The Low-Key Housing Politics of Spider-Man
With Spider-Man: Far From Home hitting theaters earlier this month, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken one of the series’ biggest risks yet: pulling Spider-Man out of New York City. The gravity of this decision is baked into the film’s title — with good reason. More than any other Marvel superhero, Spider-Man is a uniquely urban superhero. Of course, his iconic powers — web-slinging and wall-crawling — depend on a forest of skyscrapers. But on a deeper level, Parker’s problems are quintessentially urban.
Repeatedly, Peter encounters the issue of housing affordability, a recurring challenge for him and Aunt May in the comics and a key issue in the Sam Rami films from 2002 to 2007. In the Rami trilogy, Uncle Ben’s death pushes the family’s already-precarious financial situation into a monetary melee. We witness Aunt May desperately attempt to refinance, though she ultimately faces foreclosure and eviction.
Rami’s Spider-Man (2002) stays true to the comics in putting Peter Parker’s family in Forest Hills — a well-heeled Queens neighborhood, depicted in the films as lower-middle class. Their home was assessed this year at approximately $850,000, which would entail a monthly mortgage payment of roughly $3,700 after a hefty downpayment. To make this affordable, Uncle Ben and Aunt May need to somehow make $135,000, a year before property taxes and upkeep. If that’s a stretch for a professional electrician, it’s impossible for a retired homemaker.
The frustrations surrounding Aunt May’s eviction are an important part of Parker’s decision to give up being Spider-Man in the second film, and it’s easy to see why: May’s options post-eviction aren’t pretty. Assuming a standard Social Security check and a payout from Uncle Ben’s death, Aunt May really only has about $1,000 to spend on rent. Rising rents will make it tough to find a decent apartment nearby for that amount.
With a low-odds lottery for below-market units and a long waiting list for public housing, Aunt May will likely be moving out of the neighborhood, if not out of the city altogether — far from Peter and any social support network she may have had. In the comics, Aunt May dedicates much of her free time after Uncle Ben’s death volunteering full-time with a homeless shelter. It’s a bleak picture, one that adds meaningful weight to Parker’s conflict. Why save a city that won’t even build enough housing for folks like his aunt?
For Peter Parker himself, the situation isn’t much better. While he’s often depicted living in newly posh neighborhoods like Nolita and the East Village, Parker invariably lives in a dump and struggles to make rent in most iterations of the character. In a key moment in last year’s critically-acclaimed PlayStation 4 game Marvel’s Spider-Man, players navigate Peter’s eviction, experiencing first-hand his desperate struggle to collect his (illegally) trashed belongings.
Most of Parker’s rent woes are less intense. In Spider-Man 2 (2004), he’s depicted living in an old SRO or “single-room occupancy,” which combines a private bedroom with a shared kitchen and bathroom. As Paul Groth documents in Living Downtown, SROs were once a major source of affordable housing, but are now illegal under many local zoning codes. An ongoing tension between Parker and his affable immigrant landlord over late rent and poor maintenance extends through Spider-Man 3 (2007), an awkward relationship that should be familiar to most renters.
Parker’s ongoing struggles with making the rent and the gig economy-style work he takes on to make it — from food delivery to freelancing — could explain why he’s so much more likable than the typical billionaire superhero. But as film blogger Cameron Carpenter has pointed out, Peter Parker has conspicuously become richer over time, a phenomenon he calls the “gentrification of Spider-Man.” The Marc Webb films starring Andrew Garfield ignore financial woes altogether, and by Homecoming, Parker reaps the benefits of billionaire patron Tony Stark. Tellingly, Homecoming’s yuppie Aunt May is depicted as having an apartment in Astoria—a gentrifying neighborhood—complete with stainless steel appliances.
Is a Peter Parker who doesn’t struggle with urban problems still Spider-Man? On the one hand, the recent reboot leans heavier into more universal themes like the awkwardness of young love. On the other hand, we’re seeing a smart shift toward greater diversity with characters like Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), reflecting the changing demographics of urban America.
The series will undoubtedly survive. But with a mounting housing shortage and rising rents in many of America’s coastal cities, it would still be nice if, like the rest of us, Peter Parker still had to sweat a little on the first of the month.