The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Saturday, July 03, 2004
MAN AND SPIDERMAN: Have the pundits started searching for political undertones in Spider-Man 2 yet? Last time around, some columnist (was it Andrew Sullivan?) suggested that Peter Parker's failure to stop the criminal who would later kill his beloved Uncle Ben could be a metaphor for America's moral obligation to act in the world. This time around -- warning: spoilers ahead -- Parker actually retires from crimefighting for a while. Crime jumps, the press that had been denouncing Spider-Man as a criminal starts wailing that he's nowhere to be found, and every hawk in the audience nods his head with recognition. Us doves, meanwhile, can find solace in the tale of Doctor Octopus, whose well-intentioned mucking about nearly destroys New York but who can't face the fact that he's miscalculated, so he plunges back into the same destructive project. If you come to the movie looking for political symbolism, it's hard not to see Doc Ock's fusion generator as a symbol of empire and the mechanical arms that come to control him as a stand-in for the military-industrial complex.

But most people won't come to this movie looking for political symbolism; the most important resonances here are personal, not social. When Lee and Ditko invented Spider-Man, they stumbled on one of the best concepts in comic-book history: What if Charlie Brown had superpowers? The appeal of Spider-Man is the appeal of Peanuts, with only a few minor differences: more action, less theology, and this time the little red-haired girl actually likes the boy with a crush on her. Just about every character gets to play Charlie Brown for a while in this movie: not just Parker, but Mary Jane, Harry Osborn, even Doctor Octopus. Their travails, mind you, are a little more adult. When Parker starts to feel impotent, he loses the ability to shoot webs (!); and Harry (major spoiler coming) finally reaches that day of maturity when the old masks are torn away, you realize that your parents' lives were a lot more complicated than you ever suspected, and you have to confront the fact that your father was a goblin and your best friend is a spider.

The movie has its share of plot holes and loose threads, and Doctor Octopus' behavior doesn't always make sense. (Why did he throw Spider-Man off that train? Wasn't he trying to capture him?) But it's the best superhero movie I've seen (not that I've seen that many), and the best picture Sam Raimi's made since A Simple Plan. The cast, too, is excellent. Everyone says Tobey Maguire is perfect as Parker, and they're right, but as in the first picture I think the most inspired piece of casting is J.K. "Schillinger" Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the editor from hell.

For all the sadness and disappointment in the film, the high points are a couple of comic scenes. One is a peculiar segment in which Spider-Man has to ride an elevator. The other is a wink-at-the-audience montage set to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." These could have been conceived by Quentin Tarantino, or by Raimi's old collaborators the Coen brothers. They're just two of many signs that this is a movie made with more intelligence than your standard summer action romp.


posted by Jesse 12:54 PM
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