Webb Report: In praise of Spider-Man, the ultimate coming-of-age hero

11:00 a.m. Friday, June 30, 2017 Movies & TV
Chuck Zlotnick/AP
This image released by Columbia Pictures shows Tom Holland in a scene from "Spider-Man: Homecoming." (Chuck Zlotnick/Columbia Pictures-Sony via AP)

The first Spidey movie turned me into a man.

That’s a line I trot out any time the original cinematic version of the webslinger comes up in conversation. Now, with “Spider-Man: Homecoming” crawling into theaters July 7, it’s the perfect time to give Peter Parker his due as an American coming-of-age fixture. You see, for all his wisecracks, Spider-Man has always been the hero best equipped to help a kid to grow up.

In May 2002, I was finishing seventh grade, and I sustained my middle school psyche with a steady diet of comic book superheroes. I preferred to stock my four-color stash with the swashbuckling adventures of young, angsty heroes, in a transparent attempt to find role models of “coolness.” The 1990s left me with plenty of grist, like a leather-jacketed Superboy, a version of Green Lantern with floppy hair who moonlighted as a cartoonist, and of course, the ever-underdog Spider-Man.

Chubby and sheltered, I eventually owned a leather jacket that was less “cool” and more “Foley’s.” As classmates fell one by one to the puberty bomb, I did my part to fulfill certain cliches about certain types of boys. My closest friends were almost always girls. One of my best friends from elementary school had become a popular jock once we hit middle school, and he stopped talking to me in the halls. I was very good at the French horn, inarguably the most effete instrument of the brass family. My Katharine Hepburn impression was unparalleled at Covington Middle School.

The Sept. 11 attacks had happened earlier that school year. Our principal came over the P.A. system that morning and told everyone to turn off the TV. My computer technology teacher kept our screen on, tuned to the news. So did my journalism teacher later that morning. She had us pay attention and write news reports about what we were seeing unfold, which was both far away and too close.

It can’t be overstated how much a kid who read too many newspapers needed a hero in 2002. There was never a question of whether I would see Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movie on opening night. My Saturday morning cartoon hero, in flesh and blood on the big screen? I had not been allowed to watch any of the Batman movies — they were too dark, and darkness was a bad word in our house. I was getting older, though, and so was the rest of the country. Spidey’s bright blue and red colors promised to pierce through the darkness at just the right time. I mean, it was all right there on the movie’s soundtrack. As legendary Canadian poet Chad Kroeger sang with all the tenderness of a rusty blender on the CD’s first track: “And they say that a hero can save us/I’m not gonna stand here and wait.”

It was a momentous occasion for my mom to drop off myself and my closest guy friends, Bryan and Alex, at Barton Creek Square mall to see the film by ourselves. And, oh, what we saw.

All that spandex crime-fighting is crucial to any Spider-Man story, yes. But it’s Peter Parker that sets the hero apart from his brothers in tights. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker carried himself with apology, his glasses and formless brown hair as good as a mirror to me. Flash Thompson (played by a young Joe Manganiello, who made his own unique contribution to my development) looked like the jocks my old elementary school BFF hung out with. After that fateful spider bite, Peter woke up with the kind of body chubby teenagers dream of waking up with. But he still had trouble sticking up for himself, just like any 13-year-old boy who was seeing that movie and was not blessed with preternatural confidence.

Imagine the first time you saw Christopher Reeve in “Superman,” or Christian Bale in “Batman Begins.” Heck, scroll through your memories of any other modern Marvel movie. Those films feature CGI-enhanced archetypes, broad-stroke mythic figures clashing with their opposite numbers in glorious combat ballets, lush with magical metaphor and escapist adrenaline. All that was present in Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” too. But instead of a Kryptonian sun god or a billionaire playboy, the hero was a nebbishy kid from Queens who made a metric ton of mistakes and still tries to do what’s right. Great power, responsibility, etc. Sometimes he finds upside-down kisses in the rain as a reward. But Spider-Man is still you when he’s trading death-defying blows with the Green Goblin on top of an urban suspension bridge. For a teenage boy in desperate need of triumphs big and small in 2002, “Spider-Man” was transformative. You can do it, too, the film seemed to say, no matter what your particular “it” was. You’re not just a kid.

So it is with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the latest piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s blockbuster puzzle. The superhero movie landscape in 2017 is unrecognizable from what it was at the turn of the millennium. Jon Watts’ charm-bomb high school story, then, aims for different goals than the straight-outta-the-comic-panel Raimi film. Marvel’s superheroes, in the 15 years since Maguire and Willem Dafoe duked it out in a climatic warehouse fight, have fought alien invasions, Norse gods, living planets and other-dimensional devils. “Homecoming,” Tony Stark appearances aside, does what all great early Spider-Man stories do: lowers the stakes of the fantastic to their most personal.

Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is still a nerd (celebrated, not pushed into lockers). He still has trouble talking to girls. He still loves his aunt. Crucially, he still thrills when his body sails on a gossamer line through the fire escapes, and he lobs bon mots from behind a mask in a way he wouldn’t dare were his eyes not obscured by bug-eyed white lenses. “Homecoming” passes on the Green Goblin in favor of the Vulture, but the conflict between hero and villain still bleeds behind their masks into the most intimate spaces possible. No living planets in sight.

If you’ll recall, Maguire’s Peter Parker had graduated from high school before the first movie’s second act. Andrew Garfield’s take on the character, though earnest in its attempt to bring Spidey back to the world of skateboards and backpacks, always felt inescapably like an adult playing a teenager. (Call it “Smallville” syndrome, after the 2000s young Superman show where Tom Welling played a teenage Clark Kent who could easily apply for a home loan without anyone batting an eyelash.) “Homecoming” — curating the best component parts of various “Spider-Man” in high school tales from the comics, particularly Brian Michael Bendis’ epic run on “Ultimate Spider-Man” — is the stuff of web fluid canisters hidden under lockers, of derring-do performed on field trips and of, yes, homecoming dances. If I were a 13-year-old sitting in an air-conditioned theater this summer as geopolitical unrest raged outside, these things would make me believe I could web-sling myself all the more.

As a comic book fan, and as a former 13-year-old, I am ecstatic that moms will be dropping their kids off to see this particular Spidey in action on the silver screen. When my mom picked my friends and I up from the mall after seeing Maguire bring Spider-Man to life, she asked us how it was. That line about Spidey making me a man? It was figurative, of course. But only partially.

“It was awesome!” I said. My pubescent voice cracked for the very first time on the second syllable.

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