Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
The Goblin’s dilemma:
A Simple Plan and Spider-Man
by Boyd White and Tim Kreider
Sam Raimi has always pulled for the working stiff. In his Evil Dead trilogy (1982-1993), he transformed Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams from a clerk at a K-Mart knock-off into a crusader protecting civilization from the forces of darkness, despite the best efforts of the devil and his boss. Like many artists who spend their lives working in supposedly lowbrow forms such as crime novels and superhero sagas, Raimi understands how the conventions of genre provide a perfect palette for depicting social ills in broad strokes. Cornerstones of the roman noir such as James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) or important comics like Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow (1970-1972) often struck at the heart of the most pressing issues of their times—poverty, class warfare, corporate corruption, racism.
At the same time, they never sacrificed what kept readers coming back to the drugstore racks for the next hardboiled original or four-color extravaganza. Readers wanted fast-paced stories and gripping plots filled with hardened drifters drinking themselves straight to their graves, lovesick blondes spilling out of their cheap cocktail dresses, Technicolor villains scheming the end of the world, or steel-jawed men in tights beating the crap out of each other. Two of Raimi’s latest films, A Simple Plan (1998) and Spider-Man (2002), do the same thing. These two films are very different on the surface, one a low-budget, arthouse, crime film and the other a blockbuster superhero flick, but they both succeed both cinematically, full of action and suspense that keep our eyes onscreen, and morally, reflecting the grim choices in life that everyday working folk have to confront.
A Simple Plan is a low budget, character driven drama, Spider-Man a record breaking, CGI extravaganza. Together the two are surprisingly subversive. They address the ruthless selfishness that’s made our society, especially its poorer segment, into a war of every man for himself, and they focus on the effect of that ruthlessness, and perhaps also a cause of it, in that most sacrosanct of institutions, the family. Both films’ central characters are confronted in the starkest terms with the same hard choice between doing what they think is best for their loved ones and doing what they know is right. In A Simple Plan Hank Mitchell and in Spider-Man Peter Parker, a couple of working class guys, are tempted by the sudden possibility of riches. Hank discovers by chance a bag full of kidnap ransom, and Peter gains superhuman powers that seem to promise limitless wealth and fame. In A Simple Plan Hank feels forced into an amoral course of action by the responsibility of his own new fatherhood (and by the example of his own failed father). In more cartoonish fashion, in Spider-Man Peter has the same dilemma foisted on him by a grotesque, demonic father figure.
And both films’ main characters learn, through loss and grief, that by trying to protect and enrich their own at everyone else’s expense, they lose everything. Hank is a human character we can identify with, decent but corruptible. In A Simple Plan, he makes the same kinds of choices most of us have had to make offscreen. He turns on his neighbor and compromises himself to ensure a better future for his family, only to see everything that was good in his life irredeemably sullied and lost. In Spider-Man Peter, a hero in a comic-book fable, learns from his loss before it’s too late. He sees that the choice offered is a false one and refuses to make it.
A Simple Plan
The betrayals that propel A Simple Plan forward to its heartbreaking conclusion are at least as old as Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale. In Raimi’s shrewd updating, two brothers and a friend find in a downed kidnapper’s airplane in the New Hampshire woods a gym bag containing over four million dollars. The crucial difference between the old and new versions of the story lies in their respective morals. As Chaucer’s Pardoner states, the main point of his tale is “Radix malorum ex Cupiditas” (“The love of money is the root of all evil”). Greed, however, is not the prime mover in Raimi’s stark crime drama. Two of the conspirators, Jacob Mitchell and Lou Chambers, are motivated not by avarice but by desperation. Unemployed and on welfare, both of these guys just want to pay off their debts and earn a little respect. Only the hero, Hank Mitchell, with whom we’re supposed to identify, actually commits a murder. He’s also the only one whose motives are truly corrupt since he kills his neighbors just to advance his family’s middle class lifestyle.
As an introduction to the film’s three main characters, the first twenty minutes of A Simple Plan establishes basic tensions between middle and lower classes. In the film’s opening shots, we see Hank Mitchell, accountant for the local feed store, walking home through town after getting off work early to be with his wife. Townspeople and the local sheriff smile and wave to him against a backdrop of Christmas decorations still clinging to lampposts and stoplights. When he gets home, he races up the stairs to kneel in awe before his pregnant wife’s body. It’s the kind of sequence we’ve seen a thousand times since Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey first ran through town in It’s a Wonderful Life. On the surface, at least, Hank’s dependable and honest, a regular Joe. As his wife Sarah later tells him, when he’s convinced all his crimes will come to light,
You’ve got to remember how people see you. You’re just a normal guy, a nice sweet normal guy. No one would ever believe that you were capable of doing what you’ve done.
Not so with Hank’s brother, Jacob Mitchell, and Jacob’s low rent Rabelaisian buddy Lou Chambers. Before we even see them pull up in Jacob’s beatup Chevy pickup, their arrival is announced by music echoing loudly from their truck, the opening guitar riffs from Norman Greenbaum’s hippie Jesus anthem “Spirit in the Sky.” Even Hank and his wife can hear the song from their second-story bedroom. As Jacob rings his brother’s doorbell, Lou moons him from the truck, and Jacob flips him the bird in return. The next few scenes reinforce this initial impression of Jacob and Lou as stereotypical drunken rednecks. In the cemetery where Hank and Jacob are visiting their father’s grave, Lou starts pissing his name into the snow and Jacob runs to join him. Later, the two buddies guzzle beers and tell dirty jokes in the truck while driving down a backcountry road, with Hank sandwiched uncomfortably between them.
Part of what makes these contrasts so convincing is Raimi’s astute depiction of the mutual contempt between middle and lower classes. As a college educated man with a respectable job, Hank can’t help but look down on Jacob and Lou. When Jacob tells Hank the brother needs to shovel his snow, Hank jokes, “I’ll pay you a quarter to do it.” The dialogue suggests that Hank unconsciously views his brother as a simple-minded laborer, as a tool Hank can use at will. Lou’s distaste for Hank is equally evident. He calls Hank “Mr. Accountant,” takes offense at his refusal to share an early beer with him and Jacob, and sneers at his educated diction. Jacob joins in mocking his brother’s middle class pretensions, imitating Hank’s effeminate, mincing run and calling his shoes “pussy loafers.” Later, when the three members of the conspiracy start to turn against each other, their class antagonism becomes more brutally explicit. Jacob says of his brother to Lou:
We don’t have anything in common, me and him. You’re more like a brother to me than he is.
Jacob knows that underneath Hank’s ingratiating appeals to family ties and his bribe to help Jacob buy back the family farm, the more well to do brother doesn’t consider the working class on an equal. At one point Jacob says to Lou, “Look how he’s looking at us, like he’s fucking better,” and then he turns to Hank and says, “Like you own us or something.”
About a third of the way through the story, Hank takes possession of the four million dollars, so in effect he also secures blackmail power over the other two. At this point, Hank’s ownership of the two men becomes more literal. Their wary alliance collapses amid mutual threats to turn each other in. Hank challenges Lou:
Let’s just think about this. If you and I both go into Carl’s office tomorrow, and we both claim the other one killed Dwight Stephenson, who do you think he’s going to believe? You? The forty year old unemployed high school dropout who’s proud when people call him the town drunk? Or me? I’ve got a job. I don’t get drunk and scream obscenities at my wife in public. I don’t pass out in other people’s doorways. I wonder who he’s going to believe?
Hank knows that even though he’s the only murderer in the room, his class status gives him the advantage. He’s cynically banking on our culture’s automatic association of wealth with respectability and poverty with moral turpitude.
The American dream
Raimi depicts each character’s reason for wanting the money. In doing so, he exposes not only the desperation of the lower class’ struggle to survive but also the ruthlessness that underlies the middle class’s desire to protect and advance its precarious status and lifestyle. Of the three men, Lou’s needs are the most pressing and elemental. He comes to Hank’s house in the middle of the night to ask for his share of the stolen money. Dropping his tough guy act, he nearly collapses against Hank’s front door as he swallows his pride:
I need my share, Hank. I do. I’m broke. And I owe people money. I need some help here.
In the scene in which the Mitchell brothers later betray Lou, he holds a gun on Hank but shouts to Jacob,
You know I need that money. I need it tomorrow. They’re going to take my truck.
These are not the words of a greedy man dreaming of a summer home in the Berkshires. Lou is clinging to the most necessary of his everyday possessions. The most extravagant dream he expresses is that Jacob should use his share of the loot to buy “something classy —a Trans Am.” By society’s standards, Lou’s dreams are embarrassingly small.
Jacob’s dreams are even more painfully ordinary. All he wants is to live a normal life with a wife and a family, things even Lou has. Never having had money, a decent job, a college education, or even a girlfriend, Jacob sees romance and normalcy as commodities that can be acquired only if a person has enough money. In one of A Simple Plan’s most moving scenes, Jacob and Hank sit outside Lou’s home after Lou has been killed. The two brothers discuss Jacob’s dreams for an ordinary life. Having admitted that his only high school relationship was the result of a hundred dollar bet, Jacob says,
God, Hank, you know, I’ve never even kissed a girl before. If being rich will change that, I’m all for it... I just want to know what people do, you know?
Money itself holds no allure for him. All Jacob wants is a life that will allow him to be just like everyone else and give him the kind of respect everyone accords Hank. Hank can only nod and manage a tight smile. More socially integrated, he realizes how hopelessly far outside our culture’s margins Jacob’s life has been and always will be.
Of the three, only Hank is motivated by anything other than need. Already taking for granted the security and comfort that Lou and Jacob can only dream of, Hank’s role in the theft leads to the subsequent murders. His increasing ruthlessness comes from his desire to have his family’s life be the best that it can be, no matter what the cost. Throughout A Simple Plan, Raimi uses Hank’s moral deterioration to strip away any notions we have about supposed middle class respectability. When he, Jacob, and Lou first find the money, Hank’s the only one who wants to turn it in. He lectures the other two:
You have to work for the American Dream. You don’t steal it.
Hank has internalized the laws and behavior that society has established for a proper husband and father. Violating those boundaries only becomes thinkable for him once Lou brings up the motive of Hank’s acting for his family:
You got a beautiful wife at home. You’re about to have a baby. I know you ain’t pulling down that much at the feed mill.
Lou may be right, but all the images we see of the Mitchells’ lifestyle indicate that they are far from poor or desperate. Hank and Sarah’s house is immaculate, their furniture tasteful, and their clothes are stylish. They have wine with dinner. We never see them fretting over bills or about where their next meal is coming from. Every shot in the interior of their home is bathed in the soft yellow light of comfort and warmth. As Sarah herself first protests,
We don’t have to worry about money now. You have a good job.
Hank has internalized one of capitalist culture’s most insidious messages about the sanctity of home and family: Protect your own and to hell with everyone else. Once he agrees to keep the money, all Hank can focus on is how it will guarantee his family financial security and free him from the pressures of being the breadwinner. Unlike Lou or Jacob, neither Hank nor his family really needs anything. Underneath his aw-shucks demeanor and everyman charm, he’s a greedy, selfish bastard. Lou alone recognizes this aspect of Hank’s character. In the moment in the film after the Mitchell brothers have betrayed him and he holds Hank at gunpoint, Lou pleads with Jacob to take his side:
You see, he’s got a job. It’s you and me, buddy, we are the ones who needs it [the money]. He just wants it. Do you think he’s your friend? He doesn’t give a fuck about you!
The murders and betrayals that Hank commits aren’t motivated by financial need but in a twisted way by what he sees as his responsibility to his family. He smothers Dwight Stephenson to protect his brother and then rationalizes framing Lou for Dwight’s murder after Lou threatened to turn him. He says he’s doing this out of responsibility towards his wife and child. Then when Jacob assures him that Lou would never really turn him in, Hank replies,
I can’t take that chance. Not now with the baby.
Hank’s moral decline is also commented on throughout the film by framing and visual style. His true nature is slyly hinted at by visual metaphors linking him to the thieving fox that led them to discover the cash. Early on, when Hank first forces his way into the downed plane, we see his face through a heavy wire mesh, duplicating the earlier shot of the fox poking his snout through chicken wire to break into the henhouse. Later, when the sheriff stops in at the barbershop where Hank’s getting a haircut to ask him to come by and answer some questions from an FBI agent, we see a stuffed fox on the windowsill between the two men, an image of the hunted thief caught.
Like Hank, his wife Sarah Mitchell undergoes a radical transformation once she agrees to Hank’s plan for keeping the money. Raimi uses such character change to stress how our most treasured myths about family and home inspire the kind of ruthless violence we see in A Simple Plan. In the scene that introduces her, Sarah is naked except for an open white bathrobe. Her figure is bathed in soft backlight from a window in the bathroom, a shot emphasizing her protruding pregnant belly, making her the embodiment of Motherhood. Like the Capraesque scenes that first establish Hank’s character, everything here presents Sarah as innocent and angelic. She’s a Madonna, not a whore. But as she and Hank lie in bed the night after he brings home the money, she voices the same worry he has about not being able to trust Jacob and Lou. Her initial reluctance to keep the money has vanished
As the film progresses, Sarah becomes the true brains behind all Hank’s plans. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, even as she’s nursing her newborn daughter in the maternity ward, Sarah herself devises the scheme to audiotape Lou and frame him for Dwight’s murder. She holds her baby to her breast while her voice and stare become frozen. With icy calculation, she instructs Hank how to fuck over Lou. The implications of the moment are clear: Sarah’s found this new reserve of ruthlessness not in spite of her motherhood but because of it. No animal is as vicious as a mother protecting her young.
The selfish family
Raimi’s criticism of the U.S. family’s selfishness is underscored by the settings in which he has Sarah and Hank plot against Lou and Jacob or manufacture new rationales for not turning in the money or themselves. Traditional husband and wife occasions such as fixing dinner, talking in bed, changing a diaper, or decorating the nursery serve as the homey context for current family discussions about betrayals, framings, and coverups. Conspicuously, all these cozy scenes are shot from an unconventional distance, emphasizing the darkened dining room, empty chairs, or bare corridors in the foreground. These interiors become cold spaces that confine the characters as much as the engulfing snow outside.
This recurring composition checks automatic viewer identification with the couple. The visual style effectively establishes an uncomfortable distance that invites us to consider the Mitchells’ behavior with clinical detachment as a case study, like an experiment with too many rats and one piece of cheese. This technique also visually isolates Hank and Sarah inside the frame of an alcove or doorway. It confines them and suggests that the comfortable space they think they’re securing for themselves with this money is terribly small and lonely, surrounded by emptiness. It’s the condition they’ll be left in at the film’s end. Then there is just the two of them, trapped together for life with their gnawing discontent and the knowledge of their sins, bereft of family or friends.
The very presence of the stolen money in their home destroys any happiness the Mitchells ever had as they come to view their old life as inadequate and mean. The level of material comfort they were first satisfied with is no longer enough. When Hank decides to turn the money over to the local authorities because a supposed FBI agent has arrived in town looking for the plane, Sarah stops him at the bottom of the stairs and blocks his way out the front door. As manipulative and emasculating as anything with which Lady Macbeth tortures her guilt ridden husband, Sarah’s speech to Hank strips middle class values bare of any pretense of decency:
Is that what you think you want? Walking up to the feed store every morning for the next thirty years waiting for Tom Butler to retire or die so you can finally get a raise? And what about Amanda? Do you think she’s going to like growing up in somebody else’s hand-me-down clothes? Playing with some kid’s old toys because we can never afford to buy her anything new? And me? What about me? Spending the rest of my life eight hours a day with a fake smile plastered on my face, checking out books, and then coming home to cook dinner for you, the same meals over and over again, whatever the week’s coupons will allow? Only going out to restaurants for special occasions, birthdays or anniversaries, skipping the appetizers, coming home for desert. Do you think that’s going to make me happy?
Once she could imagine a future free of middle class financial stress, Sarah now knows that Hank’s salary will never permit them to live a life filed with the shallow comforts and distractions she craves. She’s come to look down on her own life as someone slightly higher up on the social ladder would. Throughout this entire scene, Sarah and Hank are shot in that soft, warm glow of their living room lights. We hear their infant daughter crying in the background, her needs for the moment ignored. Hank’s fixed stare and set jaw make it plain that he only has one choice.
The kind of brutal calculation which we see in Hank and Sarah is completely absent from the crimes that Jacob commits throughout A Simple Plan. Raimi’s depiction of this brother undercuts stereotypical assumptions about the moral worth of the lower class. Jacob’s ethical choices aren’t coldly thought out. Rather, they’re instinctive responses. He only attacks Dwight because he panics and doesn’t know what else to do, and he’s horrified when he thinks he’s accidentally killed Dwight. Later, as Hank is frantically staging a snowmobile wreck to cover up the murder, Jacob matter of factly explains what he’s decided:
We’re just gonna have to tell on ourselves.
Later, when they’re supposed to entrap Lou on tape, Jacob speaks with what looks at first like drunken petulance but is, instead, simple moral clarity. He suddenly looks over at Hank and says in that same reasonable tone:
I’m not gonna do it, Hank. It’s not fair. It isn’t right.
After Lou’s murder, when Jacob’s turned up drunk and Hank’s trying to soothe his brother to sleep with a childhood trick, Jacob chills Hank by asking him,
Do you feel evil?
On several other occasions— at their father’s grave, and just before framing Lou—Jacob looks his brother in the eye and asks him, with disgust and sorrow,
What’s the matter with you?
Hank’s elaborate justifications for betrayal and murder don’t make sense to Jacob. His basic decency is uncorrupted by education or ambition.
In fact, how we view Jacob’s character and actions serves as Raimi’s litmus test for the viewers and for whether or not they’re paying attention to his film. The same internalized middle class values that have conditioned Hank to see his brother as worthless and stupid have conditioned many viewers to see him that way, too. But he’s not. On a number of occasions, Jacob looks at his brother as though Hank’s the slow one because Hank is just grasping something that Jacob has understood all along. Jacob says, again and again, as if chiding Hank to pay attention and catch up:
Come on, Hank, you know that.
And in fact all the things Jacob has to explain to Hank would be clear enough if Hank weren’t blinded by his own conceit and denial. He buries the knowledge that their father took out a second mortgage on their farm just to send Hank to college, and that the father didn’t die accidentally but killed himself for the insurance money in order to help out the family. Rather than face these facts, Hank has dismissed his father as a “bad businessman.” In contrast, Jacob’s version of their dad’s life reveals that the father sacrificed everything, even his own life, to provide his family opportunities for advancement he never had. Jacob says of their father’s suicide,
He always wanted to get everything set up. He always wanted to have just enough to take care of things and relax. He never quite had that. I guarantee you if he had this [four million dollars], he would still be here, he never would have done that.
For Hank and Jacob’s father, the system failed. Hard work never paid off, he couldn’t get ahead, and the responsibility of supporting a family literally killed him. Hank refuses to see these things because that understanding would challenge his image of himself as a man who’s earned what he has by smarts and hard work. Instead, he would have to see himself as the beneficiary of other people’s suffering and sacrifice. But these facts are plain enough to Jacob. He is not invested in illusions of merit. The film makes it clear in its characterizations of the two brothers that worth isn’t a matter of intelligence but of truthfulness. By society’s standards, Jacob is a loser compared to his successful brother, but Raimi shows us he’s the better man.
As bitter and bleak as any crime novel of the Thirties or Forties, the final unbearable minutes of A Simple Plan are the stuff of Greek tragedy, and just as cathartic. Lured into the woods by a fake FBI agent who turns out to be the brother of the kidnapper who crashed the plane, Hank and Jacob’s actions echo their father’s sacrifice to save his family. The Mitchells reenact the futility of their father’s last desperate grasp for the American Dream. The fake agent guns down the sheriff, and Hank, who’s become a more cold blooded killer with experience, returns the favor.
Immediately Hank begins to hatch an elaborate cover story for him and Jacob, but Jacob can’t continue living with the knowledge of what he’s done. Hank tries one last time to convince his brother to keep wading across the river of blood they’re already close to drowning in:
You want to be happy? You want a wife and kids, me and you sitting around on the porch drinking late at night? Well, goddamn it, this is what it costs.
Hank’s remarks sum up the dictates of capitalist society: The only way for a man to make it in this world is to murder and lie. Consumed by horror and guilt, Jacob finally turns down the prize of a respectable family life, begging his brother to shoot him and “make it look like the bad guy did it.” He says to Hank:
I don’t want to sit around the rest of my life and think about this shit. I can’t do it... You can do this, and it’s going to be perfect for you.
Jacob understands now that his dream life would be nothing more than a lie and the allure it once held for him is gone. But he still sees Hank’s family as a reason for his brother to go on living. Like their father, Jacob sacrifices himself to protect his own brother’s prosperous lifestyle.
And, as was his father’s suicide, Jacob’s death is in vain. Learning that one out of every ten bills has had its serial number recorded by federal agents, Hank burns the money in his fireplace, the hearth and center of the home. The bills go up in smoke, Hank’s stern face framed by the fires that consume them. He and Sarah return to their jobs, performing the endless routines they longed to escape.
In A Simple Plan’s final shot, we see the rundown, empty farmhouse where Hank and Jacob grew up, its tattered curtains billowing like ghosts in the winter breeze. The film ends on an image of utter desolation and loss—the Home gutted and empty. For Jacob and Lou, the American dream couldn’t be earned by hard work, or even be stolen, since they lived too far outside our society’s proscribed parameters. And for Hank Mitchell, the dream can’t be held onto. It all drifts away in the end like the snow swirling down out of Raimi’s gray empty sky. Whether we work for it or kill for it, A Simple Plan shows us that striving for the American Dream ends up killing us all.
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.
Norman Osborne has his own shameful secret identity—the Green Goblin. Taunting alter ego Norman for his repression and weakness, the Goblin describes his own job:
To say what you can’t. To do what you won’t.
But the Green Goblin isn’t just an incarnation of the capering Id unbound, like Edward Hyde. In this film the Green Goblin is a distinctly lower-class alter ego. For example, although corporate founder Norman Osborne speaks with a cultured Mid-Atlantic accent, when he becomes the Goblin he suddenly reverts to a low comedy Bronx growl with the voice of a cartoon cab driver or construction worker. Listen to the way the Green Goblin says “I suh-rendah!” to the cops, raising his arms in mock compliance, before he clobbers them all. This is the voice of Norman’s own original self, the rough working class kid he’s successfully smoothed over.
Norman shares some other vestigial traits with those whom he considers his social inferiors. Mary Jane’s drunken father tells her:
You’ll always be trash, just like her [her mother]!
Norman, who also takes to drinking alone, repeats the same slur, telling his son that Mary Jane will turn out just like his mother. (Notice that Harry’s dead mother, seen in a portrait in Norman’s home, was a red-haired beauty like Mary Jane.) He snarls, lapsing into the Goblin’s voice:
Do what you need to with her, then broom her fast.
This is the crudest, most blatant expression of Norman’s capitalist, exploitative attitude toward people in general: Use them and discard them. For all his trappings of wealth and success, his suits and manners, underneath it all Norman is still as much a mean drunk as M.J.’s dad. He hasn’t left the vulgarity and thuggishness of his roots behind. Now he’s merely sublimated them to the Goblin’s mercenary purposes.
Which brings us to the other way that the Goblin outs Norman’s real nature. Norman tells Aunt May after getting in from another day of setting tenements on fire and hurling bombs as the Green Goblin:
Work was murder.
This is the sort of heavy handed double entendre we’ve come to expect in Hollywood action flicks, but this line has a double edge. The Green Goblin’s work literally is murder, of course. But just as literally so is Norman Osborne’s. Norman works as a defense contractor, inventing more efficient, higher-tech means of destruction. The serum that gives him superhuman strength and all his outlandish weapons were developed by Norman’s legitimate business for the U.S. government. His son’s nickname for him is “Stormin’ Norman,” like Norman Schwarzkopf, the architect of Desert Storm.
The first thing Norman does as the Goblin is to kill one of his researchers, who publicly voiced some reservations about the dangerous side effects of one of Oscorp’s products. Norman first appears in the Goblin’s armor immediately after he’s been forced out of the company he founded. He swoops into a meeting of executives and generals assembled for a demonstration for a rival contractor’s flying exoskeleton prototype; flying in on his stolen rocket sled Norman blows the other weapon up. Talk about making an aggressive move against a competitor. Later he turns the board of directors who have ousted him into skeletons.
