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Emo Spider-Man & Going Against the Nerd: It Isn’t Easy Being Geek…

The Amazing Spider-Man trailer debuted during the week and it was… kinda okay, I suppose. Nothing too shocking or gripping or incredible, and nothing to push it too high on a “must see” list that includes The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers as two massive hits for my superhero fix. However, I was surprised at the rather immediate response from relatively mainstream sources to “emo Spider-Man.” Even non-geeks seem to have picked up on the fact that Peter Parker in a hoodie hunched over a text book is not a good sign. Surely Spider-Man III taught us that “goth Spider-Man” is not a good idea?

Truth be told, I’d normally be reluctant to make a judgment based on a two-second clip from a trailer, even one that ended with the seemingly dark-and-gritty life lesson, “There are two kinds of secrets: the ones that we keep… and the ones that are kept from us.” However, director Marc Webb has come out and essentially confirmed that we’ll be seeing a lot more of this Peter Parker in the actual movie, explaining that he believes that the geek Peter Parker simply doesn’t cut it in the modern world:

Peter Parker is a science whiz. If you look back to the early Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comics, he’s a nerd with big glasses. The idea of what a nerd is has changed in 40 or 50 years. Nerds are running the world. Andrew Garfield made a movie [called The Social Network] about it. Nerds are no longer pariahs and knowing how to write computer code is longer a [mocked] quality. What was important in those early comics was this notion that Peter Parker is an outsider and how we define that in a contemporary context.  That, I think, was one of the challenges for us — getting Peter Parker’s outsider status to be current. Peter Parker is a real kid. He’s not a billionaire. He’s not an alien. He’s a kid who gets picked on and gets shoved to the outside. The 90-pound weakling, that’s who Spider-Man is when he gets bit. So much of the DNA of the character is the fact that he was a kid when he got bit. He is imperfect, he is immature and has a bit of a punk rock instinct. In his soul he’s still a 90-pound weakling even after [the transformative bite].

Can we swing from a web? We don't know, but he can certainly brood...

Look, I’m a big fan of reinventing heroes, but this seems a little… ill-informed to me. I do agree with Webb to an extent. This is the era of the geek. As he observed, one of the Best Picture frontrunners last year was about a bunch of incredibly wealthy uber-geeks cracking the world open. I’ve discussed before how Hollywood’s blockbuster line-up seems more and more geared towards geeks and nerds – and it’s a sure sign your social standing has improved if Hollywood has made you their target demographic. The best job security in the world seems to come from the IT industry, and the phrase “geek chic” suggests a changing social consciousness. And, to that extent, I think Webb is right.

However, while it’s undoubtedly easier to be a nerdish adult these days, with the job and the income and the brand targeting, I think that Webb forgets something about Peter Parker, which is odd – because he actually mentions it in the quote above. Peter Parker is a kid. He’s still in high school. And, while geeks might have it easier in the real world, high school is not the real world.

He needs to Park(er) the attitude...

I’m out of school about six years. I don’t honestly think it has changed too much since then. And I don’t think it’s an exclusively American experience, as I studied in rural Ireland. In school, you’re either cool, or you’re not. And “geek chic” doesn’t cut it, I mean “cool cool.” The people who play sports and smoke and play in bands are all cool. The kid who brings the New Scientist in to pass the time in study groups is not. And, to be frank, it doesn’t matter if that kid is going to be more employable in five years time, they still have to live with the mocking and the passive-aggressive bullying until they get out. And five years can be a very long time.

After all, high school kids don’t really care about how modern society has changed. Consider the constant statistical evidence about homophobic and racist bullying in schools if you need proof of this idea. Indeed, Webb cites The Social Network, but he misses one very key point about the film: all the nerds are essentially acting out power fantasies developed after being humiliated or embarrassed by their “social betters” in school:

However it’s more than a little depressing that this fable boils down to almost what seems like a geek revenge fantasy – though perhaps that’s more than apt. Despite the successes of Parker and Zuckerberg, we are constantly reminded that they are undoubtedly dweebs. No matter how many “groupies” they may have or how much coke they may snort (or despite a lack of a formal education), Parker is still a guy who carries his asthma inhaler around with him and who breaks down when things don’t go to plan. The classroom resentments from all manner of educational systems bubble to the surface. “Let’s gut this nerd!” one of the athletic Winklevoss twins declares, talking about a guy who they couldn’t let past the “bike room” when inviting him to work with them. And yet Zuckerberg winds up infinitely more powerful and influential, able to upset the social order. Referring to the posh Harvard club he once so single-mindedly sought admission to, Zuckerberg suggests, “at the moment I could buy Mt. Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room.”

Truth be told, I think Stan Lee’s Peter Parker would still struggle through high school. I think that, even today, he’d still be picked on and bullied and made fun of. It’s hard to imagine that all the Flash Thompsons of the world are now cool with geeks and nerds. That’s why – as with Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man – the tale really works at its best in a High School context. The entire point isn’t that Peter wears a hoody and alienates himself from the world, it’s that he’s handsome, smart, well-mannered and a genuinely decent guy… and the world still picks on him – because that’s what second-level education feels like to a lot of people who don’t conform to the “jock” or “cool kid” stereotype.

