The best-known and most popular superheroes are Superman and Batman. They are published by D.C comics and live in the D.C universe, which they share with characters like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, as well as more outré persons like Lightning Lass and Matter Eater Lad.
Relatively few of the denizens of the rival Marvel Universe are called "Something-Man". They tend to be known by single word descriptive titles: the Hulk, the Thing, the Submariner, the Invisible Girl, the Punisher. Some of them have actual names: Thor, Doctor Strange, Captain America, Nick Fury. Notable exceptions are Iron Man, Ant Man and Spider-Man.
This point needs to be spelled out for the benefit of Fleet Street. The kid in the red and blue tights is quite definitely called Spider-Man. He is not, for example, called Spiderman, or even Spider-man. (Definitely not Spider Man. Spider Man is an African trickster god.) There was a brief vogue for calling Batman "the Batman". But the only time a definite article has ever attached itself to the arachnid based character is in the theme song to his TV series, where it seems to be pronounced in lower case. "Look out! There goes the spider man!"
Granted, the comic was called The Amazing Spider-Man but that's a common way of attaching an adjective to someone's name, as one might say "the annoying Paul Daniels" or "the dishonest Tony Blair." Spider-Man would sometimes refer to himself as "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man", which seemed to imply that he, at least, thought of it as a job title, not a name: you have a neighborhood milkman, and also a neighborhood Spider-Man. But I think that for most readers, the "friendly neighborhood" part just became meaningless syllables which attached themselves to the hero's name: a self-deprecating joke which we long ago forgot the point of. In any case the hero is not really called Spider-Man; he's called "Spidey". (It was even canonized as such in the title of a comic, Spidey Super Stories.) Spider-Man was the sort of person who could have a nickname. It would amount to lese majestie to have referred to Batty or Supey.
Did you notice that the movie was "based on the comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" where the last one was "created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko". Does that represent an increase or a decrease in Marvel's acknowledgment of Steve's creative input, I wonder?
Ditko isn't Kirby; but when I say "Spider-Man", I really mean "Steve Ditko's Spider-Man". The real issues are #1 - #38: the dark blue costume, the webs under the arm-pits, masked gangsters with slouch caps and names like "The Crime Master" and "The Big Man". Part soap-opera, part pulp-fiction: it is almost impossible to connect those gritty, surrealistic yarns with the bland corporate trademark that Spider-Man eventually became. (I think the rot set in with Marvel Team-up. You can't be gritty and surreal when you are mates with Captain America.) Sure, there were good episodes after Ditko's departure – the first resurrection of the Green Goblin, say, or the well-meaning but overwrought drug issues. There are even one or two post-Ditko villains who achieved canonical status: the Rhino, the Kingpin, Venom, and....er...that's it. But when Ditko packed up his copy of The Fountainhead and left the bullpen forever (unless you count Speedball, which, let's face it, you don't) most of the magic departed with him.
Even Mary Jane I see as a bit of newcomer. In the classic period, Peter was dating Betty Brant, JJJ's secretary, who, until she had her hair cut, was rather mousy. (Ditko could only draw two women's hairstyles.) The nerdy boy fell for the nerdy girl. But he was secretly admired by high-school glamour-puss Liz Allen, who was nominally going out with football hero Flash Thompson. Chicks really prefer nerds to jocks, as we all know.
On one occasion, Peter Parker found himself sharing a Pepsi with the Human Torch's girlfriend, who compares her heroic lover unfavorably with this sensitive, polite student. The Torch is unimpressed, and tells Peter so. Given that Stan Lee liked to represent the Fantastic Four as the film stars and royalty of the Marvel Universe , this made exactly the same amount of sense as Paul McCartney turning up in East Barnet School playground to warn me to stop hitting on Linda.
Another time Liz and Betty both turn up at Aunt May's house while Peter is out, and spend several panels glowering at each other. But as luck would have it, Mary Jane, Peter Parker's ultra-glamorous neighbour drops by, and the two gals are united in bitching against Peter. You mean he was keeping this from us all these years! But Peter has never met M.J: he not unreasonably thinks that any girl who Aunt May wants him to fix him up with is best avoided. And the reader's have never seen her face: on this occasion, it is tantalizingly hidden by a potted plant.
