Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Spidey vs. Sandy and Gooey

Of course you're all waiting with baited breath for Spiderman and Philosophy, the inevitable next step from Open Court after The Matrix and Philosophy, James Bond and Philosophy, The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, etc. There are already 30 of these titles, with more to come, including, for example, Johnny Cash and Philosophy (hello?) and Soccer and Philosophy (a sequel to Bocce and Philosophy, no doubt). Superheroes and Philosophy (Open Court, 2005) has a lead article by Mark Waid, a former neighbor and friend of yours truly, the squawcking blogger, but it is not a big Spiderman production. (Mark is basically a D.C. guy, as far as I know. As attested to by the collection of Batman lapel pins I think I still have from a box of stuff he gave me.) Spidey the comic book character is way overdue his own philosophy book, and even in his Sam Raimi incarnation is now as grown up as Frodo or Neo. So why not Spidey and Philosophy? Stick it next to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and you've got your summer reading.

But why do people keep throwing rotten tomatoes at Sam Raimi's new flick? Are they jealous that they didn't get to suspend Kirsten Dunst 80 stories above a Manhattan sidewalk and drop large vehicles in her general direction? I don't think so... No, it's a little more than that. True, part of the problem here is that the story is going off in more directions than the particles at FermiLab, including, yes, a particle accelerator that somehow turns Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) into a mass of loosely bonded silicon, a.k.a., the Sandman. And let's not forget the self-propelled rubbery black goop from outer space (Dark Matter, anyone?) that is on a mission to attach itself in some form or other to Our Hero (Tobey Maguire) and change him into a vindictive schmuck who alienates everyone from Girlfriend (not you, Owl - the almost as lovely Dunst as Mary Jane) to the whole of Gotham City (whoops, wrong comic; even wrong publisher).

And there are ten or twelve subplots to supplement these themes, keeping the viewer in a state of constant anticipation until the very end, when (as it turns out) none of them are worked out very well. Marko, for example, became a naughty bank robber in search of money to pay for medicine for his sick daughter, who appears early in the film; and then, as Sandman,
he then joins up with a johnny-come-lately character called Venom to destroy Spidey; but the link between Marko's fatherly quest and Sandy's vengeance is awfully thin, and the unfortunate daughter drops out completely without resolution of her crisis. (I guess the kids who see this film are supposed to assume she just dies?) There are lots of other themes that sort of spin off the screen rather than leading to any useful fictional content.

Aside from the issues with the thematic content, the critics I read on Rotten Tomatoes were mostly riffing on a lot of technical issues with the special effects. But in my opinion the issue with them was not technical, but ontological. Sandy, for example, was technically well done; the problem is, what is he? He seems to accumulate body mass when he comes in contact with sand, and lose it in various ways, which include water, and, strangely enough, fire. Sand burns? At the temperature of lava, I guess, but from some ordinary scorchers that Harry fires from his flying skateboard? Maybe they were tactical nuclear weapons? Not too smart in the middle of Gotham City, Harry. But no matter what happens to Sandman, he always returns to good (?) old flesh-and-blood Flint Marko. The nukes hit the sand but missed Marko? Sometimes Marko seems to turn willfully into a sandstorm and drift away, as if he caught a tailwind and just sailed off. He comes, goes, falls apart, reappears - when he pounds Spidey he must be one pretty solid piece of beach, but then he melts like the Wicked Witch of the West. (She's just a bad dream after all, but... hey, Sandman, I get it, he's just here to put Spidey and his gal pal to sleep?)

In the end, this hunk of waterside real estate is so ontologically vague that you can't wrap your mind around him. You can say "lack of imagination", but I'll just come back with "imaginative resistance" -
this character puts you in a foul mood that makes you not want to let him be. Too much work. Stick him in an hourglass where at least he's got some contours. I'm sorry, but you have to be able to get inside a character to appreciate it. When I try to get inside Sandman I just fall right out the other side and rush off to rinse my face.

Now, as for Gooey - he's just as vague, if not self-contradictory. Gooey begins life in the manner described above, a gelatinous black thing that resembles two large arachnids having sex after crawling through an oil slick on the way up from the sewer. It is not only self-propelled, but self-motivated, at least more so than some of the people in my office. For it wants to attach itself to Spidey, as if to a soulmate, and tracks him down, eventually wrapping him up in a black version of the famous red-and-blue Spidey costume. It then bonds with him - not emotionally - well, yes, emotionally - and causes him to seek revenge for his uncle's presumed death at the hands of Marko, to destroy the shards of Mary Jane's singing career, and to upend the hopes of aspiring cub photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who wants to catch Spidey doing a no-no.

