The ties that bind Spider-Man to the isle of Manhattan don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got that swing.
Give Spider-Man director Sam Raimi credit. As a lifelong fan of the comic book, he knew how he wanted to honor the material: He would update the scientific trappings, subbing gene-lab salad-tosses for irradiated mutations. He would use state-of-the-art CGI to banish painful memories of rope-bag webbing left over from earlier live-action retellings. And, hewing to the line mouthed at every opportunity by Marvel paterfamilias and character co-creator Stan Lee, he would locate the story’s emotional core in the callow heart of Peter Parker, in the teen’s unrequited romantic longing and the unassuageable guilt he feels over his pivotal sin of omission: failing to stop the thug who would go on to murder his beloved uncle.
Especially on this last score, Raimi has done an admirable job, but the film’s undoing is that he has neglected one major point: Peter Parker is not Spider-Man, not really. Deep down, everyone knows it—even the avuncularly self-aggrandizing Lee, who, in a moment of rare insight, credits the form-fitting, skin-obscuring garb designed by Steve Ditko with an accidental genius: “He could’ve been a black kid under that costume, could’ve been Hispanic, could’ve been Indian, could’ve been Asian, could’ve been anything.” Now, why would anyone believe that unless he also disbelieved in white-boy paragon Peter Parker? Cast aside the official line—the Spider-Man mystique cannot possibly rest in the fact that it’s easy for fanboys to identify with the geek within.
So let’s pitch out the crush on Mary Jane, cart off old Aunt May to the rest home, and admit once and for all that there’s nothing wrong with Uncle Ben that can’t be fixed with a good recipe for jambalaya. Spider-Man is primarily defined not by soap-operatic human affairs but by his unique relationship to the three-dimensional city. He enacts a fantasy of spatial access, in which the lofty peaks of the towers of Manhattan are attained as easily as the bodega around the corner.
With the exception of Plastic Man, who generally remains rooted to the ground however elastic he gets, Spider-Man is the only superhero whose fundamental appeal is sculptural in an abstract, space-spanning sense. His city is mapped not for the earthbound body, but for the eye: Virtually any surface within sight is within reach. Spidey has figured out how to make Manhattan work for him, by chucking out the plodding rectilinear grid, all sardine-can elevators and traffic jams, in favor of an invisible network of diagonals and arcs that he navigates with an acrobatic array of leaps, swoops, and swings.
Outright flight is too easy, too much like cheating, like magic. There’s no tension in hovering effortlessly outside a window like Superman or scooting around in Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, a conceit so dopey that artists choose to wire-frame the plane rather than have her floating in a permanent squat, as if poised above some cosmic commode. Marvel insists on placing its heroes in the real world and then making dramatic alterations to their interactions with it. Spider-Man is the company’s most successful character because his position vis-a-vis physical reality is the most precisely pitched. He comes off as a semisuperhero, part gymnast, part aerialist, part stuntman, whose most amazing attributes are his stamina and his ability to craft required props on the fly.
Gravity is still a given, and as the old theme song has it, “Action is his reward.” But what kind of action? Certainly not besting baddies with fisticuffs and web-snares. Though highly touted, Neversoft’s 2000 Spider-Man game for the original PlayStation still has the common fault of breaking up supple level play with taxing boss fights that turn tedious with repetition. And for once, the flaws of a superhero game are representative of those of its protagonist’s customary romps. What Raimi’s movie shares with it, as well as with the ’90s animated series, is that it mistakes the icing for the cake, giving us far too much battling while stinting on unencumbered web-swinging.
It’s predictable from its title that the new tie-in/cash-in DVD Spider-Man: The Ultimate Villain Showdown errs along the same lines. And because four of its five episodes of televised Spidey date from the ’90s, there’s little hoping otherwise. It’s a welcome treat, then, that there’s a scene titled “Web Swinging,” in which a young girl hits up Spidey for precisely the action we crave, a piggyback ride through the city. “Just once I’d like to see the world like you see it,” this Everyfan pleads. The webhead acquiesces, and for a few tantalizingly brief seconds that include a spin around the mooring mast of the Empire State Building, I’m almost inclined to forgive the writers who saddled the tyke with a terminal illness. But then Doctor Octopus turns up for yet another rooftop skirmish, and it’s back to business as usual.
The premier venue for web-swinging as a thing of beauty remains the late-’60s Spider-Man cartoon. It was the sequences that simply showed Spidey arcing and zipping through the city that made him the only superhero I ever cared about. The origin episode that fills out the Villain Showdown disc was the Year Two season-starter, and it marks the ascendancy to the Spider-Man director’s chair of Ralph Bakshi, who was brought in as a cost-cutter. Bakshi’s prime budgetary maneuvers were repetition and reuse, and his minimal re-editing of familiar footage made for some hideously lazy cartoons.
The one place repetition worked was where there was little expectation of plot advancement. Color backgrounds and overlays being easier to come by than new drawings, Bakshi had his animators create watercolor nocturnes that made every patch of sky into a ‘shroomy version of a Turner painting. The first season’s flat, starlight-pricked blue monochromes were replaced with swirling, liquid thunderheads—green, yellow, and black; red, violet, and midnight blue; occasionally just stretches of drizzling gray. Buildings, too, changed color with fauvish disregard, stone corners turning pink or blue each time our wall-crawling hero alighted anew on an old form. Many times, we watched a minuscule Spider-Man whizzing past a scrolling skyline that repeated every few buildings, but a uniform red gel was all that was needed for the sequence to cast a different spell.
