorry, any other borough of New York that wanted to claim the character as its own; Spidey is spoken for.)
Although some online have seen these rules as reason to be upset at Marvel for being socially conservative when it comes to one of its top franchises, it’s clear that the focus of the guidelines — reportedly part of a 2011 contract, which suggests the guidelines were created in part to guide planning for 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man movie reboot — was far less about social progressivism or the lack thereof, and far more about securing the idea of Spider-Man as a superhero. (THR has reached out to Sony for comment on the licensing agreement.)
Look at the restrictions for Spider-Man, after all; would anyone really take a Spider-Man who smokes, drinks or indulges in underage sex seriously? Spider-Man is, after all, the superhero powered by the idea of “great responsibility,” not the kind of guy who’d deal drugs, never mind kill or torture for the sake of it. Even the restriction that’s gained the most attention — “not a homosexual” — has the get-out clause that it’s okay if Marvel has done it in the comics first.
That last part, in addition to the far tighter rules around Peter Parker, point to what’s actually the focus for Marvel in issuing these rules: protecting its intellectual property. Marvel has no agenda beyond Marvel’s interests in the rules as presented; it just wants to ensure that Sony follows its lead in how it portrays the characters. Peter Parker is white and straight, because that’s how he’s always been portrayed in the comics. A gay Spider-Man isn’t a problem, as long as Marvel gets to do it in the comics (and, as a result, reaps the publicity rewards attached) first.
It also should be noted that when Miles Morales was first announced as the Ultimate Spider-Man earlier in 2011, misreporting suggested he might be bisexual; the online excitement around the idea — which ended up not being the case in the comics themselves — might have led to the wording of the rule as it appears; Marvel simply have wanted to leave the opportunity open to have Miles come out at a later date.)
Given the fan uproar that generally follows from movies or television shows making changes to long-serving comic characters — see, for example, Michael B. Jordan becoming the Human Torch, race bending the character from his Caucasian roots — the biggest surprise isn’t that Marvel would have wanted to keep Sony as close to the comic book material as possible, but that fans could be surprised to discover that such restrictions would be in place after the fact. Marvel, and Sony, were really only doing what most fans would claim that they want.