The Amazing Spider-Man, slinging a web between disparate age groups – Matt Knight

By Matt Knight

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Spider-Man has remained popular for more than 40 years and as new generations discover comics and associated media, producers of Spider-Man related properties find themselves having to cater for disparate age groups. This paper considers how Spider-Man has remained popular for so long and what impact 40 years of being one of the best known superheroes has had upon the character.

The following is a summary of a presentation made at the Holy Men in Tights: A Superheroes Conference in June 2005 and is written with the intention of throwing some thoughts out there, and hopefully stimulating some discussion around the points raised.

Going back a few years now, when Spider-Man (2002) was released, I was working (and thoroughly enjoying it I might add) in the toy department of a local department store. For me, Spider-Man was just always there…he was one of those characters that I knew of and was familiar with, though I struggled to articulate where I had first come into contact with him. Unlike Batman, who I was a fan of due to Batman: the Animated Series which aired on Australian free to air television during the first half of the 1990s, Spider-Man did not have a defining television series or moment in my life. Thinking about this, I realised that irrespective of Spider-Man’s lack of presence on television [1] , there were always action figures available, while others came and went. In the lead up to the release of Spider-Man (2002) in cinemas, a range of figures began to arrive in store, though they were not the standard sort of figure that was normally stocked. In addition to this there were more than a single range of figures. At the time of the films release, there were four different series available, each aimed at different markets. So how is this possible? Why does a single character need to have so many figures available at once?

Put quite simply, Spider-Man has remained popular for more than 40 years and as new generations discover comics and associated media, producers of Spider-Man related properties find themselves having to cater for disparate age groups. This paper considers how Spider-Man has remained popular for so long and what impact 40 years of being one of the best known superheroes has had upon the character through character analysis, discussion of the character’s impact upon children and adults and a look at the Spider-Man of today.

Who is the Spider-Man?

Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), created by Stan Lee (writer) and Steve Ditko (artist). Martin Goodman who was in charge of publishing at what is now known as Marvel Comics, did not think a comic about a teenager bitten by a spider would sell, so when Lee heard the Amazing Fantasy series was being closed down he decided to run Spider-Man. As Lee has stated in numerous interviews, “I figured nobody cares what you put in the last issue of a magazine because that’s the end of it. So I threw Spider-Man in there just to get him out of my system” (Cited in DeFalco, 2004, p. 12).

Spider-Man could be perceived by some as a role model by being more ‘normal’ than other characters. The director of the Spider-Man films Sam Raimi appreciated the ‘reality’ of Spider-Man, “The strength of Spider-Man for me has always been the fact that he’s a real person, he’s one of us, whose gone through elementary school, junior high school and now high school, so he has absolutely our frame of reference on things. He can’t get the girl, he’s broke and suddenly he’s this superhero” (Cited in Behind the ultimate spin: HBO making of Spider-Man, 2002). Spider-Man is for all intents and purposes, a ‘normal’ teenager with problems and issues to sort out perhaps adding to his appeal, and obviously adding to the authenticity and believability of him as a character.

As Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics stated, “I think that the beauty of Spider-Man of course is that he is everyman, everywoman. It’s that mask, you know. It’s colorless, it’s genderless. It’s just a mask with somebody cracking wise underneath it and that can be any one of us” (Cited in Spider-Man: The mythology of the 21st century, 2002). Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the history of Spider-Man is that he has remained relevant to subsequent generations and not been affected by ‘semiotic redundancy’ (Wark, 1991, p.63). Rather, the character of Spider-Man and the subjects encountered by viewers/readers of Spider-Man are of a timeless quality, meaning that they retain their relevance.

