Dorky teen Peter Parker runs after his school bus after missing it. His crush Mary Jane gets the bus to stop, but sits with her jerky boyfriend Flash. Peter arrives at a college for a field trip, where his friend Harry Osborn is dropped off by his rich father Norman, who is impressed by Peter. They tour the university lab and Peter gets bit by a spider, then goes home to his aunt and uncle and heads quickly to bed. He wakes up super-strong.
Why Peter might be hard to identify with: He’s a bit of a mopey sad sack. The main thing he wants is to hook up with the hot girl, which is easy enough to identify with, but also disappointedly unambitious.
- He avoids saying what he wouldn’t say. When Norman Osborn says “Your parents must be very proud of you,” he neither lies nor says “I’m an orphan.” He says, “I live with my aunt and uncle and they are proud.”
- His aunt and uncle talk like real people, not kindly old stereotypes. “Just don’t fall on your ass.” “I’m already on my ass, May.”
- We begin with him running after a school bus that refuses to stop for him, then he gets on and no one will let him sit with them. When he’s trying to meet his crush’s eye on the bus he gets tripped by a bully.
- The ultimate care moment. He thinks his crush is waving to him and waves back, but she was actually waving to her friends behind him, and when they catch up to her she points at Peter and tells them he waved back.
- His best friend uses his facts to hit on the girl he likes.
- He gets, y’know, bit by a spider, which seems to almost kill him.
- He’s super-smart, able to talk to Norman like a colleague. He’s a go-getter, taking pictures for the paper.
- He’s endearingly gung-ho. After he drops a science fact, Harry says, “Peter what would make you think I would want to know that?” Peter perkily responds “Who wouldn’t?”
- He wakes up with super-powers at 17 minutes in.
Peter's opening voiceover does some key work too. As you point out, "He’s a bit of a mopey sad sack. The main thing he wants is to hook up with the hot girl, which is easy enough to identify with, but also disappointedly unambitious." Sure, but his perception of his problems does some of the Believe/Care/Invest work. The first words we hear are Peter's, as he tells us (pulled from IMDB):
Peter Parker: [voiceover] Who am I? You sure you want to know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale... if somebody told you I was just your average ordinary guy, not a care in the world... somebody lied. But let me assure you: This, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl. That girl. The girl next door. Mary Jane Watson. The woman I've loved since before I even liked girls.
[referring to Flash Thompson sitting next to her]
Peter Parker: I'd like to say that's me sitting next to her.
[referring to an overweight kid in front of them messily eating a jelly doughnut]
Peter Parker: Aw, heck, I'd even take him.
[he and the other kids see a nerdy Peter running along the bus, asking to stop]
Peter Parker: That's me.
It starts mopey and annoying, loaded with teenage angst, up to the "somebody lied." But then he changes the tone. First, he gets romantic without self-pity - when he talks about Mary Jane, there's nothing negative. Then he tacks back to moping, but with a little wit. He isn't happy with his life but he doesn't slide into self-pity, and the bus-driving-away moment shows us that he is justified with his unhappiness. He's not Eeyore, looking for reasons to be sad, he's Everybody, noticing that things aren't working out for him and he wished they did.
Peter Parker can be tricky to write, since he can slide into self-pity easily. Bad writers have done it in the comics. The opening of this movie handles it well. Peter can and should be dumped on, and he should know he's being dumped on, and he should hate it, but he should never fall into self-pity. As you say, that's death to audience empathy.
A comment! I was beginning to fear that these 31 days would be barren
All good points. And of course the bus driving away from him means that he can start the movie running, and it's always good to start with some physical activity to prove you're not too mopey.
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