Sunday, February 27, 2022

I would have been perfectly happy for Ultimate Spider-Man to have remained a story...

I would have been perfectly happy for Ultimate Spider-Man to have remained a story. I would have been perfectly happy for it to have remained in its own, hermitically sealed conceptual space with no wormholes or passages connecting it to any other Spider-Man, living or dead. Ultimate Spider-Man was obviously and utterly dependent on the Ditko/Romita/Lee comic books; retelling them, riffing on them, creating a new thing out of them; a story about a story. A meeting between the Brian Bendis Spider-Man and the Stan Lee Spider-Man would have felt like a category mistake: like Pooh winking at the audience and the little boy from the Princess Bride being taught fencing by Inigo Montaya. 
It's not so much "comparing apples with oranges" as "thinking you can take a cubist pastel rendering of a bowl of oranges and make marmalade with it".

A Picasso is as good a thing as a jar of Golden Shred. Maybe even better. And you could imagine Picasso taking his still-life fruit bowl and using it as the first frame of a comic strip about nude marmalade making. But what you'd have at the end is still a picture of a jar of marmalade. In a square jar, very probably. You can't spread it on your toast. Although you can draw a picture of yourself spreading it on a piece of toast. You can even draw a picture of yourself drawing the picture.

This is not a pipe. And this is not a pipe. And even this is not a pipe is not a pipe....

Help. I am stuck in an infinite

Ultimate Spider-Man took the old Spider-Man stories -- in truth, took fan memory of the old Spider-Man stories -- and asked "How would we tell those stories if we were telling them for the first time today?" -- where today meant "On or about the turn of the Millennium." So, Peter Parker -- married twenty-something going on thirty something  -- reverts to being 15. Aunt May, permanently at death's door now looks old enough to be his Mother's sister, i.e, not very. While Peter Parker works as a freelance crime photographer the Ultimate version works part time for J.J.J as a web-designer. Ho-ho. The magic pixie dust which infected the Spider which empowered the high school student was genetic modification rather than radioactivity; and it was part of a deliberate experiment by Norman Osborn. The powers that be, in the shape of Nick Fury, take an interest in the young, amateur superhero from the beginning. He ends up dating Kitty Pryde. Several of these ideas were borrowed for the 2002 Spider-Man movie.

But, obviously, the story was not being told for the first time; and vanishingly few readers were reading it for the first time. It generated meaning and significance through intertextuality. It relied on our memories of those older, primary, and some of us still thought, real comic books. When someone called Gwen turns up, we readers have an inkling that she may come to a bad end. When Peter and MJ make out for the first time, she exclaims "Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot" and everyone in reader-land smiles wryly.

Probably. It doesn't matter if they don't: the story makes sense anyway. 

If we were still talking about fan fiction, which thank Galactus we are not, we would ask whether "fan- fiction" ever meant anything more than "a story about another story". We could then wonder out loud if all stories are about other stories; and if it therefore follows that everything is fan-fiction, even if when isn't.

Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four were never quite so good. The X-book was only superficially distinguishable from the mainstream X-books, and the F.F book was a perfectly good science fiction story which didn't have a great deal to do with the source-text. But the Ultimates, a team consisting of (stop me if you've heard this before) Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Ant Man was enjoyably extreme, and exerted considerable influence over the cinematic Avengers. Before Ultimates, Nick Fury was a cigar smoking white guy from New York; after Ultimates, he was irrevocably Samuel L Jackson. But Ultimate Captain America was a gung-ho nutcase, and all the more fun because of it. ("Surrender? Do you think this A on my helmet stands for FRANCE?")

Around the time of the one hundred and fiftieth issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, writer Bendis had the bright idea of killing Peter Parker and replacing him with a new spider-enhanced teenager. It was a clever, back-to-basics move. Ultimate Spider-Man started out trying to be more like Spider-Man than Spider-Man: dropping decades of clones, dead relatives and resurrected super-villains, and taking us back to a contemporary character who we nevertheless still recognise as Stan and Steve's 1960s ubernerd. But a decade of Ultimate stories (none of which were dreams or imaginary tales) left us with a Peter Parker who was equally recognisable as the original Spidey.

That's how stories work. Either stuff happens, or else nothing happens. Either the hero changes, or he stays the same. Umberto Eco, yes that Umberto Eco, thought this was where the whole idea of Imaginary Stories came from: a way of allowing Superman to both change and not change at the same time. 

The Death of Spider-Man gave Peter Parker closure; and wound us back to the core idea of Spider-Man. A very young lad; still in high school, lumbered with powers he never chose, doing his best to be a superhero but screwing up all the time. The new incumbent, Milers Morales, came from an Hispanic background, which made racists very cross indeed.

For me, this stuff worked because Ultimate Spider-Man was, well, an Imaginary Tale. If the Marvel Universe Spider-Man, as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were to have been killed off -- well, it might make a good story, but you would know -- absolutely know -- that next month or next year or possibly the year after, the original character would be restored to life and everything would carry on as before. No-one dies forever except Bucky. Ultimate Peter Parker could drop dead because, ultimately, he's not real and it doesn't matter. This brought a playful naughtiness into the proceedings, as if the writers were saying "Let's see if we can get away with doing things to these characters that we could never do to them in real life." When New York gets flooded due to the evil actions of Magneto, Spider-Man stays behind to help survivors. When J.Jonah Jameson witnesses this, he realises he's been wrong all these years, and becomes as obsessed with boosting Spidey as a hero as he had been in denigrating him as a menace.

