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'Spider-Man' Fandom: Why a Reboot Was the Only Answer

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Jul 03, 2012 | 7:40am EDT

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ALTCreated in August 1962 for the 15th issue of Amazing Fantasy, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's web-slinging character has never seen a downbeat, remaining one of the top-selling titles for Marvel Comics to this day. The everlasting popularity has helped Spider-Man crossover into virtually every medium: toys, cartoons, novels, Japanese television, and, perhaps the character's most profitable and mainstream jump, movies. The original Spider-Man trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi between 2002 and 2007, grossed over $1.4 billion (adjusted for inflation). If predictions are to be believed, the latest entry, a reboot dubbed The Amazing Spider-Man, could be well on its way to becoming equally successful. Early foreign box office sales are estimated at $50 million, while U.S. tracking numbers track the film's July 4 week/weekend opening around $125 million. Reviews are mostly positive too: Amazing Spider-Man currently sits at a 77 percent Rotten Tomatoes score at the time of this report. At first glance, the new installment of Spider-Man is readying to become the next big Hollywood hit.

But for major tentpole, there's an unexpected lack of excitement for Amazing Spider-Man. Noticeably absent from fan-driven sites and message boards across the web is the kind of rah-rah attitude that transformed the early days of The Dark Knight Rises set into a paparazzi stampede and The Avengers into the third biggest movie of all time. Of course, there's plenty to be excited for: ASM retraces the roots of Peter Parker's origin story, but with a new cast (Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone), new director (Marc Webb, the man behind 500 Days of Summer), and an advertised "untold story" that fans didn't see in Raimi's 2002 film. The talent shines, but like a clap-o-meter met with little applause, the spin is failing to muster up reactions from the usually-vocal online fanbase. Many blame familiarity — as comics journalist Graeme McMillan wrote in a recent TIME article, the original 2002 movie has been playing on "DVD, BluRay and endless FX screenings ever since" its release. 

Andrew Miller, writer for SpiderFan.org, echoes a sentiment felt by many Spider-Man fans, both dedicated and casual: Why bother rebooting an already rebooted franchise when the post-origin material is so intriguing? "The origin is something you have to get past to reach the stuff the audience wants; why not go directly there?" Miller says. Even those outside the comic book loop already know the basics surrounding Spider-Man: radioactive arachnid bites high school kid, high school kid then transforms into a superhero. What's more to learn? 

But the question that most lingers on the minds of fans and movie-lovers alike: Why return to the franchise after only 10 years? Truth is, pop culture may have demanded it. Dave Sippel, another writer for SpiderFan.org, suggests there was pressure to revisit Spider-Man, thanks to the original trilogy's greatest "challenger": Christopher Nolan's Batman films. 

ALTNolan's gritty, realistic take on comic mythology retroactively heightened the campiness of Raimi's films, despite the franchise's massive box office draw. But in a post-9/11 and post-recession — not to mention post-Nolan — world, box office grosses don't cut it for the most critical of comics fans (especially after Spider-Man 3 proved to be a universal disappointment). "The first Spider-Man movie was crazy popular, but it has seen an increase in criticism over the past few years. Many fans feel that the stories were cornily written and that the villains were watered down," Sippel says. 

For some, the Nolan pressure on Spider-Man is ultimately a good thing for the beloved web-slinger. Latino-Review.com writer Dave Gonzales is one of the supporters of the reboot's new direction: "Everyone else has Sam Raimi's Spider-Man fused into their brains as the Spider-Man, even though it was very specifically a Golden Age Peter Parker," Gonzales says. "Tobey Maguire had the glasses, was super and unrealistically nerdy and had an 'aw shucks' innocence about him. The films themselves forgo texture in favor of solid colors and bold angles. They let Spider-Man land on a flag-pole waving the American flag for the hell of it. It's certainly a Spider-Man, but it's not a Spider-Man that has existed in my lifetime."

Hence the franchise's challenge: Some Spider-Man fans yearn for a grittier superhero, while others are bored by the idea of revisiting a familiar franchise. (And others yet actually enjoy Spidey's traditional campiness.) Viewer demands have revealed themselves to be a mutli-headed beast, unable to be satisfied by either simple interpretation or drastic change. So Sony did the only thing it could: Reboot the franchise for modern times, and a modern, younger audience not as familiar with the original big-screen material. 

After all, the reboot practice has worked for the comics: In 2000, Marvel launched Ultimate Spider-Man, which boasts a comic arc similar to Amazing Spider-Man's. The goal of the comic series — like Webb's movie — was to skew Spider-Man younger by bringing the character back to high school, grounding him in contemporary times and reintroducing him to a whole new audience. Even when Ultimate Spider-Man wrapped up, the push to keep comic storylines in a constant state of rejuvenation never ended, even when illustrator Phil Jimenez picked up duties on the Amazing Spider-Man comic later in the decade. Youth-centric appeal trickled down to every atom of Spider-Man's construction. "There was a big issue with him being able to date, that he was not tied down to a single girl," Jimenez says. The illustrator suggests that both Marvel and DC fear their characters appearing old and, to avoid losing readers, "they want their male characters to have lots of dates so they can have love triangles and things like that. When you have a longtime girlfriend or wife, you eliminate a source of drama." 

ALTThe grounded approach and reach for an emotional connection with Peter Parker found in the modern books is a key part of producers Matthew Tolmach and Avi Arad's plan with the reboot. "There's a very important thing that differentiates the two movies," Tolmach firmly tells Hollywood.com while comparing The Amazing Spider-Man to the 2002 film Spider-Man. "It's a reinterpretation of Peter Parker. We live in the post-Mark Zuckerberg world. Marc [Webb, director] was dead set on creating a character that was true to this moment in time. To a kid now. A movie about an outsider ... searching for this primal connection of 'who am I?'"

