This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
In the year 2000, writer Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley rebooted Marvel’s wall-crawler with a new comic book series dubbed Ultimate Spider-Man. They took Peter Parker back to his high school years and retold his origin in previously unimaginable levels of detail.
Taking inspiration from Stan Lee and Steve Dikto – who originally introduced the character in just eleven pages – Bendis and Bagley branched out from the nucleus of Spidey’s origin story and expanded it to a whopping 180-page volume, collected as Ultimate Spider-Man: Power and Responsibility. The duo would collaborate on over a hundred issues following their origin tale, one of the longest creative team runs in comic book history.
“Ultimate is great. I love Ultimate,” Spider-Man’s upcoming reboot director Jon Watts told us recently. “We have the freedom to pull from anything, but I really like what Bendis did. A lot. That felt like… that was Peter Parker back in high school. And, spending as much time with his high school problems as it did with his superhero problems, which I think is really a lot of fun.”
Here’s a look at what Watts and the new Spidey screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein borrow from Ultimate Spider-Man for their upcoming Tom Holland-starring movie for Marvel Studios and Sony…
Peter’s teenage years
Although the Peter Parker of the Civil War comics was a fully-grown adult, the MCU equivalent – Tom Holland, making his debut in the Captain America: Civil War movie – is very much a teenager. The actor himself is 19, and the character he’s playing will be even younger.
“He’s just 15 now,” Watts told Empire of the new screen Spidey in a recent issue. In the same interview, Watts also mentioned he “love[s] the idea of making a coming-of-age high school movie. We’re really going to see Peter Parker in high school and get deeper into that side of it.”
Speaking to IGN, Mr Watts reiterated his interest in Peter’s youthful antics, revealing that his favourite coming-of-age movies (“I love Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything and Almost Famous, I think those are really great coming-of-age movies. Can’t Buy Me Love is a really great one…”) would also influence the film.
And if it’s teenaged Peter Parker’s coming of age story that you’re interested in, Ultimate Spider-Man really is the place to start. Ultimate’s version of Peter becomes Spider-Man in a familiar way (radioactive spider bite on a school trip), but the story makes no rush to move Peter out of the school environment once his powers have materialized.
What we get instead is an array of high school storylines. Peter had to deal with his growing feelings for Mary Jane (of course, they eventually became a couple), troubles with the school bullies (who would later become Spidey fans – a holdover from ’60s Flash Thompson’s hero-worship of Spidey, and touched on in The Amazing Spider-Man film) and the reappearance of a former best friend, Eddie Brock.
Brock, of course, goes on to become Venom. But what’s interesting in the way that Ultimatehandles this material is how it’s linked into Peter’s family history. Eddie and Peter find out that both their fathers were S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists, and they had been working on a biological suit that could enhance and heal people. This becomes the Ultimate universe’s version of Venom.
This turn out to be a recurrent theme throughout Ultimate Spider-Man – that villains are tied to Peter personally. His teenage years are spent uncovering more about what his dad had been working on as a scientist, and fighting villains that had strong personal ties to him and his family. This is similar to where The Amazing Spider-Man series was seemingly headed, but perhaps the Jon Watts/Tom Holland franchise can fare better.
The key is that this is Peter’s childhood. He’s learning about himself, his relationships, his friendships and his family history as much as he’s battling supervillains and swinging around cracking wise. It’s more personal than other versions of Spidey’s origins, making it as much about Peter as his web-slinging alter ego.
If Sony and Marvel can find a way to build this much character development around Peter, rather than rushing from fight to fight at rapid action movie pace, they could be onto something really special.
Souped-up supporting stars
Ultimate’s level of investment in telling Peter’s personal story, rather than just focusing on his superhero antics, has another benefit – supporting characters get more development, too. Eddie Brock isn’t the only character to get a beefed-up storyline in Bendis and Bagley’s reimagining of events.
One of the biggest benefactors is Aunt May, who feels more like a fully formed character in Ultimate Spider-Man than she does in some other Spidey stories. She gets angry at Peter for keeping odd hours, and eventually seeks help from a therapist to tackle her fear of loss after Ben Parker’s death.
She still very much fulfils the classic role of Aunt May, but with her own personal journey added on top. Marisa Tomei – cast in the role of May in the new film – could have a deep and interesting role on her hands if the script veers closely to the Ultimate chain of events.
Mary Jane Watson gets an enhanced role, too. As always, she is Peter’s neighbor. But, adding a bit of a twist, they are childhood friends here, with MJ frequently standing up for Peter in front of bullies. In another change, MJ becomes a journalist in the Ultimate universe and shows impressive deductive skills at times.
Peter and MJ’s relationship is also handled in an different manner, with the pair making the rather grown-up decision to not have sex until they’re ready. Again, this is an example of the creators digging into the characters a bit more, and finding another interesting story beneath the surface level narrative.
Gwen Stacy is treated in interesting ways, too. After her father’s death at the hands of a killer disguised as Spidey, Gwen resents Spider-Man for quite some time. Gwen comes to live with Peter and Aunt May after her own mother turns her away. Gwen and Peter form a more surrogate-sibling bond.
This adds a different sort of tragic air to proceedings when Gwen is killed (here at the hands of Carnage, not the Green Goblin). Gwen later returns as a villain, which causes even more trauma for Peter. Almost everything in Ultimate Spider-Man is rooted in the idea of making it more personal for Peter, and Gwen’s arc plays a big part in that.
Certainly, beefing out the supporting cast could allow Marvel and Sony to tell an emotionally engaging story with their new movie. We could see a more-developed version of Aunt May for Marisa Tomei, a thoughtful love story between MJ and Peter, Eddie Brock as Peter’s long lost friend, and even some big revelations about Peter’s parents’ secret life.
Ultimate Spider-Man is all about weaving together decades of Spidey continuity in a more coherent way. With the power of hindsight, Bendis and his team sought to realign the critical mass of stories from Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, and others into something that feels more like a complete work.
While some of the original Spidey stories may at points seem like a series of random events invented one at a time to keep the series going, Ultimate is more like one big tapestry where characters and stories are intertwined from the start.
This storytelling synergy is introduced early on, with the Osborns and their evildoing potential out front right at the beginning. Peter isn’t just bitten by a random spider on a generic school trip – he’s bitten by a spider that Norman Osborn and Osborn Incorporated have been meddling with.
Reaching back into Spidey history to tie previously unconnected plot strands together, the series imagines that Norman’s attempts to recreate the famous super soldier serum – that transformed Steve Rogers from a skinny kid into muscular superhero Captain America – had continued into the field of experimenting on arachnids. It’s a serum-enhanced Spider that nibbles on young Peter Parker, and Osborn Industries monitor Peter afterwards to keep an eye on how his body reacts. Realizing that the combination of the serum and the spider gave Peter his powers, Norman injects himself with a serum-spliced vial of his own blood in an ill-thought-out attempt to create a heightened version of himself.
Naturally, this doesn’t work out – Norman mutates into a monstrous new version of the Green Goblin and begins terrorizing New York.
Ultimate Spider-Man also contained the idea that Peter’s father, Richard Parker, had been a SHIELD scientist before his untimely demise. Along with Norman Osborn and Bruce Banner, Richard Parker had been attempting to remake Cap’s super soldier serum. Therefore, the Hulk, the Green Goblin, and Spider-Man were all born from the same set of experiments.
It’s not hard to imagine how the Marvel Cinematic Universe could co-opt this chain of events. While The Amazing Spider-Man played around with the idea that Richard Parker had worked at Oscorp and hinted that Peter’s Spidey destiny was a little more pre-determined than he thought, the new movie reboot – with full access to most of the Marvel canon – could weave Peter Parker, his family, his allies and his enemies into the wider story using the same storytelling devices as Ultimate Spider-Man.
Perhaps, in the MCU, Richard Parker, Norman Osborn and a young Bruce Banner had all been working on a super soldier serum years before the events of the film. Flashbacks could be used to set the scene, a la Ant-Man’s opening. There’s certainly a lot of storytelling potential there, if Marvel and Sony decide to intertwine Peter’s story with the wider history of the MCU.
