The Live-Action Spider-Man Noir TV Series Should Adapt the Comics, Not Spider-Verse

A Spider-Man Noir TV series sounds great... as long as they're following the comics, and not the Spider-Verse movies.

All sober-minded pop culture fans adhere to one important maxim: everything’s better with Nicolas Cage. And sure enough, Cage was a stand-out in the wonderful animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as the comically hardboiled Spider-Man Noir. Every time Cage spit out a line about drinking egg creams and punching Nazis, audiences couldn’t help but cheer However, Cage isn’t the only thing that makes Spider-Verse‘s comedic take on Spider-Man Noir work. It also works because it’s limited, appearing in just a few scenes and making room for Miles Morales to be the far more dynamic heart of the piece. So as much as we love Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir, the recently-announced Spider-Man Noir live-action series sounds potentially ill-fated, especially if Cage’s character ends up being the same gag from the animated movies.

If there must be a Spider-Man Noir television show, Amazon Prime Video might be best served if they look past just Cage’s marquee value and instead examine the roots of the character in the 2009 comic book series Spider-Man Noir, written by David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky, and penciled by Carmine Di Giandomenico. Spider-Man Noir was part of the Marvel Noir line of that era, which reimagined heroes such as the X-Men, Luke Cage, and Daredevil as world-weary characters at home in the moody crime films of the 1940s and ’50s.

As such, the noir characters have an edge missing from the Spider-Verse movies. Spider-Man Noir #1 begins at the Daily Bugle in 1933 where police bust into the office of J. Jonah Jameson to see Spider-Man dressed in black and holding a pistol while standing over the editor’s body. Of course Spidey didn’t kill Jameson. Rather he came to the Bugle to get information about reporter Ben Urich, who had been taking pictures of the squatters camp where Peter Parker lived with his Aunt May, presented here as a socialist crusader.

Peter wants Urich to help him find industrialist Norman “the Goblin” Osborn, who murdered Ben Parker for speaking out against inequality. Osborn has at his side a crew of enforcers culled from circus performers, including the cannibal geek Toomes and the animal trainer Kravenov (shades of Nightmare Alley before Guillermo del Toro remade it for real). Along the way, Peter gets help from femme fatale Felicia Hardy, owner of the Cat Club, and helps Urich kick his dope addiction. The sequel series Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without a Face (2010) goes further, using the concept to address other social issues. In Eyes Without a Face, Dr. Octavius is a mad Nazi scientist working for American fascists who have captured Joe Robertson’s son. In 2014’s Edge of Spider-Verse #1, for which Richard Isanove steps in as artist, Peter faces off with Mysterio, a Harry Houdini-style magician.

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Although the original series keeps magic to a minimum, save for Peter transforming into Spider-Man via an idol (all part of the “spider-totem” stuff that was popular at the time), the third Spider-Man Noir miniseries from 2020, written by Margaret Stohl and illustrated by Juan Ferreyra, goes deeper into Nazis dabbling with the supernatural. The World War II setting teams Peter with industrialist Tony Stark and the Dora Milaje of Wakanda to prevent an ancient Mesopotamian from delivering the reality-altering M’Kraaan Crystal (usually associated with the Shi’ar Empire in X-Men comics) to Hitler.

Even though these stories wavier between edgy, realistic action, and mind-bending magic, they never devolve into self-parody. In fact, there’s a bleakness to the stories that feels at home within the world of Peter Parker. From the very beginning, Peter has been a loser, a guy whose life never goes right, and only gets worse when he gets his powers. That doesn’t mean Spider-Man should be constantly bleak. As much as dorks on the internet like to share panels of Spidey ripping off a dude’s face or staring down Daredevil, those extreme moments only matter because they’re aberrations to the character, not his norm. Part of Spider-Man’s heroism is found in his quips and one-liners, his cheerful attitude that deliberately pushes back against the sorrow of the world.

Spider-Verse dialed up Spider-Man Noir’s outlook to a ridiculous degree. A line like “wherever I go the wind follows, and the wind smells like rain,” might sound tragic in some contexts, but it’s a joke in Spider-Verse, inviting us to laugh at the melodrama of the character. And we do laugh, because the melodrama is funny. But Spider-Man Noir has just over five minutes of screen time in Into the Spider-Verse, which means that the joke doesn’t get old. But that joke doesn’t have enough legs to sustain the focus of a full season of television without reducing the central pathos of Spider-Man into something risible.

The Spider-Man Noir comics understand the overheated world of the hardboiled detective fiction and film noir that inspired them, where great tragedy is a matter of course in which lines like “wherever I go the wind follows, and the wind smells like rain” have meaning beyond getting a chuckle. More importantly, they exist by accentuating, not mocking, everything great about Spider-Man, his tragedy, and his persistence.

Cage can do a lot of things. But he can’t make a one-note joke work for a full TV season. The Spider-Man Noir comics are the way to go.