A Cultural History of Spider-Man’s Web Shooters

Just point ‘n’ shoot!

As much as I love superheroes, I can’t say that the new Amazing Spider-Man movie needs to exist.  First, as long as it was being remade, time to drop the hyphen—just “Spiderman.”  It’s cleaner.  Second, the movie reminded me of seeing a high school play: “Aw!  So cute! They’re doing Spider-Man!” When Sally Fields showed up as Aunt May, I thought, “Aw! There’s Sally Fields pretending to be Aunt May!”  And then when Martin Sheen showed up as Uncle Ben, I thought,” Aw! There’s Martin Sheen! I love that guy!” before quickly remembering that he’s a dead man walking, to be gunned down before the second act ended so Peter could learn his lesson about power and responsibility.  This must have been how medieval audiences reacted to seeing Jesus-Christ show up in the passion plays: “I can’t believe he’s gonna  get killed AGAIN.”

But crucially, the movie revises, updates, and, for many fans, corrects what turned out to be a huge comic controversy of the 2002 Spider-Man.

Namely, the mechanical, wrist-worn webshooters (single word, no hyphen) are back. The organic vs. factory debate deepens.

This is a BFD.  When Spider-Man (hyphen for historical accuracy) debuted in 1962, bitten by a radioactive spider, proportionate strength and speed etc etc etc, he invented the synthetic webbing and pressure-sensitive webshooters himself:

 

Peter Parker as misfit, scientist, and genius is crucial to the early stories.  It’s not enough to get spider powers.  Much of his early success as a hero stems from the use of his pre-bite intellect and his own diligence and hard work, as opposed to mere accident: “So they laughed at me for being a bookworm, eh? Well, only a science major could have created a device like this!” And so his identification with his audience of bookworms is complete.  Spider-Man, as Stan Lee, in his usual overwrought, avuncular, carnival barker voice, introduced him earlier, is a hero like… You!  So he needs to have something comic readers can pride themselves in having; Spiderman is about smarts and perseverance, not just a lab accident. Later comics elaborated upon the original idea:

But while 1962 Peter Parker, as a non-sidekick, picked-on teen,  was unlike any of the other superheroes of that time—more like, of course, a stereotypical comics reader—he was also very much like most of the other 1960s heroes who believed in Better Living Through Chemistry.  Sputnik had been launched a few years earlier, the Space Race was on, kids began working with their chemistry sets in their rooms, and comics followed, whether to embrace the post-war American dream or just because the hero/scientist opened up new character and narrative possibilities.  Until that point, THE SCIENTISTS HAD ALL BEEN BAD GUYS!   Suddenly, Professor X (who had to open his own school to receive tenure, apparently) , bald and in a wheelchair just a Superman’s first supervillian Ultra-Humanite (hyphen?), looking like Lex Luthor, was leading the X-Men! Reed Richards took the Fantastic Four into space, then into crime-fighting! Bruce Banner started off as a nuclear gamma physicist before going green as Hulk. Over at DC, the Flash’s Barry Allen—usually thought of as ushering in the Silver Age—was reimagined as a police scientist; the new Green Lantern was test pilot/astronaut proxy Hal Jordan, whose power ring (two words) got a science fiction makeover from the previous incarnation’s magic origin. Spiderman’s invention put him in the center of the new wave of super science police.  

Forward forty years later for the first big film, though, for a changed world. The idea that teenaged Peter Parker could invent the webs himself suddenly didn’t seem realistic.  The dream that the brilliant kid his bedroom could do what millions of dollars in government and industrial research and development couldn’t? Ridiculous.  Just as important, the early 2000s saw a sudden upswing of anti-technology cultural forces—technophobia brought to the surface by Y2K, a wave of anti-factory farming, the Fight Club-style anger at the techno-corporate world, left-wing distrust of surveillance and electronic voting machines, and right-wing fears of a technologically driven New World Order. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had devoted all of two panels for Peter to invent the webshooters. Could a multimillion dollar movie really be that casual and still be credible?  So the webs became a part of Spiderman’s new powers, his body generating them organically, leaving the film open to hundreds of snarky commentators noting that spiders don’t fashion webs from, um, that part of their anatomy. Taken together, we see a nice example of Samuel Coleridge’s famous dictum about suspension of disbelief: audiences could suspend disbelief long enough to imagine that a bite from a radioactive  genetically altered[i]  spider could spontaneously generate natural webshooters , but not that Peter Parker could have invented the ‘shooters himself—broke, without a lab,  and alone in his Queens bedroom.  The dream of technological progress was over.

