JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

1. Spider-Man: Comic book visual style and romance

Mary Jane’s kisses Spider-Man upside down.

She laughs in the rain.

Cut to the city of gold in the morning.

2. Adolescence

Peter’s loving aunt and uncle worry he might be on drugs.

Peter, the nerdy school photographer, is visiting Oscorp with his class.

The big guys shove him and make him lose a shot.

At Oscorp, Peter gets the transforming spider bite.

His muscles grow.

He can sprout coarse dark hairs and squirt sticky white glop with a flick of the wrist

Uncle Ben looking for work says, “They’re downsizing the employees and upsizing the profits.”

Peter has the pleasure of defeating the school bully.

Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson have grown up side by side in small tract houses in Queens.

The Osbornes live in a penthouse mansion that looks like an evil fairytale castle brooding over the city.

Harry Osborne, a stereotypical rich kid, is Peter’s friend and dates Mary Jane hoping to impress his father with this beautiful “acquisition.”

Go three minutes in the ring with a professional wrestler.

Peter designs his costume. In the ring, it’s only a sweatshirt with a drawing on it. Later it becomes exactly as he drew it.

Superimposed images of Mary Jane’s admiring face and car ads make the scene a fond homage to every four eyed, 98 pound weakling who hoped his life would change if he took a Charles Atlas bodybuilding course.

The fight manager won't pay him but...

...give a glance of grudging respect after Peter deliberately lets a thief go who just stuck up the promoter’s office. However, during the getaway...

...the robber shoots Uncle Ben, who dies on the street holding his remorseful nephew’s hand. Uncle Ben warns the youth, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Peter gets a job as a tabloid photographer working for the skinflint editor, J. Jonah Johnson.

Mary Jane tries to tell Peter she is successful, but her boss yells in the background that the till is short $6.

Then she shamefully reveals to Peter that she is really only a waitress.

Visually comparable, Peter tears off his shirt to become Spider-Man when Mary Jane and others are in dire straits.

 

Spider-Man

An evil black contrail is etched across the sky over Times Square. A bright red and blue figure bounds from one giant parade balloon to another as though they were steppingstones. The villain shakes a green armored fist, twisting on his sputtering rocket sled, and snarls,

We’ll meet again, Spider-Man!

Mary Jane pulls Spider-Man’s mask tenderly over his lips to kiss him as he hangs upside down from a strand of webbing. Then, when he vanishes back into the dark sky, she laughs as the rain splashes on her face in ecstatic slow motion. Cut to the New York skyline, a city of gold in the morning. After the somber palette of A Simple Plan, the garish four color beauty of Spider-Man may seem like so much adolescent escapism. This is exactly the sort of big dumb commercial property we imagine a director grudgingly agreeing to take on in order to finance uncompromising little films like A Simple Plan.

It is a tribute to Sam Raimi’s artfulness and care that in a film fraught with such commercial expectations, he’s able to express the same deeper concerns about class that he does more explicitly in A Simple Plan. With its unobtrusive subtext brought into sharper relief by the shadow of that darker film, Spider-Man can be seen to depict exactly the same conflict between family and society, love and responsibility. But the blockbuster conveys its moral messages about class and family in the more colorful costumes and broader dramatics of allegory. And, being a fantasy, it’s a more hopeful film, showing us someone confronted with the same hard choice Hank Mitchell faces, but making the right one.

The most obvious subtext in Spider-Man is about adolescence, appropriately so for a film aimed at that demographic. Its opening line is the eternal adolescent question:

Who am I?

Its hero, Peter Parker, is a pale, sunken chested, prepubescent looking nerd who suddenly finds himself possessed of new strength and strange powers. In particular, he can sprout coarse dark hairs and squirt sticky white glop with a flick of the wrist. When he starts spending a lot of time holed up in his bedroom with the door closed, getting in fights at school, and mooning after girls, his surrogate parents worry that he might be on drugs. But a slightly deeper subtext concerns another great power and responsibility we have to grapple with when we come of age: money and work. Raimi’s film here is about the choices we make early on in life about our goals, careers, family and duty. This question is usually phrased as

What do you want to do with your life?

It’s another way of asking,

Who am I going to be?

As in most of Raimi’s films, the movie’s central characters are working class. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson have grown up side by side in small tract houses in Queens. Peter lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who’s been laid off from work after thirty-five years as senior electrician at the plant. He grumbles, getting rueful grunts and chuckles from a Bush-era audience:

They’re downsizing the employees and upsizing the profits.

Next door Mary Jane (or “M.J.,” as Peter calls her) has an unhappier home life. We overhear her father hectoring her to get him another beer and calling her “trash.”

