Like Star Wars, Spider-Man has the classic elements of a successful myth. A typically American story, it's less pretentious and hyped than Star Wars and more accessible to kids and die-hard comic book buffs, who remember the great, golden age of Marvel Comics. I'm one of them, I was there.
The old form still has legs. One film analysts told the Wall Street Journal last week that with the success of Spider-Man, the blockbuster bar has been raised. In fact, he said, this movie has changed Hollywood's perception of what a blockbuster is. That makes it interesting for George Lucas, next up at your local megaplex.
It's tough to explain, in the age of cable, gaming, the Net and the Web, just how central comics were for years to a culture of brainy, nerdy, alienated pre-Net teenage boys. Now, hostile jerks can flame people on the Net. Before, they could only read sci-fi books, build model planes and erector sets, but mostly, feast on comics and dream of becoming more powerful.
In the 21st century, they can download, program and game, but in the 50s and 60s, comic books and rock-and-roll were prominent among the few accessible forms of popular culture for individualists with brain cells, a cheap, simple pleasure that cost a dime, then a quarter. How shockingly primitive when compared to the world of the computer nerd or hacker.
Mainstream culture was dull, religiously appropriate and homogenized. Comic books and rock music were rebellious, subversive and naturally came under murderous fire from parents, teachers and politicians.
Before, they could only read comics and fantasize about becoming more powerful. Elaborate ratings systems and restrictive codes eventually suffocated the comics' angry, biting spirit and made them as bland as network TV -- a cultural loss and free-speech outrage heading soon to a computer near you -- but not before Marvel and other comic creators cranked out some classic yarns, from Spider-Man and Batman to the X-Men and other superheroic tales.
What makes these stories so popular and enduring? Perhaps because they all embody certain themes. There's the split-personality hero, usually a nerd who acquires great powers but at enormous cost, who always gets something and loses something. He gets to zip along past New York City skyscrapers, for instance, but we know he isn't likely to end up with the girl. Or, he lives in a mansion and drives a Batmobile, but he's depressed and lonely. Or he's a mutant wolverine with fingers of steel who can't ever have a casual beer with his pals.
He cherishes his powers, but we know he can't ever be comfortable with his life. Robert Kane's early Batman: The Dark Knight was disturbingly dark and angry before the moralists turned comic books to bland mush. Few people remember that Kane ended his first Batman series with our hero giving up on life and essentially committing suicide by turning himself into the famed Arkham Asylum, where villains from the Joker to the Riddler were being held.
Stories like Spider-Man and Batman also have a uniquely American and, until September 11, old-fashioned sense of civics. Spider-man's motto is "With great power comes great responsibility, " a bizarre notion even to hackers. Wouldn't that have seemed clunky before the terrorist attacks? Now it has a certain resonance.
Batman's Bruce Wayne, along with the Superhero stars and any number of X-Men, never shirk their duty to the public, even though the fickle populace is sure, at some point, to turn on them. No matter how tempted, they are, they do what they're supposed to do.
The late teacher and mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that myth was still one of the powerful forces in the world. The origins and power of myth are still central, from the comic book lover to the hacker. The success of revived yarns like Stan Lee's Spider-Man, while they rarely seem to take themselves as seriously as their fans take them, is amazing, and proves his point. We seem to constantly be turning backwards to myths for inspiration and entertainment, while we are busy making the myths of tomorrow but don't really know which ones will take.
The Spider-Man story is pretty basic, especially when compared to the lumbering twists and turns of Star Wars: wimpy outer-borough kid contracts enormous powers, learns to use them wisely and well, faces terrible danger, sacrifices much.
Peter Parker isn't as deep as the Skywalker brothers and Uncle Ben is no Obi-Wan. But as the box office receipts demonstrate, the writers at Marvel comics have held their own when it comes to myth-making. Sometimes, simpler is better.