Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Amazing Sermon-man and the Folly of Message Movies

“You’re just an innocent / a helpless victim of a spider’s web / and I an insect / going after anything that I can get / So you’d better turn your head and run and don’t look back / ’cause I fear there is nothing left to say / to you that you wanna hear, that you wanna know / I think I should go – the things I’ve done are way too shameful / And I have done you so wrong, treated you bad, strung you along / Oh shame on myself, I don’t know how I got so tangled!” ~ Penitent and punny lament of the Spider-man 3 creators, as verbalized by Maroon 5

The Spider-man I may have partially enjoyed.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 swings slings flies crawls weaves propels its way onto DVD and Blu-ray today, and from the looks of things, it could be the last one for quite some time, with some time being around the next four years.  Though it did well (enough) in its opening weekend, Spidey’s momentum stagnated severely after that point to become the least grossing member of the franchise, due in small part to the arrival of exponentially better-looking movies like Godzilla and X-men but mostly to the proliferating foreknowledge among male moviegoers that the film would inexplicably kill off one of the only reasons they’d even consider subjecting themselves to this tripe.  The tragically random demise of the beloved Gwen Stacy resounded through the circles of outraged comic book fanboys until reaching the ears of this Author, who could only ask his informant in wide-eyed horror, “Why, for the good of all things holy, Why?”

Actually, I probably said something like, “Well, that’s pretty stupid,” a sentiment that seems to be shared by most of those repentant sinners who blindly lent their money to this cruel and unusual, woman-killing punishment.  Andrew Garfield Spidey 2 has consequently usurped Tobey Maguire Spidey 3 in many fans’ minds as the absolute worst of all the Spidey movies, redeemable only in that it might precipitate an off-screen breakup between Garfield and his no-longer-on-screen love Emma Stone.  Of this judgment there can be no debate, as killing off Emma Stone in a movie without cause – hell, by any cause – is, like, the worst possible transgression you could perform as a director short of killing off Lindsey Stirling in a music video, which – let’s be honest – is never going to happen during my lifetime.

The Spider-man I watched instead.

But I’ve only seen Spider-man 3, and so I shall dedicate this forthcoming article chiefly to denunciating the wrongdoings of that boondoggle.  If AGS2 commits the cardinal cinematic vice of needlessly murdering a pretty girl for the sake of, well, nothing, as “needlessly” would have it, then TMS3 does probably the next worst thing in the hierarchy of Hollywood crimes, taking its viewers for simpletons as well as saps, albeit without mangling or interring any faces you may miss in the future.  Where AGS2 tries to artificially manipulate our hearts and emotions into crying through exploitive and contrived plot twists, TMS3 tries to manipulate our intellects into accepting a neatly packaged moral message through ham-handed dialogue exchanged by silk-thin characters whose only reason for existing is to impart this moral message to what the director must presume is a very unimpressionable audience.

Spider-man 3 is a movie you probably want to like if only because it makes such an adamant show out of its own moral-ness, that being its eagerness to teach kiddies some moral tenet they can apply in their own lives.  Indeed, the friendly, neighborhood spider-man of director/writer Sam Raimi’s original trilogy seems to be a quintessential American hero, embodying courage, charity, exceptionalism, and, yeah, responsibility, even though it takes him the whole of the first movie and a lot of heavy-handed bludgeoning from his elders to understand the importance of the last virtue.  Peter Parker is a largely admirable if fallible young man – plucky while short of being impertinent, decent to women, occasionally testy but usually genteel, respectful of his Aunt May, and a duty-minded servant of peace and tranquility.  As a rather plainly characterized but kind-hearted and pure girl-next-door archetype*, Parker’s love interest Mary Jane is no less a model for blossoming teen girls in those very few moments when she’s not dangling from some precarious height and fulfilling the narrative need for Spider-man to swoop in and rescue somebody.

In the complicated, never-committal relationship between M.J. and Peter (briefly escalating into a Twilight-esque – how do they call it in hipster-speak? – “triangle” with the encroachments of James Franco’s Harry Osborn), Raimi must have thought he’d found the root of his series’ appeal, considering the infuriating number of ultimately fruitless and time-exhaustive scenes he devotes to portraying them disconnecting, reconnecting, speaking on the phone, dancing, dining, reclining, commiserating, and sobbing with one another, though Peter definitely shoulders the brunt of the final activity.  That doesn’t even account for the unbelievably sluggish scene outside Mary Jane’s apartment, wherein the camera cuts at least half a dozen times to show Peter staring at her through the window, M.J. not looking back, Peter admiring M.J. still more from afar, M.J. not noticing, Peter ogling M.J. even longer in dejected longing, M.J. not looking, Peter leaving at last, and M.J. finally glancing after him before she calls his phone number.  But this is just as much the editor’s fault as it is the screenwriter’s, and only one of many such timing missteps throughout the bloated, wannabe epic picture.  The great sin of Raimi’s script lies in reducing all the major characters to cautionary symbols, from the vengeful Venom to the self-excusing Sandman (no relation to the Neil Gaiman character, thank gosh) to the also vengeful Green Goblin 2.0 to the unteachably irresponsible Spidey himself.