It was a sly move to have the MJ of Spider-Man 2 appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest. Classic period Spider-Man is based on a structure of mis-understanding and co-incidence which greatly resembles drawing room comedy. (It was really only after Romita replaced Ditko and Lee had to start making up his own plots that wall-to-wall angst set in.) Peter Parker's situation, forever finding that Spider-Man is his rival in love; or hearing girls say they love him because he is so unlike that dreadful Spider-Man, is not completely unlike that of Jack and Algie, both out-competed by the non-existent Ernest.
It would have been cute if MJ had been playing Gwendolyn. But she wasn't.
We finally see Mary's face well after Ditko has left the building; and she takes a long time to get beyond that first jaw-dropping entrance: "Face it tiger. You just hit the jackpot." She's a stunning, beautiful, scatter-brained, but Peter loves Gwen. (Betty and Liz have faded away by this point.) Gwen is a stunning, beautiful cypher. She is endlessly perfect and somewhat tragic. Spider-Man inadvertently caused the death of her father, as one does. Logically, Peter should have married her and lived happily ever after, but the world was not ready for a married superhero, so she had to be written out in as angsty a way as could be arranged.
Arguably, the death of Gwen was the moment when Spider-Man jumped the octopus. Not that the story, and its follow up, weren't well written and moving. The death of The Only Girl Spider-Man Will Ever Truly Love (yeah, right) was an unexpected twist, a reminder that with great power there really does come great responsibility, a shot in the arm of angst just when Peter ought to have been coming to terms with the death of Uncle Ben. But after Gwen died the comic went into stasis. It was clear that they couldn't kill anyone else off without the comic turning into Jude the Obscure. To lose one girlfriend may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two would have seemed like carelessness. Even Aunt May acquired a sort of diplomatic immunity: although she has suffered several temporary demises, reports of her death have always turned out to be etc. etc. etc. There could be no more sense that Spider-Man was advancing in real time, no more sense that he might conceivably one day have kids or grow old. The relationship between Peter and Emjay settled down into the familiar going-nowhere pattern that Clerk Kent and Lois Lane had been demonstrating for half-a-century. Eventually, Stan Lee decreed that they should get married as a spoiler for Watchmen. It didn't seem to make any difference. The Marvels graphic novel—a silly attempt to re-tell the history of the Marvel Universe in photo-realistic style—ended with the death of Gwen. Nothing happened afterwards.
"Based on the comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko". I approve of anything which de-centers the Lee ego, and recognizes that he was not the only person involved in the creation of Marvel Comics; not even necessarily the most important person. But the corporate myth that Spider-Man sprang fully formed from the brow of Stanley Martin Leiber is as important to Marvel Comics as the myth of Uncle Walt is to Disney, never mind that Disney himself neither wrote stories, nor drew pictures, nor composed songs.
Stan may have come up with the notion of a spider-based teen aged super-fellow, but the look-and-feel, as well as most of the good story lines, have Ditko written all over them. The one thing that Stan Lee definitely did input into the Spider-Man comic—his wise-cracking, jokey, self-deprecating voice—was the one element which didn't make it into the movie. This was a great loss: when I think of Spidey, I think of his jokes. Stan Lee sounds like Groucho Marx, and so, a lot of the time, does Spider-Man:
Villain: I'm warning you, Spider-Man...
Spidey: Mister, I thrive on warnings. In fact, one day, I'm going to write an article for Reader's Digest entitled "the most unforgettable warning I've ever known...."
Comics are a collaborative medium, and an accurate credit would probably have run: "Based on the comic with speech bubbles by Stan Lee, pictures by Steve Ditko and John Romita, which Jack Kirby says he thought of and Joe Simon says he thought of first: it was nearly 40 years ago, guys, can't we all just be friends."
