Blockbuster Summer: Superhero Nation

The new, sensitive incarnation of the Webbed Wonder reminds us how America likes its superheroes: human

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And he lives in our world, in New York City--not "Gotham" or "Metropolis," a resonant fact, considering the real-life supervillainy his hometown has suffered. Unlike WW II comics' patriotism, Spider-Man's nods to the current war era are more elliptical. The World Trade Center towers were excised from one scene; New Yorkers refusing to be terrorized by the Green Goblin sound a note of Let's-Roll-ism. (The American flag filling the screen in the final moments, on the other hand, is as subtle as a black-widow bite.) It might be off-putting, seeing a superhero saving New York, reminding us that there was no one to catch those airliners in his supertensile webbing last year. But Spider-Man's flawed hero fits naturally into a flawed world, where sometimes the best intentions and superdefenses fall tragically short.

So he is not Superman. But then neither is Superman, in the hit WB TV series Smallville, in which a teenage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) discovers the powers that will someday make him the Man of Steel. He moons over an unrequited crush and battles villains who are really externalizations of teen emotions and self-discovery, as on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Part of the charm of Welling's Clark and Tobey Maguire's Peter, in fact, is that they have a little bit of the feminine in them: they've learned from Buffy and pop culture's other fatal femmes, who make fighting evil just another aspect of the really tough job of growing up.

But Superman's 64-year journey from Man of Steel to Buffy Boy is just part of the job description. Pop culture changes superheroes to fit the times like a jaded Shakespeare repertory troupe trying to jazz up Hamlet: Batman went from dark avenger to straight arrow to campy TV star and back to dark avenger. So if every generation needs to remake its screen superheroes in its own image, why not just replace them with new ones? Partly because comic books aren't supplying them. After Marvel deconstructed the superhero, the comics' top talents started creating more personal, nonsuperheroic work, from R. Crumb's counterculture Zap Comics to Art Spiegelman's Holocaust story Maus to the haunting graphic novels of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.

Some of these literary, niche comics have inspired movies: last year's From Hell and Ghost World, this summer's The Road to Perdition. But they weren't introducing new men in tights to the mass consciousness. And with few exceptions, superhero comics became cartoon hackwork. "With Steve Ditko, Spider-Man had these sexual undertones to it that read as being the work of a singular artist," says Clowes. Today's successors, he says, are "just a 10th-generation regurgitation of the same stuff over and over." The comic crowd became older, insular and cultish while kids turned to video games. "Gamers really know how to do power fantasies right," says Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, "and they're riding a wave of technological progress."

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