Spider-man 3’s internal and external antagonists have all the depth of the diagram of a particularly simplistic Sunday school program, and one so haplessly stripped of its religious context that it more closely resembles a lesson in civics from some insipid, taxpayer-funded kids’ show.  In fact, the only occasion on which Raimi admits any semblance of religion to embellish his narrative is through a prayer sent up to heaven by Peter’s rival workplace photographer, a devoutly Christian caveman who pleas with his pagan idol to purify the earth of his personal enemy.  This throwaway non-sequitur of a scene, aside from slighting both the moral integrity of any Christians and cultural education of any non-believers in the theater stalls, leaves the rest of the movie’s message a tangle of patronizing pretenses and homilies.  The irreverent characterization of Jesus Christ as a lifeless effigy, idolized by superstitious barbarians as some wrathful enforcer of personal vendettas rather than a merciful and loving redeemer, establishes an agnostic or nihilistic tone that must be extended throughout the film for it to maintain any consistency.  This inevitably leads to logical contradictions, as the movie expects us to reconcile its skepticism in man-made gods with its faith in man-made morality, as if the rules prescribed by the one can be inherently faulty and mad while the rules of the other remain inherently reasonable.

Spider-man 3 eschews the straightforwardness of the first film by attempting to foist not one but three pat morals on the viewer, which you could basically summate as “revenge is bad, forgiveness good”, “power makes gothic gangstas of us all”, and, I quote Peter, “we always have a choice”, whatever the heck that means.  The hideous space ooze Venom is the leading exponent of the first life lesson, quite literally making a monster out of whoever tries to wield its power, but not before turning him into a freakish bad boy punk with a habit for randomly dancing through the streets of New York City and crashing his girlfriend’s jazz performances.  Peter renounces the Venom’s temptations after realizing that the creature’s possession has twisted him into hurting Mary Jane, but the Christian Eddie Brock isn’t as quick to see the self-destructive tendencies of revenge/power/alien goo, succumbing to its all-corrupting influences until he kills himself in his uncontrolled fury just like every other Spider-man villain.

Holding grudges bad.

Peter has to absorb the wisdom of this precept for himself in confronting the Sandman, whom he loathes for the murder of his Uncle Ben, although it turns out it was all an accident, sort of, and we oughtn’t judge him for this fatal act of violence because he was only robbing the old man to provide for the needs of his daughter, or some cal like that.  None of the numerous B&W flashbacks really serve to clarify the narrative or make us care about the events that transpired a whole two movies ago, but Spidey accepts Sandman’s revisionist reckoning of that night without much question, anxious as he is to lecture the criminal, and audience by extension, about the necessity of owning up to your actions and pardoning those who trespass against you.

Releasing yourself through forgiveness good.

Spider-man 3 is an exemplary example of bad filmmaking all across the board, from Tobey’s weepy and melodramatic performance to the joyless romantic subplot that goes absolutely nowhere to the cluttered storytelling to the cringe-worthy dialogue to the surprisingly unsuper-human choreography (Green Goblin and Spider-man voluntarily handicap themselves by joining in a fist-fight).  But none of these things are Raimi’s unforgivable foible, which is presuming that his audience is repugnant enough and stupid enough to require a half-baked sermon on the consequences of revenge or unfettered power.  Whenever storytellers, secular or faithful, conceive of a tale primarily as a vehicle for some prepackaged message, be it political, religious, or ethical, the story itself suffers to the point of making the message tedious or intolerable.  In order for us to care about the message, we need to have at least a passing interest in the plot, and in order for us to have an interest in the plot, we need at least a minimal investment in its characters, which, by these premises, is a circular impossibility wherever such characters live only to advance the message.

Of the many ways to educate your children about the pitfalls of hatred or ambition, Spidey has to be the most counter-productive and confounding of them all, and will likely leave kiddos more confused as to good and evil and justice and Mere Christianity than when they started.  Ne’er has a comic book movie wrought a more perniciously preachy web of half-truths and deceits.


* This could really be a good or a bad thing depending on your esteem of whoever lives next to your particular door, though most people are Optimists and choose to think it’s a good thing.


... and somehow I find these more entertaining than the real thing.
Play in streets.

You’re fired.

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