A few years ago, I argued in this space that Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan was the most conservative movie of the 1990s. A movie about three men in middle America who find a bag of cash in the woods. One of the men, played by Bill Paxton, is a decent man with a pregnant wife and strong work ethic. One of the other men, the town drunk, says they should keep the money: “It’s the American dream!” Paxton replies, “You don’t find the American dream, you work for it.”
To which the drunk replies, “Well, then this is better!”
The men then come up with a “simple plan” for how they can keep the money. The point of the movie is to show that once you throw away dull, conventional, and platitudinous morality, things aren’t ever simple. Those seemingly silly rules of thumb — found in the Ten Commandments and throughout the Bible, as well as in the tiresome admonitions offered by your mother and grandmother — are actually very useful instructions for how to get through life. Honed over thousands of years of trial and error, those boring little rules are actually very deep insights into how the world works. When you depart from them, it’s very easy to find yourself skidding outside the guardrails of life.
So, you may ask, what the hell does this have to do with Spider-Man? Well, a lot. First of all, the new movie which, in less than a week, has earned enough money to scald a wet mule (to borrow a phrase from Haley Barbour) is directed by Sam Raimi. Moreover, the idea behind Spider-Man is actually very similar. Peter Parker stumbles onto something even better than a bag of money, he lucks into super-powers. But, unlike with money, he couldn’t give the powers back if he wanted to.
At first, Parker plans to use his powers the way all normal high-school dorks would: to get chicks and have fun. But in the process of doing that, Parker allows a criminal to get away and that criminal ultimately murders his uncle Ben, who raised Peter as if he were his son. Ben’s last words to him included what would become a mantra for Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Because young Peter had believed the morality of his old-fogey uncle didn’t apply to him anymore, he was ultimately responsible for his uncle’s death. Forget conventional morality and conventional immorality wins.
Now, a confession. I bring this up because it will be very useful when I debate, on NRO, the New York Post’s Robert George on the burning question of which comic-book company was better, DC or Marvel. Also, I thought I should provide a little substance for non-comic dorks. You are all free to leave now.
Okay, now, the movie. It’s good. Probably even very good. But I didn’t think it was awesome or anything like that. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t a diehard comic-book nerd. I don’t normally give out storylines in reviews, and since this one is so tardy — and judging by the box-office totals — you’ve probably seen it already. So, I’ll skip all of that.
As I indicated above, Raimi sticks very close to the spirit of the comic book and, with a few notable exceptions, true to the actual story as well. Indeed, there’s far less deviation here than there was in the X-Men movie. And actually some of it is warranted. For example, we all know that Peter Parker, boy science genius, invented his web-shooters and webbing. In the movie, Parker’s ability to shoot webs comes standard with the rest of his spider powers. Apparently Raimi has received some criticism for this from strict-constructionists, but I’m with him. If the ability to climb walls, a “spider-sense,” spider-strength, spider-agility, spider this and spider that came with that portentous spider-bite, why shouldn’t the ability to spin webs?
Or to put it another way, why would the Parkers be so poor if Peter could make an adhesive that Dupont would spend billions to own? (This sticky-wicket was solved in the comic, recall, when Spidey in fact tried to sell the formula, but it was rejected when the potential buyers learned the webbing dissolved after a couple of hours.)
One place I disagree with the movie is on the slight change to Spider-Man’s origin. In the movie, the spider that bites Parker is not a radioactive spider, but a “genetically enhanced Super-Spider.” I can understand that radioactivity as the source for super-powers has become something of a cliché since the 1960s (recall, for example, the 50-foot-tall Jimmy Carter in SNL’s “The Pepsi Syndrome“) while genetic engineering is au courant. The problem is that Spider-Man’s origin, according to the movie, need not be a once-in-a-lifetime event. In the film, there were 15 super-spiders in the lab. I hope this doesn’t mean that the sequel will involve other spider-people. Besides, it totally undermines the cartoon’s theme song and the line “Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood.”
