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 Cain Winstead every other Sunday 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 Amazing Fantasy #15 written by Stan Lee with story & art by Steve Ditko, Ultimate Spider-Man #1 written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Mark Bagley, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, Kirstin Dunst, James Franco, and Willem Dafoe.
The early ’00s saw the revival of the super hero film, saving us from rubber Bat nipples, Shaquille O’Neal, and the mess that was “The Phantom.” Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, the new millennium (and the events following Marvel filing for chapter 11 in 1996) gave birth to some extraordinarily lucrative film franchises, first with Brian Singer’s “X-Men“ in 2000 and then later with Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2002.
For the first time, the web-slinger saw himself on the big screen and for people like me who didn’t have access to direct market comic book stores, it was the first time we had seen new adventures from Spider-Man since the Fox animated cartoon. Since then, fans and critics have dissected, examined, and argued about virtually every aspect of the film, but here at Superior Spider-Talk we like to think that discussion isn’t over until the guy in the rhino suit sings, so let’s take another look.
From first glance, “Spider-Man” covers very familiar ground: spider bite, dead uncle, great power, etc, etc. We Spider-fans all know the origin front-to-back, but a refresher course never hurts, especially for a general audience unfamiliar with the fine details of young Peter Parker’s transformation. Amazing Adult Fantasy was a short lived science-fiction anthology series in the early sixties, running from issue #7 to #15 (the previous six issues were titled Amazing Adventures). Dropping the “Adult” with it’s final issue, Amazing Fantasy #15 saw the debut of everyone’s favorite superhero Spider-Man, then known as Spiderman (The hyphen was later added to distinguish his name visually from another blue and red superhero character, though for the life of me I can’t imagine who that would be).
It was in Amazing Fantasy #15 that we met “that bookworm” Peter Parker, and in 11 short pages saw him transform to “a lean, silent figure” disappearing into the night, having learned that “in this world, with great power there must also come – – great responsibility!” After attending a science exhibit after school, Peter Parker is bitten by… well, you know the rest. He gains powers, becomes a wrestler, fails to stop a burglar, and learns a valuable lesson at the cost of his uncle’s life.
Stan Lee, scribe behind Amazing Adult Fantasy, wanted the stories found within the magazine to all feature an O. Henry-esque ironic twist ending, and so it is for this reason we have the very burglar Spider-Man neglects to stop re-define his life (or maybe there was a secret treasure buried under the Parkers’ estate, it really depends what year you asked Stan). When watching the film 2002, we see more or less these events unfold but there’s something…. different. Something…. ultimately different.
That’s right, Superiorites! Though his name does not grace the credits (I carefully checked upon re-watching for this feature, much to my roommate’s chagrin), Brian Michael Bendis’s take on Spider-Man’s origin plays a large role in the first act of “Spider-Man.” Spider-Man’s origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 is split into two halves. The first half establishes Peter, the circumstances around his transformation, and his powers. The second contains the narrative: a boy with extraordinary power rises above his caste only to discover that for those with the power to do something, nothing is below their concern. While the film certainly employs the second half of this tale, it draws more from Ultimate Spider-Man #1 to establish a Peter Parker more relatable to 2002.
Ultimate Spider-Man needs no introduction. If you’re unfamiliar with it, going out and grabbing the trade would be a better use of your time than reading this article (Go ahead, it won’t hurt my feelings. Just come back when you’re done). For those few uninitiated, Ultimate Spider-Man was a wildly successful redefinition of Spider-Man in 2000 that saw the character updated for modern times. Radiation, a new and enigmatic science back in the early 60s, gave way to genetic modification, the It Girl of 2000s science. Aunt May and Uncle Ben looked less like props from “Leave It To Beaver” and more like your cool, hip relatives who clearly had a wild time in the ’70s. And Peter, while still clearly a social outcast, was made just the slightest bit more socially graceful.
While Amazing Fantasy #15 saw Peter attending an after school exhibit on “radio-activity”, Ultimate Spider-Man #1 saw him meet his destiny at a school-sanctioned field trip in Oscorp’s genetic testing labs. Amazing Fantasy #15 is an extraordinarily condensed story, telling in 6 pages what Ultimate Spider-Man #1 tells in 42, so it might be a little unfair to say that Spider-Man adapted the first issue of Ultimate, as the first issue of Ultimate is more or less an incomplete without the other five issues that comprise its first arc.
What is fair to say is that when faced with some of the more outdated themes found in Amazing Fantasy #15, “Spider-Man“ used Ultimate Spider-Man #1 as a “how to successfully update Spider-Man” playbook. Flash Thompson’s name calling in Amazing is tame compared to the emotional and physical torment he inflicts on Peter in Ultimate, and this more emotional/physical bullying is what is represented in the film. Peter in Amazing is a guy pushed to the sidelines who desperately wants to fit in with his peers. Peter in Ultimate and the film is a guy trying to avoid the attention of his peers.
“Spider-Man”‘s first act also establishes Norman Osborn and documents his transformation into the Green Goblin. While it is a departure from both his origin told in Amazing Spider-Man #40 as well as the one shown in Ultimate Spider-Man #1, the attitude of the Osborn in “Spider-Man” most closely resembles the Osborn of Ultimate. The Amazing Osborn is presented as more of a business executive type (one that may have at least some aptitude for chemistry), the Osborn of Ultimate and Spider-Man is a full blown scientist willing to try anything to prove that this experiment is ready. By tying Norman’s scientific prowess to Peter’s own affinity for science, the two serve better foils for one another.
The advantage that Ultimate (as well as the film) holds over Amazing Spider-Man comes from this ability to better integrate the bonds formed between characters that developed over time and happenstance in Amazing. And so perhaps this is another reason why so many elements of Ultimate were placed in an adaptation of Amazing Fantasy #15; when Lee and Ditko were creating their lean, silent figure, they had not yet dreamed of Goblins, Osborns, and ruddy haired dames. Amazing Fantasy and the subsequent Amazing Spider-Man were serialized tales, meant to tell stand-alone stories month to month. It took time to develop the pieces by accident in order to pull off the Green Goblin twist – that Norman, the father of Peter’s best friend, was his greatest enemy. And because this twist was devised after the two characters’ establishment, any ties between the two could only be further forged via retroactive continuity (and looking at “Sins Past”, we can see how disastrous that can be).
So, by fusing the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man to the timeless lesson we see in the second half of Spider-Man’s origin in Amazing Fantasy #15, we get a familiar, yet updated look at what creates a Spider-Man. The film’s second act is more or less its own invention, building on what was established for Peter and Spider-Man by the first act. We see his romance with Mary Jane develop, Harry’s relationships deteriorate, and Peter’s own morals tested by the Green Goblin. The film concludes with a series of parallels to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and follow up issue “The Green Goblin’s Last Stand”, both of which will be addressed in more detail with Amazing Spider-Man 2 in April. While the film clearly borrows from these two stories, I would not say that they are adapted the same way Amazing Fantasy #15 and Ultimate Spider-Man #1 are. That discussion will unfortunately need to be tabled until we talk about Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, where I’ll be comparing and contrasting the two films’ handling of the source text.
That’s it for now, Spider Faithful! Tune in in two weeks for my write up on Spider-Man 2. Unfortunately, Spider-Man 2 does not appear to be available on any streaming service, but you can purchase it digitally through the usual channels if you can’t find it out at your video store of choice.