By Jonathan Lethem
An overnight success in the making for nearly forty years, Spider-man had been in the making in the mind of the child seated behind me (at an eleven o'clock show at a multiplex in Brooklyn on May 3rd, the earliest possible viewing as a member of the general public) for several months before the film's opening, at least. Perhaps six years old, the child showed in its involuntarily murmured comments a burnished precognition of the film's various plot points, key character arcs, and, at least once, with a precise line of dialogue. I guess these had been gleaned and rehearsed from advertising sources, but also from some highly accurate comic book- or picture book- 'ization' of the movie - an advertising source in an only slightly subtler sense. "It's always like that for him," the child mused when, in the film's opening sequence, Peter Parker, Spider-man's 'real' teenage self, missed the bus for school. In that one remark the child encapsulated instantly what the director and producers had gotten so right in casting Tobey Maguire as the misfit character, and in their overall gentle, persistent faithfulness to the homely tone of the sixties Spider-Man comics. "I can't wait until Aunt May says 'You're not Superman, you know'," the child stage-whispered a bit later (Aunt May being the parentless Peter Parker's sweetly feeble guardian, who speaks this admonitory line in ignorance of Parker's superheroic secret), and again it was evident how deeply programmed the "Marvel Style" had been into the advertising campaign.
I couldn't begrudge this flow of ingenuous utterances, for the child seated behind me was one of the silentest in a very boisterous room. The audience alternated compulsive chatter with breathless silence, and with three or four mid-film bouts of spontaneous, delighted applause. Myself, I shed an awkward tear at several points, mourning my own lost innocence as glimpsed through the double lens of the film and the crowd's response to it, and overwhelmed by the simple power of an overwhelming collective experience you've anticipated for decades, as when one's mostly-losing local sports team nails a championship. I was completely beguiled from my cynicism. You may now safely consider me to have overrated the movie.
But spontaneous applause by an auditorium full of children is not a thing to be cynical about - especially, I must risk saying, when that audience is eighty percent inner-city blacks, as this one was. That they knew that Spider-man was for them - the film was free of black faces - probably speaks to many things. At least one of these is a key element of Spider-man's myth: no matter how blandly central and popular this character becomes, and no matter how whitewashed of ethnicity the name "Parker" has always been, Parker-Spider-Man is always an 'other'. Spider-man's official creator (more on authorship controversies below) Stan Lee (typically, for his generation of showmen, a de-Judaicized 'Stanley Lieber') has boasted "…Spider-man's costume covers every inch of his body… any reader, of any race, in any part of the world, can imagine himself under that costume…" But, quite satisfyingly, Parker doesn't don that costume until after sixty-five minutes of the film's running time (my own informal measure, by wristwatch). His white skin is thoroughly on view. No, it's the pre-existing backdrop of Superman and Batman's deep whiteness which establishes Spider-man's metaphoric blackness. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne live in palaces of privilege and operate from fantasy cities, Gotham and Metropolis, while working-class Spider-man is a bridge-and-tunnel person, from Queens, in the real New York. Spider-man's good intentions get misrepresented in the media, and he gnaws over this injustice, wondering why he ought to help anyone when he's never been given a hand up himself. Spider-Man is always short of a buck, Spider-Man don't get no respect, etcetera. ("It's always like that for him.") Furthermore, Spider-Man, as a dashiki-wearing instructor at a Brooklyn day-care center once explained to me and a group of other (multihued) children, wasn't actually invented by white people at all, but in fact derived from an African legend of a spider-demon of the jungle, a trickster figure. Everyone knew this, it was as basic as Elvis Presley's music having originated in black sources. I listened, that day, and believed. It may have been nonsense, or only coincidence, but the fact that it needed to be claimed was poignant. It is also perhaps instructive in understanding why, for such an apparently simple and popular character, Spider-Man ("the original wall-crawling, web-slinging white nigger", Jeff Winbush proclaimed in The Comics Journal in 1995) took so long to be given a flattened and universalized Hollywood rendering. Or why, now that he has been given that treatment, so many forty- or thirty-something men of a certain type (I mean, like myself) are bearing down with such emotional intensity on the results. Like Colin Wilson's Outsider or A.E. Van Vogt's Slan, Spider-man was an wunderkind-outcast identification available to anyone who'd mixed teenage grandiosity with even the mildest persecution complex, let alone real persecution. Matt Groening once proposed a magazine called "Sullen Teen". Long before trench-coat mafia, The Amazing Spider-Man was that magazine.
