Spiderman and the retelling of stories

My son got the Spiderman PS4 game for Xmas. It is great. Apart from the joyous experience of swinging through Manhattan it has an excellent central plot too.

I’m not a huge Spiderman aficionado, but I’ve seen enough films and childhood cartoons to know most of the folklore and recognise the characters. Especially the way the super-villains are introduced and given various types of an origin story. I liked the idea that in this version the characters are woven together in a different but still recognisable way. This character starts over here doing something with that character. This other character works in this place, but they're interested in that. It’s a good re-telling, and it adds to the enjoyment of the game.

We also saw Mary Poppins Returns over the Christmas period. Again a retelling of a childhood favourite but with certain parts twisted and changed. I have to say I enjoyed it a lot although I would have liked a slightly more Julie Andrews-ish performance from Emily Blunt. It had just the same wonderfully imaginative, good-natured and nutty appeal of the original. It interested me recently, to hear it compared to Star Wars: The Force Awakens for pleasing fans while also creating something new.

It made me think. Quite often I am looking for novelty in the things that interest me. I want to read something I haven’t before and learn something new. The world is so enormous and full of things to discover it seems crazy (especially with the improved access we now enjoy to almost everything) to spend your time reviewing and going over something you’ve seen, understood and digested before.

Quite often I bemoan the bubbles and echo-chambers of social media and get annoyed by continually reading the same sentiments expressed in various ever-so-slightly different ways. It all seems so needless and rubbish, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. People seem to like to do it, and people seem to want to consume it.

Of course, repetition is only really repetition to those who’ve seen a thing before. The world is also big enough to contain a vast number of people who haven’t heard, read, understood or digested this thing previously, no matter what it is. Even the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head will have passed someone by. So repetition is only experienced subjectively and so not definitive as a signifier of worth.

In fact, it is the quality that something has which important. If something has innate quality, repetition can bring something new, and something valuable. It doesn’t mindlessly repeat. It pays homage. And it can only do this by thoroughly understanding the qualities of the original. If the best thing about the original was merely that it was new, then the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty fast.

The retelling of stories is a pastime that’s been with us for ages. The oral tradition of storytelling goes back to the dawn of history. By retelling and reformulating the stories we tell, we help to find what is essential and unique in them. We invite audiences to compare and contrast our version to the previous ones. We allow them to draw their own conclusions about whether we've retained the essence even if we've altered the details.

If a story is worth telling, there is always another angle to take. If a thing is true, there is always more clarity we can bring.