My hands are making what?

But only for a decade. Today, Andrew Garfield, playing Tobey Maguire playing Peter Parker, indeed invents his webshooters again, like Kennedy’s in the White House and it’s 1962.  Yet unlike Classic Peter, he doesn’t quite invent them by himself. While it’s all a little hazy (damn you, montage!), what Nu Peter seems to do is closer to what contemporary techies get.  Instead of opening his chemistry set, he draws from preexisting technologies—some prefab Oscorp tensile-strength web fluid here, some, um, other mechanical movie-looking parts and gears and awesome LEDs and stuff that looks like machinery there.  2002 was too soon to imagine the day when every kid would not just own a smart phone—as Peter plays games on his phone to kill time while waiting for the Lizard to emerge in the sewer—but that more than a few teens would also be savvy enough to jailbreak them, invent their own apps, and create original graphic art, digital music, and code, alone in their rooms.  The basement chemistry sets of the early 1960s have given way to the new tech mythos of Steve Jobs in his garage, not inventing the computer but rather remaking and improving it based on previous iterations of the same ideas that Xerox and IBM used but somehow didn’t really get.  C. 2012 Peter’s genius isn’t that he invents the webbing and webshooter a la 1962, but rather that he recognizes that the technology for them already exists, and he makes them work together.   Only a science major post-millennial could have created a device like this.  We love technology again, but in a remix, mashup, sampling, collage kinda way.

So it’s fitting that, in the Tobey Maguire version, Natural-webbing Spidey fights techno-corporate Green Goblin/Norman Osborne, who relies on the worst of tech R&D: metal mask and body armor, disintegration grenades, and deadly projectiles; in Spiderman II, Doctor Octopus recalls the 1940s and 50s Scientist Gone Wrong, becoming a crazed metal-armed cyborg, while again Natural-webbing Spidey has to set him right and destroy the dangerous incursion of technology into the human realm. Lots of other fantasy movies of the early 2000s shared this pro-natural, anti-tech spirit: The Lord of the Rings pits the sylvan elves and pastoral hobbits against Sauromon’s metal hammers, metal towers, bio-engineered monsters, and willful destruction of trees.  In those Harry Potter movies, technology is shunted aside entirely, unable to coexist with magic at all.  In Phantom Menace, those stupid Jar Jar-looking aliens use natural weapons… ah, I can’t even continue; I hate that movie so much.[ii]  

Yes, the Lizard is a bit of a retread of Doc Ock, in that he’s a scientist whose attempt to do good results in the potential destruction of New York again, his mind altered by a biotech-transformation.  But when Dr. Connors emerges transformed into the Lizard, he sheds his lab coat and his humanity, symbolically and visually the worst kind of natural—slimy, scaly, swampy, primitive, lizard brained.  New Tech Spidey is web savvy (har har) and smart, using his—and Gwen Stacey’s—head to configure a quickie technological solution to New York City’s new alligators in the sewer problem.  OK, technology may have created the problem, but, unlike earlier incarnations of superheroism, technology can also solve it. Call it Web 2.0.

So when the techno-pendulum swings back, expect to see some other new version of the webshooters for the inevitable 2022 reboot.  And when we do, will someone please get Uncle Ben a bullet-proof vest this time?

Or the cynical explanation: you can’t sell organic webshooter toys.

Time: 90 minutes. Over, but this piece is pretty long, and I even spent at least 10 minutes cutting tangents. Plus I managed not to make any Marc Webb (!!!) puns.  It’s also funny that my conclusion—2000s Spider-Tobey is natural and fights techno-bad guys, while 2012 Spider-Garfield is technological  and fights a natural bad guy—came to me in my sleep two nights ago. Call me 24-Hour Man. 


[i] The radioactivity concomitant with the early ‘60s Cold War was replaced by new wishes and fears of genetic modification for the 2000s. But that, Dear Reader, is the subject for another exciting post! Excelsior!

[ii] Irony alert: these seemingly anti-technology movies could not have existed without their recent advances in digital technology.  

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