This is the season of the antihero. Grim and brooding, "Dark Knight," "Hancock," and "Hellboy" have explored the darker side of the superhero genre; the films have plumbed the depths of their protagonists' psyches. These superheroes are flawed and moody, far from perfect. But there is a new kid on the small screen that makes them all look like simpering choirboys. This flashy ubermensch is as heroic as he is slovenly, misogynistic, violent and, uh, Italian. He is Italian Spiderman.
The saga of Italian Spiderman unfolds over 10 online episodes—all allegedly shot in swinging 1960s Italy but unreleased until now. The final episode was posted online just last week, the climax of a story that begins when an "asteroid from a distant galaxy" containing a strange, powerful substance comes crashing into the middle of a wild party. Professor Bernardi, who was at the party, entrusts Italian Spiderman with the asteroid's safe-keeping, but his nemesis, Captain Maximum, wants it for evil. What follows is an incredible motorcycle chase, a psychedelic drug freak-out, a surf-off, a crocodile attack, and an epic fight scene with an army of henchmen. All in pidgin Italian with English subtitles.
If this is beginning to sound a bit silly, well, that's the point. Italian Spiderman is a spoof, shot over the past few months by a team of six Australian film school grads. It was conceived last year when Dario Russo, who directed and produced the webisodes, was given an assignment to shoot something in 16 millimeter film, the substandard format of choice for bad public health and driver's ed public service announcements. The retro feel of the film gave Russo, 21, an opportunity to pay homage to the cheesy 1960s European action cinema that he loves. When one of his classmates complained that the only starring role he'd ever have a chance of landing would be Italian Spiderman, the new superhero was born. "Just saying 'Italian Spiderman' is funny," says Russo. "So the intention was, let's create this character that's called Spider-Man but has absolutely nothing to do with Spider-Man."
To complete the 16 millimeter assignment, Russo and a team of five friends shot a trailer for the nonexistent movie. And indeed, this Spidey looks nothing like Tobey McGuire. He has stringy long hair and a fake mustache, wears a Lone Ranger mask and sports a red sweater with a crude drawing of a spider over his expansive gut. He chain smokes, calls women "pussycat," rides a motorcycle and totes an assault rifle. He doesn't shoot webs from his wrists, but he can fly. (In other words: he does whatever an Italian Spiderman can.) "Italian Spiderman" is an uncanny slice of satire, a mocking tribute to campy caper films like Mario Brava's "Danger: Diabolik," Lindsay Shonteff's "Clegg" and "all the Sean Connery Bond movies," says Russo. "It's having a dig at the genre and the ridiculous sexist elements of the '60s."
The trailer was supposed to be a one-time lark. But Russo says that when he posted it on YouTube last November, it was watched 1,800 times within two days. In March, it was featured on YouTube's homepage. As of this writing, it has been watched more than two million times. When Russo realized he had touched a nerve with his joke, he raised a little money ("we could have bought a 1990 or '92 Toyota Corolla for what this project cost," he says) and began filming Italian Spiderman episodes in January. The first was posted on May 21 to both YouTube and the website for Russo's production company, Alrugo. A new episode followed every week and eventually a fictional back story evolved—that only one 1968 print of "Italian Spiderman" ever existed, that it was recovered from a shipwreck last year.
As of last week Russo and Co. had completed 10 webisodes, each as silly as the last. Now you can buy Italian Spiderman t-shirts and a deliciously funky Italian Spiderman soundtrack. "Nine months ago, I was graduating from film school and felt like I was headed for either a career in porn, working on dog food commercials or selling shoes," says Russo, who is taking a break before beginning work on the next chapter. "This was completely unanticipated." Seems he was somehow saved, like so many others, by Italian Spiderman.