The realistic Spider-Man

According to co-creator, Stan Lee, Spider-Man is the “most realistically human of all super heroes.” (Cited in DeFalco, 2004, p.7) What is meant by this is that Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, is in a sense more ‘real’ than other fictional heroes. Spider-Man, when he is not Spider-Man, has money troubles, has responsibility in the form of his Aunt May, attends school, and he is terribly insecure and full of self doubt when put under pressure. An extra sense of realism is added by Spider-Man being placed in a real city, New York, rather than a fictional metropolis. As Kevin Smith, writer and film maker said, “You want to write stories that resonate and kind of come home to people, you write about a city that exists, you write about streets that exist, and Spider-Man’s always been great about that.” (Cited in Spider-Man: The mythology of the 21st century, 2002)

As a way to support himself and his Aunt, Peter Parker went to work as a photographer for J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of Now Magazine and the Daily Bugle. Peter would prefer to spend his time studying science at school than taking photos, however, the responsibility he feels towards his Aunt demands that he takes the job to support her. This theme is played out consistently as Peter attempts to meet the duty he feels towards his fellow citizens, even if it means deceiving his Aunt in order to protect her from worrying too greatly. There are few superheroes with responsibilities quite like these (how many superheroes have families they need to protect?) [2] making Spider-Man more relatable than others. There are also instances where Peter doubts his abilities and clearly does not have all the answers/solutions to the challenges he must face. He is grounded in the real world, with real world problems and although a work of fiction, the relationship between Spider-Man’s universe and our own is strong.

Spider-Man is obviously a crime fighter like other superheroes though there is a difference in the sorts of battles he undertakes. Unlike some, Spider-Man’s battles are not performed as a way to cleanse himself of built up aggression or as a form of payback. Instead, he fights for a moral code deep within himself. He feels guilty or perhaps responsible for his Uncle Ben’s death and this serves as a constant reminder that “with great power, comes great responsibility”, however, he feels he has developed these spider-like abilities for a reason and that he must use them to save the world. As Amazing Spider-Man artist, John Romitta says of Spider-Man’s abilities, “when you get these gifts, if you don’t use them properly, you’ve betrayed the gift you got.” (Cited in Spider-Man: The mythology of the 21st century, 2002) In short, he feels responsible for everyone. Since he has these fantastic abilities they must be used to assist those who cannot help themselves. Though as the original comic series progresses and he encounters the same enemies time and time again, he does so not in a vindictive, aggressive manor, but rather in a way that suggests he is working to save the city and the villains themselves…he possesses true altruistic motives. Spider-Man is more compassionate than someone like Batman. He has respect for the villain and truly appears as though he wants to help them out of the situation they have found themselves in and allow them to get on with their lives, unlike Batman who deposits his nemeses in Arkham insane asylum, perhaps indefinitely. [3]

While talking of a fictional character as being ‘real’ is problematic, what is meant is that Spider-Man has a degree of resonance not present within the personality of other superhero characters. It is likely that some people would relate more strongly with a character like Wolverine, though I would argue that they are in the minority. The idea of Spider-Man as a representation of normative humanity is also somewhat misleading as it begs the question, what is normal? And how in such arguments do we account for this supposed normality when it is viewed in a different cultural context? The use of normal here is used strictly in reference to western, predominantly North American stereotypes as this is where Spider-Man productions available to Australia emanate from. In other countries, however, the interpretation of Spider-Man’s character is likely to be wholly different. [4]

Spider-Man for children

Spider-Man has the opportunity to play a part in the shaping of a child’s identity, “What is exchanged and circulated here [the cultural economy] is not wealth but meanings, pleasures, and social identities” (Fiske, 1987, p.311). The creation of an identity is often contested, changed and redesigned by the user. Hall suggests that “identity is actually something formed through unconscious processes over time, rather than being innate in consciousness at birth” (1994, p. 122).  He goes on to say, “rather than speaking of identity as a finished thing, we should speak of identification, and see it as an on-going process” (1994, p. 122). Or as Roger Horrocks puts it, “the fluidity of identification” (1995, pp. 46).

Identities are perhaps not as fixed as they once were, if not fluid in nature, “the boundaries of possible identities, of new identities, are continually expanding” (Kellner, 1992, p. 141) and this may have led to problems with ‘traditional’ stereotyped identities. Although, the greatest difficulty in making these sorts of arguments is that children have their own understanding of the world in which they live. While an adult may question Batman’s sexuality at times, for example, such thoughts do not concern children as they have a different frame of reference to adults and do not bring with them the same bias or cultural understanding when viewing media.

