Los Angeles Times

Extending His Web

Tribune staff reporter

Superman is an easy sell. He can fly, he's nearly impervious to harm and he's got that square-jawed profile that women love. The archetypal superhero, Superman represents every unrealized dream of adolescent readers.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, started out as spindly teenager bitten by a radioactive arachnid. His powers, which include sticking to walls, don't help his love life.

So why has Spider-Man remained such a resonant American icon?

"I was trying to do a character that you'd worry about, who could be the reader himself," said Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee, 79, who created the character with artist Steve Ditko.

The wall-crawler has hung onto the hearts of readers worldwide, remaining one of Marvel Comics' top-selling books since his 1962 introduction in "Amazing Fantasy #15." He's had his own Saturday morning cartoon series and even a short-lived live action TV series.

Lee explains Spider-Man's longevity: "He's just a normal everyday kid with problems. Suddenly he gets superpowers, which simply give him more problems on top of the ones he already had."

Now the question is whether Spidey has what it takes to be a movie star.

This week, we will find out. The hyphenated superhero celebrates his 40th anniversary with his first major motion picture, "Spider-Man," with Tobey Maguire filling out the tights and Sam Raimi in the director's chair, opening Friday.

Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad, who has worn a Spider-Man pinky ring for years, has long pitched Spidey's cinematic virtues, and economic possibilities, to movie studios. After a protracted legal entanglement, Columbia Pictures gave the go-ahead on the picture, on which both Arad and Lee share executive producer credits.

"Here's a kid that so many of us can relate to economically, socially and psychologically," Arad said of the character's appeal. "By a freak of science, he becomes the ultimate superhero, but it really doesn't change his personality."

And, although the Spider-Man mythos undergoes some minor changes in the film, Lee said the only difference is the size of the image. "Superheroes are now in a bigger ballpark," Lee said.

In the beginning

Spider-Man didn't start out that way. In 1962, Lee, then 39, was writing his own versions of timeworn superhero formulas, but with more humanistic elements. Lee's 12-page origin story depicted a new brand of crime fighter, a teenager who had to fight the bad guys and still turn in homework.

Since World War II, competitor DC Comics had dominated the superhero genre with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Lee, under upstart publisher Marvel Comics, sought to capture readers with new characters and concepts. Lee had previously penned Fantastic Four with collaborator artist Jack Kirby in 1961, but played against form with Spider-Man, creating the first teenage superhero at the center of a comic book. Previously, youths such as Robin and Captain America's partner Bucky served only as sidekicks.

"I purposely made him a teenager. I always hated teenage sidekicks in comics," Lee said. "In fact, I remember when I proposed doing the Spider-Man strip, my publisher at the time didn't want me to do it. He hated the idea of him being a teenager."

Joe Quesada, comic book artist and Marvel editor-in-chief, recalls how much of a foil Spider-Man was to the dominant characters of the time.

"The DC characters were father figures, that's why they always had child sidekicks. They were much older and much more mature parental figures," Quesada said. "When Spider-Man came along, he was at the age of our readership, a character our readers could immediately identify with and project themselves into."

Compelling character

Steve Duin, author of "Comics: Between the Panels," started reading "The Amazing Spider-Man" in 1968, although until then other superheroes never really interested him.

"It was so different from anything I'd ever read," said Duin. "He's so fallible; he's so pathetic half the time, as opposed to Clark Kent. Peter Parker [Spider-Man's alter-ego] was a pretty compelling character."

Spider-Man wasn't a fully formed character, Duin said, and the reader grew up with the awkward Parker, falling in love with his first girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, and then being devastated when she died in "The Amazing Spider-Man #121."

"It was, for fans of comics in that era, the kind of stuff that didn't happen," Duin said. "It cemented your affection for the character and your devotion to the art form."

Stacey is absent from Raimi's movie version of "Spider-Man," although parts of her exist in Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst (the film focuses on Parker's high school years and the origins of his Spidey powers). Mary Jane is Parker's wife in the current comic book run of "The Amazing Spider-Man," in which both characters are adults, although the soap opera nature of comics has changed Spider-Man very little.

