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Poor Peter Parker: The Gentrification of Spider-Man

Cameron Carpenter

Why are all of our heroes rich? It seems a fairly new phenomenon, and it’s one that is often overlooked despite the financial narratives surrounding such characters as Harry Potter, James Bond, or Iron Man. Not every protagonist is defined by their bank account, but there are permeating footnotes throughout their stories that always remind us of their wealth: Potter is left behind a fortune by his parents, Bond seems to have the entire Bank of England at his disposal, and it could be argued that, like Batman, Iron Man wouldn’t be much of a superhero without the benefits of being a CEO to a multi-billion dollar company.

One such protagonist that was never supposed to fall into the trope of “rich hero” was that of Peter Parker, the teenage boy who has sported different iterations of the Spider-Man spandex over the course of six films. And while Peter is never truly defined as wealthy in any of these movies, there has been an odd gentrification of his character since his debut in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN in 2002.

Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN (2002).

There’s a lot to love about Raimi’s Spidey flicks, but arguably the most interesting elements of them come from the financial crises of its main and supporting characters. Consider Peter’s entire justification for his own origin story: after entering a contest in an effort to win prize money for a car, he allows a thief to escape with the cash that was once promised to him so he can screw over the contest holder. Minutes later, Peter’s first real outing as Spider-Man comes to a tragic close as the robber kills Uncle Ben and then (arguably) dies by Peter’s hand.

Peter’s money troubles would persist throughout the series, but other characters would feel his pain. Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s next door neighbor, always finds herself dating men with money to burn (Flash, Harry, JJ Jameson’s son), but is never shown to have any herself. As the films progress, she has a short-lived career as a successful actress and model, only to find herself working the morning shifts as a waitress or a lowly-paid lounge singer. She and Peter come from similar backgrounds, though the film is careful to pepper her narrative with hints at an abusive relationship with her father — due arguably to the family’s strain on cash.

The passing of Uncle Ben leaves a financial disaster in the life of Aunt May, who, in the beginning of SPIDER-MAN 2, cannot keep up with her bills. In the first ten minutes of the film, we see she can’t come to grips with her reality as she implores Peter to take twenty dollars for his birthday. By the end of the movie, she’s moved out of her small home where she lived with Ben, and resides somewhere else in the city.

Peter doesn’t fare too well living on his own. His apartment in SPIDER-MAN 2 and 3 is small, dilapidating, and comes with an intrusive landlord always pestering him for his rent. Even when he wants to splurge on a night out celebrating MJ, he can’t afford an entire bouquet of flowers, and he’s constantly negotiating photo prices of Spider-Man with his boss J. Jonah Jameson — sometimes even asking for advances with which he can never keep up. Hell, even glimpses of Peter’s closet show he’s lacking in clothes that aren’t his Spider-Man costume. These are the small details of the film that make Peter relatable. Human. A character worth rooting for, as we know he could likely make all of his money problems go away if he just revealed his identity as the world’s (so far as we know) only superhero.

Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012).

Marc Webb’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN series works to take much of Peter’s money problems away. The movies function more to create a moody vibe of Peter’s outcast nature at school, and, if anything, only really loosely imply that he’s not exceptionally wealthy (before Uncle Ben dies, his foster parents have a nice home). THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 comes with the reveal that Peter’s parents were fairly well-to-do, as they were scientists or spies or…something. The movie traces Peter following (expensive) breadcrumbs his father left behind so the plot can progress and show that Peter’s becoming of Spider-Man was not a happy accident, but rather something fated. Though it is worth noting that there is some financial strain in the film regarding Peter’s relationship with Aunt May — she begins attending nursing school in order to pay her bills due to the absence of Uncle Ben.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

The newest iteration of Spider-Man, however, takes a drastically different turn. While Jon Watts’ Peter Parker in HOMECOMING isn’t rolling in the dough, per say, he does spend the vast majority of the movie in the permeating presence of Tony Stark. He is gifted a Spider-Man suit with all the latest gadgetry and effects for around 70% of the movie, and is sent on a “vacation” during the events of CIVIL WAR when he isn’t fighting Captain America. If I remember correctly, Stark even offers to pay for Peter’s college (Maguire’s Spider-Man went to Columbia on a scholarship). Outside of Tony Stark, HOMECOMING does not really talk about anyone’s financial situation except for that of the movie’s villain Adrian Toomes — a working-class man who turns to crime when he loses his job to Stark’s official clean-up crew.

We aren’t sure if HOMECOMING’s Aunt May works (she was retired in the first two series of films) and if she does, we don’t know what her job is. We know she owns a car (albeit an older one), has a fairly nice apartment, and that she’s paid for five of Peter’s backpacks that he keeps losing. Aside from that, it’s fairly up in the air what Peter’s non-Tony life is like — he mentions early in the film he hasn’t ever been on a plane before, which might be the biggest indicator of his family’s financial status, but also doesn’t expressly tell us all that much.

However, it’s the Tony Stark of it all that left me deeply unsatisfied by Peter’s characterization. Even as a fan of Iron Man myself, I was worried that Stark’s presence in a Spider-Man movie would dull the personal stakes of a character so finely attuned to real-world struggles in his first set of movies. To me (and to the comics until recently), Peter’s status as a poor superhero was, in part, much of who he was. That he was always resisting the temptation to cash in on his identity (the closest thing he does is take Spider-Man pictures) and that he realized helping people was always a greater use of his time than living in luxury — or even living comfortably, for that matter. It sounds odd to want Peter Parker to have to spend half of his next movie paying bills and being screwed over by his peers and job, but so much of that is what makes him different from the other superheroes. Consider the fact that, outside of the Netflix and TV universe, the only individuals of the MCU we’ve seen living with financial uncertainty has been that of Ant-Man, Bruce Banner (but only in THE INCREDIBLE HULK), or various villains like Whiplash and The Vulture. Consider, still, that even the DC movies are loaded with superheroes who are, also, loaded. Wonder Woman, Batman, and Aquaman are all rich in their own right, while Clark Kent’s financial state is never really noted — though he does have a stable job. SUICIDE SQUAD showcases most of the poor of that universe, which is a conclusion I will leave to you.

Pour one out for the poor superheroes. If you can still find them.

Cameron Carpenter

Written by

An ignorable filmmaker with opinions that often have more words than thought.

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