Spider-Man: Never Too Old to be Young Again

Peter Parker holding his Spider-Man suit

I have a lot of sympathy for Spider-Man. After a remarkably successful eight-year run, hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars grossed, three major villains vanquished (along with a few minor ones to boot), and tolerating Kirsten Dunst for three whole movies, he’s finally been exposed. Peter Parker never finished high school.

We know what this means: Sony wants to make sure Spider-Man can use his handy webslingers to reach out to the younger crowd. I have no real means of assessing the wisdom of this. Teenagers always seem to be the ones trying to bum cigarettes off me because they spent their allowance money earlier in the week. But I’m sure there’s some sort of wisdom at play, even if it’s of the conventional sort. Out with the old, in with the prepubescent.

One of the peculiarities with of Spider-Man being rebooted, however, is that unlike the previous generation of Batman movies, which had their start in the 80’s, or Star Trek, which is as old as my parents, Spider-Man’s film career is still relatively young. While the case for rebooting Star Trek to appeal to a new young crowd is fairly straightforward, is the Spider-Man crowd really so old? Kids whose parents let them see the first Spider-Man while they were still in elementary school are now in or finishing high school. Why reboot so soon?

We know part of that answer already. The studio and Sam Raimi had been arguing for quite a while over the script for the fourth movie, and Sony was, as far as I know, concerned about Toby Maguire’s age, the villains Raimi wanted to use, and whether the “4” made the title look fat. But another part of the answer may rest with a man who turns freakishly large and green when he gets angry.

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When it was announced that the Hulk was getting the reboot treatment a mere five years after Ang Lee’s 2003 film, no one was particularly bothered. It was surprising, sort of, but in the way that two-time lottery winners are surprising; unexpected, possibly annoying proof that the universe is not particularly fair, and, for a select minority, enraging. A new Hulk came out in 2008 starring Ed Norton and now that’s the gospel—unless the sequel flops in 2012. The Hulk demonstrated that if at first you don’t succeed, we really don’t care as much as you may think, so go ahead and try, try again.

The next movie will do well whether it be a reboot or Spider-Man 4. What follows after the first movie in a rebooted series is nebulous, but as much can be said for Spider-Man 4. If it had sucked on the heels of the disappointing Spider-Man 3, there may have been little prospect of a Spider-Man 5 anyway. There is only one film franchise in history that has never entirely run out of steam, and James Bond pulled that off by essentially rejecting continuity. Spider-Man surely isn’t Bond, but he’s not yet Tim Burton’s Batman either. So what is to be made of this reboot?

When I first tried to write this article, I tried joking about sending Spider-Man back to high school to cash in on any leftover money from the Twilight phenomenon. I quickly found that jokes about Twilight aren’t very funny. As I was deleting my poor attempts at humour, however, it occurred to me that Twilight, or more specifically Edward Cullen (don’t pretend you don’t know who he is), and Spider-Man do have something in common.

Edward Cullen and Peter Parker

Edward is a hundred-year old vampire who attends high school. This is weird because it’s hard to imagine why a hundred-year old man would want to go back to high school. Actually, on second thought, it is not hard to imagine why he would do this at all. But let’s try to agree that in a vacuum a vampire can think of better things to do with immortality than take grade 11 physics for the second or seventh or fiftieth time. The reason he and his entire family do this is because if they start out in high school after moving to a new community it gives them a decent period of time, maybe ten to fifteen years, before people catch on that it’s really freaking weird that they aren’t aging, which forces them to relocate and start the whole charade over again. The vampires are stuck with the appearance of looking young, and end up styling their life after this fact in order not to be found out as vampires.

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This is germane to Spider-Man insomuch as a fairly common opinion of Spidey and his superhero ilk is that they are primarily for young people. Spider-Man can’t get old because it’s young people that are supposed to be his biggest fans. When he’s pushing 35 and has been in the neighbourhood too long, he is no longer capable of fitting in with the people it looks like he should belong with. This is the relationship we have to our superheroes: they grow up with us but never get old, and pretty soon the only way to keep them from getting stagnant is to make them young again.

Maybe this is all to the good, but I can’t help feel that something is being lost. Mortality is one of the things that make heroes so compelling. Today’s superheroes are the myths of our times: creatures of tremendous power that reflect upon their, and our, humanity. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is often cited as some of the best Batman storytelling out there, and in it a middle-aged Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement to fight crime he sees no one else to fill the void. Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” is one a compelling piece of hero literature, and it is about the ageing hero-king who has long grown bored with life, and seeks to recapture something of that old glory one last time before death. One of my longstanding complaints against Superman is that his indestructibility separates him irrevocably from humanity: he’s so super, he’s boring. On hearing this, Superman fans almost inevitably point me to All-Star Superman, in which Superman has a year to live. That, they say, is an awesome Superman series.

Heroes who don’t face their deaths tell us nothing about our own. Peter Parker learns to take action and use his powers for good when his apathy allows the criminal who eventually shoots Uncle Ben to get away. Achilles sits out most of the Trojan War until his dear friend Patroclus is slain, at which point he brings his formidable might against the Trojans and eventually slays Hector. Heroes speak to us most keenly when they are facing death.

So how is of any of this relevant to a reboot of the Spider-Man movie franchise? After all, the comic books from which these characters are drawn are famous for diverging storylines, alternate realities, and, yes, series reboots. Even the aforementioned heroes of myth went through retellings that changed details and adoptions by new cultures that put new clothes on old bodies. One need not look any further than Rome’s adoptions of Greek mythology to see this sort of transition. So a fair question to ask would be whether there’s any significance to be attached to the rebooting of superhero franchises in film.

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I certainly think so. Film remains a powerful storytelling medium, and while it exists largely as a vehicle for entertainment, the previous Spider-Man films, and other superhero films such as the new Batman movies, have demonstrated that within that entertainment, like a Homeric epic, there is room to see ourselves reflected in the heroes we admire. Only, we don’t get to start over when we get old. We don’t have to make new fans, to reach more profitable demographics. While heroes like Spider-Man or Gilgamesh or Zatoichi have seen a multitude of incarnations, they have also been allowed, in other formats, to age, feel regret, and face death.

Of course, movies are expensive, and Spider-Man exists to make money. Having Spidey grow old would be impractical. I wish it wasn’t. Like the heroes of myth, superheroes can show us truths about life and death. But for their film incarnations there is no other half of the coin. They teach us nothing about death. I would have liked to grow old with Spider-Man, but instead Peter Parker is going back to high school, and Spider-Man isn’t for grown-ups.

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