Imagine Peter Parker fighting for good just as himself. Imagine Peter Parker holding signs at protests, chanting for rights. Imagine Peter Parker proudly sporting his Pride shirt during a march. Imagine Peter Parker handing out food at homeless shelters. Imagine Peter Parker defacing public property that puts up anti-homeless bars. Imagine Peter getting arrested and breaking 4 sets of cuffs, calling his dads to come get him because he’s, apparently, “resisting arrest”.
When Tony and Steve get to the station and learn of what Pete was up to, they react VERY differently.
Tony: You are SO grounded! You’re so grounded that gravity is jealous!
Steve, proudly: My baby’s first act of civil disobedience!
can you imagine pepper, rhodey and happy calling a press conference for peter after the whole identity reveal thing and perfectly setting him up to just say that he is a stark intern but then he pulls a tony and goes all “truth is, i am spider-man” and the three of them just lose their shit like NO NOT AGAIN
So, I don't think I've ever asked you this... what IS the whole point of the Spider-Sense? It really seems like something that only exists for writers to ignore or work around when they want to inject Legit Tension into a story.
I’ve thought about this power so much, but never with an eye to defend its right to exist, so I needed to think about this. The results could be more concise.
Ironically, given the question, I have to say its main purpose is to ramp up tension. But it’s also a highly variable multitool that a skilled creative team can use for…pretty much anything. It does everything the writer wants it to, while for its wielder always falls just short of doing enough.
I went looking through my photos for a really generic, classic-looking example to use as an image to head this topic, but then I ran into the time Peter absolutely did not reimburse this man for his stolen McDonald’s, so have that instead.
A Scare Chord, But You Can Draw It
That one post that says the spider-sense is just super-anxiety isn’t, like, wrong. It’s a very anxious, dramatic storytelling tool originally designed for a very anxious, dramatic protagonist. I find it speaks to the overall tone of the franchise that some characters are functionally psychics, but with a psychic ability that only points out problems.
Spidey sense pinging? There’s danger, be stressed! Broken? Now the lead won’t even KNOW when there’s a problem, scary! Single character is immune to it? That’s an invisible knife in the dark oh my god what the fuck what the fU–
Like its counterpart in garden variety anxiety, the only time the spider-sense reduces tension is in the middle of a crisis. But in the wish fulfillmenty way that you want in an adventure story to justify exaggerated action sequences, the same way enhanced strength or durability does. Also like those, it would theoretically make someone much safer to have it, but it exists in the story to let your character navigate into and weather more dangerous situations.
For its basic role in a story, a danger sense is a snappy way to rile up both the reader and the protagonist that doesn’t offer much information beyond that it’s time to sit smart because shit is about to go down.
Spidey comic canon is all over the board in quality and genre, and it started needing to subvert its formulas before the creators got a handle on what those formulas even were, and basically no one has read anything approaching most of it at this point, so for consistent examples of a really bare bones use of this power in storytelling, I’d point to the property that’s done the best job yet of boiling down the mechanics of Spider-Man to their absolute most basic essentials for adaptation to a compelling monster of the week TV series.
Or as you probably know it, Danny Phantom. DON’T BOO, I’M RIGHT.
DP is Spider-Man with about 2/3 of the serial numbers filed off and no death (ironically), and Danny’s ghost sense is the most proof in the formula example of what the spidey sense is for: It’s a big sign held up for the viewer that says, “Something is wrong! Pay attention!” Effectively a visual scare chord. It’s about That Drama. And it works, which won it a consistent place in the show’s formula. We’re talking several times an episode here.
So why does it work?
It’s a little counterintuitive, but it’s strong storytelling to tell your audience that something bad is going to happen before it does. A vague, punchy spoiler transforms the ignorant calm before a conflict into a tense moment of anticipation. …And it makes sure people don’t fail to absorb the beginning of said conflict because they weren’t prepared to shift gears when the scene did. Shock is a valuable tool, too, but treating it like a staple is how you burn out your audience instead of keeping them engaged. Not to go after an easy target, but you need to know how to manage your audience’s alarm if you don’t want to end up like Game of Thrones.
