June 30th, 2004 David Walker | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

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Comic-book writer Brian Michael Bendis talks about his relationship with Spider-Man, the pop culture icon.

     
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With great power comes great responsibility. That guiding principle has animated Spider-Man, the costumed crime fighter, and his mild-mannered alter ego, Peter Parker, ever since writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko created the superhero in 1962. That philosophy helped Spider-Man endure as a character in the fickle world of pop culture. And the idea supercharges the work of Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of the popular comic book Ultimate Spider-Man, and one of the gatekeepers of the webslinger's modern pop mythology.

Bendis, a 35-year-old Cleveland native who moved to Portland with his wife three years ago, is one of the most popular writers in the comics medium. With a stocky frame, Bendis is a bulldog of a man who looks more like a character from a Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard novel than a comic-book writer. No matter the weather, he wears shorts, revealing calf muscles, honed from bicycling all over town, that bulge like Popeye's forearms.

After rising through the ranks of independent comics, Bendis became one of a handful of creators who are redefining the medium at big-time publishers like Marvel and DC. This new generation of writers and artists are to comics what filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby were to cinema in the 1970s.

In addition to Ultimate Spider-Man--a book designed five years ago to reintroduce Spidey to a contemporary audience--Bendis also writes Daredevil, Alias (no connection to the television show), and the critically acclaimed Powers. And then, of, course, there are the writer's forays into film (chronicled in his hilarious 2000 graphic novel, Fortune and Glory), which include the upcoming version of his book Jinx, starring Charlize Theron.

After seeing Spider-Man 2 at a premiere in Los Angeles in early June, Bendis claimed the sequel to 2002's original Spider-Man was "a better movie in every conceivable way." While some might accuse the writer of being, as he puts it, "Marvel's bitch boy," in reality, Bendis is a hardcore film snob. He knows more about the art and business of film than most people in the industry, and is quick to analyze what is wrong with most films--especially those adapted from comic books.

WW sat down with Brian Michael Bendis to talk about the movie Spider-Man 2 (written by Alvin Sargent and directed by Sam Raimi), as well as the character.

David Walker: I cried at the end of Spider-Man 2. Did you cry?

Brian Bendis: I got misty.

I actually cried.

It worked! The movie worked. Alvin Sargent, who is the writer of the screenplay, said in a quote years ago, "Good drama is always putting the characters where they least want to be." And this movie was like a pile-on. You feel for [Spider-Man]. You care about him. It was really the genius of Stan Lee. It's all from the comic books, every single thing.

The thing that always made Spider-Man great was that it was really about Peter Parker. Spider-Man 2 really captures that. The movie is about Peter Parker.

It really gets it. It even made a couple of die-hard references to the John Romita years of Spider-Man, which is the mid-to-late '60s. And that's to me the high-water mark. Romita was known as a romance-comic artist. They actually picked a romance-comic artist to draw the superhero books, and the emotions bubbled right to the surface. I think that is what they [the filmmakers] were shooting for, and they did it. They did all of it.

Spider-Man has been around for a long time, and there's a ton of mythology to work with, and Sam Raimi really respects that.

Spider-Man ain't broken. There's nothing wrong with Spider-Man. They did good stuff in presenting it, finding some truth in it, and relating it to a new audience. So that's why I think the movies do so well. They never have a meeting and say, "Why does it have to be a spider?" Meetings like that happen. I've been in meetings like that. It's that insane.

Why do you think Spider-Man and Peter Parker have remained so popular since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created them back in 1962?

That was such a revelation at the time--the invention of the superhero with problems. Peter Parker has to go to the Laundromat to wash his suit. That's amazing. We lived in a world where Superman could do anything. Batman has got money he could just throw at the problem. Wonder Woman is a goddess. And then here comes Stan Lee with Spider-Man in this really bizarre costume, and he's got immense amounts of problems. It was historic. I consider Stan Lee and his cohorts like the Shakespeare of our generation. If you look at pop culture, most things have a two-year shelf-life. No matter how hot they burn--Beavis and Butthead, Pee-Wee Herman--things that really hit the cultural zeitgeist have a shelf life. Whereas Spider-Man, X-Men, The Hulk, they have no shelf life. They are absolutely flawless because they always find a new audience. If you think about it, think about how much has come and gone--Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers; Spider-Man's still here.

When you look at all the excitement that Spider-Man generates, and all the hype that's going on, how does it make you feel to be part of that dynamic?

It's shocking in a way, because the 10-year-old in you looks at what's going on in your life and can't fucking believe it. It's so beyond my expectations, because the odds of it seem so astronomical. It's like you're picked to baby-sit the characters for whatever length of time. I take that responsibility pretty seriously, and it's probably because the theme of the book being the great power of responsibility is rolling around in my head. I take it very seriously.

Spider-Man 2

By now some of you may have heard the rumor, and I'm here to tell you, the rumor is true--I cried like a baby while watching Spider-Man 2. But these weren't the sort of tears I normally shed while watching crap like Van Helsing, these were tears of joy.

As with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, it's difficult to describe exactly how amazing director Sam Raimi's sequel to Spider-Man really is. But one thing is certain, and that is Spider-Man 2 is better than the original. Somewhat less certain is whether it is the best sequel ever made, or if it's the best superhero movie of all time, but it comes damn close on both fronts. Tobey Maguire returns as Peter Parker, the poor luckless sap who was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained superhuman powers. Peter is still fighting the good fight, as Spider-Man he protects the city against criminals . But as his mild-mannered alter ego, he struggles to make ends meet as a college student. Peter's real problem, however, is not the deadly Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina)--a mad scientist with four mechanical arms--who is ravaging the city with his maniacal crime spree. No, Peter's real problem is the lovely Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). More than anything in the world, Peter wants to confess his love for Mary Jane, who has already admitted her feelings for him, but his role as Spider-Man forces him to keep his feelings in check.

The emotional turmoil and sense of obligation that tears at Peter Parker's soul are the main thrust of Spider-Man 2, and ultimately what makes the film a success. Alvin Sargent's brilliant script, from a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, hits all the right marks, delivering a sublime mix of action, drama, humor and romance. Under the hyper-kinetic direction of Sam Raimi, Sargent's script is transformed into a wonderful, character-driven film. Spider-Man 2 draws from the best elements of the character's four decade mythology, taking everything that makes Peter and Spidey such complex individuals and distilling those elements into two hours. With no new Lord of the Rings film arriving, it's safe to say that Spider-Man 2 is, and will be, the best big-budget action film of the year. PG-13 (David Walker)


Spider-Man 2Rated PG-13Opens Wednesday, June 30Pioneer Place, St. Johns Theater, Lloyd Cinema, Division Street. Oak Grove, Cornelius, Evergreen Parkway, Roseway, Hilltop,Lake Twin, Movies on TV, Sandy Cinema, Sherwood, Tigard Cinema, Wilsonville, Cinema 99, City Center, Vancouver Plaza

Brian Michael Bendis on Spider-Man 2 cinematographer Bill Pope: "I'm a big fan of Bill Pope, the cinematographer of The Matrix movies, and the Wachowski Brothers' Bound, and I just think he's amazing. When they hired him I was like, "Oh, my god." And I saw the visuals. So happy. I really was."

"I know that what's expected of me, both from my employer and the guys that read my books, is: Don't suck. Just because it's a genre book doesn't mean it has to suck. Just because it's a corporate-owned icon doesn't mean it has to suck. There is plenty of room for self-expression, for experimentation." --Brian Michael Bendis

Brian Michael Bendis has won several Eisner Awards, the comic book industry's equivalent to the Oscar.

 
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