Hoo boy, am I excited for Spider-Man 2. I wasn't even that big a fan of the first one, but have you seen the trailers for this thing? And read the reviews? This is going to be like getting smacked in the face with a copy of The Fountainhead by Steve Ditko himself, while Stan Lee puts on a cheerleader skirt and does a little dance in the background.
And, inevitably, it's going to inspire another round of the refrain that's been familiar since Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000: "the movies do superheroes better than comics." And looking at the incredible teasing glimpses of Doctor Octopus in the trailers, it's easy to believe that. But it's only half true.
In synthesizing Warren Ellis and Dave Fiore's two views of superheroes, I've come up with what I think are the two main components of superhero stories (I know Ellis and Fiore's views aren't as diametrically opposed as all that, but that link is a handy springboard for the following). They are
2. Talking (aka "soap opera," aka "character development")
Lately, it seems that many comics concentrate on one or the other (or at least the prevailing public perception is that they do). Ellis's Authority is all fighting; Brian Michael Bendis's Daredevil is all talking. And among long-time superhero fans, there's a tendency to separate the two components within the same book, referring to "action sequences" and "character development" as if the two could never exist together in the same panel. Which is complete rubbish. The characters in The Authority express themselves through violence; the characters in Daredevil fight with words.
But the division between action elements and soap-opera elements becomes more clear when you talk about superhero movies. Superheroes are indigenous to comics, and comics have long been the best--if not the only--place to get good superhero stories. But lately, thanks to digital effects, movies have become just as adept as comics at depicting superhero action--probably more adept. Very few artists can do work that compares with the action in the Spider-Man or X-Men movies. The filmed violence is more intense, more alive, more real. Authority and Ultimates artist Bryan Hitch may be the one artist who can compete with film on the level of pure spectacle. Look at the new Spider-Man series from Marvel, which takes a conscioulsy cinematic approach to the action: as vibrant and gorgeous as Terry and Rachel Dodson's art is, it has maybe half the visceral impact of the digitally precise camerawork of the movies.
But movies can't beat comics when it comes to the equally important realm of soap opera. Movies don't have time for ongoing subplots that last for years, nor room for emotional journeys that have more than three checkpoints. Compare the straightforward "boy wants girl; boy loses girl; boy kinda maybe gets girl" plot of the first Spider-Man film to the ongoing roller coaster that is Peter Parker's love life in Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man. The action in USM is negligible; the villains come and go, but the real driving force of the series is Peter's struggle against the one thing he knows is true: being Spider-Man is going to destroy every relationship he ever has. Though USM is divided into "story arcs," it's really one long, messy journey through the supremely messed-up life of one high school kid with a big secret. The first six-issue arc of the series was the one structured most like a three-act movie, and it's by far the weakest. Ultimate Spider-Man is at its best when it mirrors the rhythms of life.
But that refrain is still persistent: "movies do superheroes better than comics." It's hard not to agree. The trailers for Spider-Man 2 make the movie seem operatic: every emotion heightened, every fight the actions of gods, every struggle one between life and death. As good as Ultimate Spider-Man is, it never reaches that level; its charms are more low-key. I think the Spider-Man movies are tapping into something a little deeper than "CGI makes for some purty fightin'." The movies are modeled after the classic 1960s Lee/Ditko Spider-Man comics, which hold sacred status among superhero fans, no matter how cheesy those stories might seem today. The memory of those comics is stronger than the comics themselves, and that memory is what gives the movies life.
The scariest movie I've ever seen is Halloween 4. I saw it once, at a birthday party when I was maybe nine years old, and I've never seen it since. I know that if I saw it today, I'd probably find it laughably bad. But the memory of the effect that movie, and its final shot of a girl in distorted clown makeup, had on the nine-year-old me is still more frightening than any other movie I've seen. It's the same thing with old Spider-Man comics. I think many of the people who love those comics love their memories of those comics; they love how the comics made them feel when they were nine years old. For instance, Chris Claremont and John Byrne's "Dark Phoenix Saga" is regarded as the classic X-Men story, a heartbreaking tale of ultimate love and ultimate sacrifice and blah blah blah--bullshit. I've read it, and I'm here to tell you that it's full of leaden dialogue, cluttered art and cheap attempts at emotion. But I cannot wait to see that story play out in X-Men 3, filtered through twenty years of memory and technology. What the Spider-Man movies have done so well is not to recreate Spider-Man comics from the sixties, but to recreate the feelings those comics instilled in the kids who read them. The movies are dreams of what the comics might have been, dreams of what they were once the paper crumbled and the stories existed only in the readers' memories.