It’s possible that, between the record-breaking success of Marvel’s The Avengers and the constantly increasing hype surrounding next month’s The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve somehow missed the fact that Peter Parker’s web-headed alter ego has a new film coming out next week. Is this a sign that the summer movie season is too packed with superhero movies? Proof that people aren’t that interested in seeing Andrew Garfield take over from Tobey Maguire as the wall-crawling crime-fighter? Both are possible — but it’s more likely to be just another example of the phenomenon known as the ol’ Parker Luck.
The Amazing Spider-Man should be the kind of thing that would get moviegoers excited. Take one pop culture icon, add two actors who have critical acclaim but haven’t completely crossed over into the mainstream just yet — well, Emma Stone did do The Help, but still — and mix with a music video director who has a critically acclaimed movie under his belt (Marc Webb and (500) Days of Summer, respectively): How could that fail? Especially when you factor in that 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Spider-Man’s first appearance, and the transmedia promotion that the movie will be getting not only from Marvel’s multiple Spider-Man comics (The twice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man, monthly Avenging Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man and current mini-series Spider-Men) but also Disney XD’s new Sunday morning Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. Everything should be coming up Spidey, right?
Well, kind of. According to recent pre-release tracking, The Amazing Spider-Man is en route to a $125 million opening weekend, which would make it the second most successful opening weekend of the summer behind Avengers. The problem is, there’s some Hollywood math being used here, not least of which is the definition of “weekend,” which in this case — thanks to the Independence Day holiday — turns into a six-day period. That would still make Amazing the third most successful movie of the year in terms of openings behind Avengers and The Hunger Games, but it pushes the newest movie under both Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man 2 in a comparison for opening weekends, and under the original Spider-Man from 2002 if its box office take is adjusted for inflation. (Spider-Man 3 had the most impressive opening, with $151 million on its first weekend; it ended the year as the most successful movie of 2007. In 2004, Spider-Man 2, by the end of its first six days, had reached $180 million, and Spider-Man‘s opening weekend of $114.8 million goes over $130 million when you adjust for inflation).
Enter the Parker Luck. A running joke in the Spider-Man comic books, the “old Parker Luck” is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the kind of fortune where small victories are overshadowed by crushing demoralizing setbacks.” Admittedly, that seems extreme — not all of the setbacks are exactly crushing and demoralizing — but essentially correct; it’s the idea that, no matter what goes right, something else is going to go even more wrong as a result. Like, for example, your movie opening with the third biggest opening of the year to date, but still being overshadowed by the other two superhero movies that year and failing to make more than the previous installments from the series you’re rebooting.
This isn’t a new experience for the Spider-Man franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man comic was the highest-selling series starring a solo lead from Marvel Comics last month, which sounds like it should be a top 10 title within the industry, especially considering that Marvel has the highest market share of the American comic market. But, again, remember the way that Parker Luck works. The two May issues of ASM actually charted at #25 and #26 in official distributor sales rankings, outsold not only by six different Marvel series centered around the Avengers and X-Men franchises — including Avengers vs. X-Men and AVX: Vs, the company’s best-selling mash-ups of both moneymakers — but also by ten different series with solo leads from competitor DC Comics (including perpetual butt of many jokes, Aquaman).
The Parker Luck theory is evident all through Spider-man’s current movie existence. Although the character had essentially acted as the corporate mascot for Marvel Comics since his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 way back in 1962, it wasn’t until director Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, with Tobey Maguire bringing the character to wide-eyed life, that Spider-man found himself turning into the multi-million dollar business that he is today. Building on groundwork laid by the 2000 X-Men movie — and also Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman — the Spider-Man movies were the superhero movies that made things like Iron Man, Captain America and Marvel’s The Avengers possible; consider the ways in which format of the Marvel Studios movies parallels the Spider-Man format, from unexpected choice of director to self-conscious and self-aware tone, origin-as-first-movie and careful use of big-name stars backed up with recognizable faces. It’s all there in the first Spider-Man and subsequent sequels, and all Marvel Studios has done is hone that model to the razor’s edge that is Avengers. In doing so, however, Marvel has accidentally made the original Spider-Man movies seem clumsier and campier than they appeared originally, more old-fashioned and out-of-step than what we’re used to in our modern superhero fictions. (Compare the sincerity and lack of subtlety of the passengers’ reaction to Spider-Man saving the train in Spider-Man 2 to the much faster, much more media-savvy reaction to the Avengers‘ world-saving, for example.) Suddenly, that whole idea of small victories and larger defeats comes into sharper focus, doesn’t it?