If you adopted this plan, then the credits for the X-Men 3 could be the coolest thing ever: "Based on the comic by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, which was begotten of Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, which was begotten of Roy Thomas, which was begotten of Stan Lee, which was begotten of Jack Kirby, which was begotten of God."
But maybe we could move towards interactive credits for the DVD of Spider-Man 2, so each individual frame is traced back to the author and artist who originally created it.
Costume in waste-bin – Credit: Stan Lee and John Romita, issue #50 "Spider-Man No More"
This is one of the best examples Stan Lee's "oh woe is me" version of Spider-Man. The image of Peter Parker walking away from the trashcan where he has dumped his costume is taken directly from the comic, although there it's a little kid who takes it to Jameson, not a garbage man. ("You rate a reward" says Jameson "Pick up a free copy of the Daily Bugle on the way out") In this story, Spider-Man meets a night-watch-man who rather resembles Uncle Ben, which reminds him that he should take up his responsibilities as a super-hero. The movie story-line also owes a lot to the earlier and better Lee-Ditko episode "The End of Spider-Man". There, Aunt May's "gumption" in dealing with her illness inspires our hero to take up the costume again.
Spider-Man loses his powers – Credit Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Annual #1 "The Sinister Six."
Spider-Man spends at least half of this double-sized issue wandering around New York morosely, depressed that his powers have gone away "when he needs them most". It turns out, however, that he hasn't lost them at all: he just thinks he has, due to deep-seated guilt over the death of Uncle Ben. Which makes perfect sense. In the comic version, Spider-Man decides to go up against Doctor Octopus and a coalition of willing ex-villains (who have kidnapped Aunt May and Betty Brant, inevitably) even though he believes himself to be powerless. He only realizes that his powers have come back when he dodges one of Electro's lightening bolts. In the movie his powers come back first and he goes into action afterwards, which isn't nearly so noble.
J Jonah Jameson – Credit Stan Lee
Every line, every scene from the movie with JJJ in it came straight out of the comic, even when they didn't. When egotistical, cigar-chewing editor Stan Lee came up with egotistical, cigar-chewing editor Jonah Jameson, he created the funniest foil any hero ever had. In fact, rather than faffing around with cameos, why didn't they go the whole hog and let Stan Lee play the role of Jonah?
John Jameson – Credit Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
JJJ has had an astronaut son since Spider-Man #1, indeed, the whole feud started because JJJ thought that Spider-Man had upstaged his son by saving his life... John has always been represented as, in contrast to his father, a totally nice guy. (Okay, he gets turned into a mad super-villain and subsequently a werewolf, but that could happen to anyone.) The gooder-than-thou character in the film owes more to Ned Leeds, Spidey's fellow photographer and rival in love for the hand of Betty Brant.
Robbie Robertson, JJJ's city editor — Credit Stan Lee and John Romita.
To be honest, apart from the fact that he's a black guy who works at the Bugle there's no obvious similarity between the characters.
Betty Brant, JJJs secretary — Credit Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Betty seemed only to be in the movie as an in-reference for Spider-Fans, since she doesn't do anything. She has recognizably the same hairstyle as the comic book character. (In the TV series, Jonah's secretary was a black girl with the equally silly name of Glory Grant. Such a character did indeed appear in the comic for a while, largely so Jonah could get Miss Grant and Miss Brant endlessly confused.)
Curt Conners, Peter Parker's tutor — Credit Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
In the comic, Conners is never Spider-Man's teacher, but he is his friend, someone Spidey can always go to when he needs a plot device. The key point of connection between the movie character and the comic book character is that they are both amputees. This is important, because he will eventually inject himself with reptile blood (presumably, genetically modified reptile blood) to try to grow a new one. With hilarious consequences.
If I were a betting man, I would put money on the Lizard being the villain for Spider-Man 3.
Harry Osborne – Credit Gerry Conway and Gil Kane, if anyone.
The original Green Goblin is only revealed to be Norman Osborne after Steve Ditko has disappeared — indeed, fan rumor has it that one of the reasons for the creative split was a disagreement about how that storyline should be resolved. He is not killed off until even Stan Lee has hung up his pen. Harry finds the Goblins mask almost immediately after his father dies but it takes him a dozen more issues to actually become the Goblin.
