Swinging from the page to the screen, Spider-Man has been the focus of five feature films over the years. But what about the comics that inspired these movies? Join me every other week as we visit the stories behind the wall-crawler’s major motion pictures leading up to his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Captain America: Winter Solider.
This week we’ll be taking a look at Ultimate Spider-Man #33 written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Mark Bagley, Amazing Spider-Man #6 written by Stan Lee with art by Steve Ditko, Amazing Spider-Man #90 written by Stan Lee with art by Gil Kane and Marc Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man,” starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, and Denis Leary.
Raimi’s out, and director Marc Webb is in with a big ol’ reboot and a cast of fresh faces to go with it. Premiering ten years and two months after “Spider-Man,” “Amazing Spider-Man” presents us with a different take on the Spider-Man origin, Peter Parker, and what it’s like to be a teenager. During the denouement of the film, Peter’s English teacher asserts there is only one kind of story that is told over and over again: “Who am I?” So that, of course, is what we must ask of “Amazing Spider-Man.”
What is this film? What is it trying to do? What is it trying to be?
Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” is the most divorced we’ve seen a film from the comics so far; Gwen Stacy was pretty much built from the ground up for the film and while there is certainly precedent for Peter to be gifted in the sciences, Gwen was not someone you would suspect would be “head intern” at futuretech company Oscorp at the age of seventeen. She was smart, but there was no indication that she was a prodigy. This is intentional, as Webb told Film Journal International in a 2012 interview, “I wanted to do something that felt more contemporary, and was less based in representing panels from the comics.”
While “contemporary” is something you could argue about, it’s clear that Webb did not want to recreate panels and images like Raimi did in his films, though there are a few visual ques taken here in there: Peter has a similar Einstein poster in his room, his prototype Spider-Man suit resembles that from the one in Ultimate Spider-Man, and we even see the Lizard (very briefly) in his lab coat as a brief nod.
The Peter Parker of “Amazing Spider-Man” is still an outsider in high school, but he’s a different kind of outcast than we saw in “Spider-Man.” In Raimi’s film, Peter was the target of incessant bullying who couldn’t catch a break despite having a good heart. As I mentioned in the first Adapting Spider-Man this is more in line with Ultimate Spider-Man‘s more modern depiction of high school. However, Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” features a Peter who’s less abused and more of a lone-wolf figure.
Flash Thompson still plays the part of tormentor, but his bullying isn’t focused on Peter. The Peter Parker character in the “Amazing Spider-Man” film isn’t the every-man that Raimi had in his trilogy, but instead Webb decided to hone in on Peter’s scientific prowess in order to differentiate his Peter Parker from the previous (something to look out for in May when we see the third iteration of Spider-Man in film; how will Tom Holland’s Spider-Man be different from the others?). While Pete was a science wiz in the ’60s, he was not quite the level of super scientist that we have in the “Amazing Spider-Man” film.
So we have two different Peter Parkers: Raimi’s boy-next-door Peter Parker, and Webb’s super scientist. Thus, the plot of “Amazing Spider-Man” is put in motion by science and scientific discovery. The film opens to a young Peter discovering his father’s home office has been ransacked, which leads to Peter being placed in the care of his Aunt and Uncle.
Unlike the Amazing Spider-Man comics where Peter’s parents were American spies, Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” borrows their back story from Ultimate Spider-Man; Peter and Mary Parker were top class scientists wrapped up in world-altering technology. In the film, Richard Parker was developing a method of splicing animal genetics into human genes in order to cure diseases. In Ultimate Spider-Man, Richard Parker was developing a biological suit that was meant to cure cancer – the suit of course being the Ultimate version of the Venom symbiote. But more on Peter’s parents later.
Let’s talk about the Lizard for a moment. The film takes the basic origin for the character – Curt Conners lost his arm and turns into the monstrous lizard when a serum to regrow his arm goes wrong – and changes the setting dramatically.
The Lizard first appears in Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man #6 and actually resembles his movie counterpart here a bit more than his later representations do under different artists.
His face in #6 still retains a more-or-less human shape, though he still wears clothes in the comic. In #6, the Lizard shows up “without warning, in the murky swamps of Florida’s Everglades” as their own Floridian version of Bigfoot. This eventually makes its way up to New York where the Bugle, as a publicity stunt, challenges Spider-Man to fight the Lizard.
Even for the ’60s, it’s a bit of a stretch to find an excuse to get Peter down to Florida, but eventually it happens and Spidey and the Lizard rumble. Pete learns from Conners’ wife about the circumstances around Curt Conners’ transformation, an antidote is made, Conners reverts, and everyone lives happily ever after until they don’t.
This story establishes quite a bit of things that continue through every Lizard story: the Lizard’s physical superiority to Spider-Man, the erosion of his human mind, and the Achilles’ heel of not only his exothermic nature as a reptile, but his deep love for his family. And it is Conners’ family that underpins a lot of his stories and holds him up as a sympathetic villain; he’s a family man that no longer has control over himself, and for this reason, Peter always holds back on him. He is not motivated by greed or envy or power, but instead is a man who fell victim to a scientific mishap which was to his detriment rather than benefit – as the case was with Peter. Strangely, but perhaps more palatable to a summer blockbuster, this aspect of depth for the character is completely absent in Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man.” Instead we have a Conners who is motivated by power, even if altruism initially drove him through his research.
