Spider-Man

Spider-Man’s Real Secret Identity? You.

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In 2017, the journal Child Development published results from a study showing that young children worked more diligently at difficult tasks when dressed as Batman. Research like this can feel a little bit gimmicky, but the essential idea is easy enough to understand: Superheroes are simplified models for living, showing us what we can aspire to when we adopt their values and mindset.

There's a similar idea at play in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a Academy Award–nominated animated movie that works from the notion that anyone can be—or at least be like—Spider-Man. It's a movie that casts Spider-Man not as a specific, singular hero but as a symbol of a set of eternal values, and it's a pop-culture parable about choice, responsibility, and the power of individuals to construct their own identities.

Since his debut in 1962, the web-slinging comic book character has usually taken the form of Peter Parker, a nerdy white guy from Queens who was somewhere between a teenager and a 30-something. He split his time between the ordinary experiences of a struggling dweeb and a fantasy existence as a superhero with spider-like powers.

In one part of his life, he was a nebbish everyman who dealt with mundane problems—rocky relationships, paying the rent, a callous boss, demanding teachers. In the other part, he was a larger-than-life character in a red and blue suit who swung effortlessly through the urban canyons of Manhattan using wrist-mounted web-shooters that he built at home.

In his dual identities, Spider-Man was a stand-in for many of his readers, who tended to be young white men who felt alienated from the world and found a means of escape in superhero comics. Spider-Man was Peter Parker, a particular fictional character with a particular fictional history, but in another sense he was also you. Spider-Man collapsed the distance between character and consumer; to be a Spider-Man fan was to see yourself, at least a little bit, as Spider-Man.

Yet throughout his existence, Spider-Man has also appeared in a variety of other forms: as a clone created by a villainous biology professor; as a bearded, middle-aged post-apocalyptic survivor; as a black-suited duo, paired with a powerful alien symbiote, who eventually joined with a rival to become Spider-Man's dark nemesis, Venom. In at least one incarnation, the movie trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, his web shooters (and webs) were biological, part of his spider mutations rather than a scientific creation—a subtle but important change that emphasized the character's physical alienation.

These were slight variations on the classic formula, the Cherry Coca-Cola to the classic Spider-Man's red can of Coke, and they tended to be temporary and controversial. The original formula was too beloved to do away with.

But since 2011, Spider-Man has also taken the form of Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Dominican teenager who becomes Spider-Man in a parallel universe. (In comic books, you just accept these things.)

Like Parker, Morales is a New Yorker who gains spider-like powers as a result of a run-in with an unusual bug and then encounters a slew of super-criminals, some of whom are themselves remixed variants of the villains that Parker's Spider-Man has encountered over the years. From there, however, many of the details diverge. Parker's parents are dead and his closest familial relationship is with his Aunt May, while both of Morales' parents are still alive. Parker hails from Queens, while Morales lives in Brooklyn. Parker decided to become a superhero after the death of his beloved Uncle Ben at the hands of a crook he could have stopped; Morales takes on the mantle of Spider-Man after the death of his own universe's Peter Parker.

CTRPhotos/iStock

His origin story thus makes him a key part of Spider-Man's legacy, both inside his own fictional universe and in comic-book history. It also makes him a gateway for newer, more diverse readers who might not have seen themselves in Parker.

Morales' adventures were published initially in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man, part of a now-defunct secondary line from Marvel where well-known characters, from Captain America to the X-Men, took on alternative personas. Some of these remixes have influenced Marvel's recent run of wildly successful comic book movies. The character of Nick Fury, for example, was historically portrayed as a grizzled white man with an eye-patch, but he appeared as a black man who looked suspiciously like actor Samuel L. Jackson in the pages of The Ultimates. A few years later, Jackson—who was promised the role in exchange for his likeness—took on the part in Marvel's big-screen universe.

