As we’ve established in earlier entries in this series, there are a few common themes when it comes to comic book adaptations of superhero movies. These include often being drawn by people who don’t know what the film is actually going to look like (understandable given production lead times), and often being written by dependable, workmanlike writers whose names don’t tend to stand out (understandable given the books’ priority in the overall creative strategies of their publishers).
But for the 2002 Spider-Man adaptation, Marvel broke some of those rules. First and foremost, one of the names on the cover was none other than Stan Lee (or, as he’ll always be known to me thanks to the Neversoft Spider-Man Playstation games, “Spider-Man CO-creator Stan Lee here”). To a hardcore comics fan, the presence of Stan Lee as a writer at any point after 1972 is not exactly something to cheer – this book was published only a year after the ill-fated Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe project began – but it’s undeniable that his presence will have helped the book stand out to a more casual fan, as he’s likely the only creative name that the majority of the film’s audience will have had a chance of having heard of.
That said, it’s not very difficult to detect the hand of another writer in this. There’s a “Special Thanks” credit to Brian Michael Bendis – then a couple of years into his Ultimate Spider-Man stint – and particularly in the early high school scenes, it feels like he was practically responsible for actually putting the thing together. Most noticeably, there’s a moment where Flash Thompson calls Peter Parker a “spaz” – something that sounds abhorrent to British sensibilities, but is apparently considered far less offensive in the US; but either way, it’s a word Bendis was using quite frequently in the early 2000s (often having the Ultimate version of Flash say it, in fact).
As an adaptation, the comic hits the movie almost beat for beat – unlike in some of these books, there are no missing scenes, so it gives every impression of having been constructed from something close to the shooting script. But dialogue is a different matter: some lines make it over from the film almost intact, but in other cases Lee (and for the most part, these do sound like Lee) replaces David Koepp’s words with his own brand of wisecrackery.
This makes for an awkward clash, though – a story that gives every impression of being a “modern” take on Spider-Man, but which at the same time has Spidey ask the Green Goblin “What are the rustoleum bills on an outfit like that?” or the Goblin say “But before I depart this vale of tears…”
There’s an inconsistent feel, too, to the way Peter’s narration and inner thoughts are conveyed – like the movie, the book opens and closes with a first-person narration (albeit one that, in wording, differs significantly from the script’s: no “Who am I? You sure you wanna know?” here), told in caption boxes in what was fast becoming a standard narrative technique for comics in the early 2000s. But later on we get Peter talking out loud to himself as he discovers his powers, and then a switch to full-on, retro-style thought bubbles. The bubbles and captions then share the duties alternately for the remainder of the narrative.
There’s a reasonably notable name on art duties, too, as Alan Davis – particularly known for his work on Captain Britain, Marvelman and various X-books in the 1980s – pencils, with long-time cohort Mark Farmer on inks. Pleasingly, Davis eschews simply drawing photo-references of stills from the movie, but still aims for actor likeness – although with varying degrees of success.
He gets Willem Dafoe pretty much dead on in every panel, but his Tobey Maguire is less convincing, and the attempt to do Peter’s significantly uncool movie haircut makes him look more like a receding-hairline thirtysomething (in fact, more than anything, he looks like Kevin Maguire’s Maxwell Lord). And you wouldn’t know Kirsten Dunst had played Mary Jane in the movie at all if you only had the somewhat generic female face she’s given here to go by.
The art is also a little inconsistent in how it approaches the movie version of Spidey’s costume – the opening splash, for example, seems to be an entirely comics-based image; but elsewhere, the raised webbing and triangular eyepieces that are the film outfit’s hallmark become more prominent.
He has a good stab at the Goblin costume – it actually looks fairly not-terrible throughout – and it’s clear that even if he hasn’t seen a full cut of the movie before drawing the book, he’s definitely at least seen the trailers: locations such as the Unity Festival and closing graveyard are rendered faithfully, as is Mary Jane’s outfit in the famous upside-down-kiss scene. Sadly, however, Bruce Campbell is not the wrestling announcer.
Spider-Man: The Official Movie Adaptation isn’t really a bad read, but it does little to distinguish itself in its own right (even down to the bland, poster-apeing cover), and the seeming clash of two different eras’ styles of storytelling does harm it in places. The biggest problem, though, is pacing – it’s hard enough to fit a whole movie’s narrative into an under-50-page comic, although in the right hands it has been shown to be possible.
Where Spider-Man struggles, though, is that so much of what makes the movie work is in character development rather than action – and in having to compress things down, so many of those moments feel rushed and undercooked. It’s a faithful enough rendition of what actually happens in the movie, but almost singularly fails to capture exactly why that movie is so magical.