I love Spider-Man – but would my son? How I learned a hard lesson about heroes


A decade ago I got married in a wedding outfit that, because of the shambles of assembling it, I can remember thread for thread. I had a new suit (dark grey, secret pockets) that I was shyly proud of; but with a couple of hours to go, I hung it in the wrong place in a public bathroom and the jacket was sprayed at close range by an auto-dispersing air freshener, the rich and tangy scent of which I could never scrub clear. My smart shoes, fine in the shop, turned out to be so unrealistically sleek-soled that I couldn’t stay upright on the walk to the venue and had to arrive in trainers. Way too late in the day, I noticed that my fancy dress-shirt needed cufflinks and all I had in my drawer was a pair of bug-eyed scarlet superhero heads, given to me once as a joke. I wound up at the altar, making my solemn vows, wearing a little Spider-Man on either wrist.

The older I get, the more that Spider-Man cameo, at such a big juncture in my life, comes to feel right. Where some people look to religious texts for spiritual comfort and a sense of continuity, others to Shakespeare or spirit animals, or the Harry Potter series, I’ve always been a sucker for the relentless reliable churn of superhero stories. I’ll watch or read just about any of them in a pinch. But Spider-Man has always been the one.

Created by Marvel Comics in the 1960s, this character (as familiarly branded as a Coke can or a Penguin paperback, in his red and blue bodysuit with his protuberant white eyes and his chest-stamped insignia) has appeared in hundreds of thousands of comic books, weeks’ worth of animated cartoons, at least 13 movies, 30-plus computer games and one Broadway musical. Innumerable statuettes and poseable action figures have been cast, and there are Spider-Man keyrings, Spider-Man stuffed toys and Spider-Man Lego sets. Somehow I’ve always retained the irrational conviction that he’s mine alone, which is probably the true benchmark test for a fictional creation. People feel the same sense of private ownership over Anna Karenina or Willy Loman, or the Snowman. I just happen to feel it about a made-up teenager who can cling to walls and shoot spiderwebs from his wrists.

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Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man against white background



‘Spider-Man has always been the one.’ Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios

I now have a son who is three years old and getting interested in superheroes for the first time. For a while I watched from the sidelines, staying out of it, while he had his head turned by others. From a hand-me-down T-shirt, he discovered the Incredible Hulk. From his friends at nursery, he heard about a team of Lego ninjas. On Netflix there are cartoons about all sorts of super teams, from pyjama-clad warrior children who can manifest animal-like powers (PJ Masks) to mildly fascistic dogs who drive around quelling civic emergencies at the behest of a teenager with an iPad (Paw Patrol). My son and I often watched a show about a group of preservation-minded irregulars called the Go Jetters who were a little like National Trust or Unesco volunteers, only this crowd wore pastel bodysuits, drove a flying convertible and answered to a talking unicorn.

At the start of lockdown in March, with months of home-time stretching ahead of us, I decided to try to interest my son in Spider-Man. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if we liked and admired the same superhero? Wouldn’t it make me a more useful and three-dimensional dad? Like many parents, grandparents, godparents, carers, aunts, uncles, older cousins and other interested parties before me, I was about to embark on the desperately sensitive work of passing on an allegiance to a child. If you’re a family of football devotees, the indoctrination has to begin young, against the terrible possibility of a child from (say) a Sheffield Wednesday or a Charlton Athletic household coming home one day with admiring words for Liverpool or Chelsea. This is how lifelong family schisms begin.

I set to work, rustling up a few key resources. I ordered a Spider-Man encyclopedia from Amazon, so we could look over the character’s 50-year history. My mum posted one of my old Spider-Man toys, a tired and much bath-dunked figure that had also passed through my younger brother and possibly a couple of cousins and now had very worn paint and floppy joints. At home we subscribed to Disney+, which had half a dozen Spider-Man cartoons to choose from, the most recent of which was produced in 2017 and the oldest in the 80s.

With a jolt I realised that the 80s cartoon, Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends, was the one that had introduced me to the superhero back when I was the three-year-old. It used to pop up on the BBC and it had the famous theme tune (“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can!”). In this cartoon, Spider-Man had a red-haired female sidekick called Firestar with whom I was painfully in love from a very young age. I waited anxiously for episodes to appear on the Beeb. This was a pre-digital era and there was only a limited amount of junior programming per day – the shock appearance of a beloved cartoon had the I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening quality of a comet crossing the sky.

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man in director Sam Raimi's 2002 film



On the set of the 2002 movie, in which Tom Lamont made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. Photograph: Allstar/Marvel/Columbia Pictures

Without quite so much wonder, in 2020, I summoned up an episode of the original 80s cartoon for us via smartphone app. We sat down to watch episode one. “You’re going to love this,” I told my son.

It was… awkward. I now saw that Spider-Man, who is meant to be a teenager, had been animated all those years ago to have a macho Reagan-era strut that made him look like a retired boxer hobbling to the shops. Firestar, in theory a powerful figure in her own right, was in constant need of rescue. I can’t say for sure that my son objected to Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends on the same aesthetic and political grounds, but he definitely wasn’t impressed. After a couple of episodes he sighed and, with all the blunt savagery of a child who knows they are ruining an adult’s carefully laid plan, asked if we could watch Go Jetters.

***

When I was his age, the thing that hooked me was a storyline about Spider-Man having a runny nose. Batman was a millionaire cyber-genius who knew all the martial arts and could bear any amount of pain. (How was a kid supposed to relate to that?) As for Superman, he could fly and deflect bullets with his chest and shoot lasers out through his eyes and throw heavy objects into the sun and see through walls. (Even at primary school age, I could smell overcompensation.) What appealed about Spider-Man was that he was so hilariously vulnerable in comparison: he could catch a cold and lose his powers entirely. Spider-Man had the ability to leap between buildings, but from time to time he went down with the sniffles and had to hide away in bed with a Lemsip. Here was my guy.

I should have grown out of the obsession, but my excuse is that the culture at large kept affording opportunities not to. Thanks to Christopher Nolan’s brilliant trilogy of Batman movies, culminating in 2012, then the decade-long run of smash Marvel movies that culminated last summer in Avengers: Endgame, comic-book stories became mainstream, critically discussed, ubiquitous. They are wallpaper now, acceptable in a way I never would have predicted as a boy of 11 or 12 sneaking comics home from the newsagent and imagining myself seedy, even afflicted.

Fancy dress parties, through my student and post-student years, played a part in keeping the loyalty alive. Going in pale makeup and smeared lipstick as Heath Ledger’s Joker was the fashionable choice, but I stuck to Spider-Man. I had an increasingly worn-out stretch nylon bodysuit that took so much effort to get in and out of that I had to cut a discreet hole in the crotch to make it easier to wee. The costume got a final outing at a Halloween party in 2008. I watched a recent ex-girlfriend, dressed as Batgirl, flirt with a muscly Spartan foot soldier; and as I sweated into my red-and-blue spandex, I had to accept that our relationship was over. It became too sad to wriggle into the Spider-Man suit after that.

Tobey Maguire in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2



Tobey Maguire: too suave. Photograph: Allstar/Marvel/Sportsphoto

Year after year, there was a steady succession of Spider-Man movies in the cinemas – in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Spider-Man was played by Tobey Maguire (too suave, in my opinion), Andrew Garfield (too anguished) and Tom Holland (just right). The films generated billions and, in private, I told myself I’d played a small part in the character’s cinematic renaissance, having made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the first Spider-Man movie back in 2002.

I was in California and saw an ad for extras. Sony Pictures had recreated a Manhattan street scene in downtown Los Angeles and they needed people who would show up on a searingly hot day and wear heavy coats, to mill about as wintery New Yorkers. I put on my jacket and ran. The director, Sam Raimi, I remember, sat on an elevated crane, from which a big camera was going to swoop down on wires to simulate one of Spider-Man’s trademark web swings.

Mostly it was a day of being shouted at. A stunt assistant (or was he just a more experienced extra?) stood closer to me than a stranger ever had and hissed: “Don’t look into the camera. You’ll kill the shot.” Of course, I couldn’t resist. And as the camera swept in from height to street level, dipping between the yellow taxis that were parked beside me, I wondered what the scene would look like in the finished film.

Andrew Garfield in a scene from The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012.



Andrew Garfield: too anguished. Photograph: Jaimie Trueblood/AP

To my delight, I later discovered they had added a computer-generated Spider-Man to the foreground, so that if you looked carefully, squinting into the background, accounting for some fairly serious screen blur, you could see me at the edge of the frame as our hero passed through. Proudly (almost expecting the cashier to ask about it), I bought a copy of the DVD at HMV, and with some careful work on the remote control at home I figured out that, for one 24th of a second, Spidey and I shared the screen by ourselves. Co-stars.

There hasn’t been a Spider-Man movie – or, indeed, any sort of superhero movie – on general release since the start of the pandemic. It’s by far the longest the studios have gone without a costumed cash cow in cinemas in decades – and I’m not sure how much the public rues the absence. With the coming of a flattening and despairing pandemic, and in an age of complicated social unrest, I wonder if our patience with one-off, godlike superheroes has run its course.

Out in the world, the coronavirus has worst affected those countries with the millionaires and the self-declared supermen in charge – presidents and prime ministers who imagined it was a plausible strategy to stand in the way of a speeding virus and, with a dismissive quip, wait for it to bounce off their chests. Meanwhile, many of the most impressive global leaders have been women who, by and large, never pretended they wore capes or could do the impossible in the first place.

Tom Holland in a scene from Spider-Man: Homecoming



Tom Holland: just right. Photograph: Chuck Zlotnick/AP

More than anything, it has been civil servants, health workers, supermarket staff, supply-line drivers, lab researchers, anonymous bureaucrats, kindly neighbours and community organisers who have emerged as the champions of the era. Exactly the sort of people, in other words, who in a traditional superhero story appear in the margins, trapped on a teetering train or under a collapsing bridge, waiting for the lone, impressive bro in a mask to save them. Why on earth, I wondered, was I trying to pass this stuff on to my son?

We want our children to have some of the same affinities as us, I suppose. It’s vanity. In my case, I wanted to be able to answer at least some of my son’s questions with accuracy, so that even though I can’t be of much help to him when he looks up and wonders why the sky is blue, at least I’m ready with an answer when he asks for precision details about Spider-Man’s skill set or his secret identity. I want to make one of my things his thing in the hope that, as he grows older, he’ll stay that bit closer.

By the middle of lockdown, we had settled on watching a Spider-Man cartoon that first broadcast in 2017. In this version there were fights, collapsing bridges and hurled lumps of concrete; but it was a more enlightened and liberal product than its 80s equivalent, with a diverse cast and a lot of quippy dialogue about the strange nature of heroism. Why, for instance, was it Spider-Man rather than any of his mates who got to be so special?

Around episode 16 or 17, the cartoon’s writers really started swinging for the fences, deconstructing the whole idea of the superpowered individual. First, Spider-Man’s friends were endowed with spider powers, too. Then every other character (lab assistants, bus drivers, students, retirees) discovered they could leap buildings and shoot webs. It was a wonderful story arc and my son was enthralled.

I like to think he was learning a life lesson, after all. That heroes aren’t one-offs and they aren’t up there, crossing the skyline. That they’re all around, and that they live next door.



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