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Picking Apart a Peck of Peter Parkers
by Lucius Shepard
June 3, 2002

In the midst of viewing Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man I became concerned that I’d misplaced a Safeway coupon guaranteeing fifty cents off on a Healthy Choice dinner, but after a thorough search I found it crumpled in my shirt pocket and glanced up in time to catch another shot of Spidey (Tobey Maguire) swinging off through digital Manhattan. This might indicate that I was uninvolved with the film, and I admit such is the case; but then unless you are—for whatever reason—still given to thumb-sucking Spider-Man is not a movie that requires concentrated attention, since the large majority of its audience are familiar with the story and familiar also with its brand of visual pyrotechnics, its generic style of narration, and, indeed, with its every particular. One does not attend such a movie with any greater expectations than that one will see what one anticipates seeing. The entertainment industry, publishing included, has retooled itself so as to provide us with an infinite feast of comfort food, and Hollywood, its most conservative arm, has decided that by churning out remakes, rehashes, and franchise properties, they expose themselves to less financial risk than were they to offer their audience even a feeble intellectual challenge. Dozens of comic books are currently in development. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman, Daredevil (starring Ben Affleck—can anyone explain why this guy has a career?), Iron Man, and others more obscure, projects that range from the intriguing—Ang Lee’s The Hulk, featuring the fine Australian actor Eric Bana—to the off-putting—Hellblazer, with Nicolas Cage slated to portray the cool, cynical anti-hero John Constantine, a casting choice that’s rather like trying to pass off a pound of pork sausage as filet of sole.

Thanks to this policy of intellectual debasement, genre film fails to reflect the rich potentials embodied by the science fiction field. Despite occasional Great Leaps Forward like Kubrick’s 2001, the status quo is God. So it is that franchises like Star Wars and The Matrix (both, in essence, comic books) will continue, as will the strip-mining of Philip K. Dick’s legacy, the extraction of his basic ideas and the tossing aside of the unique sensibility that made his work valuable. The latest of these pictures, Spielberg’s Minority Report with Tom Cruise, appears to transform a clever albeit minor Dick story into a higher tech version of Logan’s Run. Inimical space travelers will proliferate—Predator types and big-eyed Roswellian grays a la James Cameron’s upcoming Brother Termite—and so will creepy space relics and disasters precipitated by extraterrestrial sources. We’ll have the odd low-budget film that strays from these parameters, but basically that’s what lies in the filmic future, even though the actual future promises to be so much more complex.

With the development of computer graphic imaging, all that prevents the studios from tackling stories previously deemed unfilmable, like Ringworld and Rendezvous with Rama, are their greed and stupidity, qualities that, however docile the audience, will eventually sabotage their marketing tactics. There are some terrific properties languishing in development, but it’s probably a blessing that many of these—an example, Tom Hanks as Gulliver Foyle in The Stars My Destination—die aborning. It may be that Bester’s story could not be sufficiently dumbed down to make its filming feasible. The dumbing down of character and story, you see, has become a requisite for most green-lighted projects. It’s been brought to my attention that a major selling point written into a treatment for a film based on a Disneyworld ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, was the assurance that the picture would contain no subplots and no depth of characterization. Thus it is that we are doomed to endure at least another decade of George Lucas’ dotage, Stephen Spielberg’s crass, simplistic humanism, Cameron’s megalomania, Ridley Scott’s opulent vacancy, and the like. But the day is coming when a kid with a credit card will be able to walk around carrying a movie studio on his back, and when that day arrives, it’s probable that some of the great science fiction stories will be filmed imaginatively and lovingly by young men and women outside the system. Perhaps then we will see a movie version of, among various possibilities, Neuromancer. I suspect the idea of filming Gibson’s book is low priority for whoever owns the rights. After all, they might say, the high concept trappings of the book have been done to death in dozens of films, most of them trashy. That whole Cyberpunk thing . . . it’s so last millennium! They don’t get that what makes Gibson’s book compelling is the storytelling, the dark energy that illuminates his setting. But given the advent of new technology, I’m certain someone will get it, and they will make the movie and it will be markedly more successful than any of the imitations that have already been mounted before the cameras.

Think about the stories the studios are capable of telling nowadays. At the top of my list would be Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Then Disch’s Camp Concentration; Stephenson’s Snow Crash; Effinger’s When Gravity Fails; Aldiss’ Helliconia Spring; Zelazny’s Lords of Light; Bear’s Blood Music; Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer; Simmons’ Hyperion. Anyone reading this could in a few minutes generate an entirely different list that would be every bit as worthwhile. Of course when you think about whom the studios might cast in these movies—Afflecks and Cruises ad nauseum—perhaps it’s better to wait for that kid carrying the studio on his or her back.

In the meantime, we have George Clooney remaking Solaris, Mel Gibson staring aghast at a crop circle, and the endless Sequel-O-Rama.

As an exemplar of the contemporary genre film, Spider-Man is not so bad. In fact, the first hour is quite entertaining, detailing the origin of Peter Parker’s arachnoid powers via mutant spider bite, his difficulty in coming to terms with said powers, his unspoken love for the girl next door, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and the simultaneous evolution (by means of self-testing performance-enhancement drugs) of industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) into the Green Goblin. Sam Raimi, who reached his creative peak during his Evil Dead period, does an outstanding job with the action sequences, handling the acrobatic ineptitude of the Webcrawler’s first swings through Manhattan with a sure-handed comedic touch. Especially effective is the scene during which Parker, clad in a shabby prototype of his costume, challenges a professional wrestler (Randy Savage) in order to win money to buy a car with which he can impress Mary Jane. Tobey Maguire’s greatest asset as an actor is his ability to project internalized discomfort, and though he seems incapable of much more than this, that quality alone suits him for the lead. Dafoe, in full-on scenery-chewing mode, cackles and grimaces with persuasive élan and invests the gradual change of Osborn into the Goblin with more subtlety than might be expected, and Dunst, a better actress than her role deserves, portrays a damsel in nearly constant distress with appropriate sweetness and vulnerability.

The second hour, however, is less successful. As often happens in the comic book, Parker’s sad-sack emotional stammering grows tiresome and the predictability of the plot—the Goblin discovering Spidey’s identity, his kidnapping of Mary Jane to draw Parker into his clutches, and the final battle between them—overwhelms the film’s energy. Growing disaffected, I found myself hoping for Spider-Man to encounter Spiderwoman, that we might witness Peter Parker plucked apart by purple pincers, his legs chewed off, eggs laid in his flesh. On a more practical level, things would have been improved had tabloid editor Jonah Jameson (a perfectly cast J.K. Simmons), for whom Parker works as a free-lancer, been more than an afterthought in the movie. In the source material Jameson provides Spider-Man with comic grounding for his frustration that contrasts well with his woman trouble and the unending stream of super villains. The addition of a couple more scenes featuring Jameson might have blunted the drippy effect of Maguire’s wet-eyed stare.

The problem with Spider-Man is more-or-less the same that afflicted the Harry Potter movie: it was given into the hands of a caretaker director, a man who would take no risks, whose intent was to transfer the source materials onto the screen instead of translating them. A superhero who shares our insecurities is an attractive idea, yet though Spider-Man becomes braver, faster, stronger, famous, a veritable icon, though he does gain a moral purchase, his personality essentially remains that of a teenage nerd. This illogical continuity of character may suffice in a commercial comic book, but the more vital process of a film—even one based on a comic—demands something deeper. A spot of creepiness would have served the film well. It stands to reason that Parker might develop an obsession with arachnids, and it would have added a layer to have him communing with his loathsome genetic kin on a cobwebbed rooftop. In both the comic book and the movie, Parker experiences bitterness, but it’s always an ineffectual, petulant bitterness, not the more volatile and dangerous emotion of a young man. Giving Spider-Man some potentially destructive issues might juice him up a notch. There is, for instance, his iffy relationship with the public, many of whom consider him a villain. His reaction to this is also petulant, but I would think that sooner or later this might mature into a seriously mean-spirited attitude. A few touches of the sort would have generated a more pronounced character arc and thus increased dramatic tension . . . and perhaps Raimi has this in mind for the sequels; but come 2006, I bet we’ll find Parker still mooning over Dunst, as he does at the end of this movie. Or else they’ll live happily ever after, displaying nary a trace of the emotional damage attendant upon such a prolonged separation.

Somewhere along the line—and this is true of both writing and film—-the notion of what is artful and what is entertaining became separated. Gradually writers and directors considered by the critics at the top of their field came to be viewed as limited in their appeal, and writers and directors who had been viewed (be it rightly or wrongly) as journeymen came to be seen as populists. Storytellers. As if Gene Wolfe, for example, were not a storyteller. Back in the 30s and 40s, men like Hemingway and Orson Welles had great commercial success; but it’s tough these days to point to a critic’s darling who is also the author of a best-seller or the director of a blockbuster movie. Whatever the cause of this separation, be it the evolving science of marketing alone or in tandem with a decline in educational standards and reading levels, the reaction of most Hollywood directors has been to dumb it down, and as a result we’re being force-fed a diet of increasingly simplified stories. Franchises, comic books, remakes. I’ve heard it said that Spider-Man is the best superhero movie yet, and maybe it is. I don’t know. Myself, I have a fondness for Donner’s Superman, but making judgments about this type of film is basically a case of which do you like better, chocolate or strawberry? For my part, I had a good time. As all the chubby TV reviewers will tell you in their shilly little voices, it’s a freaking thrill ride, a roller-coaster experience. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s fun for the whole family, a simple, splashy passage without depth or subplot. And that’s cool. Nothing wrong with fun. But I wish once in a while they’d serve it up with a side of truth and beauty, because it’s my feeling that fun is not merely—as the folks at MGM, Fox, and Dreamworks would have you believe—something vacuous, bright, and feel-goodish, something that goes good with Raisinettes and a Coke, something even an idiot can understand.