Over the course of 50 years of comics, cartoons, and movies, Spider-Man has undergone hundreds if not thousands of permutations. He's acquired alien costumes; he's gained alien powers. He grew four extra arms; he drove around New York City in a car that could drive up walls. He got married; he got his marriage annulled by Satan. He was replaced by a clone who wore a hoodie as a costume; he was replaced by an African-American teenager; he was replaced by Doctor Octopus. But through all of those storylines, one thing has persisted: the nine words that concluded his very first adventure back in 1962's "Amazing Fantasy" #15:
"With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!"
Those nine little words, the core values beneath almost every single Spider-Man story in the fifty years since, have inspired millions of fans -- but not, apparently, a small segment of those fans who use the Internet as a place to spew hatred and intolerance. These commenters, cloaked in anonymity, possess an enormous power -- the ability to communicate with the entire world. Somehow, though, these so-called Spider-Man fans remain totally oblivious to the responsibility that should come with that power.
I could have written these words about any number of extreme cases of Internet fandom's thoughtless cruelty, but in this case I'm referring to yesterday's reaction to the first images from the set of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." The pictures feature actress Shailene Woodley in the role of Mary Jane Watson. Mary Jane, who was played in the previous trilogy of "Spider-Man" films by Kirsten Dunst, is a vitally important character in the Spider-Man mythos (she's the character Peter Parker married and, later, devil-divorced). She is also, as illustrated by the many talented draftsmen employed by Marvel Comics, stunningly beautiful, and some Internet commenters felt that Woodley was not physically qualified to portray such a character. That prompted many nerds to unleash a spew of venom at Woodley so intense it would make Eddie Brock uncomfortable.
At Cinema Blend, after one reader said Woodley looked "horrible" and hoped "they can do something with that face of hers," another reader suggested they "Burn it with fire." One of many members of the Superhero Hype message board community declared that "whoever cast her should be fired" and that Woodley represented "a slap in the face to Stan Lee's vision. If they wanted ugly they should have featured [one of Peter Parker's other comic book girlfriends]." This morning at ComicBookMovie.com, a writer named Mark Cassidy wrote an "editorial" entitled "Making Shailene Woodley Hot Enough to Play MJ in TASM 2." On Twitter, he insisted the piece was written as a satire of other geeks' outraged reactions, but many readers missed the joke and simply agreed with him. "This girls is a few sammiches short to play MJ," read one of the first reactions.
I think it was Stan Lee -- or maybe it was Gerry Conway, I forget -- who said "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." To each his own. If you really and truly think that Shailene Woodley is ugly, then I pity you and your inability to derive pleasure from this world. Here, for your sleazy ogling fun, is a publicity still from the movie "The Descendants" where she's wearing a bikini. If that woman is ugly then I'm a hideous troll who should live under a bridge, begging passersby for change and occasionally eating rats.
Back at Cinema Blend, Katey Rich puts the whole Shailene Woodley-isn't-pretty thing into sharp focus -- but to me, how Woodley looks is almost irrelevant. She could have four eyeballs and three ears and a third arm growing out of her back -- that still wouldn't make it okay for anyone to hurl vicious insults at her because she doesn't perfectly resemble the unattainable dream girl they know from the comic books.
Once again, I wonder whether these fans have ever read "Amazing Fantasy" #15, or really any Spider-Man comics. Before a bite from an irradiated spider gave Peter Parker his super-powers, he was mercilessly bullied by Flash Thompson and the rest of the cool kids at Midtown High School. This, of course, is a big reason why he's such a fantasy figure for downtrodden social misfits -- like me back when I was 13. Part of what makes Peter Parker such an inspiring figure is that he's the school dweeb made good -- and when he does make good, he doesn't use his powers to hurt the people who used to pick on him. In time, he even becomes friends with Flash Thompson.
When I see these people hurling brutal insults at Shailene Woodley, or female film critics who don't like "The Avengers," I wonder whether readers of "Amazing Spider-Man" comics these days identify with Flash Thompson instead of Peter Parker. Because that's who they act like: mean, vindictive bullies. They might say in their defense that they don't mean it, or they're only joking. So what? I'm sure the bullies who tripped me, and knocked over my books, and called me Matt Singer Booger Flinger thought they were hilarious (on a related note: eating boogers is not the same as flinging them, guys. Seriously).
That anonymous user at Superhero Hype was right when he used the phrase "a slap in the face to Stan Lee's vision" -- only the slap in the face here isn't Woodley, it's these jokers who think it's okay to spend their days abusing people in the name of "Spider-Man" fans. Well I'm a Spider-Man fan, and they don't speak for me. I think Shailene Woodley could make a great Mary Jane. I look forward to seeing what she brings to the role. And I hope at some point the guys leaving these comments break out their copies of "Amazing Fantasy" #15 and reread those all-important nine words. They seem to have forgotten them.