Mark Millar and Adam Kubert introduced their version of Nick Fury in the pages of Ultimate X-Men, but it was Millar and artist Bryan Hitch who made him resemble Samuel L. Jackson in the pages of The Ultimates, a comic which had profound visual impact in the formation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There are other parts of Ultimate SHIELD lore that the films could borrow from, too. As aforementioned, Spidey’s origin story is tied into SHIELD and their attempts to recreate the super soldier serum. There’s already a precedent for this in the movies – meddling with the super soldier serum is how the Hulk (and subsequently the Abomination) came to be.
In the comics, these experiments also lead to the creation of Sandman and Electro. This occurred when SHIELD asked Justin Hammer to attempt recreating the serum, resulting in two villainous origin stories. If Sam Rockwell wants to come back to the movies after Iron Man 2 and All Hail The King, there’s a chance – albeit a slim one – that we could see him engineering Spidey baddies on the big screen.
SHIELD also teamed up with Spider-Man in the Ultimate Six story, essentially telling young Peter that they would draft him into their service once he turns 18, which isn’t necessarily comforting to him. Although SHIELD’s presence in the movies has gone a bit quiet and shady since The Winter Soldier, it’s fairly definite that we’ll see established characters offering support to Spidey during Captain America: Civil War and his subsequent movie appearances. As the MCU’s youngest superhero, it’d be weird if he wasn’t paired up with some form of mentor figure, be it a SHIELD agent or another superhero.
SHIELD also employed Elijah Stern for a time. Stern is better known as the villainous Tinkerer, and also played a role in supporting the Sinister Six and helping to build the anti-wall-crawler Spider Slayer tech. Perhaps a similar character – a SHIELD insider who has it in for Spidey – could show up in the films.
Things they won’t adapt
“There is a young kid running around New York City in a homemade version of the Spider-Man costume in the MCU. You just don’t know it yet,” Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige said in April this year, meaning that Marvel/Sony’s Spider-Man movie will not be an origin story in the strictest sense of the word.
“In Spider-Man’s very specific case, where there have been two retellings of that origin in the last whatever… for us, we are going to take it for granted that people know that, and the specifics,” Feige added. This has now been affirmed in the films themselves, thanks to that moment in Ant-Man that referred to “a guy who can jump. A guy who can swing. A guy who can crawl up walls.”
Nobody wants to see another take on Uncle Ben’s death or a new version of “with great power, comes great responsibility” (the memory of “You have a moral obligation to do those things!” still makes me shudder). Instead, the film will jump straight into a story where Spidey already exists.
Admittedly, this does rule out a direct adaptation of the first few issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, which very much deal with the minutiae of Peter getting bitten, discovering his powers, undertaking some amateur wrestling, and receiving pearls of wisdom from his uncle. We don’t need to see any of that stuff again, especially since Spidey will already have been introduced inCaptain America: Civil War. Perhaps we’ll see a flashback or two, or a The Incredible Hulk-style opening recap.
We probably rule out the inclusion of Miles Morales for now, the Ultimate Spider-Man comics’ other version of Spidey who took up the mantle after Peter. Maybe we’ll see those events take place a few films down the line, but the MCU needs to get Peter Parker right first before it can think about adding another Spider-Man into the mix.
Instead of Miles’ take on Spidey and Uncle Ben’s iconic death, it’s more likely that Sony and Marvel will borrow Ultimate Spider-Man’s focus on Peter Parker, and how this massive world of superheroes connects to him personally.
We’d like to see the movies borrow a lot from Ultimate Spider-Man. Story elements like Peter’s family history being tied in with S.H.I.E.L.D. and his power’s being linked to Osborn Industries could help tie Spidey into the MCU, while the beefed-up focus on his teenage years and the expanded role of his supporting cast could make for an emotionally resonant movie with some real heart.
We’ll meet the new Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, which opens on May 6th, 2016. The Spidey solo movie arrives on July 28th, 2017. The full Marvel movie release calendar can be found here.