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.
"He's mistrusted and misunderstood. He's not from another planet. He's a kid living in Queens. He's not rich, he's not Bruce Wayne. He's a bit irresponsible and a bit self-involved. Really, it was a soap opera, there were all these threads continuing through the story line."
For Raimi, now 42, and other young readers, Spider-Man's reckless but heartfelt attempt to do the right things and deal with the strange physical and emotional changes in his life resonated beside their adolescent struggles. As cultural commentary too, there was more to Spider-Man and the other Marvel Comics heroes of the 1960s than superficial escapades.
Some were bitter and iconoclastic, plagued with self-doubts, envious of their peers or suspicious of society. They dealt not just with bad guys, but with bigotry, evil corporations, overzealous authorities and their own foibles.
One character with the silly-sounding name Silver Surfer spent his days flying above the nations of the world and walking among its peoples in disguise. Lonely, he ruminated about the failings of humanity, and suffered abuse and ostracism for all of his good deeds. It may be an overstatement to connect these parable-like comic books to angst of 1960s youth and the era's turmoil, but it must also be considered that you can tell a lot about a culture by the mythology it creates for its 12-year-olds.
"It is an interesting thing to look at," says Joe Quesada, now editor in chief of Marvel Comics. "The history of the hero-villain models can be very telling about the times. In the 1950s, for instance, there was a clear-cut line. There were the black hats and the white hats. In the 1960s, it was still clear who the good guys were, but they were more complex. They had Achilles' heels, they had their share of faults."
That was then, but what about now? Which hero speaks to today's youth?
Quesada points to popular Marvel character the Punisher, who was created in the 1970s but remains among the most bankable and most followed characters in the company's deep trove. The Punisher has no powers; he just owns more firearms than the military of a small nation. He was a cop but, ?a Serpico, he refused the overtures of his corrupt compatriots and then watched as his wife and children were murdered during retaliation by the bad cops. The Punisher responded by becoming a one-man vigilante death squad, a Charles Bronson with a black costume and rippling muscles.
"The Punisher is a perfect example," Quesada says. "The readers are more sophisticated now and exposed to more, and, for a lot of them, they think his approach is the way to respond to the evil out there. I think that does reflect something in our society and culture."
Whether they are bellwethers of contemporary ideals or just disposable pulp, comic books and their brand of the fantastic have become staple source material for Hollywood. The "Superman" and "Batman" film franchises have combined to give the movie industry two decades of box office heroics, while "The Mask," "Men in Black" and "Blade" proved that the characters didn't have to be household names to fly as films.
More projects are in the pipeline, but none is as anticipated as "Spider-Man." At theaters, the crowd response has often been wildly enthusiastic to the trailer's footage of the hero's breathtaking web-swinging and leaping in urban concrete canyons.
"He looks great, just great," muses Raimi, not so much bragging as marveling at the special-effects capabilities of the day. There may be relief too in Raimi's voice--the relief of a true believer protecting treasured property. It's now well-known that Raimi's mother painted a mural of the superhero on her son's bedroom wall as a birthday gift when he turned 12, and he has a deep reverence for the original Lee and Ditko stories. "He was destined to make this movie," Maguire notes.
Raimi's reverence and David Koepp's screenplay have kept the film's story foundations extremely close to the comic book origins. Some of the subtle changes: Peter Parker is now less geeky and more brooding; the spider that bites him is genetically altered instead of irradiated; and, in a slightly disturbing change, the webbing he uses emanates from his body chemistry instead of the wrist-wrapping contraptions he invented in the comic books.
The axis of the character remains a bitter lesson he learns: "With great power comes great responsibility." That phrase was used by the movie's director, star and producer during separate interviews for this story and, if you check, you'll find it is a pivotal utterance in the movie's script as well as the final thought on the last page of Amazing Fantasy No. 15, the first appearance of the character 40 years ago.
If Spider-Man is a "hero of important example" for young people, as Raimi offers, he is one who comes packaged with driving guilt, self-loathing and loss. As the story goes: Young Peter first uses his new powers for personal gain, winning prize money in the wrestling ring by defeating far larger opponents. Basking in his success one night, a robbery suspect races by him as a police officer shouts out for Peter to trip or grab him. The teen balks and tells the cop to do his own job. Later, Peter suffers a horrible loss: His beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson in the film) is murdered by a robber--the same man Peter had the chance to stop. The youngster is inconsolable but eventually turns his grief into action, pledging to make up for his sin.
