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Spider-man On Top

After Decades of Abuse, Comic Books Are Serious Source Material for Hollywood. The POW! ZAP! Days Are, Blessedly, Over.

March 25, 2001|GEOFF BOUCHER | Geoff Boucher's last story for the magazine was a profile of Ice Cube

Interpreting the dreams of youth is a slippery endeavor, and it's only made more dicey if you involve a grumpy spider and some razor wire. Director Sam Raimi, bullhorn in hand, feels that pressure from his command post in a dank downtown Los Angeles alley.

At Raimi's command--"OK, agitate please"--a bearded arachnologist from Arcadia begins coaxing a temperamental spider to cross a fake web stretched over a loop of concertina wire. The setup is slow and the alley smells like rotten fruit, but this day's labor will produce a key early scene in "Spider-Man," one of the most anticipated films of 2002 and the shiniest new model on a crowded Hollywood assembly line of comic book adaptations.

Comic books are the new heroes of Hollywood, with more than a dozen projects now in various stages of production. But heroes never have it easy, and neither do the filmmakers brave enough to translate them into movies.

"Spider-Man" is the biggest budget--reportedly $100 million--ever handled by Raimi, whose previous work includes "A Simple Plan" and "The Gift." But that's only part of the pressure: He grew up in the Detroit suburbs with a mural of Spider-Man painted above his bed, a 12th birthday gift from his mother, and, like scores of today's filmmakers, his childhood passion for comics has translated to high standards for handling the subject matter. He knows, too, that rabid fans of Spider-Man are already dissecting this production in chat rooms and at comic book conventions. One is probably standing across the street on Broadway right now and drafting a report on the misbehaving spider.

"There is a big pressure to handle it right," says Laura Ziskin, who is producing the film for Sony Pictures. "Every fan has their version of the movie in their head and they're passionate. That's the good news and bad news of working with something this well-known and revered."

Revered? Comic books are indeed the new hot-source material in Hollywood (the most intriguing projects are Ang Lee's plan to bring gravitas to the Hulk and Johnny Depp's starring role in the relentlessly bleak Victorian horror of the "From Hell" graphic novel). But it's still a bit jolting for comic book fans and creators when they hear movie executives toss around words like "revered." In the comic book community, filmmakers have long been cast as brusque and condescending villains who excel at treating beloved heroes shabbily. On the flip side, Hollywood has viewed the ethos of comic books as being as disposable as the newsprint they are published on, and their fans as ridiculous zealots who can't be made happy by projects aimed at a general audience.

Casualties of this conflict include Howard the Duck, Judge Dredd, Swamp Thing, the Rocketeer, the Punisher and other acclaimed comic book characters that have ended up in lousy movies consigned to the dusty bottom shelves of video stores. Even when Hollywood devoted big money and attention to iconic characters, it found a way to mess it up. For every heroic success in Tim Burton's take on "Batman" in 1989 and Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" in 1978, there were a multitude of wrenching failures in some ill-conceived sequels to both. More recently, "X-Men," "Men in Black," "Blade" and "The Mask" struck gold by deftly mining comic books, while "Mystery Men" and "Spawn" were as artful as a pickax. "Captain America" and "Fantastic Four" were adaptations in the 1990s that were so poor they never even made it to the big screen.

This dysfunctional relationship between comic books and film started in 1941, when Captain Marvel took flight on the silver screen in the first live-action comic book adaptation. The result is a production that is still praised by connoisseurs as perhaps the finest Hollywood serial ever made. The jolly red-suited character from the comics was wisely presented on screen as a vengeful caped hero with a sleek look and surprisingly good flying effects. The popcorn crowd loved it and--shazam!--just like that, the romance between Hollywood and comics was on. Soon to follow was Batman (he didn't look nearly as good as Captain Marvel--his mask looked like a floppy black pillowcase with poorly cut eyeholes) and Superman himself. The natural union of comic books and film (both are, after all, sequential visuals that tell a tale) seemed headed toward heroic horizons.

Any romance turned sour after the 1960s, though, when Batman returned, this time with a nicer mask but with no resemblance to his roots as a tormented orphan turned harsh crime-fighter. The campy treatment of this caped crusader, both on the hit TV show and its tie-in film, marked a sea change in the handling of comic adaptations. The screwy, mocking irony of Adam West's Batman would inform nearly every comic book project filmed for the next 30 years.

That all changed, however, with mutants and money.

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