This sort of variation and substitution is common in the pages of comics, where Thor has appeared as a woman, Captain America has been replaced by his sidekick Bucky Barnes, and Superman once died and returned (sort of) as four different Supermen, all claiming the name. In comics, superhero identity is malleable, flexible, rather than fixed. Superheroes adapt to the times.

Yet on the big screen, variants like Jackson's black Nick Fury are something of an anomaly. Despite the near-takeover of Hollywood by superheroes—in 2018, six of the top-10-grossing movies in the U.S. were based on comic books—they have tended to be only lightly modernized versions of their most familiar, classic incarnations. There's a certain business logic to this: Hollywood prefers to develop properties with widespread recognition, and far more people know Peter Parker than Miles Morales. But this has meant that when it comes to superheroes, Hollywood has served up a lot of red-can Coke and not much else.

That's been especially true of Spider-Man, who since 2002 has been played by three different actors in three different sequences of live-action films. Several of these movies have been superior examples of superhero filmmaking, yet they've also had a tendency to feel repetitive. When Tom Holland took over the role for 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, the biggest apparent change was that both Parker and Aunt May were portrayed as somewhat younger. But otherwise, he was the same white kid from Queens he's been for decades.

That changed at the end of last year, thanks to Spider-Verse, which not only puts Miles Morales at the center of the story but matches him up with a slew of other spider-folks who have found their way into Morales' dimension. These include Gwen Stacy, or Spider-Woman; Peter Porker, the Spider-Ham (an animated pig); Peni Parker (a teenaged Japanese girl); and, weirdest of all, Spider-Man Noir, a black and white character voiced by actor Nicolas Cage.

This may sound bizarre, but it is, after all, an animated movie, one liberated from the ho-hum literalism of its live-action counterparts. And it works, partly because of the zippy animation and partly because it allows the movie to take the form of a conversation between multiple spider-persons about what the meaning of Spider-Man is. Morales has appeared in cartoons and comics before, but Spider-Verse is the first big-budget movie to fully embrace the dazzling multiplicity of superhero identity.

The film's answer to its big question is that Spider-Man isn't a person. Spider-Man is an ideal—a set of values, principles, and struggles that express themselves in varying ways for different people at different times yet always resolve themselves in the same adage that Peter Parker learned so many years ago: With great power comes great responsibility. Being Spider-Man means deciding to accept that responsibility, something anyone can do.

This might sound like something of a rejoinder to Spider-Man's co-creator, Steve Ditko, an Objectivist who went on to create a character named Mr. A, inspired by Ayn Rand's premise that "A is A." Spider-Man is Peter Parker as well as Miles Morales as well as Gwen Stacy and even, uh, Peter Porker.

Still, there's something fitting about the seemingly infinite variability of the character, which always returns to the same fundamental notions about power and individual responsibility and to the fundamental idea that people, regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances, are who they choose to be. In the case of Morales, Parker, Stacy, and the rest, not only are they all Spider-Man, but in their own ways they are models for the rest of us, showing how we can be Spider-Man too.

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44 responses to “Spider-Man’s Real Secret Identity? You.

  1. I liked the X-Men and the Care Bears. The Care Bears always start off being reasonable, but when push comes to shove, they have the same supper power as Havoc.

    1. Care Bears are like Yoda, nobody sees that can of whoop ass coming. Also an important lesson. Never underestimate your adversaries.

      1. Y’all can be Spider-Man, X-Men, and so on, for all I Care-Bear about it (for all that I can Care-Bear).

        MEEE!??? I am ROACH MAN, and I go riding around in my ROACH COACH!

        1. Well roll a roach for each of us, Roach Man.

        2. True story: Several shipmates and I were eating pizza from the roach coach on the pier, when we noticed that just a smidgeon away from one last bit was a baked in cockroach. All the rest went into the trash. We swore to never eat anything from there again. But you know what? Eat at the same restaurant three times a day, for weeks and months at a stretch, and you want some variety. Within days we were eating pizza from it again.