Spider-man was also the first superhero whose civilian identity would be a likely reader of comic books. The truth, though, is that when, at age 12, we began seriously reading them (Marvel's were the only good ones, unmistakably) my friend Karl and I disliked and distrusted the omnipresent Spider-Man. This was in 1976, three or four years since the lecture from the day-care instructor, and Spider-Man, African trickster or not, was resting on his laurels. Even in the '60's, The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't the most interesting of the Marvel titles (that would have been The Fantastic Four), just the most archetypally non-archetypal, and the one with which the company as a whole was most identified. By the mid-seventies Spider-Man's great plot-lines - The Death of Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker's ethereal blonde girlfriend, who would haunt him like Kim Novak in Vertigo); The Unmasking of Green Goblins #1, #2, and #3 (a shock each time); The Marriage of Aunt May to Doctor Octopus (an odious villain) - were well behind him. And Peter Parker had settled for what seemed to us a second-best girlfriend, the dark-haired 'girl next door', Mary Jane Watson, a mere glass of beer - the champagne of Gwen Stacy was not for the likes of us. So, Karl and I resented Spider-Man like we resented the Beatles, for being such lavish evidence we'd been born too late. The '70's adventures were overly reverent, full of clues to the great history we'd missed. Worse, the character had developed an irritating tendency to invade other stories - Marvel had discovered that Spider-Man's presence on a front cover jacked up sales, so he'd often guest-star in weaker-selling books.
Spider-Man had become a logo, in other words, like Superman before him. Karl and I were more interested in the mysterious depth of newer and less popular characters: The Vision, Black Bolt, Omega The Unknown, Warlock, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan,(was there really a comic book called Son of Satan? Yes.), all of whom were brooding, tormented anti-heroes, unattractive to young children. We'd caught the outsiderish, sulky Marvel scent, and wanted our own share. In these cases, it was precisely those humdrum guest appearances of the dull old web-slinger(or The Hulk, who served the same purpose) which provided the least interesting tales - and often signaled the final issue of a commercially foundering title. Ironically, in gravitating toward those Marvel characters who were not yet (nor would ever be) logos, Karl and I were recapitulating that rejection of icons in favor of darker, more amorphous figures which had been the essence of Spiderman's earlier ascension over Superman and Batman. We were on a quest for Ever-More-Spidery-Man.
The prototype wouldn't leave us alone, however. This was mostly due to the relentless cheerleading of Stan Lee, in a venue called "Marvel Bullpen Bulletins": a page of Marvel gossip and advertising featured in every issue of every comic, written in a style which might be characterized as High Hipster - two parts Lord Buckley, one part Austin Powers. Stan Lee was a writer gone Barnum, who'd abandoned new work in favor of rah-rah moguldom. He was Marvel's media liaison and their own biggest in-house fan, a schmoozer. Picture an Orson Welles who'd never bothered to direct films again after Lady From Shanghai, just bullshitted on talk shows, reliving his great moments. Like Welles, though, Stan Lee's great moments were beset by authorship disputes. Lee's particular emphasis on Spider-Man as Marvel's signature creation may have had something to do with that character's being the only one of the company's greatest and most popular early inventions - the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, Doctor Doom, and Silver Surfer - not largely attributable, according to almost every account, to Jack "King" Kirby. Kirby is the artist and auteur understood by cognoscenti to be the 'real' creator: Keith to Stan Lee's Mick. Lee has been alleged to be a mere dialogue-writer who filled in word balloons in otherwise finished pages, and to have made off like a bandit with all the official credit, the dough, and, final insult, Kirby's original artwork. Lee's "I just wanna be loved" persona has weathered decades of abuse on these grounds in fan magazines, on panels at convention, and probably right this minute on the internet. Jack Kirby, by any measure a visionary, the greatest inventor in comics history, in fact subsequently showed himself to be rather icy and remote without Lee's goofy, humanizing touch, and a writer of execrable dialogue: Mick needed his Keith. But great breakups are a tender subject.
Kirby didn't draw Spider-Man. The man who did is Steve Ditko, Marvel's great mystery man - a "reclusive, lifelong bachelor", according to a recent profile in the L.A. Times. He's also described as "heavily influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism". I myself remember once finding an outré, off-brand comic, featuring a character called the Blue Beetle, which was drawn and written by Ditko: the story was a screed against modern art and beatnik nihilism, disguised as a beautifully illustrated superhero adventure. Ditko has been belatedly credited in the new film, a vindication he reportedly accepts grudgingly. He likely has as profound a creative claim on the early Spider-Man as Kirby had on the bulk of the Marvel characters, but "the J.D. Salinger of comics" has been no obstacle to Stan Lee's attention-hogging claims of authorship in the thirty-five years since Ditko quit Marvel in a silent, Objectivist huff.
