By Brian M. Rafferty
For the first time in film history, a superhero from Queens is preparing to hit movie theaters. And unlike superheros who have come before him, he’ll probably stick to the screen.
The Amazing Spider-Man, as those of us who grew up on the Marvel Comics high school nerd turned superhero call him, will make the jump to the silver screen Friday in the Columbia Pictures/Marvel Entertainment film “Spider-Man,” starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Willem Dafoe. But for those who were born before 1969, this enigma in red and navy blue may be just that—after all, who is Spider-Man, and why should anybody from Queens care?
Peter Parker, a high school science genius from Forest Hills, is working after school in the lab one day on a radioactive serum for a spider (though we never really find out why he was playing with a glowing arachnid in the first place), and he is bitten. The radioactive venom sinks into his veins, and he is forever changed.
Parker suddenly realizes that he can do things no normal human can — like stick to walls and jump straight up in the air to the top of his school—and he has gained superhuman strength.
Filmed on location in early 2001 in Forest Hills, other places in Queens and in Manhattan, the story of Spider-Man stands as an allegory for the rise of Queens’ importance in business, arts and culture.
Yes, this sounds like a far-reaching idea, but let me explain.
Parker is no superhero by nature. He lives in Forest Hills with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and is considered by many to be just your average kid with a good head on his shoulders. He isn’t built like Clark Kent (Superman) or fabulously wealthy like Bruce Wayne (Batman). He does not stand out.
Queens, as former Borough president Claire Shulman said last week, used to be just the same. A string of bedroom communities serving Manhattan, Queens was just one of the other boroughs—not cosmopolitan on its own, it lived in the shadow of Manhattan.
Lived in the shadow, that is, until residents and leaders decided to make a name for their borough—decided to stand out.
Like Queens, Parker decided to make a name for himself. He made the decision to be a hero, which is not easy. Just like Queens’ struggle to develop economically and culturally, Parker set out to make changes.
But beyond such intangible abstracts as motivation, ambition and pride, there is another, more tangible connection between Parker’s role in his world and the context of Queens as a borough within New York.
Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent both live in comic book versions of New York City. But Peter Parker is not from Manhattan. He is from Queens. He has the same talent, but without the flash and pretense. He is not some overly muscular do-gooder mingling with the urban elite. Though he has all the best attributes of a superhero, when his patrols are done for the night, he goes home and watches TV with his aunt, or goes on a date with his high school sweetheart, Mary Jane Watson.
Queens, too, has the best attributes of Manhattan, and also without the pretense. The borough is thriving with development; property values are up; there is a richness of arts and entertainment institutions that did not exist in the 1970s; and businesses that would normally be limited to Manhattan have grounded themselves in Queens.
This film could not have been set in Queens 25 years ago. Hollywood did not respect us unless there was a mob movie to be made. But just as we have developed, so, too, has the attitude of Hollywood toward Queens. Just look at Silvercup Studios and the other major players that have developed in Queens’ growing film industry.
Spider-Man is truly a Queens hero, and Queens is a borough that has stepped forward as a major presence on the world stage. The two were meant for each other and have echoed each other’s development along the way.