The point is that the Goblin isn’t just spreading random mayhem for the fun of it. His strategic strikes and assassinations follow a corporate agenda. It’s the continuation of office politics by other means. And, at the risk of stretching things, we might point out that Norman Osborne’s alter ago is green. Green is traditionally the color of the supernatural (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) but also, in American culture, it’s the color of money and opportunity (like the green light that inspires the young roughneck Jimmy Gatz to invent his own alter ego, Jay Gatsby). The Goblin presents us with a caricature of what the “self-made man” has to make himself into in order to make it in the corporate world. He needs to become a vicious rogue who pursues his own interests with manic single mindedness. He’s heedless of the collateral damage he inflicts, whether they’re casualties abroad or laid off workers like Uncle Ben.
At one point the Goblin whisks Spiderman off to share with him his personal philosophy, a sort of Nietzscheism as interpreted by Trump or Madonna:
Here’s the real truth: there are eight million people in this city, and those teeming masses exist for the sole purpose of lifting the few exceptional people onto their shoulders. You and me, we’re exceptional. I’m offering you a choice: join me. Imagine what we could accomplish together, what we could create, what we could destroy.
This scene, set on a rooftop overlooking the sparkling towers of Manhattan, is the comic book equivalent of the Temptation, where the Devil offered Christ “all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor.” It’s the same bribe that capitalism holds out to its best and brightest, the Worldly treasures of illimitable wealth and power. If we look past the lurid masks in this scene, we see a member of the corporate elite offering all the rewards of success to his young protégé if only the youth will get with the program already and quit bucking the system. When Spiderman rebukes his offer, the Goblin resorts to terrorizing Peter’s Aunt May and kidnapping Mary Jane. The Goblin attacks Parker’s family because he calculates that Peter’s attachment to them will overpower any other scruples, as it has already done with Norman (and as it did with Hank Mitchell in A Simple Plan). A true capitalist, the Green Goblin assumes that everyone is as purely motivated by self interest as he is, and can be manipulated accordingly. The Green Goblin doesn’t want to kill Spider-Man. He wants the same thing Norman Osborne wants—to bribe or blackmail Peter Parker into becoming as amoral as he is.
Using the conventions of the comic book genre to tremendous effect in the climatic confrontation between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, Raimi starkly illustrates the cruel choice our self-centered capitalist society demands we make. Spider-man finds the Goblin atop the Brooklyn Bridge, dangling M.J. from one hand and a cable car full of children from the other. “This is why only fools are heroes,” he explains. “Because you never know when some lunatic will come along with a sadistic choice: let die the woman you love—or—suffer the little children!” The choice confronting Peter Parker is made visually literal as the Goblin drops them both; we see Mary Jane and the cable car plummeting in slow motion, each reflected in one of Spider-Man’s mirrored eyes.
We might call it The Goblin’s Dilemma: the choice between the people we love most, our family, and the rest of society. Norman Osborne has already made his choice: the advancement of his own family at the expense of those faceless foreigners against whom his company’s deadly hardware will be used. Hank Mitchell makes the same choice in A Simple Plan, stealing and lying and even killing his neighbors to ensure his own wife and child’s material comfort. It’s the choice most people make— to create the best life they can for themselves and their families. In our society, it’s an unassailable justification for almost anything, given as a defensive excuse for conducting unethical business, exploiting others, ignoring the hungry, the homeless, the foreigners we bomb. Protect your own and to hell with everyone else: that’s the Goblin’s Law, and he expects his adversary to do the same thing.
Spider-Man, however, dives
off the bridge, shooting a web to break his fall and swooping around to catch
them both. He refuses to make the choice, because his uncle’s murder has
shown him that the Goblin’s Dilemma is a false one. Your personal interests
are not separate from society’s; to protect your own loved ones, you have
to fight for justice in the world. To save Uncle Ben, you have to stop that
thief; for your family’s sake, you cannot steal the four million. Spider-Man
hangs there suspended, desperately holding onto M.J. and the cable car, torn
between his love and his responsibility, as though they might pull him apart.
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.
The Goblin’s dilemma resolved
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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