Why Spider-Man Will Not Be Amazing
Making movies from great works of literature is an enticing yet risky proposition. While the classics invariably provide rich characters, timeless plots, philosophical insights, and finely crafted drama, the expectations are sky-high; and the film versions (like the stilted 1974 rendition of "The Great Gatsby") are often doomed to failure.
Expectations are certainly high for the latest literary classic to find its way to the big screen. Stan Lee's "The Amazing Spider-Man," arguably the great American novel of the mid- to late- 20th century, is playing now at a movie theater near you, and I'm convinced it will squander the literary power of Lee's original text.
When I speak of "The Amazing Spider-Man" as the great American novel, I am referring to its venerable original serialized run (issues #1-200) from 1963 to 1980. During those monthly installments, the Spider-Man comic book series organically grew to mirror the generation that came of age -- somewhat dramatically -- during those times, from gee-whiz Kennedy-era teens to angsty Vietnam-era college students to malaise-ridden mid-'70s young adults to blossoming Reaganite yuppies. Indeed, America's convulsive mid-century adolescence is the nucleus of Stan Lee's undeniably existential hero, Spider-Man (a.k.a. orphan Peter Parker).
Spider-Man/Peter Parker was born in August 1962 -- Marvel Comics' affront to rival DC Comics' stiff, stodgy Superman, a grown-up in a fake city who fought intergalactic battles to save the universe. By contrast, Peter Parker lived in New York City, had real problems (rent, homework, the flu [ASM #87, panels 1-14], his sick aunt's medical bills), confronted topical stuff (the draft, LSD, crooked politicians, racism), and more often than not, lost battles with petty crooks.
Meanwhile, unlike Clark Kent -- that mild-mannered front for the heroic Superman -- Peter and Spidey are clearly the same guy. More often than not, while getting pummeled by Dr. Octopus or the Green Goblin, Spidey would be obsessing about Mary Jane Watson or biology class.
Most important to the drama, Peter was a teenager. This was key to Parker's existential importance. The "Teenager as Superhero" idea mirrored the cultural battle brewing between the younger and older generations in the '60s. Teenagers were beginning to recognize, as Peter Parker did when he got saddled with superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, that they could affect society.
As Peter Sanderson wrote in a 1992 essay commemorating Spidey's 30th anniversary, "In discovering his spider-powers, Peter likewise learns that he need not simply retreat from [the] world, but can make his mark upon it. The powers can be seen as symbolizing the strength of Peter's potential as a human being." (I elaborated on this theme in my 1995 essay, "Human Being = Super Hero/Super Hero = Teenager/Teenager = Human Being.")
Fittingly, the tension in Peter Parker's story comes directly from his decision to play a role in society. The adult establishment (his boss at the newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson; his best friend's father and chemical company CEO, Norman Osborn) lashes out against Parker at every turn.
Of course, this existential dilemma (wrestling with the ramifications of one's actions) makes "The Amazing Spider-Man" the perfect fabric for a film -- although not the film I anticipate Sam Raimi has made. Judging from the zippy TV commercials and foxy hype, "Spider-Man" looks to be a fast-paced, action-packed, colorful blowout along the lines of "The Matrix." Sure, "The Matrix" was a solid movie, but it was hardly a literary masterpiece.
The film version of Spider-Man demands something along the lines of the brooding, gritty, starkly realistic laments from Hollywood's '70s Renaissance (think "The French Connection," "The Last Picture Show," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver").
I picture a scene shot from the interior of a cluttered, sweaty apartment. It's night. The window slides open, and Spider-Man kind of falls into the room, peeling off his mask, flopping onto his bed, and lying there for the next 10 minutes under a spinning fan.
We don't need two hours of Spider-Man thwipping through the skyline. A Spider-Man movie should be low-budget -- long, murky shots of Peter Parker sitting on his bed in his lonely apartment, head in his hands, fretting about his mixed-up life: What's wrong with my best friend, Harry Osborn? Why do the police hate me? How can I tell my girlfriend who I really am?
These dramas are the essence of the comic. The web-spinning, I think, is simply a colorful overlay, a literary device, used to distill and dramatize Peter Parker's personal problems. In fact, I'd go as far as to say (as I do in my opera, I, Clone -- based on "The Amazing Spider-Man" #143-149 -- which premieres this October in Brooklyn, NY), that Spider-Man's web-slinging -- like the land of Oz -- is a dream world symbolizing what's going on in Peter Parker's messed-up life.
Raimi's film might turn out to be a perfectly fine summer hit. I wouldn't know. I haven't seen it. All I know is, it's not going to be "The Amazing Spider-Man."
Josh Feit writes for The Stranger, where this article originally appeared.