This week looks at Marvel’s Spider-Man. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the arachnid-themed superhero first appeared in Amazing Fantasy 15 in 1962. Peter Parker, a high school science geek, received his arachnid abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider while at a science exhibit. The first thing to go through the teenage Peter’s mind when he realized he had these powers was . . . to make money from them. He lived with his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who were having difficulties making ends meet. Peter’s idea was to become a TV star, complete with costume. However, when given a chance to stop a thief, he ignored it. Later, the same thief robbed and killed Uncle Ben. As Spider-Man, Peter tracked down the thief and stopped him. “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The Spider-Man line of books is probably Marvel’s top selling comics. Long before The Punisher or Wolverine appeared, Spider-Man was the go-to character to draw in new readers to a book, appearing in The Avengers and Fantastic Four as needed. Since his creation, Spidey has appeared in eight separate cartoons, one live-action TV series, a tokusatsu show in Japan, a daily newspaper comic, four live-action feature films, and a Broadway musical. Oddly, despite the popularity of the character, it took until 2002 to get a major motion picture released featuring the web-slinger.
Maybe not so oddly. The CBS series The Amazing Spider-Man from 1978 performed well in ratings but was costly to film due to the stunts required. In the comics and cartoons, Spider-Man swung between the tall skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan. Recreating that safely required a lot of work, especially when CGI wasn’t even a consideration yet. However, technology pressed on, and many dangerous effects could be done far safer with the magic of computers.* By 2002, though, CGI had gone long past the experimental stage and into regular use.
Sam Raimi was approached by Sony to direct the Spider-Man film adaptation. Raimi himself had been a fan of the comic as he grew up, and worked to keep the feel of the movie to the original. Several changes were made, though. Instead of being bitten by a radioactive spider, the attacking arachnid was now genetically modified, reflecting the fears of the day. Instead of Gwen Stacy, Mary-Jane Watson was the love interest, though Mary-Jane would be far better known by the younger followers of the comics. The Green Goblin had a change in his costume origin, though the appearance harked back to his comic book likeness.
Despite Raimi not having used CGI in the past, he learned quickly, and had the web-slinging scenes turn into a ballet, complete with a shout-out to the 1960s era Spider-Man cartoon at the end. The mix of live action and CGI succeeded in bringing to life the wise-cracking hero’s unusual means of travel through New York.
The movie’s plot covered two elements. The first was an updating of Spider-Man’s origin, as mentioned above. The second involved the Green Goblin and an adaptation of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (Amazing Spider-Man 121). Both elements allowed Raimi to introduce some of Spidey’s supporting cast, including J. Jonah Jameson and his staff at the Daily Bugle. And, just as mentioned in last week’s Iron Man review, the villain didn’t steal the movie. Spider-Man, as a character, was interesting enough to carry the movie, despite Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Norman Osborn.
The movie was a hit. It made over US$100 million in its opening weekend. But, as mentioned before, financial success is not an indication of a adaptational success. What is an indication is respect towards the original, helped greatly by Sam Raimi being a fan. The changes made reflected the times the movie was made in. In the 1960s, radiation was the boogieman feared by the general populace. Two superpowers sat in a war of escalation that would culminate in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, two months after Amazing Fantasy 15 was released. The line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” may not have been a lesson for just Peter. However, 2002, forty years later, the biggest threat to mankind wasn’t nuclear Armageddon, but genetic tinkering of food crops.** Radiation was understood, genetic modification was a wild card to the general public. The change in the origin was meant to resonate with the audience, allowing them to get the same feeling as readers of the first Spider-Man story did.
Overall, Spider-Man was a successful adaptation. The changes reflected modern realities and the need of an audience to have not followed a comic for forty years to understand everything happening in a movie.
* Watch as ones flip into zeroes before your very eyes!
** The Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre occurred after filming completed.