A child’s understanding of morals is rather simplistic, although they still exists, “there is a distinction between the practice of moral rules (moral behavior) and being able to explain those rules (moral understanding)” (Piaget cited in Faulkner, 1995, p. 272) and these two forms of understanding will be attained at different ages and ultimately be dictated by other factors such as culture, gender and, race. It is for this reason that Spider-Man, more so than other characters appeals to children so greatly. Spider-Man is a well-balanced, ‘real’ character and above all, he is a good guy. It seems almost impossible for Peter Parker to switch sides to the forces of evil, perhaps because he came so close to doing so when he first gained his powers. By entering wrestling matches and entertaining people on television purely for money, the fledgling superhero was almost tainted by the ‘evils’ of consumerism, unlike someone such as the dark knight, Batman, who could conceivably become evil since he is already so dark and brooding in nature. Spider-Man is simply speaking, a good person. No child has an inbuilt understanding of what is right and wrong, these are things they learn and through the character of Spider-Man they can have their understanding of morals, ideally learnt from their parents, positively reinforced by popular culture.

Spider-Man for adults

For some, Spider-Man remains a fixture in their lives long past childhood or adolescence. This becomes apparent when considering those working on Spider-Man productions currently…they all profess an admiration, identification, or love for the character that stems from their youth. Hall’s (1994) assertion of identity being an ongoing process suggests it is reasonable to suppose that an individual will continue to consume media that reaffirms their beliefs.

Coupled with the notion of ‘identity’ is the idea of lifestyle and lifestage. The work of Anthony Giddens suggests that we make lifestyle cho
ices, that is, decisions about who we are and who we want to be. These choices make up our ‘personal narrative’ and will inform us of where we belong within society. These factors combine to make up self-identity, which along with our autobiographical narrative is constantly reevaluated,
“self-identity becomes a reflexive project – an endeavor that we continuously work and reflect on…A stable self-identity is based on an account of a person’s life, actions and influences which makes sense to themselves, and which can be explained to other people” (Cited in Gauntlett, 2002, p. 99).

With this in mind it is likely that when faced with a potentially identity changing event, characters that have served as a tool to inform identity in the past will be revisited prior to a progression to something new, meaning that a character such as Spider-Man is likely to be reused or at very least, revisited and reconsidered repeatedly. Once it has become a part of a person’s identity, it will always form a part regardless of the progression made through life.[5] In this way, the impact of Spider-Man upon a child is carried onwards into adulthood.

Toby Maguire, star of the Spider-Man films suggested another reason for the character’s popularity with adults, “You grow up and become an adult and you have to accept responsibility for your actions. So this is something I think that is relatable that we all deal with” (Cited in Spider-Mania – an E! Entertainment special, 2002). Having to accept responsibility is certainly a recurring theme when it comes to Spider-Man and is something everyone must deal with increasingly with maturation. A small child understands that they have a responsibility not to leave their toys on the floor, teenagers understand the responsibility of getting to their part time job on time; and adults understand the responsibility of having to pay bills. As people’s situations change, so do their responsibilities, and as such, Spider-Man has a degree of relevance to them, regardless of their age.

Spider-Man’s impact can also move through into adulthood in a more conscious manor due to the nature of the character and the way in which it operates as a pedagogical tool. Granted the assumption could be made that everything a child experiences forms a part of their identity and understanding of the world. However, what is actively remembered is due to its importance to the child, “children attend to, encode, and store in memory the information and behavior they see and hear on television or in other media and that they use that information to guide their own interests, motivations and actions” (Anderson, Huston, Schmitt, Linebarger, & Wright, 2001, p. 3). Just as Spider-Man’s character traits encourage adults to look back upon the character in later years for their identity, the character’s potential as a role model and the way in which the character quite blatantly teaches morality to children today makes him potentially very important in a person’s life and as such difficult to forget. Speaking of the morality inherent in Spider-Man comics, Joe Quesada said, “I think its just the same sort of everyday virtues that we’ve all been taught you know, as we grow up” (Cited in Spider-Man: The mythology of the 21st century, 2002).

