The sexuality of Spider-Man and how opinions grate

Different people can take different things out of the same movie. Did anyone, for instance, see the first Spider-Man movie in the same light as Gaye?

Having read Mark Pickavance’s excellent piece yesterday, The Sexual Imagery of Star Wars and other fantasies, I started giving the subject of film subjectification a lot more thought than I have in the past. And, largely agreeing with Mark, I figure that when allegorical and symbolic notions have been misapplied to films and other media, it’s all down to a basic, inescapable formula. And that is: all our past experiences colour all future experiences.

That’s stating the obvious, obviously, but it explains my assumptions on what I see as the conspicuous sexuality within Spider-Man, and I wonder if anyone else has ever noticed.

As for my own past experiences (at least those I’m willing to share with an audience), I grew up with a brother 11 months younger than me. As a consequence (through no fault of his, the innocent babe), there was extra competition for affection and attention in our family and from too young an age I instantly labelled anything my brother did – including enjoying comics – as stupid and a worthless waste of time. Such is the misguided force of sibling rivalry.

Now, as an adult married to a comics lover (clarification: an enjoyer of comics. I am not delusional and fantasise affairs with Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker), I appreciate comics for the artwork and succinct storytelling doled out in measured doses – a far cry from what my former, ill-informed self believed.

Ad – content continues below

I still have never read a comic book front to back, so my view and impressions on the sexual connotations of several Spider-Man scenes could easily be way off the mark, but I doubt it.  

The first time I saw the step-by-step transformation of Peter Parker into Spider-Man was in the 2002 film. If this film was even remotely based on Stan Lee’s creation, I have to conclude that Spider-Man, the comic and the film, is surely a story about male pubescence.

Two scenes in particular bear this surmise out:

Integral as it is to the story, remove the spider from that fateful class trip for a moment. Amateur photographer Peter snaps shots of Mary Jane, playfully posing and smiling at him (albeit circuitously through his camera’s lens), and returns to his bedroom in a feverish and delirious state, fully aware of what he’s got on that roll of film – a private collection of images of the girl next door, only a driveway’s width away – a girl he has unquestionably coveted for most of his formative years.

After a night’s sleep and, most probably, dreaming, he soon discovers he can issue a substance from the vicinity of his palms. Granted, it takes a bit of training, but his obvious shock and satisfaction at what his body has managed to accomplish and produce shows it’s a memorable first in his life.

Ad – content continues below

He also notices new growth. It’s spiky and barbed and not short and curly, but the parallels, I think, are unmistakeable.

Later, Peter returns to the privacy of his room where he can practice and perfect his newfound skill in earnest. He’s excited, confused, still reeling with thoughts of Mary Jane on his mind.

It might be a stretch as far as volume, distance and the fact that a lamp is toppled and smashed, but if you tone down the earth-shaking exaggeration and add in a real elder relative (Aunt May) at the door questioning what he’s doing in there, while not totally controllable emissions are…emitted around the room… Well, it’s not that much of a stretch, is it?

Feel free to add the spider back in now.

Ad – content continues below

There’s no great mystery to why I’d get these impressions from these scenes. I had brothers, simple as. It didn’t make me enjoy the film any more or any less. It’s just an observation from my side of the cinema and sofa.

The subject seems a plausible inspiration for a spider bite-induced metamorphosis from shy, unsure, late blooming boy to empowered and powerful young man.

This conjecture could also very well explain the dissatisfaction with the Mary Jane love interest storyline. If I’ve read the past rumblings right, people generally considered it a fairly flaccid and uninspired part of the story and a bit, well, crap.

But how could it be anything else? Whose first mid-puberty romances (if we can even call them that) were much more than flimsy, faltering attempts at something most of us had little skill at, and even less courage?

That a first kiss was experienced upside down may not be the exciting atypical take some would take it for, but have a plainer explanation: that even that kiss was half-assed and backward.

Ad – content continues below

Intentional or not, the way Spider-Man the movie tackled romance captured that aspect of the half-assed crap of puberty pretty remarkably, when viewed through that particular peephole.

At the very least, all this gives added meaning to tingly sensations and great responsibility being a necessary companion of great power, (or risk creating little companions of one’s own).

Agree or disagree, get angry or mildly miffed, bringing our own past experiences, or lack thereof, to reading, viewing, listening to and enjoying or rejecting any form of entertainment is, naturally, a unique process for each of us.

And it’s plain to witness in the vast chasms in assessments and judgements of various mediums, a perfect example of which exists within our own pages, most recently so markedly evidenced in Rupert de Paula’s one-star abhorrence of “lowest common denominator escapism” living alongside Ron Hogan’s satisfied four-star “smart man’s action movie” review of the same film (From Paris With Love). The point is further bolstered by comments on these and other reviews, with supporters of both diametrically opposed opinions.

Why these camps seem ready to react aggressively over a difference of opinion about an immaterial form of time frittering is a social phenomenon for others to figure out.

I’m convinced a large part of our joy in the company of babies and young children is that they have no opinions. They don’t yet have enough facts to support or oppose anything, really, and so, are easily loveable. It isn’t until we start experiencing stuff and forming our own opinions that we start to piss people off. Intelligence + experience = irritation to some group or other, no matter what the resultant sum of that combination is.

Ad – content continues below

Someone else’s life ingredients may have been mixed in only slightly different quantities, combinations, or colourings, yet produce a hugely different outcome altogether from our own.

For me, that partly results in Peter Parker’s sexual development and discovery of self pleasure. For others, it’s just a bit of web string.

In the end of this particular presumption and with the news of the Spider-Man franchise returning to its (possibly) pubescent roots, it’ll be interesting to see if this is a way to bring this suspected subtext closer to the surface, setting Peter Parker’s internal clock back to its short and curly sprouting days.

Or, is it simply a way to swap big city settings and scapes for less expensive shoots in junior high corridors and gyms? I suppose we shall see.