Another nice touch in The Amazing Spider-Man is the moment when Peter hears that he’s second in his high school class. He doubts this. He’s not being modest. He’s pretty sure he’s number one.
That cockiness is characteristically Spidey. But here’s the thing.
I forget who said it but it describes Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man pretty well. Whoever it was said that while Superman is a cool guy who pretends to be a nerd, Spider-Man is a nerd pretending to be cool. Part of the act is Spidey’s cockiness. The pretense falls away as Peter gets used to the fact that he is Spider-Man and Spider-Man is cool. The key here is that being Spider-Man makes Maguire’s Peter cocky. Andrew Garfield’s Spidey is cocky because Peter Parker is cocky. So in that way he’s already Spider-Man.
But that’s just one way. He’s already Spider-Man in a number of ways before the spider bites him.
The Amazing Spider-Man follows the lead of Captain America: The First Avenger here. Steve Rogers is already Captain America in his heart and in his actions before he's given the super-soldier serum. That's why Dr Erskine picks him for the project. That's why the serum works. I'm not saying the spider's bite works on Peter the same way or for the same reasons. What it does though is give him the ability to express qualities and skills he already has in more forceful and immediately effective ways. But if he hadn't been bit, he'd still have had those qualities and skills and would have used them to help people. He wouldn't have become a superhero, but when we meet him he's already well on his way to becoming a hero.
To start with, he's already at work helping people. He's not bullied. He stands up to bullies on behalf of their targets. He gets his ass kicked for it, but the kid he's trying to protect gets away. Later, after he gets his powers but still doesn't know what to do with them, he helps a classmate whose poster Flash has ruined clean up before he turns his attention to Flash, which shows that he is reflexively kind before he is consciously vengeful.
Then there's the skateboard. Never mind the cliched cultural signifiers we could spend days unpacking. It marks him as athletic. Not a team player but despite the rep, not anti-social. Alternately solitary and gregarious. Alone but happy to be part of a group now and then. A daredevil. (Apologies to Matt Murdoch.) Someone for whom gravity is a challenge and even a personal affront. Someone used to working upside down and up in the air, far enough above ground level that a fall would hurt more than his pride and who never gives that a thought.
And he’s a scientist, which, as I said in Spidey Note Number Three, is useful because he has to build his webshooters, but is integral to his being Spider-Man because mad scientists make up a major demographic among his enemies. But that’s just it. Building useful gadgets and thwarting the schemes of mad scientists are things he can already do or will soon be able to do. Even without spider powers, Peter Parker would the one with the knowledge and know-how to defeat the Lizard. Which is to say that he’s on his way to using his powers for good and not for evil before he has superpowers.
He’s got what it takes to be a crimefighter too.
He's sneaky, duplicitous, and audacious in the way spies, private eyes, and undercover detectives have to be. As Spider-man, Peter doesn't often do the kind of detective work Batman does, but he does do it. More than most Marvel superheroes he works by stealth. Because he can look in windows no one thinks to shutter or curtain because they're too high up, he looks in them. Because he can follow people, on foot and in cars, who don't think to look up to make sure they're not being tailed, he follows them. Because he can get in and out of crime scenes to look for clues without anyone knowing he was there, he does it. As a crimefighter, he spies, he eavesdrops, he sneaks around as a matter of routine. What this adds up to is that he observes and he thinks. He sees everything. That's what the camera symbolizes.
Of course what it also symbolizes is his distance from other people. As a photographer he's interested in others but he remains apart. Which is the superhero's tragedy. Caring about and for everybody but close to no one. But what makes Peter a good photographer is that he sees things others miss. He looks from different angles. He finds groupings, discovers connections, picks out details that less observant eyes pass over. In other words, he looks for clues and makes deductions. That's the detective at work. That's the scientist at work too. But doing science is often doing detective work. When Peter unpacks his father's briefcase, he treats each item inside as a piece of a puzzle and starts arranging and rearranging them until he finds how they fit together. He studies each item in isolation too, to see what they can tell him individually. Except that he has no Watson to make him explain his thinking as he goes, he's like Sherlock Holmes looking over a left behind walking stick or a dropped bowler hat, and it's worth remembering that Sherlock Holmes was an amateur scientist and regarded what he did as a science. Batman's a scientist too.
All of this is well set up in the early going of the movie, before Peter takes to webspinning. And it’s brought together by Martin Sheen’s portrayal of Uncle Ben, which I’ll deal with either in another Spidey Note or in my formal review. For now, though, it’s enough to note that Uncle Ben regards Peter as a hero in the making right from the start. And that’s based on his understanding of Peter’s character as much as on his regard for Peter’s abilities and achievements. His last voice mail, which is a less succinct but also less bombastic and portentous version of “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t a lecture, it’s an extended compliment. There’s something of an apology in it too. Uncle Ben is sorry that Peter has grown past Uncle Ben’s ability to help him and he knows Peter is going to need help where he’s going. But in that he’s telling Peter that sees Peter going places where he will be needed. He is envisioning Peter as a hero.
Which scares him for Peter’s sake but fills him with pride and admiration too.
So it’s there. Peter is already Spider-Man just as surely as Steve Rogers is already Captain America and Smallville’s Clark Kent is already Superman. The movie sets it up neatly and then…does nothing with it.
And that’s something I’ll have to deal with in the formal review. But for now, here’s a clue to what I think the movie left out: