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Spider-Man talks too much

Rose and I were watching the Criterion Collection Chasing Amy DVD this weekend (why is Chasing Amy in the Criterion Collection, anyway?), and the deleted scenes gave me a newfound appreciation for the movie. If you think the final cut of the movie is preachy (and I certainly do), just wait till you see the deleted scenes. There’s an extended skee ball scene in which Alyssa takes about five minutes to explain why straight boys shouldn’t call each other fags and cocksuckers. There’s an extended darts sequence in which Alyssa tells a several-minute story about the true meaning of love. (In short, a guy’s girlfriend is raped and killed in a dark train station while waiting for him to arrive for a visit, and he donates money to the station to install more lights and then spends the rest of his life riding the train every day, apparently out of some misguided sense that such activity will assuage his obsessive guilt and grief. Remember that this story is about the true meaning of love.) There’s a scene in which Kevin Smith performs a cinematic equivalent of burning his detractors in effigy, a moment of meta-preachiness. The movie already has dozens of sermons (from Why I Became A Lesbian by Alyssa to Chasing Amy by Silent Bob). Kevin Smith has trouble integrating his moral ideas into a narrative. The result is a moral fable that seems more simplistic than it needs to be. It’s annoying, because the characters become generic speech-givers who continuously tell me about abstract moral concepts I’ve already figured out.

I want less Alyssa lecturing on her decision to become a lesbian because she didn’t want to force herself into a heterosexual role she wasn’t sure she’d fit, and more scenes like the opening one in which a couple of cruel fanboys mock Banky for being an inker, a task they mistakenly believe involves mere tracing of the pencilled comics pages. The former scene is boring because it’s clear from that opening scene that the movie’s going to be about open- and closed-mindedness and the problems with pigeonholing people into roles they don’t really fit. Note how the opening convention scene gets the point across with relative subtlety and freedom to interpret, while Alyssa’s lecture lazily falls back on telling you exactly how you’re supposed to interpret the text.

Of course, this is a highly subjective issue, and plenty of people obviously have no problem with Chasing Amy. I personally have no problem with stories that explicitly address thematic material in narration, but I generally loathe (as you may have noticed by now) the results of authors allowing unprocessed thematic material to get into the dialogue. I despise characters who act like they know what the story’s about. I prefer ambiguity to certitude.

This post wasn’t supposed to be about Chasing Amy, though. I was going to write about Spider-Man 2, and I only mentioned Chasing Amy because those preachy deleted scenes helped me clarify a problem I had with Spider-Man. Now, Spider-Man 2, as all the other comics bloggers have already pointed out (and as anybody familiar with Spider-Man comics presumably guessed anyway), is about that old Spidey Slogan, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The first movie introduced the theme, and the second complicates it. Basically, his Spider-Man identity has caused Peter Parker two related problems:

  1. He neglects more mundane responsibilities (getting an education, paying the rent, delivering pizzas on time) in favor of devoting all his energy to his superheroic responsibilities.
  2. He avoids his friends and family, not exactly because he neglects his responsibility to them but because he takes too much responsibility for them, especially for Mary Jane. He believes his Spider-Man identity will endanger them if he remains close, so he pushes them away. (His avoidance of Harry is a little more understandable, since Harry actually wants to kill Spider-Man.)

Peter has to decide who gets to call the shots—Peter Parker or Spider-Man? Whose responsiblities are more important? Otto Octavius allows “Doc Ock” to call the shots (the fact that Otto is able to take control and save the city by destroying his fusion device suggests that he does allow the octopus arms to control him), and look where it gets him. Spider-Man’s urges are undoubtedly more heroic than Doc Ock’s, but that distinction doesn’t actually matter much. Doc Ock’s monstrous urge may threaten the entire city, but of course we know Spider-Man will take care of the city. The really engaging question raised by Doc Ock’s monstrous urge is whether he will manage to pull himself back from the brink—will he die a monster? So it is with Spider-Man: his superheroic (but equally monstrous) urge doesn’t threaten the city, but it does threaten to sever the ties of friendship and family. Will Spider-Man become a superheroic monster, a Fiorean solipsist, or will he pull himself back from the brink?

So that’s the stakes, and fine stakes they are. The problem, of course, is that the movie gets so damn preachy in addressing them.

The movie’s not all preachiness. The first scene, one of the best, lays out the moral landscape without spelling it out too much. The opening shot is of Mary Jane once removed: a billboard Peter watches longingly. “She looks at me every day,” Peter tells us—but he misspeaks, as Jim Henley notes, “for ’she’ is simply a billboard of MJ at her most made-up and ethereal—flat, creamy, dreamy, two-dimensional and, we might note, looking out at nothing from our left.” This is as close as Peter believes he can get to MJ without putting her life in grave danger. Later in the scene, Peter is fired from his pizza-delivery job after failing (and for not the first time) to deliver a pizza on time—he delayed the delivery to assist the police in apprehending a couple of criminals. “Joe’s 29-minute guarantee is a promise, Peter,” his boss tells him. By this point in the movie, an attentive viewer should understand the central conflicts of the story. The opening scene is a skillfully constructed narrative that explains the conflicts concretely, and the movie does not need to resort to more abstract moral explanations—intelligent viewers can figure it out for themselves. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the confidence to let the narrative speak for itself, and they ended up shoveling nasty thematic material right into the characters’ mouths.

By far the most offensive scene is the one in which Aunt May explains the concept of heroism to Peter. The basic idea for the scene is a good one: as Jim Henley notes, May’s speech seems motivated not by any healthy notion of heroism but by a weirdly sadomasochistic urge to punish Peter for his responsibility for Uncle Ben’s murder:

It’s . . . a bit . . . unsettling. There’s the possibility that she’s announcing Peter’s punishment: make it up to me by giving up your one chance at happiness. It’s also possible that we’re simply seeing where Peter’s own maladaptation to the problem of self-sustenance versus altruism comes from: Aunt May knows that she and Ben sacrificed much for the sake of their nephew, and she expects Peter to do the like when presented the opportunity. Giving what you can’t afford to give comes naturally to her. It’s the dangerous lesson her ward has absorbed.

So Aunt May wants to give Peter a disturbing Christ complex. That’s a great way to raise the stakes, but too bad the scene doesn’t live up to its potential. Aunt May really shouldn’t need more than a few seconds and a few well-chosen suggestions to sow her poisonous seeds in Peter’s soul, but the scene drags on for long minutes as she foolishly belabors the point. By the time she wraps up, she’s oversold her heroic ideal so much that Peter looks like a blind idiot for not realizing she’s trying to manipulate him.

Then there’s the Uncle Ben dream sequence in which, as I recall, Uncle Ben actually goes so far as to say aloud “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter’s decision to toss his Spider-Man costume in the trash, the subsequent (and hilarious) “Raindrops keep falling on my head” scene, are all we need to figure out what Peter has decided to do with his life. We remember from the first movie that Peter feels guilty about Uncle Ben’s death. Trundling out the ghost of Uncle Ben to explain all this to us indicates a stunning lapse of taste on the parts of the filmmakers.

Luckily, the movie recovers its wits in time for the ending, which dumps the characters back into lovely moral confusion. Mary Jane’s decision to stick with Peter is the movie’s response to Aunt May’s masochistic ideal of heroism. See how her decision is packed into that one all-important sentence, “Isn’t it time someboday saved your life, Peter?” and that one final closeup shot that shows her inability to decide whether she’s made the right decision? Just imagine how much the scene would have lost if Mary Jane had been required to explain herself in an Aunt May-style speech.

My point, as I said, is that I can’t stand characters who talk like they’ve read the script and know what the story’s supposed to be about. Characters who act as mouthpieces for authors who are too lazy or too scared to construct a narrative that stands on its own. Spider-Man 2 is most disappointing as it establishes a strong narrative but then falters and gives in to sermonizing.