At times in his comic life, Spidey has been given cosmic powers, extra limbs, clones and even a slick black costume -- although the core of the character has remained the same.

It's this basic simplicity that the filmmakers sought out to reproduce in the film "Spider-Man," Arad said. In addition to making his nemesis, the Green Goblin (played by Willem Dafoe), more tech-heavy and armor-plated in the movie "Spider-Man," the web-slinger's origin also underwent some tweaks. In comic timeline, he builds his famous wrist "web shooters," which allow him to swing across Manhattan's skyline. In the film, Parker's body produces organic webs that project from his wrists. Fan Web sites lobbied against such changes, but to no avail.

Lee, however, thinks the changes are minor. "It's really true to the comic book, and that's a compliment," Lee said.

Spider-Man comics are still appealing to readers, and attracting new fans, thanks to a recent revamp of the character.

Marvel Comics recently made a grab for new, younger fans outside an aging readership with "Ultimate Spider-Man," which portrays Parker as a teenager, much as the film does. By most accounts, the ploy worked, said Pat Brower, manager of Chicago comic retailer Graham Crackers.

"[`Ultimate Spider-Man'] by far outsells the other Spider-Man titles," said Brower, who lists both "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" in the Chicago chain's top five selling books.

"I just hope the movie translates into a great appreciation for the genre," Brower said.

Transition to film

Still, some fans -- even comic book insiders -- are uneasy about Spider-Man getting the big-screen treatment. Comics have had an uneven history making the transition to film. Although "X-Men" and "Blade" were breakout hits, the memories of the lackluster "Captain America," "Punisher" and unreleased "Fantastic Four" films still linger.

"Spider-Man" has gotten a big marketing push -- and had an $80 million budget.

"It just feels like too much money has been spent on it," said artist Alex Ross, who painted one of this week's Spider-Man theme TV Guide issues. "Peter Parker is the kind of guy that doesn't have two nickels to rub together."

A skeptic of Hollywood's handling of superheroes (like most fans) but a long-time defender of comics, Ross said he's looking forward to the portrayal of Spider-Man and his wall-crawling and rooftop acrobatics in the Big Apple.

"That agility and that kind of contact with our environment, while also leaping for the clouds, will suck people in," Ross said. "That hasn't been realized in any other superhero. No one has enjoyed what these great abilities would mean to a normal human."

The closest cinema has come, perhaps, is a young Clark Kent outrunning a train in 1978's "Superman."

High-tech webslinger

With a story by "Godfather" scribe Mario Puzo, director Richard Donner's "Superman" opened Hollywood up to caped possibilities. With the tag line "You'll believe a man can fly!," the movie catapulted Christopher Reeve into icon status, although subsequent superhero movies were slower to launch after mid-'80s stinkers "Supergirl," "Swamp Thing" and "Howard the Duck."

Tim Burton revived the genre with 1989's "Batman," which outfitted Michael Keaton in body armor as Gotham City's Dark Knight. Only recently, with 1997's "Men in Black" and 1998's "Blade," have Marvel characters found a foothold in Hollywood. The success of 2000's "X-Men" cemented Marvel's viability at the box office. Marvel CEO Arad is prepping three other comic book films: "X-Men 2," director Ang Lee's "The Incredible Hulk" and "Daredevil," starring Ben Affleck.

Technology and computer graphics have made it possible for Spider-Man to swing from skyscraper to skyscraper. But past attempts at blending a computer-generated figure into a real environment have been hit or miss.

Lee knew it was only a matter of time before technology caught up to the worlds in creators' heads.

"All that was needed as for [special effects] to reach the point where there is nothing that you can imagine or on the page that you can't put on the screen," Lee said.

The movie also has to please its most passionate critics -- comic book fans, who want a reverence for the character's history and personality in a modern celluloid environment.

"You've got quality actors, and people I trust are making the film," Ross said. "So all [pre-movie criticism] is gonna wash out of my brain when I get sucked into the fantasy."

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