Spider-Man, Who?? The Psychology of Marvel Comics Vs. the Movies

Hector Bala writes,

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been both a critical and commercial success that has made billions of dollars worldwide on the backs of some of the greatest Marvel Comics characters ever including Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Panther, and Thor, among others. That said, no character in Marvel Comics is arguably as important as Peter Benjamin Parker, the Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is rich in psychology and motivation and there is no greater irony in any comic book or possibly literary work than in young Peter's trajectory toward becoming Spider-Man. Unfortunately, the new Marvel/Sony films don't quite get Spider-Man right. All of the greatest aspects of what make this character so fantastically deep are jettisoned in favor of flash and surface layer visuals and action set pieces. The heart is missing. All style, no substance, which is the complete antithesis of what was created on the pulp pages. There is no depth in exploring what makes Peter, Spidey.

Peter is the orphaned son of Richard and Mary Parker, patriots, who were employed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Richard was formerly an Army Special Forces soldier turned CIA Officer and Mary was a CIA Analyst and linguist. As they would go on missions in hostile areas, they would leave young Peter with his paternal uncle and aunt by marriage. Unfortunately, Richard and Mary were killed in a plane crash and are remembered as stars the CIA Memorial Wall, commemorating their sacrifice. As such, Richard's much older brother, Benjamin, "Uncle Ben" as Peter called him, and his wife, May, took Peter in as their own. It was never quite identified if they are fully Peter's legal adoptive parents or just legal guardians (there is a difference). Right off the bat, Peter is orphaned and dealing with a complete upheaval of his existence at a very young age, 6 years old. This no doubt caused feelings of abandonment and loss for Pete. Not atypically for these types of situations, Peter becomes withdrawn and retreated into the world of science and his studies. He didn't have many friends but really had a great relationship with Ben and May. We do need to look at the age difference between Ben and Richard. Based on the drawings, the age can be anywhere between 12-18 years' age difference between the brothers. I think we can safely assume Richard was an "oops" baby, which would explain why Ben and May look to be near retirement age at the time we meet Peter in Amazing Fantasy #15, May 1962.

Peters grows into a very lanky and awkward kid, standing 5'10" and weighing 165lbs., with hazel eyes and brown hair. Yes, physical attributes from race, to age, to height, and weight matter. They are the physical manifestations of who a person is, an avatar so to speak. This physicality impacts how an individual views the world and how the world views the individual. Swapping these things out removes fundamental aspects of that character on so many levels. Ultimately, Pete grew into his looks and turned out to be a pretty handsome kid after his ugly duckling phase earlier in the comics run. This is not at all how he is portrayed on screen, as more of a shorter kid and average looking. Despite his shyness and scholastic interest which made him somewhat of a social outcast, he seemed to attract some pretty attractive paramours over the years including his first love, Gwen Stacy, Liz Allen and his future wife and elite model, Mary Jane "MJ" Watson.

His relationship with MJ is also quite interesting in that MJ has her own demons. Her father is abusive to her mother and she is sent to live with Aunt May's next door neighbor Anna Watson, MJ's paternal aunt. She hides her shame by an outward bubbly attitude exuding confidence while embracing her violently attractive looks. Peter enters into a relationship with MJ, who is a child witness to domestic violence survivor. Pretty dark stuff for a high school kid to deal with when they have so many other stressors of their own. MJ chases her dream and becomes a famous elite-level fashion model. Her bright red hair and green eyes are the stuff of dreams and again, physicality matters. Not sure who this Michelle character in the new film is, but that is certainly no MJ, true fans would recognize?

Peter is just 15 years old, a sophomore in high school when his life is changed forever. Peter attends a public exhibition demonstrating the safe handling of nuclear laboratory waste materials sponsored by the General Techtronics Corporation which leads to his being bitten by an irradiated small common house spider endowing Peter with the powers and abilities of that spider making him Spider-Man!

Peter attends Midtown Science High School (MSHS) and is, by anyone's account, a science nerd. He loves anything to do with science and excels in his studies but is very withdrawn and not particularly outgoing. He doesn't have many friends at all. When he is bitten by the spider and assumes the mantle of Spider-Man, he essentially, suffers in silence. He has no one he can talk to about what's happened and this goes on for years. This poor orphaned kid who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders and, in his mind, is the sole reason his beloved Uncle Ben is dead is because of him can speak to no one. This exacerbates his withdrawal. When he puts on his suit, he becomes a witty and sarcastic kid who uses his anonymity to release some of that angst. He never attends therapy to work through his loss and he doesn't speak to May about it because he doesn't want to burden her but also feels he is the reason why her beloved and devoted husband is gone. That is a lot for a kid, any kid, heck, any adult. The new film just erases this obvious internal struggle. In Homecoming, he no longer suffers in silence with his new found powers as both Tony Stark and Ned Leeds (whom he doesn't meet until much later in the comics (The Amazing Spider-Man, #18, November 1964) know he is Spider-Man. In the comics, he doesn't really meet Ned until he starts at the Daily Bugle where Ned happens to be a reporter. As Peter is about 15-16 when he starts freelancing, Ned would be about 21 as he would be a college graduate to get the reporter job? Again, a real lost opportunity to dig deep into what makes this character so fantastic. He does all of these heroic acts all in silence. He can't tell a soul. He can't process it with anyone. In the film, it's all fun and games, gags.

