I saw the new X-Men movie last Saturday, and kind of enjoyed it, certainly more than the first films in the series. But I gather that, by the standards of summer blockbusters, it was felt to have underperformed on its opening weekend. I wonder how long the big screen superhero will last: In an age when Hollywood has pretty much lost the knack of storytelling, these are about the only reliably boffo pics not imported from Brit Lit, whether J K Rowling, C S Lewis, or J R R Tolkien. Don't get me wrong. Meeting Stan Lee was one of the great moments of my life, even if it happen while wandering through the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
"You're a Democrat," I said, aghast.
"Are you kidding?" he beamed.
I should have known. Stan's comic books (The X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor) were "inclusive" and "diverse" and "multicultural" long before the terms ever occurred to any politicians. The X-Men were especially ahead of the game: they were mutants, evolutionary quirks who found themselves persecuted because they were "different". Stan had been working at what became Marvel Comics since 1939 but it wasn't till the Sixties that he started creating superheroes tailored for the sensibility of the age.
It took Hollywood awhile to catch up. Comic books are, as Jules Feiffer once said, "movies on paper": both forms are "motion pictures", defining character and telling stories through movement. And yet there were virtually no really good comic-book movies, until film technology advanced to the point where it could capture the muscle-rippling, frame-bursting vitality of the form - "Ka-Pow!!!!" So for our Friday Feature this week here's the film that launched what's now a decade of superhero summers - from 2002, Spider-Man:
Adapting everybody's favorite freindly neighborhood webslinger isn't like adapting Jane Austen, where you can chop characters and stick in lesbian scenes to your heart's content. Mess with a comic-book superhero and the purists will leave you for roadkill. So I was pleased to find that, even though I hadn't looked at Spider-Man for a decade or three before this film came out, everything in the telling proceeds pretty much as I remembered it: the high-school nerd, the spider bite, the famous word of advice from his ill-fated Uncle Ben - "Remember, Peter, with great power comes great responsibility..." Stan Lee (the exec producer on the movie as on the new X-Men) must have been silently mouthing along with the dialogue. Rare is the source-material man who can say, like Billy Wilder after the opening of Sunset Boulevard - The Musical, "The boys hit on a brilliant scheme. They didn't change a thing."
Well, okay, they changed one thing, though I didn't fully take it in until I read a column about it after the movie. In 1962 - Cuban missile crisis time - young Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider; 40 years on, the paranoia du jour was updated and now he gets bitten by a genetically modified spider. But, other than that, this Spider-Man is true to the spirit of the original to a degree that the Batman and Superman movies that both preceded and succeeded it never were.
Unlike Clark Kent, the Kryptonian space orphan slumming in Smallville, and Bruce Wayne, the millionaire playboy with his butler and his ward, Peter Parker really is just an average guy. In fact, somewhat below average. He was the first superhero who was a super-loser. In the movie, we meet him running alongside the school bus until eventually the driver deigns to stop. On board, even the fat guys don't want him sitting next to them: he's a social misfit in specs and uncool gear.
Tobey Maguire is just perfect as Peter. He was 26 but looks 17 and sounds sorta squeaky, like his voice hasn't fully broken. His wan eyes are paradoxically expressive, as if their impassivity is his way of dealing with years of schoolyard humiliations. His upper lip juts out goofily. He grins nervously, radiates earnestness, and anchors the movie in reality in a way Christopher Reeve or the Nineties parade of big-time Caped Crusaders never could. There's a vaguely hormonal sub-text to his transformation. The morning after his fateful spider bite, the first indication that he's altered in some way is when he looks inside his boxers and is impressed.
In the school cafeteria, he spots Mary Jane, the girl next door who barely knows he exists, and suddenly, involuntarily, a shoot of sticky, filmy webbing spurts out from his wrist. Complications ensue. Soon, however, he's got his spurts under control and is swinging home across the rooftops.
Once he decides to call himself Spider-Man and climbs into the long underwear, the digital computer generators do most of the work. The result is that the shots of Spidey swinging through the canyons of New York have the visual ease of a comic book come to life: that awkward moment when you first see the actor in multicolored figure-hugging Crimplene has been banished forever. (It helps that Spider-Man is covered from head to toe in his red-and-blue get-up and even his eye holes are blank white ovals). The director, Sam Raimi, has also borrowed one of the visual tics from the original artist, Steve Ditko - the vertiginous panels of a brooding Spider-Man lost in introspection, riddled with self-doubt, etc., while hanging upside down off a skyscraper gargoyle or squatting on the end of a flagpole leaning out over the street far below.
The problem isn't that Raimi doesn't enjoy getting the guy into his Spider-Man suit but that he's not terribly interested in what he does once he's in it. The superheroics are a bit perfunctory - rescuing a baby from a blazing building - and the supervillain, the Green Goblin, is a factory-made bad guy. Well, okay, I know he is literally - he turns into the Green Goblin after an experiment at the factory goes awry - but I meant that he doesn't seem special enough for the movie. The sunken-cheeked Willem Dafoe is game, and cackles maniacally a lot, but he never really commands the screen.
Raimi, meanwhile, can't wait to get back to what interests him, and us - the budding relationship between Peter and Mary Jane. As MJ, Kirsten Dunst manages to look hot but real, and scene by scene unobtrusively intensifies her feelings for Peter. Every week, Hollywood releases romantic comedies and yearning love stories in which we're asked to accept that some expensively coiffed, breast-enhanced, plastic Hollywood celebrity is just the girl next door. How bizarre to discover a love story whose principals actually look like regular human beings in a superhero comic-book yarn.
Aside from Maguire and Dunst, there's sterling work from Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben) and Britain's Rosemary Harris (Aunt May). My only quibble is with the composer Danny Elfman, who scored the Batman movies and seems to be missing the Dark Knight. I'd say Spider-Man's music needs to, well, swing a little more. They should have stuck with the old Spidey Sixties cartoon theme, or asked Neil Hefti, who wrote the Batman TV theme ('Dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner, Batman!') mainly from a riff he used in his groovy arrangement of 'Ev'rybody's Twisting' for Sinatra. But, music aside, the prototype summer superhero blockbuster is more fun than most of the ones that followed in its wake.
My old colleague James Bowman thinks the current vogue for big screen superheroes helps to "isolate and quarantine heroism in fantasy-land". "Heroism" is what people who've been bitten by radioactive spiders do. Until that happens to you, best to steer clear. And so a world of superheroes leads to a world without heroes. Gone now are the amateur adventurers of 19th- and 20th-century fiction, chaps who'd find themselves caught up in something, and decide to give it a go, initially because it's a ripping wheeze but also because, in some too-stiff-upper-lipped-to-say way, they understood honor required it. Now the conventional romantic hero is all but extinct, and as giants patrol the skies those of us on the ground are perforce smaller. In The Incredibles, there's a famous line aimed at the feel-good fatuities of contemporary education: when everyone's special, nobody is. The failure of storytelling in today's Hollywood teaches a different lesson: when everyone's super, nobody's a hero.