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The Essential Geek #19: Spider-Man

The Essential Geek #19: Spider-Man

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Ah, angst. Such a sweet emotion. Usually the province of teenagers and star-crossed lovers, it's been used to perhaps its greatest effect by one of the most successful creative minds of the century.

I speak, of course, of Stan "The Man" Lee.

In tandem with a handful of artists who matched his own wild creativity sketch for sketch, men like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee revolutionized the comic book industry in the sixties with the Marvel Age of Comics. Lee and his compatriots took a once-dying publishing house and a series of anthology titles, and they transformed them into titles that thrive today, featuring heroes that have been woven into the fabric of pop: the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, Captain America.

Superheroes were not in and of themselves anything revolutionary when Lee and Kirby decided to take a chance on producing "Fantastic Four #1." They'd been around for decades, and Marvel's Distinguished Competition across town had already instigated the Silver Age of Comics with the rebirth of the Flash, Green Lantern, and a host of other classic heroes from the thirties and forties.

What Lee brought to the table was a heaving dose of reality, topped with a rich, creamy scoop of the aforementioned angst. His heroes didn't just fight horrific supervillains with the fate of the world-nay, the GALAXY ITSELF!!!-hanging in the balance. No, their biggest problems were often those at home-how could Sue Storm convince her brilliant husband that it was time to get married? When were Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm gonna stop bickering and go out to stop the robbery in progress? That kind of stuff.

Lee's angst injection into the superhero mythos reached its apex with "Amazing Fantasy #15." In that book, the final issue of a title due to be canceled, Lee gambled again on a revisionist superhero. This time, it wasn't to be a planet-hopping family of freaks, nor would it be a Jekyll who transformed when angry into a hulking green Hyde. This time, it would be an average nerdy teenager with a big brain and a doting Aunt who would find himself bitten by a radioactive spider and transformed into the Wacky Web-Slinger himself, the Amazing Spider-Man!

Nearly thirty years later, director Sam Raimi would team with writer David Koepp and a cast including Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst to embark on a big-screen adaptation of Spider-Man. Once again, angst would factor into the equation.

We've talked before about how the great comic book movies stay true to their source material, and the bad ones insist on tinkering with the pearls they've been delivered. The crappy "Batman" movies boasted Joel Schumacher and a crew of leather craftsmen turning the Caped Crusader into a bondage queen. Ang Lee's "Hulk" attempted to make the anti-hero's origin "legitimate" by making a self-conscious comic book movie, complete with scene transitions that remove the viewer from the film. They might have been a lot more successful if the titular hero hadn't waited until, oh, an HOUR into the damn movie to make his first smashing appearance.

"Spider-Man" avoids the pitfalls by staying true to itself. It's a comic book movie in the best possible way, where panels from Spidey's finest moments seem to burst to four-color life on the big screen. The CG does have a sense of unreality at times, but this is to its benefit; instead of looking as though a man has really begun to swing between the massive buildings of New York City, it looks like a moving comic book.

Fortunately, it also has plenty of angst, though it's not delivered by a computer-generated figure in red and blue tights. It's delivered by the screenplay, which wisely sticks to Lee's origin tale of a masked burglar killing Peter Parker's Uncle Ben. Spider-Man was always the sad-sackiest man in tights around; he got to swing from building to building and save NYC, but the newspapers hated him for it, and he still had to be home in time for dinner so his sickly Aunt May wouldn't worry too much. The movie captures that tone perfectly.

Angst is also delivered by Maguire's performance. Like everyone involved with the production, he honors the source material. He plays the character straight; he gets under his skin and presents a Peter Parker who makes all the stupid mistakes that a teenager who gets superpowers might make. Then, when Peter learns his lesson and begins to move through the world with uncommon dignity, the transformation is all the more profound.

It's the murder of Uncle Ben, and what it teaches Peter Parker, that becomes the crux of the Web-Slinger's entire superheroing career: With great power comes great responsibility. And with that responsibility comes the denial of pleasures that could endanger those you love, meaning that Petey can't hook up with the ultra-foxy Mary Jane (Dunst), which gives us more angst, which...well, you get the idea.

The angst underlines Spidey's other trademark, his genuinely funny one-liners. Superheroes have been wisecracking since Clark Kent first slipped on the spandex, but Spider-Man's quips have always been actually FUNNY, not just corny puns. But when he delivers the chuckles, it's with the understanding that his choice to be a superhero entails real sacrifice. The lines nearly convey a pathos; he's the sad clown of superherodom, the jokester who has to go home and care for his aging aunt, far from the thrilling acrobatics of his alter-ego.

Maybe I'm overstating it; I do love me the Spidey, and so it's easy to get carried away. You can check it out for yourself right now in theaters by catching "Spider-Man 2." With the same creative team from the first film largely in place, it should offer the same unique mix of humor, action and drama, all the while staying faithful to the tone of Lee and Ditko's masterful creation. The original "Spider-Man" is out on DVD, recently re-released in a "Deluxe Edition" that's probably your wisest purchase, although the original DVD edition is being discounted to clear stock in certain stores. Keep your eyes peeled, True Believer.

There's an essential emotional component to Spider-Man that isn't there for most other superheroes. Maybe Batman on a good day, but definitely not for the larger-than-life supermen and wonder women. Spider-Man is a complex character who has to overcome personal adversity and make human sacrifices to remain committed to his super-human activities. The makers of "Spider-Man" never forgot that, and their film is all the better for it.

Did today's article make you somewhat curious about this geekly movie? If so, then maybe you should head on over to Amazon.com, where you can pick up your very own copy of the "Spider-man" DVD. You know, the wide screen collector's edition.

Your cost will (unfortunately) remain the same. But if you go to that site through JHM, you help support the site because we get a tiny cut of whatever it is you spend. So -- if you'd like to help keep Jim Hill behind a computer where he belongs -- order your own "Spider-man" DVD through the link on the right.

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