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Twenty years later, ‘Spider-Man’ is still my superhero origin story

Tobey Maguire dives into action in 2002's “Spider-Man.” (Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection)

I was supposed to be a sports reporter. But then “Spider-Man” happened.

During college, I thought I was the impending biracial version of sports columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon — the Avengers of my college years — and you couldn’t tell me otherwise.

But then I walked into my first theatrical viewing of Sam Raimi’s 2002 love letter to Spider-Man creators Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. I walked out not only convinced that I’d seen one of the greatest contributions to comic book culture, but also with a determination to somehow one day be a part of it. It was a culture that, 20 years ago this week, was on the cusp of taking over Hollywood in a way that no one expected.

Hey kid, you did it. Look at you writing about Spider-Man in The Washington Post. Kevin Feige couldn’t have crafted a better plotline.

For Hollywood, “Spider-Man” was the first movie to have a $100 million opening weekend, the best superhero movie since 1989′s “Batman” and the foundation of what would eventually become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But for me, “Spider-Man” marked a monumental shift in my approach to life. It’s when I realized my love of comics would never leave me.

I would see the movie four more times in theaters. But my first time was on May 2, 2002, the Thursday before I became the first Betancourt in my family to graduate from college. And not for lack of trying. My grandfather Eligio helped integrate Mount Vernon, Va., when he arrived from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, at the age of 8. An overwhelmingly white D.C. suburb in the 1940s and ’50s? Not exactly a place where I’d be dying to make a Quantum Leap. But my grandfather became one of the best football players the state of Virginia had ever seen and earned a scholarship to North Carolina State. Turns out Northern Virginia was as far south as the Betancourts could tolerate back then. And he might have skipped a Saturday class or two. He dropped out and headed to New York to find a Puerto Rican bride — and met Anna Maria Robles, the best grandmother ever. Then he moved back to the D.C. suburbs to start a new Betancourt universe.

In 1982, I was already 2 years old when my father, Eligio David, made it to his freshman year at the University of Maryland (where I now teach a class on superhero culture). He was a high school football star too. A quarterback. But he didn’t inherit my grandfather’s hulking 200-plus-pound frame. And he blew out his knee. So no college football for him. When my first of three younger sisters was born in 1986, my father’s upperclassman years faded into real-life parenthood. He never graduated despite being so close.

As I grew up, we bonded over our love of superheroes. At the top of our list of favorites? Spider-Man. The first superhero I ever drew on a sheet of paper? Spider-Man. The first comic book I ever remember reading off the rack of the 7-Eleven around the corner from my grandparents’ house? You guessed it. Spider-Man. Cartoons. Cereal. He’s a big deal in our family. That was before Marvel created one who was half Puerto Rican half African American just like me — and, in full disclosure, I even got to write a Miles Morales/Spider-Man comic in 2021.

Which brings us to that fateful Thursday night in 2002. After four years at Radford University, I was all done. Set to graduate that Saturday, May 4, my father’s 38th birthday (and no, he doesn’t care he was born on Star Wars day, he’s a Star Trek guy — I tried). I was coasting into congratulatory Mahogany Hallmark cards stuffed with money, from my maternal Howard-University-alum aunties. But later that afternoon I received an AOL instant message on my computer from Wade Todd, who was my roommate at Radford during my freshman year back in 1998.

Wade had a friend who worked at the local Radford theater, where I had seen “X-Men” two years prior. Part of that friend’s job was testing out movie reels before they were used for showings and he had to test “Spider-Man.” That friend had invited Wade and told him he could bring someone else along. Wade, easily one of the most influential Americans of my life at this point, remembered that the only thing I talked about more than sports was comics.

Look, I’m not saying that was the greatest phone call I’ve ever received, but I’ve had phone conversations with Rihanna doppelgangers that weren’t as exciting. As a comic-book culture reporter now, seeing a superhero movie early is just part of the job. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have already seen “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (coincidentally, also directed by Raimi). But as a college senior, I thought I had just hit the lottery.

So later that night, me, Wade and a few other people were spread out in a Radford theater. I got caught in the music immediately — it felt like each note was grafting itself onto my DNA. And that’s when the “music by Danny Elfman” credit came on-screen. They got the guy who did the music for “Batman,” I said to myself. I sat back, smiled and prepared for perfection.

And that’s exactly what I got. Raimi’s true appreciation for the Spider-Man comics of his youth glowed on-screen. He framed Maguire’s Peter Parker as a kid who felt as if he could never catch a break, even with superpowers. Elfman’s score had the audacity to be just as good as his music from “Batman.” I watched a 20-something Tobey Maguire join Michael Keaton and Christopher Reeve in the pantheon of the most important superheroes in Hollywood. Willem Dafoe’s villainous Green Goblin was so masterful it totally didn’t matter that they gave him the wrong suit (they should have gone with the classic comics look they initially considered) and it is no surprise he was the MVP of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” two decades later.

But to date, no comic book character has ever come to life on screen as beautifully as J.K. Simmons’s J. Jonah Jameson, editor in chief of the Daily Bugle. If I could turn him screaming “PARKER” into a ringtone, I would. It’s symphonic.

After the movie ended on Spider-Man swinging around New York, my braces could not contain the wattage of my smile.

This wasn’t just a superhero movie. This was change. Even as a college student who had buried one too many ledes, with no professional journalism clout to my name, I knew that Hollywood wouldn’t be able to ignore comics anymore. That we would see more comic book movies that weren’t afraid of their source material. And not just Spider-Man sequels. This was a movement. All those comics books I had been reading my entire life? They mattered now.

Oh, but what about graduation? Yes, two days later I received my degree in media studies from Radford University. As I crossed the stage, I saw my father and grandfather waiting for me. I had become the first Betancourt to make it across the finish line — and when I walked down the steps they gave me a three-generation bear hug.

“It’s about time,” my father then said. “How does it feel?”

My response was the first thing that came to mind.

“I saw the Spider-Man movie,” I said. “It was incredible.”

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