          Related story: the standard procedure for breakfast was get the tray filled with bacon, eggs, sausage, etc. Grab a bowl for cereal, oranges, apples, and half a dozen of those little cereal boxes. Eat everything else. Dump one box of cereal into the bowl. If you see the weevils, dump onto the tray, try the next box. If not, do not stir until you have added sugar and milk, eat, because this box has too few weevils to see right away. Repeat until all boxes have been consumed or dumped.

          1. I thought weevils in ship’s rations went out in the 19th century!

            1. Only the lesser of two weevils.

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        4. Does Dave Sim know about you?

    2. Supper power. Yum.

      1. I see what you did there. It probably comes from the radioactive, genetically modified weevils.

    3. Those Care Bears make my Sudy-senses tingle something fierce.

  2. Tobias Maguire’s Peter Parker was a beta and his Spiderman was a pussy. Maybe you’ve identified what’s wrong with today’s yutes.

    1. Sounds like a winning dissertation topic. If you can manage to work in toxic masculinity and neo-imperialistic nationalism, you’ll have a shot at a position at an Ivy League U.

      1. Sounds like easy money. But not sure if I can pull off the routine. There are those derp generators out there though.

        1. AS-M’s Peter Parker attracted the attentions of multiple babes, might have married Gwen Stacy except for character existence failure, and did marry Hot Redhead Mary Jane Watson. I’m a huge Ditko fan, but, when Stainless Steve quit the strip his replacement was John Romita, a love comics veteran who drew everyone gorgeous. Even Pete got more attractive. Lee had turned a story about the maturing of a nebbish into an effective individual into a soap opera with accompanying “beautiful people” imagery. This was a key secret of 1960s Marvel’s success. It merged the adolescent power fantasy of the super-hero comic with the narrative hooks of radio and TV soap operas, and the visual style of romance comics. The love pulps were the last lode of story to be mined by comics creators, namely Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the same team who did their own take on MLJ’s The Shield, only better, cooking up Captain America. Their Young Romance and related titles for Crestwood/Prize sold in the millions and were widely imitated.

          ……

          1. ….

            Lee liked to emphasize the flaws in his heroes, and their day-to-day problems, to make them “more relatable.” Ditko was more interested in portraying idealized humans, at least morally. They, or the villains, could look like regular joes. That difference, more than any disputes over credit or remuneration, is what broke that team. I did not “get” Ditko or Marvels, generally, as a new reader when they were first published, whereas I ate up Superman. Exposure to Lee/Kiby and Lee/Ditko through reading copies at the barber shop when I was a few years older primed me for adding them to my comics diet in high school.

    2. I swear Maguire’s scene in SM 3 where he was strutting and boogeying down the street was one of the most cringeworthy scenes in the history of mainstream cinema.

      1. You are not alone.

  3. “who tended to be young white men who felt alienated from the world”

    Fail.

    1. Oh it’s Suderman. The projecting makes sense now.

      1. The Amazing Suder-Man?

  4. I actually call it the ‘supervillian fallacy’, which is that the bad guys know they are bad guys. E.g. ‘the Joker’. Thus if you are bad you’d know it. And if you don’t know it – then you must be good. But of course, the truth is that people are generally completely unaware if they are bad or good. (No one thinks they’re evil and everyone thinks they’re good.) The end result is that people think they are fighting for a righteous cause (like socialism) but in fact they are heading toward destruction, and bringing us all with them. There is also a religion that teaches this, though I won’t say which one. But comic books helped to perpetuate this fallacy, and it takes some work to undo it.

    1. Interesting because with a few exceptions religion played little or no role in the classic DC and Marvel comics. Stan Lee had talked about this. The characters were intended to be generic and appeal to a broad audience. The idea, and Spider-Man is a great example, was any kid could relate and imagine themselves in that creative role.

      You can find some religion among well known comic book characters but it is near always incidental.

      What I think you are saying refers to the hero-antihero theme which is not at all new in literature or art. The protagonist is essential in any drama and goes back to the beginnings of recorded fiction and stories passed down by oral tradition.