Memories are often tied up with a range of emotions rather than the events alone and various factors will inform an individual’s memory as they shape their perceptions of things: “what people remember of their childhood, as we know from the vast body of work on memory, is mediated by a range of factors: class, gender, the age of the rememberer, the time of childhood, the emotional state of the rememberer or the time being recalled, and so on” (Mitchell & Reid-Walsh, 2002, p. 59).

When an individual remembers a text, they bring to it not only these factors that have affected their memories in the first place but also the emotions and memories related to the text (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 498). If someone reminisces about their childhood and remembers watching Spider-Man on television for example, they will remember it positively if they felt excitement or adventure while viewing, or perhaps if it was the only program they were allowed to watch, making it a special privilege and by association making Spider-Man that much more important to them. Conversely if a child were terrified by an actor playing Spider-Man at the local shopping center, memories associated with the character may not be as pleasant.  

Spider-Man today

Today, as superheroes go through a renaissance period of unprecedented mainstream acceptance, it has to be asked why have they attained such a status? The answer is quite simple, nostalgia of fans from the past, for the reasons already mentioned has fueled the growth and regeneration of superhero culture for a new generation of fans. It seems that anyone who works on these characters today, be they Spider-Man or some other bygone hero, do so simply because they enjoy it. “The character [Spider-Man] has always held a special place in my heart” (Ron Frenz (comic artist), cited in DeFalco, 2004, p. 115), “Spider-Man was the character I could relate to” (Mark Buckingham (comic artist), cited in DeFalco, 2004, p. 217), “I loved everything about him [Spider-Man]…I just identified with it.” (Brian Michael Bendis (comic artist), cited in DeFalco, 2004, p. 230)

This has created a situation, however, where media producers are now required to appeal to a rather wide range of ages as their viewership has changed. In 2000 there was a real ‘re-launch’ of Spider-Man and other superhero comics in the form of the Ultimate’s series, produced by Marvel. It was an attempt to make them appeal to a new audience, and perhaps re-interest those who had become bored with the characters and stories. “The goal of Ultimates was to introduce new readership to Spider-Man and hopefully formulate a bridge for those readers to then come into the regular marvel universe. I think that’s worked out beautifully” (Joe Quesada, Spider-Man: The mythology of the 21st century, 2002). Comics however form a very small portion of the media landscape and arguably are not as much within the mainstream media as film or toys are, so the more modern or contemporary comics will not be discussed here. Though it is important to point out that the renewed superhero market is due in part to the fanaticism of comic book fans who want to work on the characters that meant so much to them, want to introduce their own children to them, or simply want to relive their own childhood once more.

In the case of action figures, one of the first Spider-Man toys was a part of the Mego 8” World’s Greatest Super Heroes series, released in 1972. At this stage Spider-Man had been in existence for 10 years and already there was a huge range in ages of those who were familiar with the character. Some of the writers and artists that work on Spider-Man comics currently, did not start reading of his exploits until they were in college (i.e. David Michelinie, comic writer, cited in DeFalco, 2004, p. 131), while Stan Lee remembers receiving letters from parents telling him ‘little Johnny’s’ reading skills have improved since buying Spider-Man (cited in DeFalco, 2004, p. 21), illustrating the stretch of ages even in the relative early days. It is reasonable to assume that this early figure was meant predominantly for children, with its poseable plastic body and removable fabric clothes. It was relatively plain by today’s standards and safe for children. It is also likely that the figure was produced due to the production of the Spider-Man animated television series as a way of cashing in on a new audience that may not be familiar or may be too young for the comic books, yet enjoyed the character enough to spend money on it.[6] This has become increasingly the case and with the introduction of ‘Saturday Morning’ cartoons as more of a genre rather than a timeslot (McDonnell, 2000, p. 129), Spider-Man cartoons have become an important part of the Spider-Man action figure’s marketing.