As in A Simple Plan, the early part of the film highlights the distinct class differences between its characters. Peter and M.J.’s stereotypical working class backgrounds are contrasted to that of their friend Harry Osborne. Harry’s lifestyle and pedigree are almost as cartoonishly upper class as Richie Rich’s or Scrooge McDuck’s. The first time we see Harry, he’s embarrassed because his dad’s dropping him off at a field trip in a Rolls. The public school kids mock him about his pampered wealth. Flash Thompson croons:

His father will fire your father.

Harry and his father live in a penthouse mansion that looks like an evil fairytale castle brooding over the city. Harry, however, isn’t quite the same sort of callous, hateful rich kid that James Spader always used to play in John Hughes’ movies. He’s nice but weak and insecure, the sort of guy who anxiously offers to buy expensive gifts for his girlfriend to win back her affection. That’s the only expression of affection he’s ever gotten from his own father, whose approval he anxiously craves. He’s attracted to M.J. who he hopes is an acquisition that will impress his dad. Thus he’s critical when she doesn’t show up to meet his father in the dress he suggested she wear.

Unlike capable but expendable Ben Parker or Mary Jane’s drunk, unemployable dad, Harry’s father, Norman Osborne, is a capitalist success story. He’s a self made man, an inventor turned entrepreneur. As he boasts to the board of Oscorp,

I created this company. Do you know how much I’ve sacrificed?

Some of those “sacrifices” are obvious. He speaks with contempt of his late wife and neglects his needy, struggling son. As he admits to Harry,

I know I haven’t always been there.

He shows more interest in his son’s friend Peter Parker, who impresses the older man by having read some of his obscure scientific papers. Norman offers to help the youth find a job, but admires Peter’s insistence on making it himself, “under your own steam.” It’s clear from his nostalgic smile that Norman sees in Peter the young man he once was—a young scientific prodigy from a poor neighborhood who’ll have to make his own way in the world by wits and sheer will. Looking on, Harry unhappily gnaws a hangnail, obviously worrying about what his distant father must think of him, a kid who’s been given everything he has. He jokes nervously to Peter:

I think he wants to adopt you.

Norman’s ominous “paternal” interest in Parker will be exposed by his alter ego, the Green Goblin. As the powerful antagonist Norman/Green Goblin strives to exert a corrupting influence over Peter. As an evil force, Norman wants to turn Peter into a creature like himself—driven by financial ambition, alienated from the family for whom he thinks he’s doing it all, angry and alone.

At the beginning of the film, Peter is at the point where he has to decide what he’s going to do with his life, what kind of person he’s going to become. His uncle tells him:

These are the years when a man changes into the man he’s going to be for the rest of your life. Just be careful who you change into.

Given his background, when Peter gains superhuman powers (a metaphor for the powers of manhood), his first impulse is to use them to make some quick cash. He sees an ad in the paper offering a $3000 prize for anyone who can go three minutes in the ring with a professional wrestler. Immediately he imagines buying a sportscar, like Flash Thompson’s, to impress the girl next door. Superimposed images of car ads and Mary Jane’s admiring face drift over Peter as he intently sketches ideas for his cool wrestling costume in his high school spiral notebook.

This scene is a fond homage to every four eyed, 98 pound weakling who ever imagined how his life would change once he took that Charles Atlas bodybuilding course or got those X-ray specs in the mail or started making real money hustling Grit. Notice that all of these promises—muscles, X-ray vision, fast cash—are really about the same thing: girls. They’re also the same sorts of scams we see on late night infomercials that prey on the insecurities of the poor—for exercise equipment, crash diets, pyramid real estate schemes—all the kind of quick self-improvement that people at the bottom the social ladder grab onto in desperation. There are no more conspicuous and coveted emblems of status for a middle-class adolescent male than a hot car and a hotter chick— accessories unattainable for a kid like Parker whose uncle is out of work.

In the comic book, Peter Parker’s motive for becoming a masked wrestler is nobler. There his only thought is to make some extra money to help out his aunt and uncle. The change is significant. In this movie, Peter’s basically a good kid, but he’s not some saint. He’s no more innately altruistic than you or me. He only learns from pain and loss that money is a shallow, misguided goal.

Peter wins his wrestling match, and for a euphoric moment, his arms raised in victory, a dazed, incredulous grin dawning across his face, he enjoys the spotlight, the cheering crowd, the exhilaration and glamor of fame. But behind the scenes of this tacky spectacle he faces his real test, and he fails. In a dingy little office we see the manager’s desk stacked with cash. Peter’s eyes widen, taking it all in, counting the bills as the manager fans them out, imagining not only that sportscar but all the wealth and possibilities his new powers are going to bring him. But his face then darken in confusion and then anger as he’s handed a single paltry hundred. He’s being cheated out of the full amount because of a fine print clause—the match didn’t go the full three minutes. Peter protests:

I need that money.

