“I didn’t choose to do this”

Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy does something interesting that the modern MCU doesn’t really do: lean into the horrific origins Marvel’s characters

“I didn’t choose to do this”
Image: Columbia / Sony Pictures


This week's issue is long overdue: apologies for that. I've been dealing with a health problem: I had a muscle seize up in my shoulder, which led to a pinched nerve. It's been painful and my fingers have been numb, so it's been hard to write. Fortunately, things seem to be getting a little better.

I've been working on a bunch of projects this week, but one thing that I want to talk about this issue is a character near and dear to my heart: Spider-man.

This weekend marks the return of Spider-man to theaters with Spider-man: No Way Home. It's the latest entry in Marvel's sprawling cinematic universe, and picks up Tom Holland's iteration of the character after the events of Spider-man: Far From Home, in which he was unmasked before the world, and turns to Doctor Strange to help cast a spell to make everyone forget. As is wont to happen, things go wrong, and they end up pulling a bunch of villains from the other Spider-man films.

I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't do anything like a review, but to distract myself from hunting for spoilers for the film, I ended up rewatching Sam Raimi's original trilogy of Spider-man films, partially to get caught up on the villains and where they ended up, but also to just to enjoy them: Spider-man has long been held up as one of the films that kicked off the superhero arms race in movie theaters, while I've long thought that Spider-man 2 remains one of the better superhero films out there.

While watching, I realized something interesting about that original trilogy, and what sets it apart from the MCU: it completely understands the inherent sense of body horror that's embedded in those classic, early comics. They're obsessed with a sort of forced transformation and how one deals with that sudden power that they're now in control of, and it's something that the MCU really hasn't captured.

In Abraham Reisman's fantastic biography of Stan Lee, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, she devotes a considerable amount of attention to the creation of one of Marvel's best-known creations: the Fantastic Four.

The comic was a collaboration between Lee and legendary artist Jack Kirby, and they put together a team-up comic that was unlike anything that had been done up to that point. Reisman writes that "superhero stories were supposed to be about genial people who happily stumble upon superhuman abilities, then go on their merry way towards justice." Fantastic Four was something altogether different: "that mold was forever broken in the sequence where powers are forced onto the titular quartet–forced upon them quite painfully." Sue Storm is turned invisible, her brother Johnny bursts into flames, Reed Richards finds that he's pendy, and Ben Grimm turns into a monsterous rock creature.

Kirby leaned into the horror in those panels. In another recently-released book about Marvel comics, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, Douglas Wolk describes the book as a hybrid of genres: "an action-actenture serial comic that's also a superhero comic and also a monster comic and also a romance comic and also a teen-humor comic and also a sci-fi comic, all at once."

This brings me to Sam Raimi's Spider-man trilogy, in which Raimi set up Spider-man to fight against villains who've been transformed in some pretty horrific ways. Norman Osborne is transformed into the Green Goblin by his own technology and gets revenge on the people who slighted him. Otto Octavius displays incredible hubris and is merged with his artificially-intelligent mechanical arms. Flint Marko accidentally wanders into a particle accelerator and is turned into Sandman. And of course, Peter Parker gets covered in a symbiote and takes a diver into his darker instincts before those are transferred over to Eddie Brock. (I can't remember specifically how this is handled in some other early Marvel adaptations like X-Men, Fantastic Four, or Daredevil, it's been too long since I've seen them.)

Their transformations are horrifying: Oborne subjects himself to medical experimentation out of desperation; Octavius's equipment is damaged in an accident and meld with his mind (and tears apart an operating room while they're at it), and Marko is torn apart particle by particle. They're painful and damaging, and I think in a lot of ways, it was a brilliant move to bring in Raimi — who'd been known for horror films like The Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, and so forth — to direct these films. Thinking back to Marvel's tendencies to transform their heroes, there's a level of horrific transformation that occurs that's often minimalized or brushed under the rug. The Fantastic Four are transformed in an accident, Peter Parker is bitten by a spider, the Hulk is blasted with radiation, and Daredevil was blinded by chemicals.

