Another new Spider-Man? Isn't it a bit soon? Nope, the man behind The Amazing Spider-Man assures TARA BRADY, after all it's a comic book and comic books come out every Wednesday
IN 1996, as DC executives were toasting the success of yet another hit Batman movie, rival imprint and one-time publishing nemesis Marvel was preparing to file for bankruptcy. The home of Spider-Man, The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Silver Surfer; the workshop of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, was doomed. Unless . . .
Fast-forward 17-odd years, and the same “floundering” imprint had been snapped up by Walt Disney for a cool $4 billion in a headline-grabbing 2009 deal. Marvel’s The Avengers, at the time of going to press, has sailed past $1,436,325,442 in box office earnings, to become the third biggest movie of all time.
Curiouser and curiouser. What changed between the disastrous 1990 attempt to bring Captain America to the big screen and last year’s $368,608,363-grossing Captain America: The First Avenger? How did Marvel Comics get out of the geek ghetto and become part of the white-bread mainstream?
Enter Avi Arad, the superhero behind the superheroes.
“I find comics to be literature of great depth,” says Arad. “People who are not familiar with them are surprised when I say that. But comic books find all kinds of characters in all kinds of distress and then assign them powers to see if they will use those powers for good or evil. That’s what makes Spider-Man and Avengers and X-men so intellectually interesting. Look at the themes of discrimination and self-worth in X-men. Look at the psychological profiles provided within the pages of a comic book.”
In 1996, Arad and Toy Biz co-owner Isaac Perlmutter wrestled control of Marvel Comics away from Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman, and immediately steadied the ship. By the turn of the millennium they had refashioned the modern superhero film by drafting in Bryan Singer to realise X-Men and by assigning Spider-Man to Sam Raimi.
“I put my money where my mouth was,” says Arad. “For some people it was a huge risk, for me it was natural. I knew we had to extend beyond publishing in order to make the company a viable business entity. And I really believed we could make good animation and good movies. The storyboards were already there.”
A CEO with a penchant for biker jackets and baseball caps and a boardroom history in toys and comics, Arad looks more like Tom Hanks in Big than your average suited and booted executive.
“Totally,” he says. “I’m totally infantile. That’s why I was a believer, I always felt that the stories told in comics were more emotional and archetypal than any other literature. I felt that if we can just spread the gospel, the technology to recreate what was there on the pages will catch up. If we tell the stories the way they are in the books they will be a great success.”
He laughs: “Initially it was something I believed in. it was kind of painful to realise that back then I was the only one.”
Today, Arad is in Rome, a city fit for the emperor of the Marvel universe and the keeper of such mysteries as: whatever happened to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4?
“We loved working with Sam and Tobey (Maguire),” says Arad. “But we could not find a compelling story to extend that Spider-Man from a trilogy. For me, though, being an only child and growing up in weird circumstances, I wanted to get back to Spider-Man. There’s nothing more traumatic than the loss of one’s parents and it’s a trauma that makes one less trusting but also determined to stand for the underdog.”
Born in Giv’atayim during the 1948 Arab-Iraeli War, Arad credits his interest in comics to the fantasy world he fashioned as an escape from external conflicts. “For me the Edith Hamilton books were like comics,” he recalls. “And Popeye was a kind of superhero. I looked for mythology everywhere – Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, Nordic – I hunted them down. It was so fun imagining yourself on a horse in shining armor. What could be better?”
In terms of Arad’s homeland, it’s interesting how often Hebrew culture and Judaism are tied into the medium: Superman is a post-Holocaust revenge fantasy, the Golem of Prague is clearly written as a superhero.
“Oh yes,” says Arad. “And I think you can find comic book heroes in the bible too. There have always been comic book heroes across different mythologies. Even primitive societies would assign a power as a test to see if someone was good or evil. I think that’s something Marvel, in particular, does very well.”
Arad has frequently evidenced a flair for attracting great international talent: Ang Lee would helm the fascinating 2003 Hulk reboot and Guillermo del Toro added elan to Blade II. The new Amazing Spider-Man sees Marc Webb, the filmmaker behind (500) Days of Summer, direct Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey in a classic tale of puppy love and reptilian monsters.
“We all wanted this Spider-Man to be more grounded,” explains Arad. “When we saw (500) Days of Summer we knew we had found a director who could deal with relationships. Relationships are complicated. We wanted someone who knew that and who could convey that complexity and who wouldn’t sugarcoat it. Marc is interested in the little moments and gives his actors space for them.”
Arad, who insists Spider-Man is the “jewel in the Marvel crown” hopes to train most of his energies on the friendly, neighbourhood superhero from now on. Thus, the new
Spider-Man opens up new possibilities by shifting focus away from Aunt May and toward Peter’s absent parents. This, says Arad, was the hook that demanded a fresh reboot.
“When we were working on the story we coined this phrase ‘he went looking for his parents and found himself’. The film is a quest. Peter is looking for his father. But that informs everything in the film. Peter has gravitated toward science as a way of staying close to his father. He adopts a father figure in Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) because he’s a scientist like his father. He is attracted to Gwen because she’s a scientist.”
Gwen Stacey’s science major, a detail that was once downplayed in favour of the character’s blonde hair, looms large in Emma Stone’s portrayal. “That was something else that we needed to bring to Spider-Man,” insists Arad. “We needed a strong woman and an intellectual equal. Today, men are not afraid of smart woman. At least we hope not.”
Commentators have pointed to Japanese scrolls and woodcarvings as a means of understanding comic book authorship. Perhaps, they’re right. Perhaps we did need a postmodern age in order to think of art as something beyond western individualism. Europeans used to think of additions and addendums as graffiti. But comics, like those ancient scrolls, are assigned a greater value according to the number of authors and versions.
“Exactly,” says Arad. “ Because you add texture. The more writers and actors take on Peter Parker, the richer Spider-Man becomes. The more personal experiences and intellects are brought to bear, the more emotional resonances there will be.”
So it’s never too soon for a reboot in the Marvel universe? “No,” insists Arad. “Of course not. These are comic books. Comic books come out every Wednesday.”
The Amazing Spider-Man is out now