Peter is surrounded by death. Both of his parents are tragically killed in a plane wreck. He harbors the guilt and shame for his part in the death of his Uncle, and later the first love of his life, Gwen Stacy, and to some extent her father, Captain George Stacy, NYPD. To say Peter is a tortured soul is an understatement. You never get that in the film. I would argue this trauma is severe and probably equally, if not more harmful than what Bruce Wayne endures as a child. One could argue this is why he is so devoted to Aunt May. He does not want to see her harmed in any way. He has already lost too many loved ones and is not going to lose anyone else, especially Aunt May or MJ. The new film misses the point. Peter saves lives as Spider-Man in order to justify and never let criminals get away, like how the Burglar did after killing Uncle Ben.

Peter also suffered from bullying at the hands of "Flash" Thompson, the star quarterback, and overall jerk who really tortured Peter during his high school years at MSHS. At a time when bullying has become a national issue, the films have really removed this aspect of Peter's existence in any meaningful way by addressing the issue openly for all of the problems it causes students in today's world. It's all gags and light-hearted stuff, nothing with any depth. A real lost opportunity to address a real-world bullying elephant in the room.

As Ben and May seemed to live a blue-collar life, it is fairly safe to say that they didn't have lots of money and were an average mid-lower middle-class family living on 20 Ingram Street, Forrest Hills, Queens, NY. After Ben is murdered by the Burglar, it is never revealed if May is/was ever employed. It can be assumed she never worked and was a homemaker and was living off Ben's life insurance after his death and any pension and/or savings they may have had. There may also have been some money that came in from Richard and Mary's death via life insurance policy as Ben and/or Peter would have logically been a beneficiary. There is the possibility that this money was put into a trust to fund his college studies at Empire State University (ESU) later. Still, Peter, felt some responsibility, even at a young age, to contribute financially to the home in some meager way. So, he earns a job as a freelance photographer for the venerable New York newspaper, the Daily Bugle. The new film never explores this aspect of Peter. In fact, in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Aunt May is played by the younger actress, Marisa Tomei, a far cry from the traditional Aunt May. Again, physicality matters. As do all of the other traits that make May who she is, unemployed, retired or retirement age, frail, not at all spry, certainly not the looker that Marisa is. Really a headscratcher on so many levels? Peter takes this financial burden on himself without any prompting from May to help out. This again speaks to his altruistic and good-hearted nature and for his overall love of May.


Peter has no close male role models, his father, Richard and his Uncle Ben are both deceased. So, when Peter lands the job at the Daily Bugle, he enters into an avuncular relationship with "Robbie" Robertson and his boss, the cantankerous, J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson is not much of a consolation. With Robertson, we see a chance for peter to engage in a relationship with a black man as a mentor and father figure on some small level. Given all that is plaguing the U.S. in race relations, this is an interesting dynamic to explore and peter and Robbie always had a solid relationship. In the films, both of those seminal characters are erased as is the dynamic. Now Tony Stark is the surrogate uncle. Just a weird, lazy, and poor choice, that only serves as a plot device and nothing more. There is no exploration for a kid in search of a beacon of guidance in the form of a father figure and mentor.

Let's review Peter's intellect and resourcefulness. We can all agree he is a science nerd and has the innovative scientific and engineering acumen to build his own webshooters. He takes several steps to purchase materials including fabric and cloth to design, and sew his own costume, in secret, so Aunt May doesn't find out! The new film washes over this as well. We never really get a sense of how smart, resourceful, creative, and innovative Pete is as his new suit is a gift from his new "Uncle" Tony. What a real waste.

What Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did that was revolutionary was to create a teenager who had real-world problems. Orphaned, feelings of abandonment and loss, financial hardship, possible parentification, feelings of guilt, victim of bullying, dealing not only with puberty but with reconciling new extraordinary powers, his girlfriend is a domestic violence victim, his male role models are scarce, he suffers in tortured silence, the irony of being responsible for the death of those around him, etc.

It's almost as if the film-makers and writer's don't even know this character. Or maybe they don't care to respect the work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Or maybe they just don't care about someone else's work. Or maybe they are too lazy to take a deep dive into what makes Peter, Spider-Man and Spider-Man, Peter. Or maybe, not skilled enough to translate this level of literary work on screen. Or they just want to do… something ekse. Comics get a bad rap as nonsense but when we peel back the layers of the onion, we see some have every bit the depth of War and Peace.

Sadly, what appears on screen isn't any character I recognize as Spider-Man, it's just a moneygrab punchline.

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

twitter   facebook square   instagram   globe