Today there is a strong collector culture associated with many productions that were initially or traditionally aimed at children, as demonstrated by the types of products currently available. However, Spider-Man has to be one of the properties with the greatest disparity in ages as can be seen by the sorts of products offered. Teenagers who read Spider-Man in 1962 in Amazing Fantasy #15 are still fans, as are children under the age of 5, making an unusual demographic for a film producer or toy manufacturer to work within. To coincide with the release of the Spider-Man movie, action figures were produced that were unlike anything that had been before (see photo 1). They had solid plastic bodies and in order to attain a high level of detail, Spider-Man’s costume was molded and painted on. However, the most amazing thing about these figures was they had nearly 30 points of articulation despite the fact that they were a standard 6” figure. Clearly these sorts of figures while safe for young children are not aimed solely at them.[7] This can also lead to aspirational consumption (cited in Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 2003, p. 382) where a child will consume a cultural production not intended for them as a means to maturing faster, or feeling as though they are grown up, though more than likely this figure was a product of Spider-Man’s fans disparate ages.

Interest from young and old alike meant that a figure had to be made that could be appreciated by all. Those who could not afford one of the many limited edition Spider-Man statuettes ranging in price from US$35 for a bust limited to 12,000 pieces, to US$4000 for a bronze figure limited to 100 (Cited in Glenn, 2004, pp. 44-74), could still own a piece of Spider-Man to sit upon their shelf, and children who enjoyed the film could also feel like they were a part of it. However, the suitability of these figures for very young children has to be questioned if for no other reason than the number of small parts that they are comprised of. For this reason, a series of figures was produced just for children named Spider-Man and Friends (see photo 2), aimed at the preschool market (Cited in McCallum, 2002, pp. 34-39). Both Spider-Man and Friends and the Spider-Man movie figures were produced by Toy Biz and released mere months apart, suggesting that the gap in the market created by varying ages was something that they were well aware of.

Also available at this time were larger, highly detailed figures with fabric clothing similar to Barbie dolls. It is debatable who these figures were aimed at…possibly little girls who enjoyed Barbies and similar dress up dolls, or perhaps boys who were familiar with the 12” tall GI Joe figures that made a brief return to toy stores at around the same time, or maybe they were intended for the more die hard fans who would view them as collector items. In any case, from my observations the figures did not sell well. There was another new figure on the shelves, based more on the cartoon versions of Spider-Man (see photo 3). These were basic 6” figures with more articulation than figures from the 1980s and 1990s which usually had only five points, though were still decidedly more basic than the movie figures. With all these choices, there was arguably a figure for everyone; be it a toddler, a child a little older wanting a figure to play with, or adults and adolescents who need toys more akin to collector’s items.

The impact of Spider-Man’s changing audience

As those who enjoy Spider-Man have grown so diverse in age it is no longer possible for media producers to cater to all as is evident in the case of the toy industry. So what happens when it is something like a film that is being produced? It is not cost effective to release two versions of a film; one for adults and one for children, so how did the film makers cater to all for Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Productions as large as Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) obviously present a high risk to their producers. The two films combined, cost an estimated US$339 million (Box Office Mojo, 1998-2005) to produce, though this is not a risk if the film is a hit with fans. As already mentioned the subject matter evident in Spider-Man comics was not intended for children so the challenge for the film makers was how to make a film that while not wholly for children or adults, had elements that both could appreciate. When making the films, director Sam Raimi was aware of the fact that comics are a visual medium and as such, aimed to make a film that was visually appealing and had images that assisted in telling the story (Cited in Director profile: Sam Raimi, 2002). When Stan Lee was first writing the various titles he created for Marvel, he tended to prepare a story treatment for his artists and added the dialogue later, allowing the artists to not only flesh out the story and tell it in their own way, but also assuring that the story was told for the most part in a very visual sense. This became known as the Marvel Method (Cited in Stan Lee’s mutants, monsters and marvels, 2002). So the film had to have a similar feel to it. It needed to be visual in the sense that the comic series was, without being dumbed down.