All of that will be familiar to thousands and thousands of moviegoers who grew up reading the popular comic book, but it was new ground for the actor donning the costume. Maguire, 26, had a somewhat vagabond childhood after his parents split when he was a toddler, and he says he never read comic books along the way. "I never really got introduced to comics," he says. "Like a lot of kids, I played a lot of video games, and I guess you learn about good and evil there, in a way." He had zero interest initially in playing the superhero, but he changed his mind after reading Koepp's script and hearing that Raimi was on board.
Maguire then delved into the comic book history of his character, reading reprints of the first 50 issues or so of the 1960s-era comic book. Sitting in the coffee shop on the Sunset Strip, Maguire flipped through the pages of a hardcover collection of the very earliest Spider-Man stories, and he gushed about the surprisingly fresh allure of the story lines that spend as much time with high school angst as with rooftop battles.
Maguire and company acknowledge that a second Spider-Man film is practically a given, and it's no secret that Sony would love to weave Spider-Man into a lucrative franchise, especially with the extensive rogue's gallery of villains that Ditko rendered so vividly, including Dr. Octopus (a scientific genius who has long, powerful mechanical arms grafted to his torso), the Vulture (a bald bad guy with wings) and Sandman (a thug who can turn his body into the consistency of sand or the density of rock). The first film's heavy is the Green Goblin, a high-tech hobgoblin who is secretly Peter's most revered mentor and father of a good friend.
Played by Willem Dafoe, the Green Goblin creates more internal conflict for Peter when what seems at first to be a clear and pure evil is something far murkier.
"It's not so cut and dried in the sense that these people are complicated characters," Maguire says. "The Green Goblin is still considered the bad guy, the evil guy, but there are redeeming qualities about him and things that you want to care about him for. And Spider-Man is not a flawless character. He's not just an altruistic, perfectly moral superhero. He's a human being that struggles with his own personal desires against his sacrifice for the greater good and greater responsibility."
Maguire says that the failings and weaknesses of a hero are the stuff of intriguing stories. Indeed, one of the reasons kryptonite became such a fundamental part of the Superman stories is the vital need for some chance that he might actually lose once in a while. Spider-Man, conversely, suffers setbacks and losses all the time.
"Spider-Man is trying to pay down his own guilt; that's why he puts the costume on," Raimi explains. "But he is a hero because he grows from an irresponsible young man into a responsible young man. He makes sacrifices for others. He's an icon for kids. He can't compete with the firefighters we see as heroes now, but he can teach a kid that one young man named Peter Parker learned and grew into a hero."
Viewers may find their thoughts might flip for a moment to the events of Sept. 11 while watching "Spider-Man." That's because, in the distant background, the World Trade Center remains part of the skyline of Spider-Man's New York. The towers were featured prominently in a trailer that was pulled after the attacks, but that footage was jettisoned, according to producer Laura Ziskin.
"It was not integral to the storytelling," she said. "It was not that we felt it was inappropriate to have the World Trade Center in the film.
"The thing was, for us, to have a scene with a helicopter, an aircraft and the World Trade Center was hard for us to look at. That was the extent of the concrete impact (of the attacks) on the project. When you ask if there was something less concrete, anything that influenced us, that's harder to answer. If there was, I can't put my finger on it or articulate it. But, in today's context, yes, some of the good and evil issues are more poignant now. Any story of a hero, especially one that lives in New York, is a little more poignant right now."
The offices of Marvel Comics are on East 40th Street in Manhattan. The business never shut down after the nearby terrorist attacks, but Quesada said it has been impossible not to reflect on the nuances of hero manufacturing in the new world disorder. "It does color the content," he said. "It's just in the back of your mind as you do these things. I think what 9/11 has done too is rejuvenated the heroic ideal--I think people are in a new phase in this country, they're tired of questioning leadership.
"They're looking for heroes again."
Certainly, a hunger for heroes and the quickening pulse of patriotism are understandable responses to the nation's ordeal, but there is still the issue of real-life dramas making the comic-book world seem a little too precious even for youngsters. Doesn't a man climbing walls like a spider seem a little quaint when airplanes are falling out of the sky? Quesada says not.
"When we did the issue with Spider-Man at the World Trade Center, you could read it different ways. The superheroes were there and helping, but you could also read it metaphorically that the message was, 'We're here always, behind you and in you.' The heroic ideal is part of us. So I don't think all of this makes superheroes quaint. I think it makes them needed."
Geoff Boucher is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune newspaper.