At the root of these transformations is something that runs through a lot of Marvel's comics: this idea that these ordinary people have had these powers thrust upon them unbidden. True, they're powers that unlock some fantastic abilities, but they're suddenly put into a position that they never asked for or wanted: they suddenly have to deal with the consequences and responsibilities that comes with it.

In many ways, I think this is the dividing line between Marvel's heroes and villains: the heroes are the ones who recognize that they have a responsibility to help people, while their adversaries don't: their powers enhance what vices they were already inclined to do. At its core, I think that's what really makes Marvel's comics shine: exploring choices and consequences is a basic thing for characters, and because they're so deeply embedded in the characters' mythologies, it's helped make Raimi's films stand out, even decades later: they're just interesting.

Rewatching the films, I was struck at how well they picked up these ideas and ran with them. They don't always succeed: Spider-man is quite a bit goofier than I remember, and Spider-man 3, while not as bad as I think we remember it (the campiness is really played up), is still disjointed and overstuffed, but what they do do is wrestle with this idea of responsibility vs. collective good. And ultimately, Spider-man, because he's armed with this superior moral code, ends up coming out on top, and when he falters, it usually leads to problems until he gets his head back on straight. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man also does a good job with this.

I don't think the MCU really tackles this as well. They certainly don't play up some of the horror that's inherent to these characters, but rather frame it as characters who run with those transformations as they happen. Tony Stark decides to become Iron Man, Thor was born with powers, and Steve Rogers volunteered to become Captain America. The MCU version of Peter Parker transformed into Spider-man, but that's glossed over. I don't think that the modern MCU films are quite as interesting: they feel a bit more disposable, and I think for that reason, it's why Raimi's films will remain rewatchable for years to come, even though they're corney and campy: they're just interesting.

If there's any moral to the story here, I think it's that superhero adaptations are wide and varied, depending on how their creators approach them, and how they view that subject matter. Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store for Spider-man this go-around, and I'm excited to see some of those older characters return to the screen one more time.

Currently reading

As previously noted, I've finished Leviathan Falls, and I'm still plugging away at some of the others.

Given that we're coming up to the end of the year, I'm working on digging into some of the books that I'd really been looking forward to, and as I prepare some of the end of the year coverage for this newsletter (coming the last week of December), I'm hoping to get some of those books that I haven't gotten to.  

Further reading

RIP Anne Rice

This was a shocking bit of news over the weekend: Anne Rice, author of Interview With A Vampire, and a huge figure in the world of vampire / gothic fiction, passed away from a stroke. It's a huge loss for the field.

Bob who?

When Bob Iger stepped down as Disney's CEO a couple of years ago, another Bob replaced him: Bob Chapek. A lot of people kind of went "who?", and you'd be forgiven, because he wasn't exactly a high-profile successor even within Disney itself.

Financial Times has a great profile of him (it might be behind a paywall for you, sadly), one that not only details his career, but provides some interesting insights and context into the streaming world. There's some glimpses into the origins of Disney+, but also how it fits into the larger streaming ecosystem and how Chapek is preparing for the future.

There are some worrisome elements to him: he's the guy who was somewhat responsible for a lot of those direct-to-VHS/DVD movies like The Lion King 1 1/2, and I think a lot of folks are justifiably concerned about what that looks like moving into the streaming age.

Cover reveal

In case you missed it earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview Paul Tremblay about his upcoming novel, The Pallbearer's Club, in which he had some interesting insights about what went into it.

"I think the danger with nostalgia is the very reactionary idea to think, "oh, things were so much better in the good old days." To me, that's just a lie. There's no such thing as the good old days; things were very bad in the '80s. Talk to someone from the LGBTQ community about how well the 80s went for them, or talk about Reagan's politics and what that did."

You can read the interview here.

Goodreads best of the year list

Goodreads just wrapped up its big best of the year award: Sarah J. Maas's A Court of Silver Flames took the Best Fantasy, Andy Wier's Project Hail Mary was the best science fiction novel (bleh), and Grady Hendrix's The Final Girl Support Group won best horror novel. Go

Halo gets first trailer

After years in the pipeline, we finally have a good look at what the upcoming Halo series will look like: outstanding.

