A fan made a Spider-Man film. The fallout has been unexpected.

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A fan made a Spider-Man film. The fallout has been unexpected.
In a photo provided by Joey Lever shows, Joey Lever’s 2014 tribute film, “Spider-Man: Lost Cause,” has inspired fans to make their own videos. (Joey Lever via The New York Times)

by Christopher Kuo

NEW YORK, NY.- In 2020, Gavin J. Konop, a high school junior in Rancho Cucamonga, California, was going through a rough patch in life — his grades were dipping and his friendships strained — so he decided to create a film about his favorite superhero: Spider-Man.

Drawing on various comics, he wanted to tell an emotional story of Spider-Man grappling with personal failure and self-doubt, a tale that would parallel his own problems as a teenager.

This month, Konop’s “Spider-Man: Lotus,” made for $112,000 through crowdfunding, debuted on YouTube after a red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles. It has received about 3.5 million views, but it has also become mired in controversy after screenshots surfaced on social media showing racist texts sent by Konop and the lead actor.

Between the comparatively large budget and the texts controversy, “Lotus” has gone viral, and the resulting attention has caused a rift among makers of Spider-Man fan films. These creators, overwhelmingly young men, have uploaded thousands of videos in which their beloved web-slinger swings through New York City and swoops down on bad guys outside the confines of the official movie franchises.

“When you look up Spider-Man fan films on YouTube and just hit enter, you’ll be scrolling for days,” said Samuel Flatman, 29, who has made several of the videos.

For years, all it took to make one was a cheap camera and a simple plot. “You just find a small downtown area, go into the alleyway and beat up a couple of your friends. And then you got a Spider-Man movie,” said Heath Gleason, a 27-year-old creator from Georgia.

Now, with a relatively monster budget and a cast and crew of more than 150, “Lotus” has redefined what a Spider-Man fan film can be. Some creators have welcomed the development. Others say “Lotus” has undermined the experience.

“These kids are going to go from saying, ‘I can just pick up a camera and make a Spider-Man fan film’ to ‘I now have to compete in a fictional market of all of these other fan films that people have made, I’m going to have to make something equally as compelling, and I'm going to have to raise thousands of dollars to do it,’” Gleason said. “And it’s antithetical to what a fan film is. It’s a passion project. It’s a labor of love. And money really isn’t the most important part.”

Talk to anyone in the community, and they’ll probably mention two of the best-known Spider-Man fan films: “The Green Goblin’s Last Stand” (1992) for which its creator, Dan Poole, tied himself to a building’s fire escape and swung around; and “Peter’s Web” (2011) by Roger King.

These grainy videos feature costumes that look as if they were cobbled together from a child’s closet. But they, along with Joey Lever’s 2014 “Spider-Man: Lost Cause,” have inspired young filmmakers to don the red-and-blue suit themselves and mimic their hero, known to mainstream fans as the alter ego of Peter Parker, who acquired superpowers after a radioactive spider bite.

“At our core, we’re just people who got bitten by the bug, no pun intended,” Gleason said. “We literally just wanted to see ourselves in the Spider-Man suit, or we really wanted to tell a cool story with Spider-Man, and we did everything within our power to make that happen.”

In the past decade, thousands of young creators have posted their takes, making them a global phenomenon. Fans from different countries often add flair to their costumes. For example, Spider-Man India wears a hoodie, and a British Spider-Man has white stripes.

“It has a reach that I could not even imagine or put into words,” said Nero Omar, a 19-year-old visual effects artist from Singapore. He worked briefly on “Lotus” and now freelances for various Spider-Man projects. “It feels like a very niche community, but when you post your work, you’re sharing it to everyone.”

There are fan films for other superheroes, like Superman and Batman. But part of the appeal of Spider-Man is his universality. Unlike the billionaire Bruce Wayne or the otherworldly Superman, Peter Parker started life as an ordinary person.

“Anyone can fit in that mask. You could be any color, any gender,” Lever said. “The whole point of Spider-Man is that he’s in a uniform that covers your whole body.”

Even though many of these videos may be copyright violations, major movie studios often avoid cracking down because they aren’t worried about the competition and don’t want to deter loyal fans, said James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University in North Carolina.

Representatives from Sony Pictures Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Jon Watts, director of the latest live-action Spider-Man trilogy, declined to comment.

Many of the young men behind these projects see this as a chance to embark on a career in movies.

That was true for Konop, now 20, who is majoring in English at the University of California, Riverside, and wants to pursue filmmaking full time after graduating.

Originally, Konop conceived “Lotus” as a small-scale passion project with a budget of about $20,000. He quickly exceeded that after posting it on crowdfunding site Indiegogo in 2021, and when he released the first trailer that year, contributions skyrocketed to more than $100,000.

After finding performers through a mix of social media and auditions, Konop filmed for a few months in 2021 in New York City and Arkansas, where much of the cast is from. It was his first time away from his parents, he said.

The film features some tropes of the genre — Spider-Man beating up bad guys or perched on a skyscraper in New York — but it is more drama than action flick, a portrayal of a shattered hero in anguish over the death of Gwen Stacy.

In June 2022, about a year before the movie’s release, a Twitter user named Thunder shared screenshots that showed Warden Wayne, the 23-year-old actor who plays the superhero in “Lotus,” sending texts containing racial slurs. A couple of days later, a Twitter user named Berk circulated screenshots showing texts in which Konop used racial and homophobic slurs.

In response, the film’s five-person visual effects team, including Omar, quit. Dozens of contributors on Indiegogo asked for refunds and for their names to be removed from the film credits. (The credits have not been removed.)

“Even though he had done that as a kid, he tainted the project,” Omar said of Konop. “He still had to be held accountable for his actions.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Wayne said that the texts were sent when he was a teenager being home-schooled in a conservative Christian environment and that they were examples of ignorance, not racism.

“I was in a bubble, where I wasn’t aware of how serious it was for me to say these things or these words,” Wayne said in an apology posted online at the time. “My ideas of right and wrong were skewed.”

Konop, who apologized online when the screenshots appeared, said in an interview with The New York Times, “I was part of these communities of teenagers and people who didn’t really fit in who were saying explicit things to get attention.” He added that he was socially awkward at 14 or 15 years old and that he had “retreated to these communities where there were these kinds of people in the corners of the internet that you don’t want to look into.”

By the time he turned 16, he said, he had left those communities and began changing how he thought and talked.

Justin Hargrove, who plays a villain in “Lotus” and was one of the few Black actors involved, said in an interview that he had no problems with prejudice during production.

“I know what it’s like to experience racism, actual racism, and I know what it’s like to experience ignorance, and I didn’t experience either of those two when I was on set,” he said. “But I think what happened was just pure ignorance.”

“Lotus” continues to be the subject of withering criticism online for the texts but also for the project itself, leaving some fans divided about what a Spider-Man project should be. Is the goal to make a high-budget, high-profile video? Or were the relative obscurity and poor production values part of the point?

“Either we try and do what ‘Lotus’ did and get a budget, or we stick to what we’ve built and try and create something without, which is the hardest thing in the world,” said Lever, who made “Lost Cause” for about 400 pounds (or about $510 today). Half of his budget went to creating the suit.

“You can’t just get 100,000 pounds and make a film,” he added. “You need to learn your craft; you need to make them shoestring budget films so you can learn the tips and tricks,” he said.

For Gleason, it’s worrying that “Lotus” is many viewers’ introduction to the world of Spider-Man fan films.

He said it’s a world that should have remained obscure.

“We’re weirdos,” he said. “We run around in skintight spandex and record it and pretend were some kind of sanctioned Marvel production.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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