JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

4. Spider-Man’s love story

After Spider-Man saves Mary Jane, there are images of comic book romance of them in flight.

She is dressed up because she had been at a party with Harry Osborne. She’s clearly fallen in love with Spider-Man.

When she asks who he is, he says, “You know me.”

At his father’s funeral, Harry vows to catch the “murderer,” making way for a sequel. Peter kisses her but says goodbye, that he'll only be a friend and nothing more.

She seems to understand Spider-Man’s true identity from that kiss. Only the sequel will let us know for sure.

Peter’s loyalty cannot be exclusively to Mary Jane. With great power also comes great responsibility. He walks away from her, hard faced and alone, leaving the love of his life weeping in a graveyard.

 

The Goblin’s dilemma resolved

In the end, even Spider-Man can’t withstand this tension by himself, any more than the rest of us can. At the climax of this superhero movie, its eponymous hero has to be rescued by a bunch of extras: a crowd of ordinary passersby on the bridge who hurl debris at the Goblin when he tries to cut Spider-Man’s lifeline, a barge captain who plows resolutely through the waters to catch the cable car when Spidey lowers it. Mary Jane, the diner waitress, finds the courage to slide down the cable to safety. These are the same working-class types we see in the man-on-the-street interviews earlier in the film, unloading trucks, working construction, standing outside their delis. They’re the people Raimi has always made his heroes.

In the clinch, even J. Jonah Jameson, the yellow journalist who’s played for laughs with his rapid-fire delivery, deskful of antacids, and two-toned brush-cut, shows what he’s really made of: when corporate heavyweight Norman Osborne dangles this stressed-out, ulcerous manager from a twentieth-story window and demands to know who’s been taking those photos of Spider-Man, J.J.J. stonewalls him, refusing to give up his freelance employee even though Parker’s standing right there.

The same supposedly dumb, fickle masses that the Goblin despises now join together in moral outrage to pelt him with insults and garbage. “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” a cab driver on the bridge explains, brandishing a tire iron. If this were a scene in some dreary socialist play calling for the solidarity of the proletariat, we’d roll our eyes, but dressed up in the cool costumes and special effects of Spider-Man, it doesn’t seem didactic or dull.

A lot of critics called this a cynically calculated moment to cash in on the emotions of 9/11, but Raimi’s point is larger than that: the only way to save the world from the silk-suited villains with superweapons, men whose lifestyles are sustained by the labor of the very people they view with contempt, is to abandon the selfish desires that divide us and kick their asses.

After a final knock down, drag out fight, Norman Osborne unmasks himself and makes a final appeal to Peter Parker. Norman says he’s tried to be like a father to the young man and asks Peter to think of himself as his son. This creepy, Vaderesque “I am your real father” business has to do with the opposing options represented by Norman and Peter’s dead uncle. Confronted with this final, clear choice between the role model of the powerful, unscrupulous weapons magnate and the example of an honest electrician who died unemployed, Peter answers:

I had a father. His name was Ben Parker.

Only now, when every lure and threat has failed and his last offer has been thrown in his face, does the Goblin really try to kill Parker. Impaled on the prongs of one of his own products, choking up blood, Osborne makes a last request:

Don’t tell Harry.

It’s the same favor Mary Jane asks when Peter catches her in her waitress uniform. At the film’s beginning, Norman soberly told his son, “You don’t ever need to be ashamed of who you are,” but now he, like Mary Jane, is afraid that Harry will find out he’s become something “low.” His pathetic dying plea reminds us of Jacob Mitchell begging his brother to kill him in A Simple Plan, asking only,

You just tell the little girl [Hank’s daughter] that bear was from me.

Like Hank Mitchell, in his pursuit of a scheme to enrich and protect his own, Norman Osborne’s made himself unworthy of their love or respect—a thing to be ashamed of and kept secret. A villain, a monster. What Jacob called Evil.

The last scene of the film takes place in a cemetery where Norman Osborne is being buried. This is where the path that he offered Peter inevitably leads. Having made his choice, Norman has lost it all—his company, his wife, and his son Harry, now white faced and vowing revenge. Like Norman, Hank Mitchell in A Simple Plan also loses everything in the end. He loses his brother, his wife’s respect, and what peace of mind he once had. Those black crows that haunted him throughout A Simple Plan were harbingers of death. In Spider-Man Peter Parker is right. He is not like Norman, and he makes a different, harder choice. At the end of the film, when Mary Jane admits that she loves him, he tells her he will always be there for her as her friend and guardian. However, he knows now not only that she’ll always be at risk if she’s with him, but also that he cannot let himself protect her at the cost of letting anyone else die. His loyalty cannot be exclusively to her. With great power also comes great responsibility. He walks away from her, hard faced and alone, leaving the love of his life weeping in a graveyard.

This penultimate shot of the movie echoes the ending of John Ford’s The Searchers, when John Wayne turns away from the happy ending framed in the doorway and heads back out into the harsh desert sun. He’s leaving the comfort of the Home for the dangers of the Frontier, where he belongs. In American mythology, society’s protector is always an outsider, barred from the luxuries he preserves for others—from stability, from love. He always ends up alone. The cowboy rides off into the sunset. The detective toasts himself with a shot of rye. The superhero keeps his lonely rooftop vigil. The last vertiginous shots of Spider-Man swinging through the city on patrol may be spectacular, but it’s no longer fun.

It was fun early on when he first tested his powers or rescued Mary Jane from the collapsing balcony, when he swung off whooping with wild teenage joy at his newfound powers. Then his shouts echoed in the steel canyons of Manhattan. You could even hear the distant thunk as he kicked off from the plate glass window of a skyscraper. It was a moment of thrilling comic-book beauty. At the end, by contrast, the music is steely and somber, a hymn to grim determination. We last see Spider-Man flying backed by a titanic, rippling American flag. His heroics have become a duty. A job. Who am I? Peter Parker asks, reprising the question that opens the film. His answer sounds not like a boast but an acceptance: I’m Spider-Man.

Sam Raimi’s directorial choices challenge the elitist distinction between high and low art. As A Simple Plan and Spider-Man illustrate, we don’t need to make the Goblin’s choice in art either. Films with a social conscience can also be fun; we can be edified and bettered by the juvenile crap that’s dearest to our hearts. A Simple Plan is not a “better” film than Spider-Man just because it’s darker and more adult. And Spider-Man is not just excusable because it dresses up a clever anti-capitalist agenda in the costumes of a commercial blockbuster. Both movies tell the same story of how the lust for illusory power and security turns people into selfish monsters, and how decency sometimes means turning your back on your fondest ambitions. These are lessons that need to be taught again and again to each new generation.

People, however, are seldom moved by rational argument; they need those lessons enacted in emotionally compelling ways. Films like A Simple Plan show us, with cold detachment, what we’re capable of at our worst when we rush down the lonely, narrowing path of self-interest. Films like Spider-Man, primarily aimed at children and adolescents, serve the same function as Aesop’s fables and morality plays—to show their audience, as George Lucas put it, “hey, this is right, this is wrong.” They give us hope that we can be better than we are. Of course such films are not about how the world really is; they’re about how it ought to be. If they’re serious and thoughtful enough to hold adults’ interest, they take on a poignant resonance because we know now that the world isn’t like that. But they still remind us of how we thought it was supposed to be, and of who we once thought we would become.


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