The limits of the spider-sense also keep you on your toes when handled by a smart writer. It tells Peter (everyone’s is a little different, so I’m going to cite the og) about threats to his person, but it doesn’t elaborate with any details when it’s not already obvious why, what kind, and from what. And it doesn’t warn him about anything else– Which is a pretty critical gap when you zoom out and look at his hero career’s successes and failures and conclude that it’s definitely why he’s lived as long as he has acting the way he does, but was useless as he failed to save a string of people he’d have much rather had live on than him.
(Any long-running superhero mythos has these incidents, but with Peter they’re important to the core themes.)
And since this power is by plot for plot (or because it’s roughly agreed it only really blares about threats that check at least two boxes of being major, immediate, or physical), it always kicks in enough to register when the danger is bearing down…when it’s too late to actually do anything about it if “anything” is a more complex action than “dodge”.
Really? Not until the elevator doors started to open?
That Distinctive, Crunchy Spider Flavor
The spider-sense and its little pen squiggles go hand in hand with wallcrawling (and its unique and instantly identifiable associated body language) to make the Spider-Person powerset enduringly iconic and elevate characters with it from being generic mid-level super-bricks. Visually, but also in how it shapes the story.
I said it can share a narrative role with super strength. But when you end a fight and go home, super strength continues to make your character feel powerful, probably safer than they’d be otherwise, maybe dangerous.
The spider-sense just keeps blaring, “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong! God, why aren’t you doing something about this!?”
Pretty morose thing to live with, for a safety net! Kind of a double edged sword you have there! Could be constantly being hyperattuned to problems would prime you for a negative outlook on life. Kind of seems like a power that would make it impossible for a moral person to take a day off, leading them into a beleaguered and resentful yet dutiful attitude about the whole superhero gig! Might build up to some of the core traits of this mythos, maybe! Might lead to a lot of fifteen minute retirement stories, or something. Might even be a built in ‘great responsibility’ alarm that gets you a main character who as a rule is not going to stop fighting until he physically cannot fight anymore.
Certainly not apropos of anything, just throwing this short lived barely-a-joke tagline up for fun.
One of my personal favorite things about stories with superpowers is keeping in mind how they cause the people who have them to act in unusual ways outside of fights, so when you tell me that these people have an entire extra sense that tells them when the gas in their house is leaking through a barely useful hot/cold warning system that never turns off, I’m like, eyes emojis, popcorn out, notebook open, listening intently, spectacles on, the whole deal.
It also contributes to Peter Parker’s personality in a way I really enjoy: It allows him to act like an irrational maniac. When you know exactly when a situation becomes dangerous and how much, normal levels of caution go out the window and absolutely nothing you do makes sense from an exterior standpoint anymore. That’s the good shit. I would like to see more exploration of how the non-Parker characters experiencing the world in this incredibly altered way bounce in response.
It’s also one of many tools in this franchise hauling the reader into relating more closely with the main character. The backbone of classic Spidey is probably being in on secrets only Peter and the reader know which completely reframe how one views the situation on the page. It’s just a big irony mine for the whole first decade. A convenient way to inform the reader and the lead that something is bad news that’s not perceivable to any other characters is youth-with-a-big-exciting-secret catnip.
Another point for tension, there, in that being aware of danger is not synonymous with being able to act on it. If there’s no visible reason for you to be acting strange, well…you’re just going to have to sit tight and sweat, aren’t you? Some gratuitous head wiggles never hurt when setting up that type of conflict.
Have I mentioned that they look cool? Simultaneously punchy and distinctive, with a respectable amount of leeway for artists to get creative with and still coming up with something easily recognizable? And pretty easy to intuit the meaning of even without the long-winded explanations common in the days when people wrote comics with the intent that someone could come in cold on any random issue and follow along okay, I think, although the mechanic has been deeply ingrained in popular culture for so long that I can’t really say for sure.
It was also useful back in the day when no artists drew the eyes on the Spider-Man mask as emoting and were conveying the lead’s expressions entirely through body language and panel composition. If you wiggle enough squiggles, you don’t need eyebrows.
