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Movie Review:

Robert M. Price


The Sony-Columbia Pictures epic Spider-Man threatens to become the biggest-grossing movie in history. And I should say that the honor is well deserved. It demonstrates what we might easily forget: that quality can have mass appeal, and not just bottom-feeding schlock, of which there is way too much. Of course, up to now, movies based on Marvel Comics, whether TV or theatre-aimed, have been abysmal schlock, just cretinous. Thor, the Hulk, Daredevil, Captain America--which of his characters did Marvel pioneer Stan Lee not allow to be profaned? That tide turned with X-Men two years ago, and the tide is thundering in with Spider-Man. X-Men was just about perfect; Spider-Man is a good deal more than perfect. It satisfies long-time fans (yes, I bought Spider-Man # 1 off the rack) by adhering faithfully to the classic Spidey myth. Even bits that might strike the viewer as trendy updates, like the newly-empowered Peter Parker going into pro wrestling to make a few quick bucks, and the teen-age romance element--all of this was just the same in the comics forty years ago! The times have caught up with Spider-Man! Okay, so they combined Mary Jane Watson's character (Kirsten Dunst) with Gwen Stacey's (the Green Goblin killed her for good, dropping her off the George Washington Bridge in the comics) and Liz Allen (high school bully Flash Thompson's girlfriend in the comic book). So what? They've only got two hours and one minute!

ááááááááááá X-Men struck me as a real-world counterpart to the comic book it was based on. Spider-Man goes well beyond this; it seems actually to be the comic book coming to life before your eyes! And whereas the old 1970s CBS Spider-Man series was fun, it always disappointed because TV budgets forbade Spidey to trade punches (and knock down walls!) with super-villains. Now we've got that! The Green Goblin is terrific, and the fights are spectacular.á

ááááááááááá Toby McGuire foreshadowed his role as Peter Parker/Spider-Man when he appeared a few years ago in The Ice Storm, beginning the movie with voice-over commentary about how a particular issue of The Fantastic Four was an allegory of family life. (Interestingly, Elijah Wood from Ice Storm went on to play Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, while Ice Storm's director Ang Lee is now at work on another Marvel opus, The Hulk!). And Spider-Man, too, has lessons to teach about families functional and dysfunctional. Peter's parents are long dead, and he lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. He is ambivalent on whether to accept his uncle as a surrogate father until his own tragic carelessness results in his uncle's death. (C'mon, I'm not spoiling anything! As a Spider-Man fan, you knew this much already!) In the meantime, the predatory scientist-tycoon Norman Osborne (the great Willem Dafoe), a neglectful father to Peter's room mate Harry, tries to become a father to Peter, whom he likes better than his own son. Until, that is, Norman finds out that Peter is really the arch-nemesis of his own alter ego, the Green Goblin! There is a lot of similarity here to the Batman movies, especially the first, Batman (1989), where thug Jack Napier, destined to become the Joker, murders young Bruce Wayne's parents in front of him, and years later becomes a kind of nightmarish father-substitute, as Batman, about to kill him, says, "You made me!" The motif of divided selfhood and personal integration is beautifully depicted in Batman Forever (1995), just as in Spider-Man.

ááááááááááá And none of this is a result of one movie copying off another. Rather, it is inherent in the profound myth of the super-hero per se. As a true myth, it never wears out. Joseph Campbell wrote of the universal pattern of "the hero with a thousand faces." Batman and Spider-Man are two of those faces, and one of the great values of such movies is that, by retelling the hero myth, they inspire us to embark on the same quest of self-discovery. This is all the more important in a society where two-parent families are becoming a fossil of the past. As my wife pointed out to me, most super-heroes have "father issues." Think how many of them are orphans: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Luke Skywalker, to name a few. In one sense this motif is equivalent to the miraculous birth feature of the old hero epics. This is explicit in the case of Anakin Skywalker, who is miraculously conceived by the Force with no human father. But it has a more mundane truth to teach to our young contemporaries: without a father in the home, the hurdle on the way to maturity and success is all the higher, but for that very reason, it will be all the greater a victory.á




Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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