There’s a lot being made of superhero science, both by me and also the rest of the world.
Now that superheroes have become a regular thing in the multiplex and not just something that nerds on the fringe of society reads, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask what a real-life superhero would be like.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 marks the fifth time the Marvel web-slinger has made his way onto the modern movie screen. While some of the changes made by Sam Raimi for his series have been switched back to the traditional model (like the organic web shooters being replaced with mechanical ones), the superhero is basically the same. Bitten by a genetically-altered spider, Peter Parker is imbued with special powers unique to spiders.
Watching the new movies and contemplating the powers Peter Park has and doesn’t have got me thinking… Ignoring the actual process of infection for Peter Parker, how likely are his powers really ones that realistically come from spiders?
What would a real-life “Spider Man” be like?
The Answer: Absolutely horrifying. Seriously, the stuff of nightmares.
The key powers that Parker gets that make him like a spider include incredible strength and agility, the ability to climb walls, precognition via spider-sense, and the ability to jump incredible distances. While many spiders seem to have these kinds of abilities, they would not transfer so easily to a human being.
In particular, some spiders’ incredible – dare I say, amazing – ability to jump great distances relies on them having an exoskeleton and open circulatory system. While spiders have their own versions of muscles, as arthropods they carry their skeleton on the outside in the form of a chitinous shell. You know the crunch you hear and feel when you squish a spider? That’s its exoskeleton rupturing, spilling out all of their vital juices onto the shoe you just used to kill it.
Rather than using their muscles to make this leap, spiders control their blood pressure. Unlike a human’s circulatory system with a network of veins and arteries to carry their blood, spiders use an open circulatory system, which means their insides are filled with an open bath of blood. Spiders use this to make their great leaps by contracting muscles in their abdomen. This creates an area of negative pressure, which draws the blood from their legs, causing them to extend completely and propel the spider into the air.
So in order for Peter Parker to jump like a spider, his entire circulatory system would have to revert to the open circulatory system used by arthropods. Then, to keep all of his blood and internal organs from spilling all over the streets of Manhattan while swinging overhead, he’d have to develop a hard exoskeleton.
Since this would require changing his external form, he might as well develop the rest of the spider’s external features, including coarse hairs all over his body and six-to-eight eyes that detect rudimentary images, from light and shadow to some pigmentation.
This isn’t even beginning to address Parker growing additional limbs, which was addressed in the comic books during the Six Arms Saga, along with a few of the less grotesque characteristics of spiders.
What about the web shooters?
When Sam Raimi added organic web shooters to his version of Spider-Man, it was a great source of debate among fanboys, so much so that Marc Webb went back to mechanical web shooters for The Amazing Spider-Man series. However, Raimi might have been onto something.
There are few things that are characteristics to all spiders, including eight legs, two body parts (a cephalothorax and an abdomen), and the ability to produce silk. All species of spiders produce silk, even those that do not spin webs to catch their prey. The need for mechanical shooters would be unnecessary because silk production should be an essential element of Peter’s borrowed spider biology.
However, there’s a catch. A spider does not shoot webbing out of its appendages. It spins silk from the bottom of its abdomen, right between its sex organs and its anus. That’s right: were Peter Parker to develop realistic spider abilities, his skin-tight costume would need to have an easy-access opening to shoot webbing from his taint.
Simply going by outward appearance, a realistic Spider Man would be a massive arthropod covered in an external shell with coarse hairs, eight eyes, and webbing shooting out of his crotchless Spidey-Suit. Not exactly the superhero you want saving the day.
But would this Spider Man even be a hero?
Hardly. As Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) says in David Cronenberg’s The Fly: “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect.”
Sure, he’s talking about a different type of arthropod, but arachnids don’t fall very far from that tree. Spiders may keep the insect population under control, but they are a brutal order of animals.
Firstly, with the exception of the Bagheera kiplingi spider in Central America, all species of spiders are carnivorous. They either actively stalk their prey or passively capture it in their webs. Because spiders lack any sort of hard mandibles, they must liquefy their food before they can feast. This involves sometimes injecting their prey with venom to dissolve the body into liquid form. Again, similar to Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) in The Fly, Gwen Stacy would likely run screaming from a dinner date with Peter Parker.
And that would be a wise move on her part because the after-dinner sex would be equally as horrifying, and most likely unfulfilling for the both of them. Male spiders fertilize the females’ eggs by spinning what is known as a “sperm web,” a silken structure upon which they ejaculate and mop up with structures known as pedipalps so they can later deposit it in the female. Some spiders even leave their palps on the female to continue distributing sperm while they run away. Turned on yet?
Of course, the love-making only lasts for so long with some species as the female is likely to attack and consume the male after doing the deed. I suppose buying her dinner beforehand would be a waste of money.
The only thing keeping our Spider Man alive at this point is that Gwen Stacy is a full-blown human, and if the liquefaction of live prey at dinner didn’t send her running, the thought of a sperm web from a Brundlefly version of Spider Man surely would.