In the film, Conners worked with Peter’s father in the field of genetics. While Peter eventually finishes his late father’s research using hidden notes. After an Oscorp board director forces Conners’s hand, he takes it upon himself to begin human trials on himself, leading to his subsequent transformation. The Lizard portion of his mind takes more and more control of his personality and eventually there is nothing left of Conners. There is no mention of a family, so instead we are supposed to believe that Conners’s self-testing is supposed to be an act of heroism – he was doing it in order to stop the board member from testing unsuspecting patrons at the VA hospital. A flimsy excuse (when Conners injects himself, the board member is already on his way to the VA hospital), perhaps, but it works well enough for the film. To further place Gwen as Peter’s intellectual equal, she is the one who synthesizes the Lizard antidote rather than Peter, who typically reproduces a batch of the serum every time he faces off with the Lizard after first synthesizing it using Conners’s notes in ASM #6.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly where this particular vision for the Lizard comes from – his Ultimate universe origin in Ultimate Marvel Team Up #10 involves a funding scandal and alcoholism (though there is a nod to this issue, both the film and the issue contain a sewer battle) – but going back to the quote from the Webb interview, he wasn’t really looking to adapt everything from the comic book.
But there were some elements he took straight from the page, including several details about Peter Parker’s parents. In Ultimate Spider-Man #33, Peter Parker finds a hidden closet in the basement that contains keepsakes from his parents that Uncle Ben and Aunt May were saving for when Peter was old enough. Likewise, in “Amazing Spider-Man,” Peter finds a box in the basement that contains some of his father’s old research.
In both the comic and the film these links to the past lead to the full on discovery of his father’s work. In Ultimate, Peter discovers the bio-suit and in “Amazing,” Peter discovers the missing piece of the formula that Conners needs to finish the research he assumed died with the Parkers. Conners is involved in the Ultimate storyline as well, but in a much more tertiary manner – in that story it is Eddie Brock Jr., son of Richard’s research partner Eddie Brock Sr., that is directly involved in the rediscovered research. Conners is only mentioned in dialogue and served an advisory role for Brock as he tried to continue his father’s work.
Visually, there are a few things borrowed from the comics for the film. Gwen Stacy maintains her conservative look from her origins in the Amazing Spider-Man comics — occasionally sporting her iconic black hairband in a few scenes — rather than her more ’00s punk/emo look from Ultimate Spider-Man.
As for the Spider-Man suit, it’s a different spin on the familiar red-and-blues and Webb has gone on the record that he looked to Bagley’s depiction of Spider-Man for inspiration. Another piece of inspiration from the comic comes from Amazing Spider-Man #8. Webb stated that the ‘tude that Peter throws at Flash was the spark he was looking for in his Spider-Man, and their showdown later in that issue is something I suspect inspired the basketball scene from the film (or perhaps this was from Pete’s short lived stint as a basketball player in Ultimate).
Richard Parker also had research involved with spiders, research that was designated with a large OO, the same designation branded onto the spider that bit Peter in Ultimate Spider-Man #1. We even get a brief glimpse of the Spider-Man fan club that Flash starts, a callback to Amazing Spider-Man #17.
All-in-all, the movie reinvents Spider-Man, picking and choosing ideas that the Raimi series didn’t focus on in some regards and inventing new approaches in others. While the Spider-Man gives us the same ironic twist from Amazing Fantasy #15, that a burglar Spider-Man refuses to stop ultimately kills his surrogate father figure, Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” gave us a slightly more convoluted origin story. Peter fails to stop a bodega from getting robbed and the robber happens to run by Uncle Ben and trip, revealing a gun. Uncle Ben decides that it is his responsibility to take the gun and in the resulting struggle accidentally gets shot. Peter then goes on a violent manhunt searching for this robber. It isn’t until a passionate argument with Gwen’s father at a Stacy family dinner that Peter learns what he is doing isn’t helping others, only himself.
So it is not cruel irony that teaches Peter selflessness, but the hard nosed lesson of a father. This kind of diminishes the impact that Ben plays in Peter’s life, especially since his role in the story is to die for Peter to learn a lesson. Instead, Ben plays into Peter’s guilt, which is something that’s a bigger part of “Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
By the end of the film, George Stacy also dies in a slight homage to his death in Amazing Spider-Man #90, though the circumstances are wildly different in the comic, as is his relationship with Peter. A major point of tension in Peter and Gwen’s romance in the early issues of their relationship was Captain Stacy’s growing suspicion of Peter’s secret coupled with Peter looking to Captain Stacy as a father figure. While the start of this kind of relationship is hinted at during the dinner scene, we never really see enough interaction between Peter and Stacy in the film to discern their disposition toward each other.
While their mortal wounding is different (comic Stacy is crushed by debris while film Stacy is stabbed by the Lizard’s claws), they both give Peter advice regarding their daughter. In the comic, Stacy gives Peter his blessing (acknowledging that he’s known Peter’s secret), the film Stacy acknowledges the good Peter has done as Spider-Man, but tells him to leave Gwen out of it – something that makes for better drama for sure but casts Peter in a negative light; he almost immediately disregards Gwen’s father’s dying words. Words that continue to haunt him through the sequel.
We get a much different Peter in “Amazing Spider-Man” than we saw in “Spider-Man,” but Webb tries his best to make these changes feel organic to the story he’s trying to tell and succeeds for the most part, even if he strays wildly from the source material. If you noticed I strayed away from mentioning Amazing Spider-Man #121, also known as “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” for “Spider-Man,” it’s because I wanted to talk about it in the context of “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” so hold on to your hats, Superiorites, the penultimate Adapting Spider-Man is going to be a doozy! Catch you in two weeks!