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Next Wednesday sees the release of Superior Spider-Man #1, Marvel Comics’ new series in which Peter Parker has been replaced by… someone else (I’ll save the spoilers for under the jump, in the unlikely instance that you haven’t read the story or seen the news somewhere else). Thing is, that’s clearly not the version of Spider-Man that’ll appear in the next Amazing Spider-Man movie or Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. But does it matter?
Of course, that’s not to say that the animated Peter Parker is necessarily the same character as the movie Peter Parker, either. They may share a name and a power set, but the movie incarnation of the character is far more tortured and angst-ridden than the animated version – and, perhaps more importantly, has a somewhat different set of motivations (I’d argue that Amazing sets up a Peter Parker driven not by what happened to Uncle Ben, but by the mystery of what happened to his parents, and finding some way to not only answer the questions arising from their disappearance but also avenge their likely deaths in some way, but YMMV). Sure, the difference between Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker and Drake Bell’s is minor compared with the Otto Parker that now exists in the comic books, but it essentially brings up the same issue: How much fidelity between different versions of the same character in different media is necessary?
The notion that there are multiple interpretations of Spider-Man as a concept is curious, though, pushing the notion of Spider-Man as brand or franchise over character; it reduces the character to particular signifiers, scrubbed clean of the long history of the comic book incarnation. Spider-Man ceases to be one entity, but becomes a generic name for a number of similar ones, independent of each other in the same way that Batman did in the 1960s, with the Adam West incarnation seeming like a different person with the same name as the version that appeared in the comics, yet becoming the version the world came to remember and believe in for decades afterwards.
But is the brand name and fairly consistent costume enough to make all of these different characters “Spider-Man” in equal measure? If that’s the case, then could an audience embrace Miles Morales, the comic-book Ultimate Spider-Man as “Spider-Man” in a movie? I’m unconvinced; I suspect that there’s a core “Spider-Man” myth (or, at least, identity) in the mass pop culture mind, and that anything that doesn’t conform to that is dismissed by the majority of people. For most people, Spider-Man has to have a Peter Parker who has to lose his Uncle Ben and go from zero to hero, even if most people in the story don’t know that, and that’s the basis of the character; everything else within that is up for grabs.
(Of course, this leaves both current comic incarnations of the character, Miles and Otto, as anomalies, which is interesting; perhaps both are the result of over-familiarity with the Peter Parker character and concept…? And yet, both still feature Parker as an influence in their respective comics, even if it’s just in the suggested legacy that the new characters have to live up to.)
It isn’t just Spider-Man that has these problems, of course; most people knew Green Lantern (if at all) as John Stewart through the Justice League cartoon before Hal Jordan strode onto the movie screen, and DC Comics found itself essentially re-creating Green Arrow in the image of the Smallville version for its New 52 comic relaunch, before the CW’s Arrow offered up a more serious take and the comic has undergone a course correction. For DC, Green Arrow is clearly considered a malleable enough concept to play with in that way, and bring in line with the mass consensus of “who” he is; is that the way to manage these kinds of expectations, or is Marvel’s take on Spider-Man more what you’d like to see, with each version being free to bring whatever it wants to the party even if that may be confusing to newcomers meeting a new version for the first time…?
I have no answers; I’m genuinely curious: Would you rather see one take on a character across multiple media, or let everyone in charge of each version do what they want? Use the comments and share your wisdom, people.