I was nine years old in 1976. I remember two things about the neighborhood discussion when we discovered that Spider-Man and Superman were going to battle it out in a special edition Marvel-D.C. team-up. One, we knew the fight would end in a lame tie. Two, no one rooted for Superman. Well, Eddie Turliss did, but his dad was a cop, which pretty much explained his choice of the red-caped goody-goody.
Spider-Man was just cooler. His webby costume, his swinging mode of transport, his grappling with life in a real city many of us had visited: of course, these factors affected our judgment, but I think we were also moved by his now much-discussed vulnerability. He was a kid, not much older than some of our teenaged siblings, and he had problems. Forget Kryptonite and crime, Spider-Man/Peter Parker had lost his human parents, and not a galaxy away. This injury hovered for him like a recurrent nightmare. Hovering too was the murder of his Uncle Ben, the event that launched his career. Spider-Man’s crime fighting wasn’t just principled; it was personal, and therefore, in our nine-year-old hearts, more principled.
Sam Raimi’s mega-popular 2002 feature film emphasized this “human” aspect, with the soft-spoken Tobey Maguire as Peter. This Spider-Man not only pitted him against an airborn arch-villain, the Green Goblin, but also had him mired in earthbound concerns: pining for his childhood sweetheart, raging at the loss of his uncle, and fretting over his roommate’s well being.
Now, out of the film’s giant shadow crawls the web-slinger’s latest incarnation, MTV’s animated series, airing on Fridays at 10pm ET, with a double-dip of half-hour episodes. The thematic focus skews toward young adults rather than nine-year-olds—in addition to sexual innuendo and the occasional drink of alcohol, the series depicts violence that leads to death, using computer-generated animation dubbed “CG neon noire” that results in a snazzy, three-dimensional New York City. At night, it looks spectacular, as do the more imaginative action scenes.
On occasion, the series suffers from robotic character movements or lack of facial subtlety. What’s more, all the women we’re supposed to like are “sexy,” in an especially swaybacked and tiny-waisted way. Come to think of it, Spider-Man himself (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) looks a bit undernourished.
Still, I suspect Spider-Man will more than satisfy the young-adultish fan it targets, particularly in its satire of dating and gender politics. In one of the 25 July episodes, MJ (Lisa Loeb) convinces Peter to a daily exchange of notes in which each tells the other a secret; in the first exchange, she confesses a traumatic childhood moment, while Peter, after much agonizing over this self-expression stuff, confesses his secret allergy to grouper.
Set during Peter’s college years, the series takes up the franchise’s tradition of combining personal and galactic plotlines. In the first half-hour on 18 July, Peter’s professor, Doc Connors (Rob Zombie) is doing labwork on reptilian DNA’s regenerative powers because he lost an arm in an industrial accident at the evil global corporation, Oscorp, years before. At the same time, the first anniversary of Norman Osborn’s death approaches (he was the original Green Goblin, killed by Spider-Man). Harry Osborn (Ian Zierling), Peter’s roommate and son of the former Oscorp CEO, sorts through his father’s personal effects at the corporation headquarters. The requisite high-wire battle occurs when Doc Connors turns into one of the reptiles he’s been studying and storms the headquarters, intent on revenge. Spidey, of course, comes to Harry’s rescue.
In the second episode, Harry reveals he’s been seeing someone he really likes, and wants to introduce her to Peter and MJ over dinner; the girlfriend, Cheyenne Tate (Eve) turns out to have an alter ego only Peter knows about. She’s Talon, a high-tech, high-altitude burglar with a chip on her shoulder about something (we’re not sure what), and once again, Peter must protect Harry. Both episodes are about split (secret) identities, as metaphors for young people under stress. Here the series picks up on classic themes from the Spider-Man comics, exploring tensions between childish innocence and adult (emerging) sexuality.
Such tensions are exacerbated by the fact that these young characters are parentless and so, dependent on one another. In Spider-lore, orphans (or abused kids, in the case of MJ) symbolize the general failure of adult authority. On the one hand, the difference between good guys and bad guys is as obvious as the superheroes and villains’ bold costumes. But on the other, morality is a continuum, stops along the same train line. A hero is always a blocked exit away from being a villain, a dilemma that Marvel storylines pondered for decades.
In the Doc Connors episode, for example, Harry discovers documents linking his dad to the production of secret, monstrous weapons. MJ notes that Harry, sitting at his father’s old desk, looks a lot like Norman. When Harry looks at his reflection in the window behind him, he does indeed see an ominous image of his father. Spider-Man aficionados will be well aware that Harry is destined to bring the Green Goblin back to life, and so, this moment of reflection neatly illustrates Harry’s own split feelings: he mourns the lost parent and at the same time fears becoming him. Adulthood, the show suggests, brings not only unbearable responsibility (in the case of Spider-Man), but also obligatory trouble.
In Superman’s Metropolis, newspapermen and the police may be endearingly inept, but they “stand for” justice and honesty. But in Spider-Man’s New York, adults are corrupt and irrational, as likely to thwart good deeds as to aid them. J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, thinks the wall-crawler is too flashy and shifty, and repeatedly publishes negative stories about him. Worse, the police are always shining a spotlight on our hero at the precise moment when he might appear guilty of the crime he has just prevented. While Spider-Man saves the world, adults persist in misunderstanding him. In my old neighborhood, that was a pretty good metaphor for being a kid. I’m guessing it still is.