Reflections on the Not-So-Amazing Financial Life of Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man
The Amazing Spider-Man

The Spider-Man films have grossed a worldwide total of nearly $2.5 billion for Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony (SNE), and this week's reboot of the franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, has already raked in $50.2 million after opening strongly in several Asian markets.

And that's just how well Spidey has done on film -- entirely ignoring the big money he's earned over the years from comic books, cartoons and merchandising.

Yet the riches generated by the Spider-Man story contrast sharply with the financial state of the hero himself, who frets constantly about money. The irradiated spider that gave him superhuman strength, arachnoid agility, and preternatural threat-perception did nothing to exempt him from the exigencies of life as a struggling resident of working-class Forest Hills, Queens.

Unlike his peers at the top of the superhero totem pole -- the impossibly wealthy Batman, whose resources are unlimited, or the otherworldly Superman, who is exempt from most human constraints -- Spider-Man seems almost to thrive on the meagerness of his means, the nervous energy of his neediness lending an urgency and a hunger to his stories.

In fact, in the first Spider-Man comic book, it was Peter's need for cash that drove him to don a costume, after a TV producer discovered him at a professional wrestling match ("$100 to the man who can stay in the ring three minutes with Crusher Hogan"). "With that act of yours," the producer tells Peter, "I can make you a fortune! And keep the mask angle – it's great showmanship! Here's my card! Call me! You'd be a smash on Ed Sullivan's show!"

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"As his first TV spectacular ends," the comic's narration intones, "Peter Parker breathes the first sweet scent of fame and success" -- and instantly it goes to his head. When a thief runs down a corridor past Peter, the nascent Spider-Man ignores a policeman's shout for help in detaining him. Without Peter's intervention, the criminal makes it safely to an elevator and escapes. "What's with you, Mister??" the officer demands. "All you hadda do was trip him, or hold him just for a minute!" "Sorry, pal!" Peter responds, with newfound arrogance. "That's your job. I'm thru being pushed around – by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one – that means – me!"

The Amazing Spider-Man
The Amazing Spider-Man

In the manner of such morality tales, Peter pays dearly for his hubris: That same thief goes on to shoot and kill Peter's beloved Uncle Ben in the course of a botched robbery. Despondent and guilt-ridden, Peter despairs -- "now, Uncle Ben is gone and Aunt May and I are alone! And what's worse, without Uncle Ben, we've no money to pay our bills!" -- while his widowed aunt fends off the landlord. Peter resolves "to quit school and get a job," but fails to find employment; meanwhile, May turns to pawning her jewelry.

In desperation, Peter considers a career as a thief: "With my powers as Spiderman, I can do anything! I can go anywhere! No one, nothing can stop me! Any amount of money could be mine – just for the taking!" But he thinks better of it, deciding instead to return to performance. The producer insists on paying him with a check, "so there's a record for taxes." A problem arises: What name should he write the check out to? Insisting on keeping his identity secret, Peter instructs him to make it out to Spider-Man. Displaying again that dangerous bigheadedness, he disregards the producer's warning. "A tough time cashing it, eh?" Peter says, cavalierly. "Well, we'll just see about that!"

What follows is at once predictable and surprising: Peter, in his Spider-Man garb, is denied access to his "desperately-needed" money by the bank teller, on the grounds that he cannot prove who he is. Predictable because of the absurdity of Peter's request: as the teller says, "Don't be silly! Anyone can wear a costume! Do you have a Social Security card, or a driver's license in the name of Spiderman??"; surprising because such quotidian indignities were not usually the stuff of superhero comics, although they would become a signature of Spider-Man storytelling.

Perpetually cash-strapped, Peter eventually finds a means of monetizing his role as Spider-Man, taking photographs of his alter ego in action and selling them to J. Jonah Jameson, irascible publisher and editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle. But even this clever solution is tainted by humiliation, for Jameson is the architect of a vicious smear campaign against Spider-Man, and uses Peter's images in his quest of defamation. Needing the money, Peter keeps working for The Bugle -- as a freelancer.

The Amazing Spider-Man
The Amazing Spider-Man

Throughout his career as New York's greatest superhero, Peter is plagued by shabby apartments, Aunt May's expensive medications, and gifts for his cast of radiant girlfriends. But just as Spider-Man manages always to prevail over the villains who attack his city -- the Green Goblin, the Vulture, the Lizard -- Peter finds ways, somehow, to stay solvent (including a stint as a high school science teacher). You might think that an inventor talented enough to create wrist-mounted web-shooting devices, as well as the super-strong adhesive they discharge, would be able to support himself handsomely on the proceeds of his research and development; but maybe the renunciation of a lucrative career in materials science or mechanical engineering is just another aspect of Peter's heroism.

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