Spider-Man swings too close to reality

I spent two hours of Memorial Day weekend watching the destruction of Manhattan from the sky by a jet-equipped madman determined to wreak havoc on a society he thought had scorned him.

I was not alone. A couple hundred other people were in the neighborhood theater watching "Spider-Man." They laughed and cheered, joining millions of others who have helped it set box-office records.

I was appalled — first, that such a film had been released eight months after suicidal hijackers had flown airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and second, that so many of my neighbors — people whose judgment and standards I would usually never question — thought Columbia Pictures and Hollywood had served up great entertainment in this no-longer-comic comic-book tale.

I was there because the most reliable movie critic I know, my 13-year-old grandson, Daniel, had recommended "Spider-Man" to me. Half the people in the theater for this PG-13 rated film were his age or younger. That did not make me feel any better.

Daniel was not alone in his judgment. The critics loved "Spider-Man." My colleague at The Washington Post, Stephen Hunter, described it as "an exuberance, a hoot, a kick and a half."

Actually, it is two movies in one — part Andy Hardy and part "RoboCop 3."

The Andy Hardy part is a sweet, sentimental story about an awkward teenager and his feelings for the aunt and uncle who are raising him and for the girl next door. The other part is where someone should have asked: Do we really want to do this?

In 1962, when the first Spider-Man comic appeared, the notion of making his alter ego a New York City kid was unobjectionable. We were an innocent country then, not yet familiar with assassinations, urban riots and terrorist attacks. Putting fantasy into a real-world setting seemed a cool idea.

Now, with all that behind us and documentaries showing the mayhem of Sept. 11 appearing on CBS and HBO, simulated violence in New York is a lot less defensible.

Of all the reviews I have read, the only one that seemed the least bit uncomfortable about the movie was Joe Morgenstern's in The Wall Street Journal. Noting "a harrowing sequence of destruction that comes perilously close to evoking a terrorist attack and its fiery aftermath," Morgenstern said he wished "its villainy, visited with shattering violence on a mythic version of Manhattan, didn't keep reminding us of all-too-recent reality."

Obviously, the movie, which cost about $100 million to make, was largely finished before Sept. 11. As soon as the attacks happened, Columbia withdrew a promotional trailer which showed Spider-Man swinging between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The iconic structure does not appear in the movie, and that bit of self-restraint was apparently enough to salve the consciences at Columbia.

But there are long minutes where the demented villain — a corporate mogul, not a Middle Eastern terrorist — is flying his jet-powered aerial sled through the canyons of New York office towers, blowing out windows, cracking walls, crashing cornices onto terrorized pedestrians and causing the kind of chaos we saw, as Morgenstern said, all too recently.

The heroine perches on a shattered balcony afraid to jump. When she finally lets go, in a moment painfully evocative of the World Trade Center jumpers, Spider-Man is there to grab her. Would that it were so.

At another point, Spider-Man rushes into a burning building, while police and firefighters, who have given up on rescuing the baby trapped inside, just marvel slack-jawed at his courage. That's some tribute to those whose courage was tested — and not found wanting — in the real world!

Obviously, the moviemakers know their public. A record $115 million in box-office receipts the first weekend testify to that. A sequel is clearly in the works. And, judging from the previews that preceded "Spider-Man," the formula will be copied by others. I can't tell you what the previewed movies are, because the six of them blurred into a single visual collage of exploding car bombs, rockets and bodies, all amplified on a sound system that was deafening.

I thought about a conversation with a child psychologist in Williamsburg, Va., who explained that the young people she sees in her practice are so used to high-speed violent confrontations on TV and in the movies they watch that they almost literally cannot stay calm enough to read or study or sit in a classroom. "Spider-Man" would not be "a hoot" to her.

David S. Broder's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. The Washington Post Writers Group can be contacted via e-mail at writersgrp@washpost.com.