But Ultimate Spider-Man could not remain a story.

In 2012, a perfectly nice story called "Spider-Men" happened, with the Miles Morales version of the character dimension-hopping and meeting up with the original Peter Parker. At that moment, we had to stop thinking of Ultimate Spider-Man as "a story about a story" and start thinking of it as "a different part of the multiverse". 

Fans sometimes refer to the Marvel Universe by Alan Moore's 616 designation; although this terminology is reportedly not much liked inside the camp. According to this nomenclature, the Ultimate Universe is apparently Earth-1610. Some of the other worlds have been given phone numbers: the world in which Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four is apparently Earth-772.

And in 2015, Marvel succumbed to the inevitable. It did what DC had done thirty years earlier. It rebooted the universe. Earth-616 and Earth-1610 crashed together, destroying both, and creating a new setting, an amalgamation of their respective good parts. Miles Morales ended up in the same universe as Peter Parker. This was probably a bad idea. But it led, indirectly, to the Best Spider-Man movie and very probably the best superhero movie.

Into the Spider-Verse had one huge advantage over the three live-action essays. The common herd had never heard of Miles Morales: there was no baggage. The movie had to sell Miles Morales to a general audience as a character. It couldn't rely on our familiarity with the tale. On the other hand, there was no danger of anyone saying "Oh, god, not that Uncle Ben thing, again, again." Sam Raimi's Peter Parker had to some extent been the very famous and archetypal Peter Parker with his own theme tune and tee-shirt. Miles Morales was just some kid. 

Which was the original point of Spider-Man: the Hero Who Could Be You.

The movie had to sell non-comic book audiences on the idea that there could be more than one Spider-Man; and many critics must have been perplexed by the hoodie-wearing-hero on some of the posters. In the comic books, Miles' extra-dimensional origins were a matter of narrative necessity: he was a character from a discontinued line of comic books. In the animated movie, his status as "the Spider-Man from another universe"  became his unique selling point. The movie persuades us that there could be two different Spider-Men by offering us eight. But it also spends an inordinate amount of time just showing us Miles being Miles; his parents, his uncle, his graffiti, his awkward first day at the gifted school. He starts out as a viewpoint character in a universe where Spider-Man is real. We are offered a quite shameless piece of wish fulfilment -- fan-boy meets hero -- and follows it up with a cruel tragedy -- fan boys sees hero die. "Fan-boy tries to take hero's place" and "Fan-boy is not very good it at" follow quite naturally. We are still processing all this when we work out that the dead Spider-Man, the red-haired Spider-Man is not our Spider-Man. He is, if anything, Ultimate Spider-Man, with a young, understanding Auntie and a Spider-Cave full of Spider-Suits. At which point the idea of the Spider-verse is made explicit: the other Peter Parker, our Peter Parker, appears in Miles-world. 

Except it isn't the Peter Parker we know. It's an overweight, drop-out Peter B Parker who has quit Spidering.

At which point, all bets are off, and we are given lady Spider-Gwens, manga Spider-Droids and a very silly black and white film noir Spider-Rorschach. And yet the focus of the film remains resolutely on the character of Miles Morales: how he gains the confidence to be a hero in his own right. By the time all the other Spiders go back to their correct times and places we have accepted that different universes have their own web-spinner, and Miles has got as much right to take up the mantel as anyone else.

The different versions of Spider-Man are not presented as What Ifs... There is no single moment of choice which could have resulted in Miles Morales turning into an anthropomorphic pig. They aren't Imaginary Stories either -- they have autonomous reality and make sense on their own terms. There isn't much sense that the same Being appears in different forms in different times and place. No-one has read the Spider With A Thousand Faces. Miles Morales is not an avatar of the Eternal Spider.  There just happen to be different Spider-Men who are similar in some ways and different in others. 

I think that even the most the casual film goer can see that Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir (at least) are literary takes on the character: different ways of telling the story.  Not "Peter Parker as he could have turned out if things had been different" but "Spider-Man as he might have been imagined in a 1930s pulp novella" and "Spider-Man as he might have been imagined in a 1950s Warner Brothers Toon". 

Peter Porker is not a cartoon character. Or, at any rate, he is a cartoon character; but he comes from a different universe which functions according to cartoon logic. Spider-Man-Noire is not a character from a black and white movie. He comes from universe where colour literally does not exist. Characters who are logically "just stories" are autonomous beings who can interact with the flesh and blood Miles. But then Miles himself started out being "just a story" and might have remained so. "All stories are true" is now a logic according to which the universe functions. 

Peter Porker looks like a cartoon. But despite a lot of metafictional pyrotechnics in the actual animation, Morales himself never feels like a comic book character. He feels like a young lad in the real world who is finding out what great power comes with. 

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