Reviewed by Viola Burlew
Sean O’Connell. With Great Power: How Spider-Man Conquered Hollywood During the Golden Age of Comic Book Blockbusters. Essex, Connecticut: Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2022. http://applausebooks.com/books/9781493066193
There is perhaps no more iconic character in the Marvel universe than Spider-Man. Over the course of sixty years, various creative teams have depicted the web-slinger as an “everyday” superhero, from the first of his kind to his present-day status as a figurehead of the type. To examine the impact the character has had on superhero culture requires examining the intricacies of multiple versions of the character in print and digital media alike.
Sean O’Connell’s With Great Power… achieves this feat and more. O’Connell’s work follows the growth of Spider-Man from a comic book fill-in feature to the big screen’s friendly neighborhood, billion-dollar-generating hero.
Decade by decade, he analyzes how different adaptations of Spider-Man have shaped both the character and the superhero film industry itself. He works his way from the 1960s to the 1990s in the book’s earliest chapters, demonstrating how repeated production failures adapting Spider-Man indicated a general apathy towards the comic book film genre. These early attempts to create an on-screen hero lacked a recognizable comic book feel, an element O’Connell argues is necessary to have a successful, and faithful, adaptation, in part due to technological limitations. Financial and licensing issues played their own part in delaying Spider-Man's appearance on the big screen, as O'Connell further details in his discussion of James Cameron's unproduced Spider-Man film of the 1990s. As a result, it is not until the 2000s that a Spider-Man appears with any kind of memorability on the big screen.
It is from this moment forward, with the development of Sam Rami’s Spider-Man films, that O’Connell can truly delve into the complexities surrounding the on-screen character and subsequent adaptations. O’Connell’s close analyses of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland’s depictions of the character, coupled with detailed accounts of Sony and Marvel’s bargaining over Spider-Man’s rights and marketability, reveal just how crucial Spider-Man was to the creation of the now-popular superhero universes. Strikingly, O’Connell does not pit these films against one another in his analysis. Instead, he traces their progression up to the present day, arguing that each Spider-Man product is a worthy successor to that which came before it. Though he clearly outlines certain missteps, his arc of Spider-Man media points to a consistent rise in quality, with each new film meaning something different to its creators and, crucially, its audience.
While the book is a chronological approach to Spider-Man’s development, O’Connell also offers readers a brief history of the superhero film market itself. He argues that Spider-Man has long been at the center of the genre’s development, with production companies seeing Spider-Man as the character that would launch a great wave of superhero films and sequels. In building these stories around a single character, O’Connell demonstrates that Spider-Man not only “conquered” the blockbuster golden age, but that the genre grew out of and around him.
With Great Power clearly demonstrates O’Connell’s passion for Spider-Man’s character and history. One of the text’s great strengths is O’Connell’s ability to tell these stories with a touch of personal flair—not a bias that privileges one adaptation over the other, but a fondness that seems to stem from genuine care for the character’s legacy. His interest in Spider-Man as a fan could be expanded upon; an occasional weakness of the text is the cursory nature of fan community responses, which undercuts O’Connell’s discussion of Spider-Man reboots and recasting. But this absence is largely secondary in examining the overall depth of O’Connell’s work and his apparent affection for Spider-Man.
This affection is precisely what makes for the most powerful portions of the text. O’Connell shares not only his own personal identification with Spider-Man, but others’ identification as well. He references Rami’s personal connections to Spider-Man, Garfield’s great love of the character, and Holland’s attachment to the role. These moments, in which creative teams find themselves reflecting on their personal relationship with the character, provide the evidence for O’Connell’s richest claim: that “Spider-Man belongs to everyone, and he belongs to no one.” (129) As much as Spider-Man legitimately belongs to the corporations who have battled over him, O’Connell emphasizes that Spider-Man also “belongs” to those that see themselves as embodying some element of his character. Their attachment to him gives them stake in his narratives, in the pieces of themselves they see reflected into him. When these are the individuals creating Spider-Man narratives, this fondness of him is what O’Connell sees as part of each adaptation’s success. While corporations create the need for constant creation and remakes, Spider-Man is at his best when he, even for a moment, “belongs” to someone who cares about his history and his legacy.
This guiding ideology shapes With Great Power into a character study predominantly about the power of connection and personal truth in adaptation. These emotional moments of recognition, shared among Spider-Man’s many makers, are what make the character truly great. O’Connell reflects on this in his final discussions of the most recent Spider-Man adaptations, Into the Spider-Verse and No Way Home. These final films emphasize the hero’s place among a vast multiverse, where many Spider-people, and Spider-creators, can find themselves reflected in the character’s story. O’Connell concludes his analysis here, with two overarching takeaways: Spider-Man’s history is fascinating, and his legacy is powerful.
Overall, O’Connell weaves an intricate web through the superhero movie genre with Spider-Man constantly at its center. With Great Power deftly demonstrates not just the power of the superhero film, or the power of a classic character, but the potential for greatness still to come from a character that wields as much power in our universe as he does in his own.
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