    2. Disagree. Psychopaths know they are evil, and they believe that makes them superior. They see having morals as a foolishly self-imposed limitation that makes the good people weaker.

      1. You’d run across “I am above your petty ideas of morality” often enough. We were just dinner, or ants at the picnic to the likes of Galactus. The Red Skull ran on Nazi “morality.” Lex Luthor felt he had a legitimate beef with Superboy, and later Superman. I really liked the early Luthor, determined to show that any feat Kal-L could do from accident of birth could be matched through a human’s sheer genius. In more modern times, the “…you can’t trust him, he’s an alien! Who knows what he has in store for humanity!” trope has produced some good stories. A common theme was that a human who became super-powered was often mentally damaged by that power, and that affected his moral judgement. Even disfigurement would do that, especially if combined with trauma such as losing a loved one. see The Batman’s Rogues Gallery, or Dick Tracy’s before him, for that.

    3. Good vs Evil is not a comic book trope. It’s a literary agent in literature since Beowulf.

      There is a religion that teaches that identifiable good and evil exist, but for the majority of people you come across, we are some parts concious actors against good and the unaware deceived. It also holds accountable those in positions as teachers and mentors more highly than it does their students and mentees.

  5. In 2017, the journal Child Development published results from a study showing that young children worked more diligently at difficult tasks when dressed as Batman. Research like this can feel a little bit gimmicky, but the essential idea is easy enough to understand: Superheroes are simplified models for living, showing us what we can aspire to when we adopt their values and mindset.

    So many questions ….
    How many of the kids knew who Batman was, before the study? How well? Was there any comparison of that with the results?
    How would the kids have fared in a generic super-hero costume?
    How would the kids have fared in a three piece suit they were told wore?
    How would the kids have fared in a Nazi, Soviet, Hessian uniform, without being informed of whose uniform it was?
    How would the kids have fared in a generic uniform?
    How would the kids have fared if not dressed up but given a placebo which they were told would improve their intelligence, memory, etc?

    1. I don’t know the answers, but I do know that the study’s authors are going to be dressing up like Batman while they work on finding them.

      1. Were they wearing the finned gauntlets? You have to pay attention to any task requiring manual dexterity when you have those babies on. Most costume shops don’t have access to Wayne tech level gloves that allow you to pick a dime up off the street without having to take them off. 🙂

    2. -How would the kids have fared in a Nazi, Soviet, Hessian uniform, without being informed of whose uniform it was?
      How would the kids have fared in a generic uniform?-

      Now those are very interesting questions.

      Do uniformed students perform better than non-uniformed students? Or are the accompanying secondary factors too influential to draw a conclusion?

      There is some aspect of being uniformed that is believed to have a psychological affect, as it removes you from thinking of yourself as an individual and part of a team. It is a survival tactic in war and a brotherhood/community awareness effort in scouting.

      So dressing up as someone with super powers? Could be something there. It does sound nearly as bogus as the “superman pose” in Grey’s anatomy, though.

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  7. Well, now I am going to have to take a shower and wash the nerd off.

    1. It will take more than a shower – it will take a Storm.

  8. I’m not sure I want to be a hero anymore. I’m too disillusioned by trying to do the right thing and getting swatted down by the government. I do think I would do better as an anti-hero, who does what needs to be done without worrying about all the feelz and what not that goes on now.

    So call me Batman. Or Venom.

  9. Yes, anyone can accept responsibility, but that doesn’t mean they have the power to exercise that responsibility. Taking responsibility for things over which you have no control is a recipe for unhappiness. That’s one of the reasons “progressives” are so grumpy. The lesson of Spiderman was that tragedy resulted when he embraced the power before accepting the responsibility.

    1. Eh. He had many lessons. Usually don’t quit on helping others, something good will happen. Believe in yourself. And yes, don’t get too big for your britches.

  10. Clark Kent is Superman’s secret identity.

    1. Superman is the ultimate Progressive.

      1. Jerry Siegel’s Supes certainly was.

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