The Amazing …

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 sitting behind me (at an 11 o’clock show at a multiplex in Brooklyn on 3 May, the earliest possible viewing for 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, of 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-isation 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 school bus. In that one remark the child encapsulated what the director and producers had got so right in casting Tobey Maguire as the misfit character, and in their gentle faithfulness throughout to the homely tone of the 1960s 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 quietest in a very boisterous room. The audience alternated compulsive chatter with breathless silence, and there were three or four mid-film bouts of spontaneous, delighted applause. As for me, 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 a collective experience you’ve anticipated for decades, as when your 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 from an auditorium full of children is not a thing to be cynical about – especially, I must risk saying, when that audience is 80 per cent inner-city blacks, as this one was. That they knew that Spider-Man was for them – the film has no black faces – probably speaks to many things. At least one of these is a key element of the Spider-Man myth: no matter how blandly mainstream 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, Stan Lee (typically, for his generation of showmen, a de-Judaicised ‘Stanley Lieber’), has boasted: ‘Spider-Man’s costume covers every inch of his body . . . any reader, of any race’ – if not gender – ‘in any part of the world, can imagine himself under that costume.’ But, quite satisfyingly, Parker doesn’t don that costume for the first 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 that establishes Spider-Man’s metaphoric blackness. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne live in palaces of privilege and operate from fantasy cities, Metropolis and Gotham, 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 etc. (‘It’s always like that for him.’) Furthermore, Spider-Man, as a dashiki-wearing instructor at a Brooklyn day-care centre once explained to me and a group of other (multi-hued) children, wasn’t actually invented by white people at all, but 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 is significant. 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 universalised Hollywood rendering. Or why, now that he has been given that treatment, so many forty or thirtysomething 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 a 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 the trench-coat mafia, The Amazing Spider-Man was that magazine.

Spider-Man was also the first superhero who, as a civilian, probably read 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 after the lecture from the day-care instructor, and Spider-Man, African trickster or not, was resting on his laurels. Even in the 1960s, 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-1970s Spider-Man’s great plot-lines – The Death of Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s ethereal blonde girlfriend, who would haunt him as Kim Novak haunts James Stewart 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 1970s 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) that provided the least interesting tales – and often signalled the final issue of a commercially foundering title. Ironically, in gravitating towards those Marvel characters who were not yet (and would never be) logos, Karl and I were recapitulating the rejection of icons in favour of darker, more amorphous figures that 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 that could be characterised as High Hipster – two parts Lord Buckley, one part Austin Powers. Stan Lee was a writer gone Barnum, who’d abandoned new work in favour of rah-rah moguldom. He was Marvel’s media liaison and their own biggest in-house fan, a schmoozer. Imagine if Orson Welles had never bothered to direct films again after The Lady from Shanghai, just bullshitted on talk shows, reliving his great moments. Like Welles, 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 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, it has been alleged, was a mere dialogue-writer who filled in word balloons in otherwise finished pages, and 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 conventions, and, probably, right this minute on the Internet. Jack Kirby, the greatest inventor in the history of comics, subsequently showed himself to be rather icy and remote without Lee’s goofy, humanising touch, and a writer of execrable dialogue: Keith needed his Mick. But great break-ups 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 LA Times. He’s also described as ‘heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism’. I 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 is reported to have accepted grudgingly. He probably has as much of 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 1970s 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 1960s plot-lines in digests called Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest Comics and in a trade paperback called Origins (the cover 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 swamped 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 dicta 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.

For the movie, Sam Raimi was wise to stick to the 1963-64 version of the comic book, rather than being tempted by the later recursions, and this Spider-Man is fully naive, 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 Spider-Man’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 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. An inspiration to George W. Bush, perhaps. The early comics, and this movie, are loaded with family drama – missing fathers, vulnerable fathers, fathers-gone-bad. You’d better grow up quick, kid. The biggest deviation is that Mary Jane Watson 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 her 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 Montgomery Clift’s in Red River. In that film Clift seemed, in his hesitancy and alertness, to be simultaneously in character and in a seat in the theatre 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 as basic as ‘Goblin, what have you done?’ with introspective echoes carries the film to a deeper place. A slightly deeper place. The most unlikely cheer from my crowd was 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 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 energised 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. They are always counted in dollars, but I wonder: did more human souls 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 account for repeat viewers. Still, whatever exactly happened in America on 3-5 May, they’ll want it to happen again. In the theatre, 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 filmisation 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 that 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 away: ‘Summer 2003? Oh, please.’ It must be hard to be a parent these days. Remember, we were at the 11 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.’