There have subsequently been a total of seventeen Goblins in the comics, six of them clones.
Doctor Octopus – Credit Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
I think the "sentient arms" shtick first turned up in a Romita story, and the first reference I can recall to him being a split personality was, bizarrely, in a John Byrne issue of the Fantastic Four. Interestingly, while the Goblin of the first movie looked nothing like the character from the comic but had a basically similar personality and back-story, Doc Ock looks exactly like the comic book character, but his personality is different, which is to say, it actually exists. In the comic, his arms got fused to him while he was mucking around with radioactive stuff; here the accident is caused by an experiment in fusion. Radioactivity and fusion (along with genetically modified and nanotech) are both Latin terms for "Magic pixie dust." The scene in which Spider-Man is holding up the wreckage of a Doc Ock's collapsed underwater base is, at the very least, a nod to "If this be my destiny", part 2 of the "Master Planner Trilogy", the best single episode of Spider-Man which therefore has a good claim to being the best single superhero story of all time.
The trailer for Spider-Man 2 ended with Harry Osborn about to pull Spider-Man's mask off. "Well" I thought, "I wonder how they will get out of that." It didn't occur to me that they wouldn't.
Super-hero masks are a fairy-tale taboo: revealing your Secret Identity is like revealing your True Name in the Earthsea books. (Almost literally so, come to think of it.) A malicious fairy says "You will be super-strong and able to walk up walls, but only on condition that you keep your face hidden." I remember when I first saw the cover of issue #39 when the Goblin first unmasks Spidey, and feeling genuinely shocked. No-one was supposed to know who Spider-Man was, least of all a villain.
People talk about superheroes wearing tights or lycra; but in truth, superhero costumes are an artistic convention. The hero is drawn as a highly stylized nude. The mask is a displaced fig-leaf to enable them to maintain some kind of metaphysical modesty. The threat—or promise—that the mask will be removed is a kind of strip-tease. There can be lots of hints and titillation, but heroes never go the full Monty.
There was the moment when Spidey came right out and exposed himself in front of Betty (Solution: it was only a dream, her worst possible fear.) There was the time that Doctor Octopus pulled off Spidey's mask in public. (Solution: Everyone thought that Peter had just dressed up as Spider-Man to get some photos.) There was the cliff-hanger ending when the Crime Master is about to unmask him. (Solution: It was a second hand costume, and the mask had been glued on with web.) There was an occasion where he got all his friends together and told them he was Spider-Man (Solution: they didn't believe him, because he was suffering from a bad cold. Not Stan's finest hour, that.) Having seen Spider-Man's face gives you power over him, as with the Goblin, but it is also perilous. Gwen's father reveals that he has always known that Parker is Spider-Man. He dies in the next panel. As a sort of violent act of revenge, Spider-Man pulls of his mask in front of the Burglar who killed Uncle Ben. He dies on the next page. There was even a piece of sentimental clap-trap in which Spider-Man sneaked into a little boy's bedroom in order to facially expose himself to him. The boy is, of course, revealed in the final panel to be terminally ill. For a very long time, the Goblin was the one exception to this rule: the only living person to know who Spider-Man really was, and by virtue of this fact, Spider-Man's worst enemy. And even he spent most of his time suffering from amnesia.
In the movie, it now appears that Spider-Man's true identity is now known to pretty much the entire population of New York. Mary Jane knows. Harry knows. Doctor Octopus knows, although he is currently suffering from death. All those commuters for whom Spider-Man did his Jesus routine (don't get me started) know. Worst of all, Aunt May lectures her wayward son on the responsibilities of heroism so often that we assume that she must know too. The whole rationalization for Spider-Man's dual identity was that If Aunt May Ever Found Out Who I Was The Shock Would Kill Her. While all these exposures provided thrills at the time, I can't help wondering whether we will regret it in the morning.
Oh, by the way: I liked the movie.