Organic webs or mechanical? As nonsensical as that question sounds in 2022, believe me that a little over two decades ago it was spoken about with the hushed severity of religion during the Reformation. Do you think Spider-Man should have organic web-shooters or mechanical? If you answered incorrectly in certain parts of the early wild west days of the internet, you could find yourself cast out from digital communities like a leper. In retrospect, it was perhaps a prelude to how fan communities would organize around social media.
This tumultuous upheaval among Marvel fandom was fallout from the very first big budget Spider-Man movie starring Tobey Maguire in 2002. In that movie, director Sam Raimi—along with undoubtedly a slew of producers and studio executives at Columbia Pictures/Sony—made the choice to give Maguire’s Peter Parker organic web fluid. The concept was a leftover from the unmade Spider-Man movie that was being prepared by director James Cameron in the period between Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and True Lies (1994). Cameron lit on the idea of using webbing as an unsubtle metaphor for puberty in which his hero would awaken with sticky sheets.
While Raimi didn’t take the metaphor quite that far—although you should note Maguire’s Peter only first notices his organic webbing after having a conversation with the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)—the director did say at the time it would add to the character’s sense of alienation. Plus, if Peter got all the other powers of a radioactive/genetically modified spider, why not webbing? So Spider-Man made a change that some fans embraced and others did not over the course of the next five years.
Alas, however, things were never really settled in the world of online fandom, and the debate would rise again when Sony announced it planned to reboot the Web-Head’s franchise a mere 10 years after that first Maguire movie with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
Largely unloved today for its repetitive storytelling mechanics that hit most of the exact same beats from the first Raimi movie, as well as its truly awful sequel, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred Andrew Garfield as Peter, is more often ignored than celebrated by fandom. It’s part of that two-film aberration between the giddy highs of the early/mid-2000s’ pop culture behemoth embodied by Maguire and the modern MCU iteration of the character played by Tom Holland.
However, The Amazing Spider-Man got a precious few things right back in its day, including how it settled for good and all the “organics or mechanical web-shooters” debate. And the man to thank for that is, believe it or not, comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis.
One of the premier Marvel writers in this century, Bendis was the co-creator of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book series in 2000, which has influenced to varying degrees every screen iteration of Spider-Man that came afterward. He also famously co-created Miles Morales in Ultimate Fallout #4 in 2011. It was during this prolific wallcrawling period that Sony brought Bendis into the office for a pre-production meeting on The Amazing Spider-Man. He was there to settle a little debate the suits were having.
As Bendis told Yahoo in 2015, “They sat me down in Amy Pascal’s office with this big roomful of producers and writers and directors, and she looked at me and said, ‘Organic web-shooters or mechanical web-shooters?’ I said, ‘mechanical,’ and half the table said, ‘Goddamn it!’ They were mad because I was clearly the deciding vote, even though I didn’t know that. So when I see the mechanical web-shooters, I feel a little happiness. I feel like I did something good in the world.”
For a certain breed of fandom, we imagine that feels a bigger contribution to the cinematic Spidey mythos than the invention of Miles. Which is a bit of a shame because, first of all, Miles is the best thing to happen to Spider-Man comics in the last 15 years (movies too), and secondly because it seems arbitrary that Peter can climb walls but not do the one thing spiders are most known for.
Nevertheless, the subject was so settled that after The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Studios felt comfortable goofing on the topic in their patented wink, wink and nudge, nudge, fan service-y way. Thus in last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which featured Maguire, Garfield, and Holland, the two younger Spider-Men are absolutely mortified to learn that their elder has organic web-shooters.
“Like does it just come out of your wrists,” asks Holland’s Spidey, “or does it come out of… anywhere else?” You know there was an alternate take where he asks if it comes out of his butt. But maybe they can save that gag for the next crossover?
In the meantime, we can all rest easy, Brian Michael Bendis and The Amazing Spider-Man convinced audiences (and studio executives) that it’s mechanicals for life.