Bakshi’s series was all about mood, about gazing, moving, and killing time; in other words, it was anathema to the comic-book sensibility. An episode would open and close with sequences of webby locomotion, and somewhere in the middle Spider-Man would be required to truck across town, unspooling his personal brand of rapid transit to the horns, flutes, and beats of Ray Ellis’ mod score. Bakshi’s New York was not the moral crucible in which Raimi and Lee formed the soul of Peter Parker, but an aestheticized urban landscape exploding in dark rapture. Spidey didn’t police the city out of duty—forget all that “with great power there must also always be great responsibility” nonsense. Watching out for the welfare of others was the price he grudgingly paid for having the best seat in the house.
Given that Spider-Man must have had a highly developed eye, I never could buy that his supposed alter ego was a photographer of so little panache. The deadpan frontal view of the ruined steel-frame structure that freelance shutterbug Parker hands in to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson after Spidey’s contretemps with the Vulture in both “The Sky Is Falling” and “The Winged Thing” shows nothing of the verve we’d expect from a guy who knows the city as no other photographer can; in fact, the shot could not be the one we just saw the wall-crawler taking from high atop a ledge to the side of the scene. He must be holding out on us.
When Spider-Man finally does publish his photos, I suspect he’ll be seen as Berenice Abbott with a leg up in the permissions department, thanks to his ability to work the outside of a building as well as the inside. The most inspiring of her pictures of ’30s New York employ the Spider’s-eye view: high-angle but not aerial, shot from the upper reaches of the skyscrapers that mold the canyons of Manhattan. Her famous 1932 shot of midtown at night, taken from a window in the Empire State Building, where she could be embedded in the urban grid but not quite of it, is a veritable Spider-map of the neighborhood. The lights in the office windows speak to the buzz of activity in the concrete-and-steel hives, but it is entire colonies we identify more than the individual workers within. To peer from above is to observe the spatial network of proximity and division that frames the modern city.
Starting in 1935, Abbott documented New York for the WPA. One particularly apt shot down 41st and 42nd Streets frames both Raymond Hood’s Daily News Building, which likely served as the model for the comic book’s Daily Bugle Building (though Raimi gives the role to the Flatiron Building), and Tudor City’s Windsor Tower, whose penthouse is the home of industrialist Norman Osborn (dba the Green Goblin) in the current film. That Abbott also shot the Chrysler Building is less surprising, but its importance to Spider-Man can’t be denied. It’s the single most recognizable edifice in the ’60s cartoon: Spidey spirals around it in the title sequence, and it recurs in skyline backgrounds with Kilroyesque frequency. In the ’90s cartoon, its highest floors are the Kingpin’s lair, and in Raimi’s movie, its eagle-shaped gargoyles make for Spidey’s thoughtful spot.
Spider-Man’s ideal habitat is among the upper reaches of such great prewar skyscrapers. Not only are they more picturesque than their International Style successors, but they better evoke the sensation of loftiness. An unarticulated monolith may indeed be tall, but it doesn’t necessarily connote the achievement of tallness. Stair-stepping into the sky via multiple setbacks, the industrial monuments of art deco are aspirational in the extreme. And unlike the modernist box, which offers Spider-Man only five planar surfaces on which to alight, the moderne ziggurat provides landing pads at multiple altitudes, catering to, as one ’90s voice-over has it, “a spider’s craving for dark corners and new heights” and giving human scale to a realm that would otherwise dwarf our hero.
The tops of the buildings that matter most to Spider-Man virtually always possess symbolic import, too, either as signboards, mansions in the sky, communication towers, viewing platforms—or outright jokes. In Neversoft’s game, Spidey battles thugs in the “Chippendale”-style notch of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Headquarters; he can also drop in there for a spell in Treyarch’s new multiplatform outing, making himself part of the gag, like a household spider spinning a web at the top of a highboy. To direct one’s digital avatar toward the space is to understand how much of Spider-Man’s ongoing patrol is undertaken out of sheer delight.
It’s a sudden rupture of the urban fabric that places the uniqueness of Spider-Man’s apprehension of Manhattan in sharpest relief. Marvel couldn’t allow Sept. 11 to pass unremarked, so it sent its roster in to help. Uniformed members of the Fantastic Four and plain-clothed X-Men worked alongside representatives of the NYPD, FDNY, and FEMA. Captain America surveyed the wreckage. But it was a black-covered issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that hosted the Marvel universe’s memorial, and it was the web-slinger who conducted a stunned tour through the rubble, because it is he who is the chief emissary of the company’s love of the real New York, which is as much a physical place as it is a community of souls.
The writing is too pompous and the drawing too stolid, with too much steely resolve, too many clenched jaws and future-fixed stares, for the issue to be judged a success, but the opening spread conveys all the woe that can be wrung from a comic book: Turned away from us astride his architectural perch, his hands clasped to his head, Spider-Man gazes into the smoldering pit. Like anyone else, he grieves for innocent lives, but the scene’s solitary observer also mourns the loss of a knowledge of the towers that belonged to him alone.
The social aspect that creeps into Spider-Man’s world through the spatial metaphor is grander than the sudsy saga taken by Raimi and the comic-book and daily-strip scribes as the web-slinger’s raison d’etre. Spider-Man’s urban experience is properly presented as a parable of interconnectedness, an exploration of the idea of the all-encompassing modern metropolis, a place so vast and so dense that it cries out for a new way to get around. The wish fulfilled by the fantasy he embodies is not so much to be placed beyond the ken of the mortal as to be able to navigate that realm with aplomb, to know one’s way through the world and to master its risks. CP