While The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t have too much in common with its Raimi-directed predecessors, at the core it was still fundamentally a Spider-Man tale with power, responsibility, monsters, and coming-of-age angst. And keeping that in mind, there were certain themes we all recognized and re-explored with this new version of Peter Parker, Aunt May, and the rest of the gang. Now, which film handled which theme with more deftness or subtly isn’t really what struck me the most. It was one theme overall that these films have tackled altogether.
More specifically, it was how many times ordinary people catch Spider-Man when he falls.
Spoilers for Amazing Spider-Man ahead.
Perhaps this wasn’t so obvious with Sam Raimi’s first film; we hadn’t seen the web-slinger on screen before, and it was a post 9/11 world, one that was incredibly conscious of how New York City was portrayed. (Don’t forget, the World Trade Center was removed from the film entirely, and the initial teaser that showed a web strung between the two towers was immediately pulled from circulation.) That moment where Peter has Mary Jane in one arm and a bridge car full of kids in the other, comics fans might have been expecting a repeat of the infamous “Night That Gwen Stacy Died,” but the Green Goblin is foiled on two fronts: a barge is hurrying below to come to the rescue, and when all hope seems lost, civilians on the bridge begin pelting the supervillain with every heavy piece of trash they can get their hands on.
The message was anything but subtle to a 2001 audience. The line “you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” seemed like an outstretched hand to every New Yorker who had suffered in the wake of 9/11. The fact that both Mary Jane and the hostage group survive is a harder, more pointed blow; Gwen Stacy may have died in the original comics, but in New York City, our New York City, we would never let our hero down when he needed us most.
You could have called it a reaction to the times and left it there, but then Spider-Man 2 hit screens. Spider-Man has to stop a runaway subway train, but it takes all his skills and his strength combined. When it’s over, it looks as though he might fall to his death, but hands reach out from broken windows and hold him fast. Peter Parker is borne like an ancient hero back through the train’s crowd and lain gently to the ground. When Doc Ock demands that everyone stand aside, the whole population of the car (and true to New York City, it is a wealthy diversity of people) step into Octavius’ path to guard their friendly neighborhood walking wounded.
He protects us, so we must protect him.
And while Spider-Man 3 was too much of a mess to add anything to the dialogue, The Amazing Spider-Man easily added its voice to this heartfelt trend. Spider-Man gets shot, and he’s not going to make it to Oscorp Tower in time to save the city. But one man remembers the debt he owes to the red and blue costumed hero: his son was saved by Spider-Man from a burning vehicle. So he gets every crane in New York lined up to give Spidey a clear path to his goal. And when Peter misjudges the distance he has to travel, that man is there to catch him when it looks like he might not make it to the next crane.
Much thought has been given to what permission we give to superheroes in comics. Alan Moore might be most famous for asking us all “Who watches the Watchmen?”, and it’s a question that needed to be asked, if the amount of scholarship it has provoked is any indication. If superheroes actually existed, the power that they could wield would likely be too easy to abuse. And most superheroes do what they do without asking if their help is called for: Bruce Wayne essentially makes himself the lone sheriff of Gotham, and the Avengers do not ask if they are doing more hurting than helping when they cause an estimated 160 billion dollars of damage to Manhattan.
But when Spider-Man is hurt, when he is weak, when he cannot make it on his own, we are always there to help. Even if the newspapers call him a villain and tell us we should shun him, even if the Mayor thinks that the way of showing our appreciation should be by offering him a useless key to the city. In essence, we are giving Peter Parker the permission to be our protector by taking on the responsibility that Uncle Ben always triumphed. If we want Spider-Man to be there for us, then we have a responsibility to be there for him.
What makes him so special, then? Why does Spider-Man command such personal devotion in his city? It could be because he is so very young. One of the most striking lines in Raimi’s films comes when the passengers of the train stare down at the unmasked hero, and one person from the crowd says what everyone is undoubtedly thinking: “He’s just a kid. No older than my son.” Peter Parker isn’t made of the big level drama that Tony Stark, Superman, and Captain America encompass; he’s just as likely to be there when you’re getting mugged as he is when some skyscraper is about to crumble. Spider-Man’s sense of justice is wrapped up in everyday, tangible things. Because he’s still in high school and he’s not a billionaire, and the safety of his streets are a real concern for him.
He doesn’t come with a moniker like “Invincible” or “Incredible.” He’s “Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.”
And because that sensibility is something that we can all relate to, we enter a contract with Spider-Man that we simply don’t have with other heroes. In the latest film, before Captain Stacy tells Peter that he was wrong, that Spider-Man’s help is needed in New York City, he arrives to lend a hand right as the Lizard is taunting Peter for having no one. And the captain’s retort is more telling to us than it is to anyone on screen: “He’s not alone.”
Peter Parker is never alone because he has us. Because he’s not a dark knight or a super solider or an alien who’s faster than a speeding bullet. He lives around the corner from you, he goes to school, he’s a good kid. And sometimes he’s there to make sure that no one breaks into your house in the middle of the night.
So you better be there when he needs saving, too.