So the icon sank into our brains. As with the Beatles, bonding could occur in retrospect. We '70's kids bought and listened to Revolver and the white album and Abbey Road (when they weren't already in our parents' collections) and fell in love, however sheepishly, with the great progression we'd just missed. Marvel reprinted their famous sixties plot-lines in digests called Marvel Tales and Marvel's Greatest Comics and in a trade paperback called Origins (the cover of which showed Stan Lee's hairy knuckles at a typewriter, while the best-known characters flew, fully-costumed, from the platen), so we late-born could catch up. In 1980, at John Lennon's slaying, my entire high school was in mourning for 'our hero'; similarly my old resentment of Spider-Man was sublimated beneath a surge of proprietary feeling when I first heard, maybe two years ago, that 'my Spidey' was finally getting his fifteen minutes. In fact, I'd sentimentally rewritten my personal history, according to the dictums of the Bullpen Bulletin, so that until my research into the movie disproved it, I could claim (in Bookforum, two years ago) that "the first romantic loss for a lot of guys my age was Gwen Stacy's death". This was a retrospective fiction, I now see. Gwen Stacy was dead before I met her, which imparts a Gnostic eeriness to our sundered love.
I've probably given full enough account of the auditorium of self that was me, inside that larger auditorium of rooting children. Director Sam Raimi was wise sticking to the 1963-64 version of the comic book, rather than being tempted by the later recursions, and this Spider-Man is fully naēve, fully Ditko. Each loss he suffers, each sacrifice he makes, is his first. The key innovation, it turns out, is how slightly Marvel darkened and sophisticated the superhero myths of an earlier era. In his job as freelance newspaper photographer of Spiderman's heroics, Peter Parker parodies Clark Kent's special press-access to the doings of Superman, but with an emphasis on fetish and spectatorship - there's something sexual in setting up remote cameras to document your gymnastics. Slightly. There's also something adolescent-masturbatory in Parker's closed-door explorations of his new web-goo shooting prowess - slightly. Raimi never allows any heavy symbolism or camp opportunism to spoil the simpler pleasures - the emphasis is on a sweet bungler's coping attempts to live up to great power, great responsibility. The early comics, and this movie, are loaded with Dickensian family drama - missing fathers, vulnerable fathers, fathers-gone-bad. You'd better grow up quick, kid. The biggest deviation is that Mary Jane Taylor is now the ur-girlfriend, with no sign of Gwen Stacy around. But the halcyon past is not always what it is cracked up to be. My researches unearthed this horrible fact - the Marvel scripters who followed Stan Lee on the job killed off Gwen Stacy because they found the character unworkably dull, a cold fish. Red-haired Mary Jane was more approachable, sexier, all along. If I'd known sooner I might have been spared some pining.
Tobey Maguire brings to the film a tenderness and also a watchfulness not unlike that of Montgomery Clift in Red River. In that film Clift seemed, in his hesitancy and alertness, to be simultaneously in character and in a seat in the theater beside us, considering both the cattle drive and John Wayne as the great natural phenomena they were. Similarly, Maguire plays audience surrogate, regarding the Green Goblin and even Spider-Man with a degree of noncommital fascination. His ability to endow lines like "Goblin, what have you done?" with introspective echoes carries the film to a deeper place in that effortless way of an actor, which no director or screenwriter can offer. A slightly deeper place. The most unlikely cheer from my crowd was that at Spider-Man/Parker's (his mask is half off) long-delayed first kiss with Mary Jane. Maguire's vulnerability had persuaded them that he really might not get the girl, so it was a triumph. A slicker actor would have cued revulsion in children, but here the icky inevitability of movie clinches had been thwarted.
Less interesting: the villain's genesis; the villain's madness; the villain's cackling; his plans, explosions, momentary triumph, eventual defeat. The special effects are utter and seamless plastic, and go lengths to prove things we don't need or even want proven. As the critic A.O. Scott has written, the impulse to knit together improbable, breakneck, still-photographic comic book panels into a flow of smoothly animated movement is a self-defeating one. The real evocation and mystery inherent in the comic form is found in the white lines of border between panels, where the imagination of the reader is energized and engaged. Comic books are all stills and jump cuts. I don't know whether this effect can ever be claimed for film, but I perversely hope not. I was happy that in this moment of digital apotheosis, with anything possible, what those kids and I wanted and got was a good movie kiss.
It all worked. Records were broken. Those are always counted in dollars, but I wonder: Did more human souls just see the same film in three days than ever before in history? I guess there's no way to measure because there's no way to correct for repeat viewers. Still, whatever exactly happened in America on May 3-5, they'll want it to happen again. In the theater, preceding the movie, while I was still considering being annoyed by the garrulous child behind me, before I'd given in to the stream of commentary, we watched a trailer for the unfinished film-ization of The Incredible Hulk. All they had yet was a short sequence showing the actor's transformation from normal man to gigantic green monster, his rapid destruction of a house, then a simple card which read "Hulk. Summer 2003". It was awesome. The parent of the child behind me snorted at seeing that the film was more than a year from release: "Summer 2003? Oh, please." It might be hard to be a parent these days. Remember, we were at the eleven o'clock Friday showing. The child, though, was typically unguarded: "I think I'm a little scared of that." The parent replied sourly: "You'll have plenty of time to prepare yourself."
Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of the author. No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.