Our hero

Superhuman crime-busters are OK, but all-too-human Peter Parker is really special.

May 09, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Spider-Man rules. So what else is new?

Spider-Man the movie stiff-armed the competition last week, pulling in more money in its opening weekend than any movie in history. And Spider-Man the comic, even 40 years after the character's debut, sits comfortably among the comic world's best-selling titles.

Not a bad performance, even for a guy with the proportionate strength of a spider (albeit with six fewer arms). But anyone who was surprised by that arachnophilic domination simply hasn't been paying attention to popular culture for the past four decades.

People have always loved Spider-Man because he's a hero who's not all that far removed from the rest of us.

Obviously that feeling is as strong as ever. The box office numbers are staggering. In its first day, director Sam Raimi's film, starring Tobey Maguire as the web-slinging superhero, and Kirsten Dunst as his hoped-for girlfriend, Mary Jane, pulled in an unprecedented $39.3 million, a single-day record.

For its opening weekend, the film grossed $114 million, the quickest any movie has broken the $100-million mark (even when earlier films' opening-weekend takes are adjusted for inflation). Executives at Sony Pictures had nervously predicted Spider-Man might make $80 million its first weekend; it's safe to say that rarely has any group in Hollywood been so happy to be proven wrong. And with the new Star Wars film not due until next week, Spider-Man could be looking at another huge weekend.

Superman and Batman may continue to grab the headlines, and the X-Men outsell him on a regular basis (Marvel won't reveal specific sales figures, but says Spider-Man is among the medium's five best-selling titles). But for 40 years, Spider-Man has been the king of the comic-book kingdom. His popularity has rarely waned since his debut back in 1962, and his influence has been dramatic.

It's not enough to say he has always been among the most popular comic-book characters. He actually changed the medium, altering the way comic books were written and comic characters were developed in ways no superhero has matched since (and only Superman rivaled before).

Even the vaunted X-Men, persecuted, superpowered mutants who for 20 years have dominated comics sales, are essentially Spider-Man with the alienation factor increased exponentially - Spidey as imagined by Shakespeare in a particularly pessimistic mood.

For Spider-Man is truly the people's superhero, in ways no other comic-book creation has ever matched. Superman came from another planet, Captain Marvel got his power from the gods, Wonder Woman was a goddess, the Sub-Mariner lived in the ocean, Captain America was the result of a scientist's obsession with creating a super-soldier. Even Batman, who shares some of Spidey's everyman qualities, was spurred on to a life of crime-fighting after watching his parents' murder, and had to train incessantly to fine-tune his mind and body.

But Peter Parker was just a kid trying to live his way through high school when he was bitten by that radioactive spider.

"He's a regular schlub off the street," says Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor-in-chief, "who has everyday worries of what to have for dinner, how the family is doing. He realizes that, even with his powers, it doesn't change the trappings of life. If anything, it might make life a little more complicated."

Just as Superman, the first great comic-book creation, perfectly embodied the spirit (and addressed the needs) of 1940s America, so too did Spider-Man seem a perfect fit for the '60s. In 1938, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, America was still climbing out of the Depression. War clouds were hovering over Europe. People desperately needed an escape, and Superman provided it: an implacable hero who could do it all, vanquish any enemy, subdue any foe, and barely muss his hair in the process.

Things had changed by 1962. Rock 'n' roll had started to take hold (Elvis had already conquered the world, but the Beatles were still playing Liverpool's Cavern Club). Alienation and desperation had become cultural watchwords, the theme of everything from the Beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to the films of James Dean and Marlon Brando.

Almost from the day he premiered in the pages of Marvel Comics' Amazing Fantasy No. 15, Spidey has been a crowd favorite. He's not just an everyman superhero who acquired his powers solely by accident - the same thing could happen to any of us, right? - but an everyman teen superhero, just like all the rest of us are or were in every aspect but his super-strength.

His guardian, the frail but amazingly resilient Aunt May, has the best of intentions, but no concept of what it's like to be Peter Parker (much less the Amazing Spider-Man). The kids at school make fun of him, the girls he liked ignore him, his boss (the incessantly blustery newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson) abuses him - heck, pretty much the whole world is hostile toward him.

Sounds pretty much like the teen experience, doesn't it?

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