Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Peter is a skinny, wimpy, thoroughly relatable high school senior. He gets picked on by his classmates, he has a BFF named Harry, and he's madly in love with his neighbor, Mary Jane. He lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Queens. They're kind of corny, but they're loving surrogate parents for Pete.
Call to Adventure
On a field trip to the Columbia University science department, Peter suffers a bite from a genetically engineered super spider.
Okay, "suffers" is probably too harsh a word here since that gnarly looking spider bite gives Peter a set of rad superpowers: enhanced strength and speed, the ability to crawl up walls, web shooters, and precognition. Peter is physically transformed into a buff dude capable of stopping the bullies that once picked on him. He's capable of stopping criminals, too.
Refusal of the Call
Peter refuses to use his enhanced abilities to stop a robber who holds up the wrestling tournament Peter just participated in. In this moment, he's called to use his superpowers for good; when he lets the robber go, he essentially says, "Thanks, but no thanks."
And his uncle winds up dead as a result. Whoops.
Meeting the Mentor
On graduation day, when Peter is missing Uncle Ben something fierce, Aunt May reminds Peter that Uncle Ben loved him and knew he was destined to do great things. In effect, she represents both herself and Ben now, mentoring Peter by proxy and reminding him of his values and what he's fighting for.
Crossing the Threshold
Peter gives Spider-Man's costume a much-needed upgrade, and Spider-Man hits the streets of New York, stopping criminals left and right. Gone is the bitter teen who refused to stop a thief.
Public opinion about Spidey and his crime-fighting motives are mixed, but he's officially made his presence known to the denizens of New York City…including a certain glider-riding supervillain.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Peter's chief allies are his best friend, Harry, and his oldest friend, Mary Jane, with whom he's also secretly in love. The whole situation is complicated by the fact that once Peter and Harry become roommates after high school, Harry and Mary Jane start dating. Sorry, Pete.
Peter's #1 enemy, as Spider-Man, is the Green Goblin. Gobby firmly believes that people are terrible: they'll never appreciate the sacrifices you make; all they'll do is betray you. The Green Goblin proposes that he and Spidey team up and become allies, presumably in chaos and destruction, fueled by their bitterness over being taken for granted by the world.
Spider-Man also faces minor opposition from J. Jonah Jameson, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle who insists that Spider-Man is a public menace, even while everybody's favorite wall-crawler is out there stopping burglaries and saving babies.
Throughout his journey, Spider-Man faces several tests. The first big one is stopping the Green Goblin when he crashes Oscorp's World Unity Festival. He's too late to stop Gobby from blowing up Oscorp's board, but he saves Mary Jane's life, as well as the lives of countless ordinary citizens.
Later, the Green Goblin shows up at the Daily Bugle and hits Spider-Man with knockout gas. He doesn't kill him; he takes him to a quiet, little out-of-the-way place and proposes that they team up. Next, the Green Goblin lures Spider-Man into a burning building. When Spider-Man formally declines his offer to be partners, he and the Green Goblin throw down again.
After a while, the Green Goblin starts to feel less like Spider-Man's nemesis and more like his stalker.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
This is where our hero prepares for his biggest challenge. In Spider-Man, it's also where our hero eats turkey. At Thanksgiving dinner, when Norman spots the cut on Peter's arm, he realizes his son's pal is his nemesis, Spider-Man.
The stakes have officially been raised. Now that Norman and the Green Goblin know Spidey's secret identity, they know how to focus their attack for maximum impact.
When Aunt May is attacked, Peter faces his greatest fear. With his identity exposed, his loved ones are no longer safe. At least the Green Goblin doesn't know that he loves Mary Jane. Yet.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Peter and M.J. have an intimate heart-to-heart in Aunt May's hospital room as Aunt May, Peter's only family, rests—and eavesdrops—peacefully. Peter tells M.J. what he told Spider-Man about her (i.e., that she's, like, the most awesome girl ever), and Mary Jane and Peter hold hands. Aww.
The Road Back
The Green Goblin kidnaps Mary Jane and holds her hostage on top of the Queensboro Bridge. See, Harry, not knowing what he was doing, told Norman that Peter is in love with M.J., which means the Green Goblin knows exactly how to get to Spider-Man. Whoops.
Spider-Man comes to M.J.'s aid and rescues her. He also saves a tramway car full of innocent kids in the process after Gobby tries to force Spider-Man to choose between the two. Spider-Man: all about that multitasking.
The resurrection is where the hero returns order to the world and ends the conflict. Here, it's when Spider-Man defeats the Green Goblin once and for all. Technically, we suppose the Green Goblin kind of defeats himself since he's impaled by his own glider after Spider-Man dodges it, but still.
With the Green Goblin gone, Spider-Man/Peter can breathe easier. We're sure that pesky little matter of Harry vowing to avenge his father's death will just resolve itself, right? Right?
Return with the Elixir
Peter returns to his ordinary world a changed man. When M.J. confesses her love for him (finally), he tells her he'll always be her friend. He tells the audience that he'll never forget Uncle Ben's words—"with great power comes great responsibility"—and that he's got a job to do because he's Spider-Man.
It's his gift because he can stop crime and save lives, and it's his curse because he can't live happily ever after with M.J., 2.5 spider-children, and a white picket fence.