Calling the new Spider-Man film the best comic-book movie ever made–and it is, without a doubt, the best comic-book movie ever made–is a little like calling a Chicken McNugget the best processed fast-food poultry product ever produced. It’s praise, but how substantial can the praise really be, given the source?
#ad#Movies and television shows based on comic books constitute the worst single genre in the history of filmed entertainment (with the exception of porn). Okay, maybe movies and TV shows made from video games are worse, but they’ve only been around a little while. There have been horrendous comic-book movies since Superman first emerged as the avatar of this new form of pop-culture junk in 1938.
The only way Hollywood could succeed in making such entertainment minimally palatable was to camp it up like crazy, which is what the makers of the Batman TV series did in the mid-1960s and what Gene Hackman did so gloriously as the scenery-chomping villain of the Superman movies in the late 1970s.
In 1989, the comic-book movie took a big step up by abandoning camp for the macabre. Tim Burton’s version of Batman made a zillion dollars at the box office by going gloomy when it came to Batman’s inner struggle and creepy when it came to the villainous Joker’s scheme to disfigure all of mankind. Jack Nicholson scored the highest paycheck in the history of cinema up to the time for his performance as the Joker. My friend Rick Marin allowed as how Nicholson was pretty good, but really, he was no Cesar Romero. (Romero played the Joker on TV.)
Ever since, it’s been one gloomy and dark and depressing and dank comic-book movie after another. They seem to take place mostly at night, and there usually seems to be rain falling. You get a lot of brooding and scowling from characters who are able to perform supernatural acts–and as far as I’m concerned, if I had a supernatural power or two, I’d be pretty damn happy about it. Not these guys.
The first Spider-Man movie, released two years ago, broke the dour mold by being–wonder of wonders–very charming. Maybe it was the fact that its primary setting is the homely New York City borough of Queens that kept it down to human scale. Maybe it was the goofy sweetness Tobey Maguire brought to his triumphant turn as Spider-Man and his alter ego, science nerd Peter Parker. The villain (a cackling guy in a green suit flying around on a surfboard) wasn’t much to write home about, and the scenes where Spider-Man flew around were incredibly cartoon-looking, but it was impossible to complain when this good-natured romp captured the hearts of American moviegoers.
Spider-Man 2 is more gloomy than its predecessor, and things seem to take an ominous turn as Peter Parker starts getting all complain-y about his lot in life. But for once, you understand why he’s feeling the pain. The brilliant stroke here is that because he feels he has to save everybody who’s in peril, Peter Parker can’t even hold on to a pizza-delivery job. He’s broke, he lives in a dump, and his friends and loved ones are furious with him because he never shows up anywhere on time and has no good excuses for his absences.
Peter Parker’s struggles are truly the struggles of any 22-year-old trying to make a go of it in New York–money and punctuality. And Maguire is a wonderful Average Joe, who conveys with a look and a sigh the intolerable loneliness of being someone with a dangerous secret. Spider-Man 2 has one of the most satisfying endings of any Hollywood movie in years because director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent (who was helped out by novelist Michael Chabon) plays off that loneliness so beautifully
Still, this is a story about a guy who can shoot spider webs out of his wrists and swing around the city, facing off against a villain who looks like a human octopus. No matter how effectively the movie does what it has to do, it can’t transcend the essential stupidity of its central conceit.
I know, I know, I’m supposed to pause here to pay obeisance to the wonders of supercharged adolescent fantasies as embodied in the comic book. They present archetypes of heroism, focus on the hidden power of the social outcast, yada, yada, yada. At best, we have been told, they are the contemporary version of the Norse sagas. Their fans use terms like “Golden Age” and “Silver Age” to differentiate them, and can go into extraordinary detail about the difference between your Marvel comic and your DC comic.
Comic-book snobs of the 1970s always preferred Marvel, though my friend Tod Lindberg always had a soft spot for DC because DC had created a superhero character with the incredibly uneuphonious name of “Matter-Eater Lad.”
There’s no question that superhero comic books offer pre-teen and teenage male a very potent fantasy outlet–the idea of a powerful man who is hidden inside a frightened, neurotic boy’s body. Gerard Jones’s terrific book Killing Monsters makes an unimpeachable case for the depictions of violence in these fantasies, arguing that they offer a comforting outlet for those who feel totally powerless.
Comic books developed a bad reputation because of the violence they depicted, which was and is a silly reason to dislike them. Here’s a better reason: They’re a cultural embarrassment. They weren’t when they were the province of powerless boys, but they have become a cultural embarrassment because the common culture has unthinkingly and stupidly accepted them as an art form. This was a natural outcome of the youth-worship that took over American culture in the 1960s, because if you’re going to immature and illiterate energy in all its guises, why not go all the way into the most immature and illiterate of cultural forms?
I’ve always been an anti-comic-book snob, and I paid a price for it. Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t preserve comic books from the 1960s and 1970s in little clear plastic bags. Friends who did have subsequently made thousands of dollars on them by selling them to comic-book stores whose owners and managers always seem to resemble Jabba the Hut–if Jabba the Hut wore a t-shirt with a Metallica logo on it. So maybe I’m a little bitter.
John Podhoretz is a columnist for the New York Post and author of Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane.