Spiderman: What makes a superhero succeed?

Story by Jack Foley

CYNICS may suggest that superheroes such as Spiderman, Batman and Superman are really all the same - a man struggling to come to terms with some great tragedy who uses his super powers to right the world’s wrongs.

Batman and Spiderman, for instance, both share the loss of parents as a motivating factor (even though they originate from rival comics), while for Superman, it is the loss of his home planet which plays an important part of his life.

All three share alter-egos - be it Peter Parker, Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne - while there is almost always a love interest; someone who falls in love with the superhero while paying very little attention to the man/geek behind the mask.

So what’s the allure? Why do superheroes generally continue to provide the catalyst for great box office? And why is there so much room in the market place for a set of heroes who share so much in common?

For Avi Arad, affectionately labelled ‘Mr Marvel Comics’ and co-producer of the latest Spiderman movie, there are a number of factors which help to make the likes of Spiderman, in particular, the success that it is - the movie has already smashed box office records in America, becoming the fifth highest grossing film of all time; and counting!

Avi believes that Marvel’s characters work so well because as much time is spent on the human drama involved as the super powers which come with them. The powers are more of an ‘Achilles’ heel’ than a blessing and something else the hero must come to terms with.

"It makes for great drama which, in turn, creates great literature or great movies," he said at the UK press conference at London’s Dorchester Hotel on Thursday last week (6/6/02). "It also means that people can relate to Peter Parker or Mary Jane [Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film], while wrapped around them is this huge event, which is created with the help of CG effects."

Avi considers the character of Peter Parker to be just as important as the Spiderman persona, given that Spiderman is really the geeky high-schooler beneath the mask.

And it is this emphasis on character which drew Tobey Maguire to the role. The 26-year-old star has established an early reputation for choosing quality, character-driven pieces (such as The Cider House Rules or Ride With The Devil), rather than the Hollywood blockbuster.

And though he confessed to being a little sceptical when considering the role - because of the way Hollywood has handled some blockbusters - he was eventually surprised by the amount of input he was allowed during filming.

"I went into this thinking, you know, this is a big Hollywood movie and I felt the character was rich and the movie had substance, but I felt that I’ve got to be prepared to just do my part and be happy and not have tonnes of creative input.

"In fact, the opposite was true. This was the most input I had on a film, which was wonderful; the atmosphere was amazing, from the studio to the producers to the filmmaker and the crew. It was a really collaborative experience."

Maguire also has nothing but praise for the film’s director, Sam Raimi, who has been a fan of Spiderman since he was a kid.

"Really, I think he is this character and all aspects of the character and I saw the film living in him and I knew his work enough to know that he knew how to use the tools that were available to make this story come to life. It then started to feel right to me," he said.

"Superman is this practically indestructible alien, but he puts on the glasses and goes into this other identity as Clark Kent and is putting on an act, he’s an actor, whereas Peter Parker is real, he’s kind of awkward, he’s becoming a young man and he has to take responsibility for his actions."

It allowed Maguire to further flex his acting skills, but the role also required a certain amount of physicality and the star worked out for about five months, six days a week, for up to four hours a day with a combination of yoga, gymnastics, weight lifting, and martial arts training.

"I got into wire work and fight choreography for the film, I worked with a nutritionist and I was eating five or six meals a day, for a specific diet, for strength, endurance, flexibility, agility…. It became a bit of an obsession," he explained, before joking that he didn’t really enjoy it that much.

But fear not, Spiderman fans, Maguire has apparently signed on for at least another two movies, the first of which starts shooting in January next year.

Asked whether he would consider taking the franchise any further, the actor quipped that he didn’t know what he was going to be having for dinner that evening, let alone being able to talk about the possibility of a Spiderman 10.

Yet fellow producer Laura Ziskin, from Columbia Tristar, felt that the answer to that question was something only that audiences could provide.

"They’ll let us know when they’ve had enough," she said. "At the moment, we’re just taking it one movie at a time."

And at the moment, it seems, movie-goers can’t get enough of the world’s number one webmaster.

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