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Sneaks 2002

Not-So-Super Heroics

How do you make comic-book bravery relevant? 'Spider-Man's' makers stress their hero's conflicts.

January 20, 2002|GEOFF BOUCHER

The scene: Debris and horror raining down behind them, a well-dressed couple clutch each other and stumble from the devastated World Trade Center. They look up to see a famous hero, a man dressed in scarlet and blue dangling from a rope of webbing. They ask him not for help, but for an explanation. "Where were you?" "How could you let this happen?" The hero bows his head and wanders into the billowing dust.

The fleeting encounter at ground zero is not from the upcoming film "Spider-Man." If it was, it would make the filmmakers both psychic (the principal filming was completed in the weeks before Sept. 11) and foolhardy--who, after all, would even consider incorporating the terrorist attacks in a summer blockbuster designed as state-of-the-art popcorn escapism? Instead, the scene is from a recent comic book published to raise money for relief efforts and also frame the attacks for young readers.

The jolting words and pictures, though, speak to an intriguing question for the film life of "Spider-Man": How relevant is an old-fashioned spandex superhero in a somber world where the new heroes wear firefighter togs and villains appear on CNN?

This question does not elude Sam Raimi, the soft-spoken director of "Spider-Man," who knows that quite a bit of money and career capital are invested in making this 1962 comic book creation into a 2002 cinema sensation. Asked if timing and tone are on his side, the director takes a long moment to consider and then picks his words with care.

"It's hard for me to make a grand statement of our society, and this movie is not that, it's for entertainment, first and foremost. But you know, 'hero' is such a sacred word right now. We've seen now what a hero is by watching some among us risk and lose their lives to help others. We all want to pay tribute to those men and women for that. But before there were those real heroes, there were these myths, this fantasy. And it has lessons in it for young people. It does not compete with the real heroes, nor could it."

The man who wears the mask in the film is actor Tobey Maguire, who is breaking from his recent history of playing contemplative outsiders who build walls around themselves ("Cider House Rules," "Wonder Boys") to play, well, a contemplative outsider who climbs walls.

Munching on a vegetarian sausage in a West Hollywood coffee shop, he shrugs when asked the same question about heroes and timing and tone. "If anything, I think people will be ready this summer to watch a good guy in New York who has fun and goes around and beats up the bad guys. Do superheroes still fit in?" He takes a bite of his English muffin. "Yeah, I think so."

As long as there have been stories, there have been heroes.

Beowulf, Hercules, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Sherlock Holmes--they came in varied literary shapes and sizes through the ages, but for American youth culture, the most accessible and indelible heroes have been the costumed men of mystery. Superman was first, landing in the summer of 1938 with his square jaw and promises to fight for truth, justice and the American way. In a few years, he was there in full four-color glory hitting Adolf Hitler with haymakers and urging kids to buy war bonds.

By the time Spider-Man arrived in 1962, though, the hero model was changing and becoming more complicated, just like the youngsters buying comic books. "The older heroes were, to me, boring," says Stan Lee, who co-created Spider-Man with artist Steve Ditko. "I wanted to do something different and make a hero the readers would feel was like them, not above them."

In the first issue of the comic book (now worth a small fortune on the collector's market), Spider-Man is presented as Peter Parker, a mousy high school student ignored by girls and bullied by football players. Bitten by a glowing, radioactive spider, Peter discovers he has become unnaturally strong and agile, and can now cling to walls--he has literally been imprinted with the attributes of the arachnid. The quasi-scientific creation of superpowers and the ensuing illogical decision to parade around in a gaudy, skin-tight costume made this new hero a fairly garden variety addition to the comic book world. But it was his problems, not his powers, that made him a groundbreaking creation. He's usually broke, confused and a little whiny. He loses fights with the bad guys and his own callow teen impulses. The cops hate him, the local newspaper rails against him, and he often wonders why he's risking his life when nobody understands him.

"I love Superman, that was my first favorite," Raimi says. "But when I was about 12, Spider-Man was the one that fascinated me. Unlike Superman, when Spider-Man arrives somewhere, the crowds boo him, they don't hail him.

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