Let's not trash it too quickly...

By the way, as a sidenote, one could argue that Webb’s version of Peter Parker – one consciously “goth” or “emo” – would be just as embraced by the mainstream outside of a secondary school context. Didn’t Twilight make pale skin sexy? Aren’t there any number of hugely financially successful and famous goth or emo rock stars? I’d argue that people like the new Parker are as likely to succeed as people like the old Parker these days, at least out in the world. But, I suppose, high school isn’t anything like “out in the world.”

However, what really gives me pause is the fact that this isn’t a like-for-like swap. You don’t just tag out “nerd Peter” for “emo Peter” and retain the core of the character. “Punk rock” – which Webb cites as an example – is about embracing your own sub-culture away from the mainstream, cutting yourself off from the world. It’s about deciding that mainstream culture isn’t something you want to opt-in on, and helping shape your own alternative, catered towards your own tastes. It’s a conscious act of rebellion:

Just as punk music rocked to the voices of angst and rebellion, and the more recent emo movement has played to the (intentionally) depressed, hip-hop and rap saw their beginnings in African Americans venting against the white foundation of the United States. Dr. Dre’s (et al) “Fuck the Police”, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and, in modern rap, “Ridin’ [Dirty]” have served as an outlet against a real or perceived oppressor — it’s time to stand up, to rebel.

That is, after all, why it is classed as “counter-culture” rather than, I suppose “sub-culture.”There’s nothing wrong with making that choice, but it is – quite simply – not who Peter Parker is.

Web of confusion...

By the way, none of this is written in any way as an “attack” or even a criticism on “emo” or “punk” counter-culture. I have a lot of friends who could be classified as either, and I think there’s no denying the honest-to-goodness cool that radiates from a true punk. However, both involve a certain amount of anger directed at the mainstream that, to be honest, seems to go against Peter Parker’s character. This isn’t about individual characteristics – the “perky goth” is, after all, a stereotype, just as, The Social Network is filled with resentful and bitter nerds – but the classification of the group. I think the very fact of being a part of a “punk” counter-culture involves a mischaracterisation of Peter by default, especially when measured against Lee and Ditko’s version of the character.

The world is rough to Peter. It punches him. It hurts him. It takes away the people that Peter loves. It makes ordinary folk hate Peter for trying to do the right thing. A lot of people would say that this defines Peter Parker, the sheer volume of crap that the world throws his way. I’d respectfully disagree. What defines Peter is that he doesn’t give up in the face of this. He doesn’t really resent the world that has been so cruel. He doesn’t isolate himself. He doesn’t harbour resentment or bitterness, although he might be justified to do so.

Spider-Man masks his grief well...

Indeed, J. Michael Straczynski proposed in the alternate universe limited series Bullet Points that a Peter Parker who had never been raised by his Uncle Men might have been caught up in the movement, disaffected and frustrated, rather than cautiously optimistic in the face of adversity. That underscores the division being created here, the fact that Peter Parker, as Spider-Man, just isn’t the kind of kid who embraces that cynicism – precisely because of the love he received from his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, which essentially created Spider-Man (Ben being responsible for the “with great power…” bit). That optimism and hope is who Peter Parker is. Change that, and you change him to the point where he’s not really the same character – he’s a counterpoint or a contrast.

Truth be told, he doesn’t linger on the death of his parents. And, as much as Uncle Ben’s loss spurred him to action, he doesn’t always dwell on that. He isn’t Batman. We don’t constantly flash back to “that” night. He gets on with his life and tries to live a good one. Unlike the Peter seen in the trailer, he doesn’t cloak himself in the black shades of mourning clothes, he wear bright colours to signify that his optimism and faith in goodness.

Don't go too dark...

At their best, this is what the first two Raimi films managed to get across and – truth be told – I think that focusing on “darkness” is why the third faltered. If Webb wants to define his own Spider-Man, Raimi’s style was so distinct it should be easy to avoid – simply don’t hyper-saturate it, and don’t film it like a monster movie. However, turning the brightness down and the contrast waaay up isn’t the right approach either, I’d suggest.

Ah well. It’s early days. I’ll wait to see how this plays out, but my spider-sense is tingling.

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15 Responses

  1. I never really experienced that cool-not cool stuff. At my school, anyway, as long as you have one good friend and some acquantences to bum around with, it doesn’t really matter what your crossover appeal is, because you rarely have to socialize with anyone of you don’t want to. Of course, the group thing might’ve been a response to some long-forgotten bullying from before I got there, so I don’t know.

    My semi-ridiculous point being, the emo thing or the goth thing or whatever, they’d be considered cool if you had a bunch of people with a similar mindset, or, really, a group of people at all. Even borderline-autistic nerds can have some kind of socialization going. The way Parker appears in that trailer, he’s the other kind of emo, the real kind, that will cling to the corner of the room and wait to disappear, who’s bullied, not because he’s not a jock, but because he doesn’t appear to have any backup. Bullies, in my limited experience, won’t look at you twice when you’re with even one other person, but they’ll full-on assault a guy just walking by himself. So I believe this version of nerd-Peter, to an extent. And while the anti-optimism thing will probably be fucking annoying, at least they didn’t stick some glasses on him and say he’s one of us.