The reboot itself feels problematic; it’s not just that it’s starting over on a series that is still fairly clear in most people’s memories, but that the very idea of starting over with Spider-Man means retelling a story that was last told just 10 years ago, and has been replayed on DVD, BluRay and endless FX screenings ever since. Short of giving the new cast and crew a chance to say “Hey, this is our Spider-Man, he’s not the same guy who did that jazz dancing thing in the last movie!”, there initially seems little point to give us another version of Spider-Man’s origin so soon, outside of Sony’s need to continually produce Spider-Man product in order to keep the movie rights to the franchise. (Another depressing irony: In order to maintain control over the valuable property, the studio has to push out movies so frequently that it devalues the property by risking over-exposure). We get it: He was bitten by a radioactive spider and his uncle was shot. Move on, already. Going over such familiar ground, no matter what cosmetic changes there are in this go-around — replacing Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, who’s destined for a horrible fate should she follow her comic incarnation’s through line — feels like an accidental message to moviegoers who haven’t already made up their minds to see the movie: Don’t worry, you can skip this one. You know what happens already.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that The Amazing Spider-Man returns to the (by now, overly-) familiar source material, though. After all, the success of the three Raimi-directed movies — as well as the three animated television series, countless video games and overwhelming amount of ancillary merchandise that the character has spun out (no pun intended) as a result — has elevated Spider-Man from “cult favorite” to “pop culture icon,” with all the attendant problems that brings. When a fictional character crosses that threshold, you see, it often brings a wariness on behalf of said character’s owners about the need to “maintain the integrity of the brand” or similar codewords; the desire to keep the status just quo enough so as to trap the often-inexplicable appeal of the character and their world in metaphysical amber meaning that the idea of evolution or change through narrative suddenly becomes that much more difficult. Spider-Man experienced this more so than most, as his comic book incarnation found himself de-married (through Satanic intervention, no less) when the movie’s footloose-and-fancy-free version became the dominant one in most people’s minds.
Each “new” incarnation of iconic characters returns to the core myth as its starting point, and for superheroes, the only true core myth is the origin story; everything else is eternally malleable second act, and the nature of the genre precludes anything resembling a true ending because the characters are designed to continue to fight crime until low sales and cancellation bring about their demise. The Amazing Spider-Man goes back to the beginning because that’s what convention expects of it; in order to gain legitimacy as the new take on Spider-Man, it has to prove its devotion to what has become accepted as the Spider-Man text, even though everyone’s heard it all before. Ultimately, Spider-Man became a victim of his own success: By crossing over from niche to mainstream, he finds himself unable to stray too far from the stories and set-up that everyone already knows, forced to continually struggle against the same problems and super-villains over and over again in order to satisfy the nostalgia and needs of both an audience and his owners that aren’t quite ready to move on just yet. Maybe that is a crushing, demoralizing setback, after all.
Here’s one final example of the Parker Luck in action: Had the first Spider-Man movie flopped back in 2002, it’s possible that the character would have ended up following the example of the Hulk, whose character rights ended up back under Marvel control after his own 2003 Universal Studios movie tanked. Had that happened, Spider-man would’ve been available to appear in the Avengers movie, raising the character’s profile right in time for his 50th birthday celebrations. Instead, the 2002 movie was enough of a hit to keep the character separated from the rest of his fellow Marvel heroes until Sony decides that the diminishing box office returns reach a point where it’s not worth trying just one more time. As one-time Mrs. Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson might put it: Face it, tiger. You just missed the jackpot.