Will 'Spider-Man' Fly?

New York City skyscrapers aren't the only precarious heights that Spider-Man must climb. When the big-screen adaptation of the wall-crawler's crime-fighting exploits hits theaters next week, "Spider-Man" (the movie) will have to strike a difficult balance to succeed. It's a balance between two very different segments of a potentially large audience. It must take heed of what's necessary to make a movie based on a comic book work for everyone.

Fans of the long-running comic book are fiercely loyal to its central characters, and will be critiquing the flick with eagle eyes (or as they might put it, "Vulture"-like eyes), while, alternately, it must appeal to the casual viewer — those people who know that, yeah, Spider-Man is a guy in red tights who's like a spider, but who could care less about geeky continuity.

It's a balance director Sam Raimi was painfully aware of when he took over the "Spider- Man" reigns. The project had long been attached to "Titanic" captain Jim Cameron before years of legal entanglements finally allowed production to proceed, by which point Cameron had reportedly lost interest. Raimi, whose previous credits include indie horror favorites "Evil Dead 2" and "Army of Darkness," went straight to the source in order to prepare.

"I loved Spider-Man comic books and started reading them in the second grade," the director said. "I've got a big chest of comic books in my parents' house in Detroit. I went back, and got some [newly published] collection books. [I] re-read them and boned up on my Spider-Man lore.

"The story is really about Peter Parker," he continued, "this high school kid that something extraordinary happens to." He also acknowledges that central to every great comic hero is a great villain, which he cast in the form of Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin.

"[It's] much more fun to play the bad guy than the virtuous good guy," Dafoe said of the role. "Sometimes that can be pretty boring when you're, you know, upholding goodness."

"Spider-Man" will hopefully take some cues from Hollywood's history of big-screen comic movies — the good, the bad and the ugly, and give everyone what they most desire: a great film. The summer 2000 success of "X-Men" revitalized the comics-to-film genre, nearly silenced forever by "Batman and Robin," which was a colossal box office flop. Production on a Tim Burton-directed "Superman" revamp and future "Batman" sequels ground to a halt, until "Blade" and "X-Men" came along and got "Spider-Man," as well as films based on the Hulk, Daredevil, the Punisher and even indie favorite Hellboy, picking up steam.

Smart writing, good characterization and compelling stories that distill years of tangled continuity into the base elements of character mythos — like "X-Men" — have proven to consistently win out over campy, irreverent schlock like "Howard the Duck" every time. Here's a look at some highs and lows (some of them sinister enough to make Dr. Doom quiver) in the Hollywood history of funny-book adaptations, and the lessons learned ...

The Good:

"Batman," 1989. "It can be done!"

Tim Burton's sharply directed, daringly cast "Batman" resurrected the character from 1960s silliness, acknowledging the film noir possibilities of the caped crusader evident in the work of comic author Frank Miller. The flick's art direction, dark tone and the casting of Michael Keaton in the lead role proved that comic books, as well as "Mr. Mom," could be taken seriously. Subsequent sequels, of course, did their best to undo all of this groundwork. Raimi's keen awareness of the "Spider-Man" legacy is a good sign.

"Blade," 1998. "Action matters!"

Marvel's half-human, half-vampire hero was barely a blip on the comic-book radar, but exploded — quite unexpectedly — on the big screen. Wesley Snipes' highly choreographed martial arts and the film's high-energy, stylish tone proved that great fight sequences can provide a nice gloss to an otherwise routine movie. "Spider-Man" looks like it's full of great action.

"X-Men," 2000. "You can have your cake and eat it, too."

Director Bryan Singer's take on "X-Men" expertly navigated through tangled X history, accurately portraying the central characters without confusing new audiences. A star-making turn from Hugh Jackman as "Wolverine" didn't hurt, either. "Spider-Man" hasn't taken many risks, casting relatively big stars in all of the important roles, but seems very conscious of the "X-Men"-like balance it must strike.

"The Crow," 1994. "Get yourself a good soundtrack."

"The Crow" was a relatively unknown comic, and its star an unknown actor with a famous father. But kick-ass songs from Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails and the Cure got this movie noticed. And the fantastic vision of video director Alex Proyax provided a great movie for the people who came to see it. With tracks by Sum41 and Alien Ant Farm, the "Spider-Man" soundtrack could be a similar scorcher.

The Bad:

"The Punisher," 1989. "Stick to the sources, folks."

This low-budget Dolph Lundgren vehicle ignored many of the central components that made the Punisher character compelling, even robbing him of his signature superhero costume in favor of a plain leather jacket. "Spider-Man" treads difficult territory by mixing up Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane character with the classic Gwen Stacy story line from the comics, but by all accounts, it works. Early reports that Spidey's web shooters would be organic, as opposed to mechanical, spurred such anger among fans that a Web site was devoted to changing Raimi's mind. It failed to do so.

"Dick Tracy," 1990. "Big names alone don't mean Dick."

Sure, "Dick Tracy" starred Warren Beatty, Madonna and even Al Pacino — but it still sucked. Raimi, who has made plenty of great movies without big names attached to them, seems thankfully aware that there's more to a comic book movie than throwing some Tinseltown heavy hitters at it.

The Downright Ugly:

"Howard the Duck," 1986. "Even George Lucas' ILM ain't all magic."

This high-budget George Lucas-produced (!) flick about Marvel's tie-wearing, condom-carrying talking duck, stranded on Earth and romanced (!) by "Back to the Future"'s Leah Thompson, proves that there are plenty of comic book properties better left alone. If it quacks as a comic, it'll probably waddle in theaters, too. Thankfully, "Spider-Man" looks to be devoid of talking ducks.

"Judge Dredd, 1995. "Action stars need not apply."

Casting Sly Stallone as Dredd did nothing to improve this stinker's chances of success. Audiences don't need to see action stars as superheroes — they just want a good movie, which "Judge Dredd" was not. Metalheads Anthrax, long champions of the U.K.'s famed futuristic hero, were inexplicably left off of the soundtrack.

"Superman III," 1983 "We need relief from too much comic relief."

"Superman IV," 1987 "Leave the quest for peace to the U.N."

There appears to be no plans for a supporting Richard Pryor role in "Spider-Man" sequels. Nuclear arsenal plots seem out of the running as well.