Making it visual meant the filmmakers made something children could appreciate and follow, without having to sacrifice the film they wanted to make or risk alienating their older viewers, “We’re trying to make the picture appeal to an intelligent audience so that adults can really enjoy it. But at its heart it will have a lot of fun, excitement and adventure that the kids will also enjoy” (Sam Raimi, cited in Spider-Mania – an E! Entertainment special, 2002). When you look at the box office figures of films aimed primarily at children released at the same time as the Spider-Man films there can be no doubt that films for children can be profitable. So the reason for producing a Spider-Man film that can be enjoyed by adults and children at the same time, albeit on very different cognitive levels, has to be a result of the varying ages of Spider-Man fans, rather than an attempt to recoup costs.

Spider-Man was never intended for children, initially making his debut in a book named Amazing Adult Fantasy, (the title was changed for the Spider-man issue to Amazing Fantasy, though the fact remains it was aimed at adults) Stan Lee says he did not write for children, “I never wrote for kids, I wrote for me.” (Cited in Stan Lee’s mutants, monsters and marvels, 2002) Yet at the same time there was a culture that said comics were for either unintelligent adults, or young children (Cited in Stan Lee’s mutants, monsters and marvels, 2002) the exact opposite of Spider-Man’s target audience.

So while Spider-Man has remained popular for so many years, and managed for the most part to cater to a wide range of ages, it is likely that this is fast coming to an end as a greater distinction is placed upon what is appropriate for an adult, and what is appropriate for a child. The character of Spider-Man in itself is acceptable to all age groups as the role model characteristics and intrinsic morality of the story lines means it is rather inoffensive, morally speaking. However, as consumer’s tastes and demands upon media change, Spider-Man properties have had to change also. Thus the true nature of Spider-Man while never changing will be interpreted differently as he is made suitable for young children, or adults in different mediums, at different times.


Four years after the release of Spider-Man (2002), things have changed. I no longer work in the toy department (although I do still love toys) and interest in Spider-Man may have waned since the release of Spider-Man 2 (2004), however, Spider-Man figures are still widely available with new figures still being released. The highly detailed and highly articulated Spider-Man movie figures set a new standard for action figure production. With advancements in technology and Spider-Man’s fan base becoming ever more disparate, this toy fan awaits with baited breath the next incarnation of Spider-Man figures, and if the past is anything to go on, it will only get better.


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[1] That is not to say there were not any series being produced, though their airing on television, particularly free to air, was somewhat sporadic.

[2] Granted there are superheroes that act as family groups, such as the Fantastic Four, the Incredibles and Batman with Robin and later Batgirl and Nightwing. However, the Incredibles are located within a wholly different superhero universe and in the case of the other families, the family members in question are superheroes themselves, constituting a different sort of responsibility to one another to that of Spider-Man and his aunt.

[3] Namely in the case of Batman: The Animated Series once a villain is defeated, provided they do not get away, they are placed in Arkham, with the exception of Two Face who has a personal relationship with Bruce Wayne. rkham features quite heavily in some episodes with the entire cast of villains appearing there at the same time.

[4] In India, for example, there was a Spider-Man comic produced specifically for the Indian market, suggesting there are culturally speaking, different demands made of Spider-Man that could not be met without a local production.

[5] This is not to say that an individual will always identify with Spider-Man,however, they may well continue to have a soft spot for the character long after outgrowing him.

[6] The very first incarnation of a Spider-Man action figure was released in 1967, the same year as the Spider-Man animated series.

[7] In fact toys marked as being for children aged 3 and up, as these figures are, do not have to go through some age appropriate testing, so it is possible to have a figure intended for older children that is labeled as being for 3 year olds, and therefore marketed to children who are much younger than intended and vice versa. (Redenbach, cited in Loch, 2003, p. 34)

The Author:

Matthew Knight has a BA in Communications and has recently completed his honours, examining Family Guy and the impact collector culture has had upon the series. His research interests range from children’s animation and toys to popular music and issues surrounding creativity and originality. The continuing challenge for Matt is to come up with research topics as a means to justify purchasing large quantities of toys and DVDs.

All points raised here could easily do with further investigation, and will be revisited at some point, in the mean time, comments are more than welcome;