    • See, I don’t think Peter ever really was “one of us”. He was how Stan Lee saw an insecure nerd, rather than an insecure nerd, if that makes sense. Smart, polite and good-mannered, decent to a fault, and a kid who got on far better with adults than his own peers. As much as one can be an “idealised” nerd, Peter was it. It always seemed the world had a problem with Peter, rather than he had a problem with it.

  2. While I get what Webb’s saying about how the idea of what “nerd” means has changed, I doubt that he’s speaking genuinely when he talks about nerdy attributes and pursuits no longer leading kids to becoming social outcasts. Sure, video games and comic books and other previously geeky things are more acceptable by social standards but true fandom in these areas is still looked at as kind of sad and pathetic. Those kids who play Magic: The Gathering at lunch are probably still getting picked on by others– the only difference is that there are likely more kids playing, and less tolerance on the behalf of teachers toward the sort of bullying they endure. Webb’s quote reads as though he think the various cliques in American schools live in accepting harmony, which I very much doubt anyone who pays attention to the news can seriously believe.

    It’s interesting, I’m writing a piece (which I might publish today!) about Webb’s approach to Spider-Man, and the more I think about it the more I feel like he really doesn’t get the character he’s writing and who he’s writing that character for. I’m sure there are plenty in the target demographic who are excited at the idea of a brooding Spidey, and just as many who won’t be able to relate to Webb’s vision of Parker as a brooding, dour kid who– frankly– looks like he could run out and shoot up his school at any second.

    • Yep, and there’s a big difference between a more tolerant (if, as you note, slightly condescending) society and how kids in secondary school act. I don’t imagine it’s any easier being different now than it was years ago, aside from the fact there’s probably more support outside school. But, then again, Peter always had that, with Aunt May and Gwen and Mary Jane never judging him.

  3. What world does Webb live in? Nerds are generally accepted? I was willing to write off the trailer’s emo-y tones as a rush to judgement, but now it seems like he has no idea of what Peter Parker actually is.

  4. I just don’t understand this, why re-boot a franchise that was last done less that ten years ago, BY SAM RAIMI, pretty well!?!?!?

    Watching the trailer just brings up echoes of Twilight, and other such emo/angsty films… the future’s not bright for Garfield, or Spidey!

    • Sony need to do it, because they worry about the rights reverting to Marvel and Marvel making a bomb with it, so they’re rushing to get it out there. I’m grand with that – it’s a fact of life. But it’s the choices about how they reboot that bug me.

  5. Web is an idiot, yes the computer/video game geeks are now considered cool but that is not the kind of nerd peter is, he is a science nerd which still is not considered cool.

    • I’m not even sure video or computer game geeks are considered cool, what with all the casual stereotypes that exist.

  6. Honestly, I have no problem with Webb’s take. I think what Webb is trying to do is capture an feeling of separation from society that is beyond simply “science nerd”. Obviously being into science is important to the character, but it seems like there is plenty of room to reinvent the character without getting rid of the core elements.

    • Yep, but Peter isn’t about being isolated. In fact it’s about the exact opposite – refusing to give up no matter how the world treats you. Webb might have his lead learn that, but Peter doesn’t need to learn that – he knows it already, and that’s why he makes Spider-Man who is, rather Spider-Man developing Peter Parker. It would be like suggesting Bruce needs to learn to be upset by the loss of his parents – it’s your start point, not your end point.

  7. OK, the end of that trailer looked so incredibly fake – THAT should be the real issue here. Hehe.

  8. Late reply, but I gotta say, I think you are a way off base here. We still haven’t seen an actual official trailer yet either, but what you “expect” this Peter Parker should be is probably what we will get come July. Some guys posted video on youtube about the comic con footage, and he is definitely bullied and picked on in school.

    It’s also funny, some people actually criticize Andrew Garfield for being too handsome to play Peter Parker!

    Also, this version of Spider-man actually wise-cracks! He finds optimism as he becomes Spider-man. I don’t see where the “emo” and “goth” claims come from, are people too caught up in stereotype? Suddenly, a hoodie and a song about love is all one needs to be called emo?

    Anyways, I don’t mean to come off as a prick or be rude, but with due respect, I believe this film will surprise everyone.

    • No worries. And it’s a fair point.

      I’ve seen the footage, it was screened at Dublin’s Movie Fest, and I’ll concede the footage strikes a better tone (especially the “knife” bit), but I think it’s worth discussing. Even that footage ends with a sequence quite similar to The Dark Knight as the cops put a warrant out on “the vigilante known as Spider-Man” as the clips are increasingly sombre, alluding to some dark and mysterious secret in the past of Parker’s parents.

      I’m hoping it’s really good, I’m just skeptical. Just like I hope Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance could be insanely silly fun, but I’m also skeptical of that.

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