Time out. Said photographer plagiarized a photo and then doctored it to make it look like Spidey messed up. Why does it count as spiteful to set this guy on his ear? Anyway, so far Gooey is only a bit of obvious bad blood (people are not supposed to be vengeful, superheroes least of all) but things get very fuzzy soon enough. For one thing, Spidey's got a scientist friend who discovers that the jelly spider glop is a germ that can infect his blood. Right - so how is it that ripping off the black costume cures blood poisoning and its personality effects? Oh how symbolic, Spidey rips it off in a church, where some of it just happens to fall on the aforementioned would-be cub photographer. But since Cubby is already a vindictive bastard, what difference does it make? Well, never mind, he now turns into the Truly Evil Negative-Spiderman, so denoted by the fact that he has sharp fangs and is called Venom. How is it that the glop sought out Spidey like it was on a mission, but now it just happens to land a few floors below on Cubby, like some tar dripping from the roof on a hot day? Well, that's the last time we entrust an important mission to some semi-conscious gob of icky black latex.

So now, wearing the black-spidey costume, Cubby goes for Spidey's throat, but ends up... well, I can't give away everything. But of course he gets nailed, and not by antibiotics either. Gooey's morphology thus includes black goo from planet X, a gelatinous web that wraps itself around Spidey, a Spidey costume with personality flaws, a Venom costume with periodontal problems and an attitude, and finally some inanimate form that the world doesn't have to worry about anymore. Thanks, Sam - what's up next, the Pastrami Sandwich from Hell?

So there you have the real reason Spiderman 3 is a mess: ontological ambiguity! It ain't the technology, folks, it's what you do with it. Though the movie has its moments of visual interest, and occasionally tests our creativity in figuring out how Spidey will get out of this or that mess (literal and figurative), it is basically about two over-morphed bits of material and a bunch of loose ends.

Oh, did I mention the parallel jewelry thing? In a touch that makes the whole story just shy of Pynchonesqe ersatz non-randomness, Spidey (that is, Peter Parker) often clutches an engagement ring his aunt gave him, which he hopes to lay on Mary Jane, while Sandy clutches a locket his daughter gave him. I'll be darned if there isn't some good old-fashioned aesthetic device being offered here, but either its point is lost in the miasma of conflicting expectations and hanging judgments, or it's like I said, a Pynchonesque device to make us look for connections that just ain't there. True, we get forgiveness on various levels (have to, Spidey gave up the black goo in a church, after all!) and a few other sort of obvious emotional plays, but the overall feeling is not redemption, and there's too much baloney for any clear sense of resolution. Maybe Raimi should have tried a Fellini ending, with all the misfits and materials and biohazards meandering into a ballroom and doing a hora or something. It would not have solved either the ontological problems or the tangle of threads, but it would have been a substitute for closure - about the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.

Oh, did I mention the bit about the pseudo-romance with Peter's classmate...? Harry's effort to avenge his father's death...? The butler who tells him how Dad really died...? The truth about how uncle was really murdered...? Auntie's counseling of Peter's amorous adventures....? The editor who wants to prove that Spidey is a fraud...? Oh, what the heck, just go see the movie, you know your kids are going to drag you there anyway. What do kids care about ontology and thematic dissipation? No more than they care about the banality of the dialogue. And neither should you, if you're just out for a night of glitzy fun. Just don't plan to take this film seriously.


Nous Letters said...

Mr. H.A. Monk,

It seems to me that you haven't spent enough time reading comic books (or spent enough time with a person who still reads too many comic books).

1. Sandman can't die. You can stop him with water, but you can't kill him.
2. The church (while a bit strange since Spider-man 2 was full of allusion to Christ) helped make the scene because the bells ringing helped the goo come off.
3. Superhero comic books are comic books simply because they will never make "sense". You can't go watch a Marvel movie expecting to relate to what's happening, not if you're trying to understand it.

Don't get me wrong, the movie was garbage. I thought it was extremely boring, actually, because it was obvious the plots were going nowhere. And, what's up with all of the villians being destroyed? Did you ever see the original tv series? They never die there.

What's interesting is that the majority of reviews I read (aside from Rotten Tomatoes) said it was the best movie of the three. I think it was even shittier than the second movie, which was also total garbage.

Spider-man and Philosophy-- interesting. Let's work on it. har.


H.A. Monk said...

I admit I don't spend much time reading comic books these days. Unfortunately, my intellectual activities have been dominated by watching Spongebob and reading Wittgenstein. Not necessarily at the same time. But as to your more specific points;

1. Did I say Sandman could die? I don't think so.
2. There's the manifest content and the latent content, as Parrot's friend Sigmund Bird used to say. (Or was it Carl Jungle? Willhelm Ostreich?) The bells helped bring off the scene, but the theme of forgiveness is the heart of the whole story. It manages to handle that theme in a way that is simultaneously shallow and overdone. Be that as it may, the church has a very obvious place in the thematic content, and the removal of the suit is just the explicit representation of trading in vindictiveness for forgiveness.
3. Did I say it should "make sense"? All I said is that Sandy and Gooey are ontologically vague if not self-contradictory, and that this affects our ability to relate to these central characters. Come to think of it, Parrot is rather pleased with himself over that thesis!

Funny, I got the impression that most people thought #2 was better. For me this is an argument with no winners - the films are dramatically and emotionally pretty lightweight, and stuffed with special effects (like we needed more) and ersatz emotions. Maybe a superhero movie with significant content is an oxymoron, but I hope not. I don't expect it from Raimi though.

Anyway, thanks for the Nous. And how's the weather?