Tag Archives: comics

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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I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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