Spiderman, Angst, Redemption and All That Good Stuff

As a devotee of Spiderman 1 & 2, I went to see Spiderman 3 for my birthday, and I'm sorry to say I was disappointed.

It was basically me and a bunch of twenty-year-old males who also don't have to work on a Friday afternoon. They were disappointed as well. "Geez," one complained as we left the theatre, "they killed off the two best villains in one movie!"

I agreed although my complaint has more to do with Spiderman's, aka Peter Parker's, response to that killing. Or, to be more precise, Peter Parker's response to his bad side. Which is, to sum it up, not that much.

I'll give Tobey Maguire a pass on this one since I think he is a very talented actor, and I think he "got" the jerk part of the script very well. That is, I think he understood how to make Peter Parker a jerk without making him over-the-top villainous.

Here's the problem--he never really pays for being a jerk and hurting his friends and basically enabling one villain into existence. It's one of those "Well, he learned his lesson, he's sorry, hey, really, really bad things happened to him too, ya know, let's just let the whole thing drop" treatments. And that just doesn't work in terms of good storytelling.

I've been rewatching some Buffy and have been struck (again) by how much Whedon, whatever his personal theology, understands the concept of redemption in both a human and a literary sense. The fact is that "paying for it" or "feeling bad about it" or "being forgiven for it" or "accepting one's part in it" is a major theme is most of history's great literature, and it simply doesn't work to ignore that as a literary and a human reality. (A thorough introduction to the letters of Paul never did any writer any harm.)

In a purely technical sense, Angel is not Angelus, but he inhabits the same body, and therefore still pays for that body's crimes. (Additionally, there is a ton of evidence within the show itself that the type of harm a vampire does is based on the worst aspects of the original personality. So Spike becomes a passionate obsessive and Angel becomes a sadist and Willow and Xander form a weird sort of incestuous relationship where they torture Cordelia. In other words, in Whedon's universe, how you lived your life as a human will be reflected in exactly how awful or creepy you are as a vampire.)

Not only does redemption work on a literary and human level, but it also works on an emotional one. And I think that the powers-that-be for Spiderman 3 made a huge mistake here. The audience is willing to let the hero suffer. Really. I got the feeling with Spiderman 3 that the writers were trying to protect Peter Parker from the worst effects of his bad behavior. Why????? It doesn't hurt the hero in the audience's eyes if he/she is forced to pay/be sorry/make up for being a jerk.

Take, for example, Edmund from C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. I've read some rather silly tut-tutting articles (by adults) who think that Edmund was a victim, poor little boy. Yet Edmund remains the favorite of many readers, both young and old (and including me). First of all, Lewis (and Paul) understood what the silly adults and Spiderman 3 writers failed to grasp: sin--once you've defined it--is sin, whatever the extenuating circumstances. Second of all, Lewis understood, as does Whedon (intuitively, I think), that in order to take someone seriously, you have to take their actions seriously as well as the consequences of those actions. Lewis takes his children protagonists seriously--which must be very refreshing to your average child.

To return to Spiderman 3, it's worth watching on a large screen, but not at full price. Wait for the $1 theatre.



Joe said...

Whether Whedon understands redemption, I've always been a little bugged by how freely he redeems his characters from the most heinous acts with precious little contrition. (And yet kills off other characters for relatively minor offenses, if at all.)

(Willow's redemption, for example, was awfully pain free. Spike even got a weird pass a few times [had to, from the time he showed up, he was the most interesting character]. And even the Angle/Angelus thing gets borderline creepy--at least in Buffy, he had to pay dearly for his sins.)

Eugene said...

I think another aspect of this is that we want to see the protagonist grow as an individual, and we know that growth comes through hard work and suffering. Hence the predictable sequence in any sports movie where the hero recognizes his shortcomings and gets down to work (queue training montage and inspiring music!).

What we don’t want to see is gain without pain. Or conversely, pain without gain, the latter being the product of authorial laziness: creating conflict by doing terrible things to the main character like a capricious god. Job without any metaphysical or theological insights. This is what made ER and NYPD Blue so intolerable after a couple of seasons.

The travails of House, on the other hand, are mostly things he brings upon himself and therefore must react to on his own terms. One gets the idea that with each self-created disaster, he gains additional insight about himself. Even if he never changes, he’s not blind to who he is. Which is also why he doesn’t terribly mind being beaten at his own game.