The manager sneers back:

I missed the part where that’s my problem.

Peter’s hardly left the office in disgust when a man barges in with a gun and orders the manager to start stuffing the money in a sack. The thief is making his escape, running down the hallway toward an elevator door that’s just opened for Peter, when the manager yells, “Stop him!” Peter, bitter about how he’s just been screwed over, stands aside to let the man escape. The manager whines:

You coulda taken that guy apart. Now he’s gonna get away wit’ my money!

Peter coldly throws the manager’s line back in his face:

I missed the part where that’s my problem.

Peter smirks to himself, pleased with his zinger and his new streetwise, looking-out-for-number-one attitude. This dialogue is conspicuous. It is the only cool, arrogant tough-guy line the hero speaks in this action movie (as opposed to the cornball wisecracks he tosses off during fights), and it immediately comes back to haunt him.

Echoing the manager’s words, Peter adopts his middle class, “what’s in it for me” philosophy as well. When Peter hits the manager back with his own line, he looks at the boy with a kind of grudging respect. The manager is a smaller-time version of the kind of capitalist villain that Norman epitomizes, exploiting others for his own gain. Spoken here is the same hardheaded, coldhearted attitude Sarah drills into Hank in A Simple Plan. Although Peter only slips up for a moment, someone he loves dies as a consequence of his indifference.

The robber that Peter let go carjacks his Uncle Ben for a getaway vehicle, shooting the uncle fatally. This is the part where it’s the youth’s problem. Peter’s failure to act is a failure to see beyond his own paycheck. The story of Uncle Ben is scripted as pointed as a parable. The circumstances of Ben’s death shows us how shortsighted Peter’s mindset is, and how lethal. Like Norman Osborne, and Hank Mitchell, Peter has lost family because he was so distracted by ambition and greed. But, unlike them, Peter will learn from his loss. Had his uncle not died, the money grubbing manager’s callous attitude might have hardened in Peter, and he might have gone on to ruthless success like Norman Osborne. Because of this tragedy and its lesson, Peter decides to be a hero instead.

After high-school graduation, inspired by the memory of his uncle’s warning that “with great power comes great responsibility,” Peter gives up his ambition of making big money. Instead, he takes on the anonymous, thankless job of being Spider-Man—thwarting bodega stickups, stopping purse snatchers and jewel thieves, and having the time of his life.

Peter also lands a day job as a tabloid photographer, which isn’t going to make him rich either. The editor is the notorious skinflint J. Jonah Jameson, who has his secretary tell his wife to order whichever wallpaper’s the cheapest for their home. When Peter joins the paper, Jameson won’t even take him on as a salaried employee, but insists on paying him freelance:

Meat! I’ll send you a nice box of Christmas meat. That’s the best I can do for you.

Both Peter and M.J. are trying to stay true to their ideals while somehow paying the bills. Like every other girl who moves to New York, M.J. wants to be an actress, but at her auditions she’s been getting advice to take acting lessons. It’s pretty clear, from their first jobs, that neither of them is going to make it far with just big dreams and hard work. When Peter invites M.J. out for dinner he tells her,

The sky’s the limit—up to seven dollars and eighty-four cents.

Better to have advantages and connections like their friend Harry’s. M.J.’s embarrassed when Peter finds out her real job. He catches her getting off from her shift at a greasy spoon, where her boss is yelling at her that her drawer was short six dollars. She begs him not to tell Harry:

I’m afraid he’d think it was low or something.

It’s an odd word choice, “low.” That’s not the sort of word you’d expect an eighteen year old girl to use in conversation. It connotes not only baseness, something that’s “beneath” you, but class status. Peter makes a wry joke:

Harry doesn’t really live on a little place I like to call Earth.

The world where both Peter and M.J. live is a planet of high rent, dead-end employment, and embarrassing compromises. M.J. pulls open her overcoat, with a rueful “ta-dah” look, to show Peter her tacky orange and white waitress uniform with the plastic nametag. Here her action unconsciously echoes Peter’s tearing open his shirt to reveal his red and blue costume with its iconic spider. The diner waitress “Mary Jane” is M.J.’s own secret identity. As Peter says,

That’s not low. You have a job.

He’s learned the hard way what a moment in the spotlight is worth. Now he can see the heroism in unglamorous integrity.


To topPrint versionJC 46 Jump Cut home