Anyway, Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker is about as good anyone can expect. His Spider-Man, however, is less impressive. Maguire’s voice is a bit too squeaky, and there’s a lot less wisecracking from Spidey than there should be. Kirsten Dunst is saucy and fine as Mary Jane Watson but, really, who cares?
What’s awful is the Green Goblin. Or rather, his costume is awful. Willem Dafoe, who plays the villain, is very good largely because he looks like a goblin. Which is why his costume is such a shame. Instead of a mask, he wears a helmet with a permanent gargoyle grin throughout the movie. Admittedly, it required some disbelief from the reader, but in the comic the goblin’s face could be expressive (Dr. Doom’s iron mask could be expressive too — which was really absurd). In the film we have to content ourselves with seeing Dafoe’s lips move under the grill. We are also supposed to believe the U.S. army had wanted to outfit its soldiers as avenging demons, which is a bit of stretch.
Still, the Goblin was a better pick for Spidey’s inaugural villain than, say, the Vulture. He just looked like Frank Purdue in green tights with wings. (Indeed, I always thought it was bizarre that Marvel invested so much in a mean old man with the upper-body strength of a twelve-year-old girl.)
As for Spider-Man’s costume, it’s largely loyal to the comic, which is perhaps one reason we rarely get a good look at it. After all, in reality, Spider-Man’s outfit is absurd. They solved a similar problem in the X-Men movie by giving the characters different costumes. They could get away with this, however, since few X-Men characters were iconic because of their clothes. But Spider-Man’s costume is as central to his identity as the Silver Surfer’s board is to his (imagine a Silver Surfer movie where they swapped out his board for a scooter: “I scoot the cosmic bike lanes in search of planets which might feed my master’s celestial hunger!”). So, instead, Raimi gives us very few glimpses of Spider-Man standing still in good lighting.
This decision, along with most of the movie’s faults, was made to make the movie more, not less, realistic. And I guess realism is a good place to start and finish for now. Until the success of The X-Men and the mutant-related storylines, Spider-Man was the essence of Marvel Comics. Marvel, unlike DC, was not interested in making superheroes with super personalities. Its heroes were normal people whose powers came with burdens, sometimes-tragic ones.
DC Comics grew out of a period of national consensus. The super-boring Superman always knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Even his powers were absurd, because they included just about everything you could put the word “super” in front of. Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s powers were more plausible, in part because they were limited. He still had to dodge bullets, after all, not just stop them with his chest. In fact, Spider-Man’s powers were perfectly suited for an awkward teenage boy (comics readership remains enduringly male). It was his agility, the ability to do whatever he wanted gracefully and quickly, that appealed to the sorts of kids who stumbled over their own feet. But, in the Marvel Universe, getting superpowers was never so simple as we Peter Parkers dreamed it might be. There were always consequences, responsibilities, and, quite often, tragedies.
As a conservative, I can understand why many folks believe DC is superior to Marvel. The culture that produced Superman seems stronger and healthier than the culture that produced Spider-Man — and it was. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics was a product of the counterculture. In 1965, writes the historian Bradford Wright, a poll of college students conducted by Esquire “revealed that student radicals ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons.” Stan Lee even made Marvel’s slogan “Pop Art” in a nod to Dadaism for a while.
But using ideology to judge art, even Pop Art, can often be folly. Spider-Man in particular, and Marvel Comics in general, represented the new confusion in American culture. Its heroes had flaws and problems as all well-crafted characters do. But that only made them more believable and so, in the end, all the more heroic.
1. You should know that I tend to make most of my announcements in The Corner these days, so you should hang out there more often.
2. My wife, the fair Jessica Gavora, is having a book event thingy at the National Press Club this evening. If you’re well-behaved and live in town you should check it out. And if you aren’t well-behaved or if you live out of town, you should buy her book. Particularly because today is her birthday.
3. I review Rich Blow’s “tell-little” on John Kennedy Jr. in today’s Wall Street Journal.
4. Tomorrow evening my old friend Tevi Troy will be speaking at the America’s Future Foundation about his excellent new book Intellectuals and the American Presidency. I will be introducing him.