He can climb buildings as easily as walk along the street, he can shoot webbing from his wrist and he is all set to become cinema’s latest superhero. As record US box office receipts testify, Spider-Man has finally emulated Superman and Batman and become a major movie star.
But even before Spidey hatches on UK shores in June, legions of rival superheroes are gathering for an assault on the box-office. Daredevil, The Hulk and an X-Men sequel should all be in cinemas by next summer, while Blade II, nips in ahead of them at the end of this month. (March)
The studios have been dithering over new Batman and Superman films since Batman and Robin crashed to earth in 1997. The danger of being overtaken by X-Men, Spider-Man et al, has brought a new urgency to deliberations. But they are having to face up to the fact that superheroes have changed considerably since clean-cut Christopher Reeve first donned cape, tights and Y-fronts in the 1970s.
Today’s superheroes are a more troubled, often darker breed: Blade is part-vampire himself, while the X-Men are mutants, outcasts from society, their super-powers as much an affliction as a gift. Rogue for instance absorbs the memories and abilities of those she touches, but cannot control her power - one kiss can mean death for an unlucky date.
Behind Spider-man’s mask and high-rise exhibitionism, Peter Parker epitomises youthful angst. He is played by Tobey Maguire, the quiet-spoken actor from The Cider House Rules. Spider-man’s powers are the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong, a story device that goes back to Jekyll and Hyde, but there have already been Freudian interpretations of all that webbing shooting out of him.
Director Sam Raimi was attracted to the project by a teenage passion and by an enduring belief in the hero’s humanity. "Peter Parker... is not just plagued with super-villains. He has real, human problems," he says.
These days superheroes come in all shapes, sizes and even ages. One of the most exciting recent announcements has been the go-ahead for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, starring Sean Connery and a whole bunch of mature superheroes in an adventure set in Victorian times, guaranteed to give the superhero concept another spin.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based on a recent comic-book series by Alan Moore, but draws its characters from the fiction of 100 years ago. There is Dr Jekyll, HG Wells’s Invisible Man, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, with his amazing submarine powers, and Dracula babe Mina Murray.
Connery plays H Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain, who is discovered, at least in Moore’s "original" story, in an opium den, while the Invisible Man is found hiding in a girls school. The story is set in England, but in an alternative universe.
Superman and Batman are closer in age to Jekyll and Nemo than to the latest generation of superheroes. They made their comic-book debut at a time when Nazism cast a shadow across the world and the difference between good and bad seemed fairly obvious. But Spider-Man is no newborn - it is almost 40 years since his first comic appearance and his success on the big screen, and that of Moore’s Victorian superheroes, depends on connecting with a modern audience.
Superheroes change with the times. Early superhero film serials concentrated on a juvenile audience, before Adam West camped it up in the Batman television series, bringing the whole genre into disrepute. That sounds flippant, but the TV series reflected the willingness of 1960s culture to challenge and undermine established institutions, of which Batman was one.
The first Superman feature film was a huge hit in 1978, but his squeaky-clean heroics were already something of a last hurrah. Superman was just one step removed from camp, relying heavily on Reeve’s charm, special effects and a taste for simplistic fantasy that had been revived by Star Wars.
Subsequent Superman films did less well, and the cost-cutting Superman IV, with Milton Keynes as Metropolis, flopped in 1987. Two years later the British Board of Film Classification introduced the 12 certificate because it considered Tim Burton’s Batman too traumatic for young children.
The bottom line is that Batman is a deeply flawed human, transformed into a masked vigilante by the murder of his parents, whereas Superman is from Outer Space, he looks like a bank manager, can fly and is virtually indestructible. And his only disguise is to remove his spectacles.
Producers are now wondering if Superman might hitch a lift on Batman’s cape-strings. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, has been working on a project that brings the two together in a sort of "compare and contrast" exercise. "It will show the duality between a brooding Batman and an innocent Superman," he says.
By the time Superman had saved Milton Keynes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were exerting their own superpowers at the box office. While Schwarzenegger and Stallone (usually) played humans, they were comic-book versions of humans. They had big muscles and big guns, shoot first and ask questions later... if there was anyone left to ask.
The hopes of the 1960s had faded in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam. Stallone tapped into a prevailing cynicism with Rambo, the unstable Vietnam veteran who finds himself at war with small-town law and order, back home in a country where the difference between good and evil is no longer as clear as it was. Despite his brush with the law in First Blood, Rambo is sent back to Vietnam to look for POWs in the sequel and, prophetically perhaps, by film number three he is invading Afghanistan, albeit the Soviet incarnation of Afghanistan.
Since the end of the Cold War, the enemy has sometimes been difficult to identify and society has had to reconsider the nature of heroism. Is it the anguished war veteran bent on vengeance (think of Zimbabwe) or is it the fireman who risks his life to save others?
The popularity of the ageing Schwarzenegger and Stallone was dipping before the events of September 11. Now the question has become even more pertinent - do we just want new Schwarzeneggers and Stallones as heroes, or do we want something radically different?
The release of Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage was postponed after the atrocity, with studios uncertain how viewers would react to violent action films. Black Hawk Down proved they could still find an audience and Collateral Damage looked like it might be just the right film at the right time after all.
Schwarzenegger plays a fireman out for revenge after terrorists kill his wife and son. If Collateral Damage had been a big hit, everyone would be discussing it as a metaphor for America today. But it has done indifferent business, suggesting audiences really do want a different sort of hero.
Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers have been much more successful. They celebrate the courage of soldiers as professionals, doing a job. But A Beautiful Mind goes further in the search for new heroes, its opening line claiming that it was not soldiers who won the Second World War, but mathematicians, the guys who broke enemy codes, a theme familiar from the British thriller Enigma.
In Enigma, Dougray Scott breaks codes, struggles with mental anguish and chases foreign spies.
In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe breaks codes, struggles with mental anguish and is chased by foreign spies, at least in his mind. They are heroes with a superpower to rival that of any Marvel or DC character, and Crowe’s mathematician has outgrossed Schwarzenegger’s latest incarnation by $100 million (100m dollars) in North America alone. Those are the sort of sums that earn hero status in Hollywood.
Today’s heroes live in a more complex world. They may be spider-men, mathematicians or mutants, they may even be OAPs from the dusty bookshelves of long ago. But sophisticated audiences are looking for heroes whose powers extend beyond brute strength. They may still have outlandish costumes and superpowers, but they are also likely to suffer from recognisable human flaws and weaknesses. Being indestructible is no longer an option.