Spider-Man, Boy Genius


Any real comic fan would be able to see that sound effect on the page and immediately know which super-hero is making that noise and what he has to be doing in order for that noise to be made. Even if the panel were completely blacked out or if the entire page were completely blank, we would be able to put together the situation, even though we can’t see it, just by reading that sound effect.

The sound effect is, of course, the noise that Spider-Man’s wrist-mounted web-shooting apparati make as they spring another web line through the air. The wall-crawler’s web-shooters are his most immediately recognizable character trait, after his costume, and one of the most coveted abilities in super-hero mythology.

The reason Spider-Man’s web-shooters are so intriguing is that they were his invention. The sticking-to-walls bit and the tingly-brain-when-danger-is-afoot part, those might have come from the carcinogenic arachnid that gave him his powers, but the webs are his main super-power, and they’re the super-power he gave to himself. Peter Parker’s knack for chemistry and gadgetry is something that has clung to him since he was a teenager. It says a lot about him as a character that his greatest strength comes from his own intellect and ingenuity, that his best super-power came from his own mind.

This all changed in 2002 when Sony released the first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, which featured a Peter Parker that didn’t invent his own web-shooters. The film made Spidey’s ability to launch webs from his arms an organic mutation along with the rest of his abilities, and pulled an X-Men by introducing these new abilities in one or two awkward and embarrassing situations in order to equate Peter Parker’s mutation with puberty and being awkward in high school. He was no longer super-smart; he was just quirky, and often annoyingly so.

The only explanation for how Spider-Man shot his webs was a quick scene in which Peter examines his wrist to find a bit of residual web goop and then heads to a roof to attempt his first web swing. The familiar hand gesture that Spider-Man uses to engage the electrodes on his palm and actuate the web-launcher is written off as an arbitrary gesture that needs to be made in order for web to spring forth, even though it wasn’t necessary to make it before that point.

That was about all the time that Raimi spent on web-shooters in that trilogy. Parker’s interest in science and tech only came up in the scenes where he’s taking classes at Columbia or talking shop with Doc Ock. Thwipping pretty much fell by the wayside in those years, and when Spider-Man was seemingly running out of web fluid due to stress in Spider-Man 2, no one really questioned why it was happening or what sense it made.

The fun of the mechanical web-shooters was gone, but its shadow remained. We still enjoyed the old trope of his web cartridges running out and him having to think fast before winding up as street pizza in the middle of 7th Avenue, but deep down we knew it didn’t add up and that something was missing. Around that time, an excuse was also contrived during the “Spider-Man: Disassembled” story arc for the comic book Spider-Man to spin his webs organically. The age of the mechanical web-shooter, the brilliant little device that brainy Peter Parker came up with in his bedroom after school, was over. Or at least in remission.

With the release of the latest Spider-Man film, The Amazing Spider-Man, director Marc Webb made the conscious decision to move back to mechanical web-shooters. With the film being a reboot of the franchise after Raimi’s third film effectively ran the series into the ground, Webb saw the mechanical web-shooters as one more way to set the new series apart from the old.

The previews seem to hint at a setup for the web-shooters that is inspired by the Ultimate Universe comics version of the events that comprise Spidey’s origin. In that story, Peter had discovered an incomplete formula for adhesives (that his father had been working on) and completed it in order to invent web fluid. With Richard Parker’s scientific legacy seeming to play a larger part in the shaping of Peter Parker’s journey in this new film, I’m inclined to believe that it will also go this route in explaining the webs.

What we’re given in this movie for web-shooters is better aesthetically than anything we fans could’ve hoped for. Rather than a clunky, impractical bracelet that seems to vanish under Spidey’s skin tight gloves, this new web-shooter is in the form of a compact dial that rests on his wrists over the gloves. A red light is activated to signify that the device has been triggered, and other indicator lights on the device seem to let Parker know where he stands with web fluid. It also seems that, unless I’m mistaken, web fluid is kept in a small black cartridge and loaded into the back of the dial one at a time. And of course, the “thwip” noise it makes is immensely gratifying.

While these web-shooters work as a way of setting the new series apart from the previous one, and they are more faithful to the comic, fans of the super-hero are still debating whether or not such apparati are believable on the big screen. I’ve previously dissected the matter of Spider-Man’s costume in the new film and concluded that such an elaborate and complex outfit could conceivably (with the proper dosage of suspended disbelief) have been constructed from high-quality running suits by an intrepid teenage genius. And that’s what Peter Parker is, a boy genius. But he’s not a rich boy genius. He’s not Tony Stark with a bottomless bank account to make jet fighter exoskeletons with laser beam hands. Even though audiences might be able to play along and concede that Peter Parker is smarter than the average bear, how will we believe he is getting the resources to cause 50-foot web lines to shoot out of a wristwatch?

The answer could, once again, lie with Peter’s father, Richard, and his work as a scientist for Oscorp Industries. If the hardware for the web-shooters is left for Peter in the mysterious box that seems to encapsulate all of his father’s tools and knowledge (I can’t help but think of Luke reaching into Obi-Wan’s old chest and pulling out Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber), then it is conceivable that he would just have to put the parts together himself and maybe modify certain things in order to wind up with the final design of the web-shooter. After that, it’s easy to imagine that the stuff that comprises the web fluid could be an easy combination of chemicals that are either present in household items and can be obtained over the counter, or can be discreetly nicked from Oscorp labs if he or Gwen attain an internship there. Of course, this is all speculation at this point, since at the time of this writing, I have yet to actually see the film.

Otherwise, I’m afraid to say I can’t see the mechanical web-shooters making much more sense than the organic ones. I’d even submit that they might make far less sense on film than the organic web-shooters do. In fact, one of the reasons that I recall Raimi stating for why he made the switch in his films was because it’s much more easy to say that the web-shooting powers came with the rest of the spider mutation as a nice, cohesive spider-DNA upgrade bundle rather than saying he only got a few of the powers from the spider bite and the rest of it he just came up with because he’s smarter than the people watching the movie. That just doesn’t work, and it’s certainly not good if, as in the case of Raimi’s films, the story you’re telling is not that of the Parker family’s scientific legacy but of Peter growing into a man and maintaining his uncle’s morals while being tempted by the Goblin.

Luckily, it seems that, so far, Webb has chosen a decidedly more science-fiction route for this Spider-Man to take, so hopefully the web-shooters have been re-introduced in order to bring Parker’s knack for science and technology back into play as not just a stereotype of geeky people but as a major facet of his character. And beyond that, it’s just more fun to see the mechanical shooters. Webb even said himself that he always found that there was an allure to the traditional web-shooters being man-made, as it made him wish that he could tinker around in his room and invent similar gadgets of his own. Plus, we all love seeing Spidey run out of fluid in the middle of a big fight, or have to re-imagine his web fluid formula to account for things like bad guys with electrical powers, or invent new kinds of dynamic web fluid like impact webbing. This could also pave the way for other gadgets such as the spider tracer and the spider signal.

The various gadgets and gizmos that Spidey employed were always a huge part of what made Spider-Man such a cool character, and for the last ten years the whole boy genius aspect of his personality has been kept in storage, while other, less desirable aspects (disco dancing, emo eyelining, and girl-shoving) were written in. This means that there is a whole section of the audience seeing The Amazing Spider-Man who could’ve grown up not knowing that Spidey had possessed such amazing attributes. Worse yet, fans like me have gone so long without seeing these attributes in play that we’ve forgotten that we miss them. Thanks to Webb, it looks like things might be set right once again.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for Sequart.org and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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