Take This Handwave and Never Ask Me a Logistical Question Again
This ability patches plot holes faster than people can pick them open AND it can act as an excuse to get any plot rolling you can think of if paired with one meddling protagonist who doesn’t know how to mind their own business. Buy it now for only $19.99 (in four installments; that’s four installments of $19.99).
Why can a teenager win a six on one fight against other superhumans? Well, the spider-sense is the ultimate edge in combat, duh.
Why can Peter websling? Why doesn’t everyone websling? Well, the spider-sense is keeping him from eating flagpole when he violently flings himself across New York in a way neither man nor spider was ever meant to move.
How are we supposed to get him involved with the plot this week???? Well, that crate FELT dangerous, so he’s going to investigate it. Oh, dip, it was full of guns and radioactive snakes! Probably shouldn’t have opened that!
Yeah, okay, but why isn’t it fixing everything, then? Isn’t it supposed to be why Peter has never accidentally unmasked in front of somebody? (‘Nother entry for this section, take a shot.) That’s crazy sensitive! How does he still have any problems!? Is everything bad that’s ever happened to characters with this powerset bad writing!? –Listen, I think as people with uncanny senses that can tell us whether we are in danger with accuracy that varies from incredible to approximate (I am talking about the five senses that most people have), we should all know better than to underestimate our ability to tune them out or interpret them wrong and fuck ourselves up anyway. I honestly find this part completely realistic.
*SLAPS ROOF OF SPIDER-SENSE* YOU CAN FIT SO MANY STORIES IN THIS THING
The spider-sense is a clean branch into…whatever. There is the exact right balance of structure and wishy-washiness to build off of. A sample selection of whatevers that have been built:
It’s sci-fi and spy gadgets when Peter builds technology that can interface with it.
It’s quasi-mystical when Kaine and Annie-May get stronger versions of it that give them literal psychic visions, or when you want to get mythological and start talking about all the spider-characters being part of a grand web of fate.
Kaine loses his and it becomes symbolic of a future newly unbound by constraints, entangled thematically with the improved physical health he picked up at the same time – a loss presented as a gain.
Peter loses his and almost dies 782 times in one afternoon because that didn’t make the people he provoked when he had it stop trying to kill him, and also because he isn’t about to start “””taking the subway’’””’ “‘’“”to work”””’’” like some kind of loser who doesn’t get a heads up when he’s about to hit a pigeon at 50mph.
Peter’s starts tuning into his wife’s anxiety and it’s a tool in a relationship study.
It starts pinging whenever Peter’s near his boss who’s secretly been replaced by a shapeshifter and he IGNORES IT because his boss is enough of an asshole that that doesn’t strike him as weird; now it’s a comedy/irony tool.
Into the Spider-Verse made it this beautiful poetic thing connecting all the spider-heroes in the multiverse and stacked up a story on it about instant connection, loss, and incredibly unlikely strangers becoming a found family. It was also aesthetic as FUCK. Remember the scene where Miles just hears barely intelligible whispering that’s all lines people say later in the film and then his own voice very clearly says “look out” and then the room explodes?? Fuck!!!!
Venom becomes immune to it after hitchhiking to Earth in Peter’s bone juice and it makes him a unique threat while telling a more-homoerotic-than-I-assume-was-originally-intended story about violation and how close relationships can be dangerous when they go sour.
It doesn’t work on people you trust for maximum soap opera energy. Love the innate tragedy of this feature coming up.
IN CONCLUSION I don’t have much patience for writers who don’t take advantage of it, never mind feel they need to write around it.
Summary: Y/N catches the eye of one of her male classmates who invites her to an upcoming party. As she weighs her options, Peter takes her out for a treat but old history comes back up.
Word Count: 4.1k
Author’s Note: I hope everyone is safe during this crazy time. Remember: Wear a mask, wash your hands, and only leave your house for necessities! You can literally stay at home and read fanfiction all day and you would be saving lives! I introduced a new male character and I’ll be real, Joshua Bassett needs to be appreciated so I put him in! However, for the character Josh you can think of any celeb or crush you have if you want!