Viacom/Paramount+ unveiled the first teaser during this year's Game Awards, and like any teaser, it's brief, with lots of establishing shots with a voiceover that seems to come from Catherine Halsey. From the looks of things, the show's titular Halo ring doesn't look like it'll be a factor yet, but rather, the series will follow some of the earlier days of the SPARTAN program, and John / Spartan 117's origins. There's a brief shot of the Covenant's High Charity (essentially their capitol city)., but lots of other shots of the UNSC moving around and preparing to fight. There are some really gorgeous shots here, and if anything, the show looks like it'll look stunning.

It'll be interesting to see where this series goes and where it's set: one of the things that the games haven't really explored is how the SPARTANs came about in the first place: not as a response to the Covenant war, but to hold their colonial holdings in check and to put down rebellions. If they choose to cover that, that could make for a really interesting series.

The trailer doesn't outline a release date for the series: just 2022, but hopefully we'll get a better idea of when we'll see this in the new year.

Speaking of Halo, Halo: Infinite hit stores on Wednesday, and it's a helluva lot of fun. I've been playing it quite a bit, and something that popped up that's pretty cool is a Spotify-exclusive podcast drama called Halo: Infinite: Memory Agent, which apparently ties into the game. I haven't listened to it yet, but it's on my to-do list at some point. It's pretty short: each episode clocks in around the 10 minute mark.

Making up shit

Writing for Polygon, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. He's got a new comic coming out next year, Radio Spaceman, and we spoke not only about that, but about building big worlds, ending them, and the nature of creativity.

Star Wars: The High Republic

There's been two interesting stories that came out this week about a big thing that Lucasfilm has been setting up in the form of The High Republic. Up to this point, it's been a publishing project, but there's more coming.

First up, word broke that Lucasfilm has been chatting with actor Amandla Stenberg to star in an upcoming Disney+ series, The Acolyte. This was the series that had been announced during last year's big slate of projects (which included Lando, Ahsoka, Rangers of the New Republic, and a bunch of other things), and it's slated to be set during the High Republic era, which spans a couple of hundred years before the events of The Phantom Menace to just a couple of decades before it. The series was created by Leslye Headland (Netflix's Russian Doll), Stenberg is best-known for playing Rue in The Hunger Games as well as The Hate U Give, and Dear Evan Hansen.

There's no word on who she'll be playing, but given what we know about where the series begins and where its ending point is, I'm guessing that we're going to see a bunch of projects that deal with the factors that'll eventually lead to the Republic's collapse. There's a lot that you can do with that sort of story, and given the state of the world (and given that there's shows like Foundation that are treading in similar territories), I feel like you could tell some interesting stories here: how do you go from an ascendant Republic to one that's mired in corruption and conflict? The term Acolyte might be a clue here: they're a sort of Sith in training, and if we're looking at a collapsing system of governence, we might get some ideas of how the Sith could be engineering that (and maybe, we'd get some additional context for what we saw in Rise of Skywalker).

The other big of news also sort of signals impending conflict: At the Game Awards ceremony, we got a glimpse of a new Star Wars game coming from Lucasfilm Games and Quantic Dream*: Star Wars Eclipse. The trailer looks very cool, with Jedi, lots of cool aliens, armies, and quite a bit more, which certainly seems to hint that there are some issues in the fabric of the Republic that are beginning to weaken it. There's not much to go on, so but we'll see how this plays out whenever the game eventually gets out to people.

*A whole bunch of people have pointed out that Quantic Dream has a pretty bad track record on a number of fronts, from homophobic founders to hostile work environments. Hopefully they've corrected some of those internal issues, given that Lucasfilm has been making some pointed moves on that front by working to create a more inclusive world.

Sunday Morning Transport

In case you missed it, I profiled a new project that'll be coming in January from Julian Yap and Fran Wilde: a newsletter that'll send out new stories each week to subscribers. It looks like a cool initiative.

That's all for this week. I'm going to go ice my shoulder.