That's a lot to tackle in Amazing Spider-Man's two-and-a-half hours, considering Spider-Man also has to face off against a nine-foot reptile creature during his emotional journey. But the jam-packed approach could be another positive differentiator for the reboot, not to mention a profitable one. The marketing materials for The Amazing Spider-Man haven't shied away the prospect of grander ambition for the franchise in the form of serialized storytelling. Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man follows in the wake of Marvel's independently produced Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Thor , and Captain America, films that built up to one epic conclusion: The Avengers. To do this with Spider-Man, a reboot is almost requirement, both from the studio (who wants all the money it can get — after all, it's a business) and for the fans, who want the pay-off of worlds colliding. Tolmach and Arad have hinted that their Amazing Spider-Man trilogy could spin-off and evolve in a similar fashion (the duo recently told Hollywood.com their Venom movie would live in the same world). To even begin to build a larger picture with Spider-Man and Friends, a reboot was a necessity.

For many, it's that complexity and "bigger picture" being introduced into the familiar Peter Parker origin story that provokes the most skepticism. Sippel admits he could see Spider-Man becoming "too dark," while Devin Faraci of Badass Digest, who has been tracking the project since it's inception, remembers a time when the arc of every costumed do-gooder wasn't so… epic. Especially when we're focusing on a character who fights most of his battles on his neighborhood block. "It's easy to forget post-Star Wars, but once upon a time, not every character was defined by a rigid adherence to the Hero's Journey and concepts of destiny, although you can map the Hero's Journey on Spidey's origin to an extent," Faraci says. "Peter Parker wasn't destined for great things. He was an orphan who got picked on and who was invisible to girls. He was a comic book reader of the time, essentially." Retackling Spider-Man's origins may be seen as an uncreative move, but the bigger issue may be injecting a bigger, profitable universe into the franchise. What has worked for The Avengers might not work for Spidey. After all, simplicity is what made Spider-Man so special in the first place. 

So how can Sony combat that skepticism? Jimenez believes that any adverse reactions fans may have to the Spider-Man reboot, or any adaptation of anything they've ever loved, boils down to a single concern. "It comes down to the psychology of it: [Fans] want the material to be taken as seriously by others as they take it. They want to be taken seriously, so a successful translation where things are not mocked, where things are translated honesty, says to them that this is true, legitimate. What I love is valuable." Change anything, but in the end, make it great. Simple.

"Spider-Man fans are used to lots of superficial changes," says Adam Rivett, another expert from SpiderFan.org. If there was an aspect of Spider-Man lore that could be altered ("Costumes, powers, reboots, continuity... "), chances are that someone did it during the character's 50-year run. But Rivett believes that if The Amazing Spider-Man is going to be successful and connect with audiences, it "needs to keep character at the core." Peter Parker, unlike many of his superheroic counterparts, is just a kid from Queens. He's not a space alien, not a playboy millionaire, not an Amazonian warrior. He's just some guy — and that regular joe quality, more so than his super strength and Spidey sense, defines him.

And appeals to a large audience. According to Gerry Gladston, co-owner of Midtown Comics and a man knee-deep in comic book fandom, Spider-Man's normalcy resonates with any audience member, young or old. "He's an everyman character that everyone can identify with, especially guys who might be low on self-esteem and think the world is against them," he says. "That's Peter Parker, a regular guy endowed with spider powers, and he really struggles to do the right thing with them. The twists and turns in Peter Parker's life are usually more interesting than having superpowers to begin with." ALTEven Spider-Man's costume helps him become more relatable than your typical Spider-Man character. "Because he wears that mask when he is Spider-Man, anyone can fantasize about being under that mask," Jimenez says. "Peter himself can vanish and anyone, boy or girl, gay or straight, of any ethnic background, can become Spider-Man."

Of course, eager fans will be vocal about a reboot, whether their reactions are positive or negative. One guy will think it's garbage, another gal will think it's the greatest movie of all time. Amazing Spider-Man is bound to have both naysayers and champions, but the movie has something to prove: its seriousness. "These stories and characters function best when they represent a body of ideas, when they are metaphors, when they are symbols of something." Jimenez says. "I find that there are many purists, specifically genre purists, who are outraged by the changes made to the Lord of the Rings films. Or are really distressed by a casting choice in the X-Men. As long as the casting choice works, as long as the storytelling works... awesome. Fantastic. It doesn't take away anything special about the content. It's only when things thematically change. I find many fans are not forgiving of that."

In his piece in TIME, McMillan suggests the reboot technique, regardless of the amount of surface level changes in place, feels like an "accidental message to moviegoers who haven’t already made up their minds to see the movie: Don’t worry, you can skip this one. You know what happens already." But that's not how fandom works. Although Spider-Man has evolved substantially since his first outing in the '60s, Jimenez believes consistency and familiarity with a character and his origins is the foundation of his popularity. "When you don't have a lot of iterations of a character, when the character is essentially the same over a long period of time, it might lead to greater outrage when the character changes dramatically. They say, 'Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,' but at the same time, that consistency is what we invest in over and over and over again." Critics of the reboot's potential want Spider-Man to take a radical departure, to drop us into the middle of a new adventure. How could that ever happen when those same fans so desperately want Spidey to be Spidey?

Thanks to personal tastes and interpretations, there will never be a "right way" to bring a recognizable character and pop culture property to life. Would the Spider-Man of the 1960s stand up to the modern iteration of the hero for today's young audiences? Hardly. "There is never a consensus," says Sippel. But for a fan like Miller, he's just happy to have something. "It's a $220 million love letter to Spider-Man — why wouldn't we be excited?"

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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