Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Spider Man 3"

Though a mediocre movie in almost every respect, if seen in the right light "Spider-Man 3" can provide an unintentionally honest glimpse at the sickness that is our society.

I am a bit of a sucker for comic book movies. I'm not sure why, since I never read comic books as a kid and have only gradually come to appreciate the comic book and graphic novel form as an adult -- and since comic book movies are often not particularly good. I think it might be because I have long had an affinity for the combination, in any medium, of speculative fiction with content or writing that is politically interesting or stylistically provocative or emotionally compelling or whatever. Of course most comic book movies don't do any of these things, but there's always a chance they might, so I'm often suckered in.

"Spider-Man 3" is, like the rest of its franchise, a profoundly uninspired movie. Some cool effects and dazzling action sequences, and not much else. The acting is not particularly great. Kirsten Dunst has always been a mediocre actor, and I have been much less willing to give her the benefit of the doubt since I saw the visually stunning but politically gross "Marie Antoinette". Tobey Maguire does fine as the affable nerd-slash-superhero at the centre of the film, I suppose, but there really isn't much that is actually very interesting about his performance. There are moments when James Franco oozes a good vibe for a son of the ruling class turned comic book villain, but there are many more moments than that when he isn't compelling either. And the writing isn't great -- lots of places where characters' emotional and behavioural shifts just seemed to sort of happen to move the plot ahead, not because it made any internal sense within the context of the character's trajectory to that point. The writers try to pack too much in, but at the same time you get the feeling of a world painted mainly in primary colours and with large brushes, so to speak. (And, no, that is not just an unavoidable artifact of the comic book form, which can be used to create quite sophisticated worlds and stories.)

So why write anything about it?

I haven't been able to articulate why until this film, but there has been a feature of the "Spider-Man" film universe that has always bothered me. It is far from unique to the "Spider-Man" films, but it is a bit more exaggerated than in many other places, and therefore easier to see. Namely, a few cosmetic modernizations aside, the "Spider-Man" movie universe adheres so powerfully to dominant norms you'd think it was some sort of conservative's never-never wistful fantasy of the '50s. No one swears, no one has sex, there is no hint that anyone queer exists, and drinking is only for bad guys. Men rescuing a damsel in distress is a frequent central plot point, marriage is the only conceivable goal of romance, and people of colour are strategically placed in the background of shots to perform "diversity" but they are kept safely away from any major parts. All of this may be an attempt to evoke a certain kind of feeling from super hero comics of yesteryear. I suspect it is also has to do with needing to keep the film as acceptable as possible to consumer demographics with the most money, so as to make back however many hundreds of millions of dollars went into making it. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

But wait. There is one thing that absolutely saturates the film that a mythical 1950s Sunday School teacher probably wouldn't like: a whole boatload of violence.

What to make of this slavish embrace of conservative versions of dominant normativities, but the presence of this one feature that dominant norms would at least officially disapprove of? Why create this world where people can be pummelled to the brink of death and noone bats and eye, but the person being pummelled can't experss their distress via a potty mouth?

There is, of course, the "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" answer: hilarious, brutally honest about the hypocrisy of standards of propriety for films and, often, for children in general. But personally I think it is more than that. I think "Spider-Man" is an unwitting moment of honesty in our popular culture. I think it is an accidental admission that all of the hierarchies and norms that permeate real life, and that are slavishly adhered to in the movie in ways that make them seem completely natural and completely good, also happen in real life in a context completely saturated with violence. I maintain that on a certain level most privileged people in North America are aware of this, but they work very hard to avoid dealing with it consciously, including reacting with silence or hostility when it is drawn to their attention, because it is such an awful truth.

Oh, sure, the violence in "Spider-Man" is carefully sanitized and does not make it clear that there is a tight, mutual, causal link between those norms and hierarchies and the violence in the real world, which helps privileged viewers maintain our all-important innocence of our place in the world and our complicity in genocide, war, empire, and all sorts of other nasties. But I think the complete comfort and naturalness of the movie's juxtaposition of slavish devotion to dominant, oppressive mythologies about the world with its unproblematized, ubiquitous violence is only possible because for most of us it resonates on some level as being completely real and normal.

And some of the connection between oppression and violence is made a little more visible in the film, too. After all, Peter Parker deliberately publically humiliates Mary Jane Watson, at that point his ex, and even hits her, albeit unintentionally. But don't worry, he gets to get back together with her at the end because, aww, shucks, he's good folks and he's learned his lesson and the cosmic space goo made him do it.


Martin Magdalene said...

A splendid review - I agree with you even more than I agree with myself on this film. I love your idea that Spiderman 3 is a moment of honesty in popular culture - and a damning one at that. Cheers, Martin.

Renegade Eye said...

I found this blog at "Unrepentant Marxist".

You might be interested to know that the original "Superman" comics were left, until the strip was bought by DC.

Really good blog.

Anonymous said...

You're right. There is not a single non-white and male person with authority or importance in the entire film.

I also thought it was interesting that a foreign, black substance infects Spiderman and makes him hyper-sexualized and aggressive... that seems in keeping with racist narratives too.