Tuesday, July 23, 2002


So this weekend’s movies were Spider-Man and the Royal Tenenbaums. On most levels, they could not have been more different. Spider-Man, after all, is an adaptation of the comic book, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the “Silver Age” of comics. The Royal Tenenbaums (hereinafter “TRT” which is waaaay easier to type) is Owen Wilson’s all-star art-house flick, filled with a great deal of significant pauses and much-too-much affectedness.

But, at the same time, both movies really dealt with the same issue, the question of sin and redemption, though they came to some very different conclusions. I will begin by saying that I did not like TRT for its affected style and its labored artiness, and that I have been waiting for this kind of Spider-Man adaptation since I was 5. So, warning: Bias ahead.

For those of you who didn’t hang around us comics collectors in junior high, I will quickly summarize Spider-Man. Peter Parker is the classic school geek: chess club; school paper photographer. Skinny, nerdy, thick glasses. Then one day, on a school visit to a university lab, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider (updated to a genetically-modified one in the movie). Superpowers follow. Extraordinary strength, the ability to climb walls, shoot webs from new glands on the wrists, and a “spider sense” that gives Peter Parker a precognitive sense that allows him to “react” just before danger really begins, all develop within a very short time. But Peter has a problem.

Since he was 6 years old, Peter has been mooning for the literal girl-next-door, Mary Jane Watson. Sadly, MJ seems to barely know Peter is alive (though she does treat him kindly when she notices him, whereas most others are just mean). Peter begins to forge a connection with her, but is beaten out by the High School football star, Flash. (The movie really follows the comic book script, so cheesy late 50s nicknames get used.) Seeking money to buy a car to compete with Flash’s, Peter decides to test his new superpowers by entering a wrestling match with a minor champion known as “Bonesaw.” After defeating the champ, Peter goes to claim his $3,000 prize, but the unscrupulous promoter gives him only $100. When Peter tells the man he needs the money, the promoter only replies, “I missed the part where that was my problem.”

Moments later, a thief enters the office and robs the company at gunpoint. Peter steps out of the crook’s way and the crook says “thanks” as he escapes. When the promoter complains to Peter about the theft, Peter replies (you guessed it) “I missed the part where that was my problem.”

Unfortunately, when Peter goes to meet his uncle for a ride home (he lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben), he finds Ben lying on the sidewalk, shot, the victim of a carjacking. Peter overhears the police saying that the thief is heading down 5th Avenue, and takes off after him. Now, we’re not in Tolstoy territory here, so of course it turns out that the carjacker is the thief that Peter allowed to escape, and so he is very personally responsible for his uncle’s death. It is at this moment that he becomes “Spider-Man” the typical sort of comic book crimefighter.

There’s a lot more that happens in the movie that I won’t summarize in much detail. Peter’s best friend is a not-very-bright rich kid, Harry Osborn, son of a major defense contractor trying to sell various things to the military. The father, Norman Osborn, becomes so consumed by greed that he becomes literally consumed, turning into a villain known as the Green Goblin. Spider-Man and he of course duke it out several times in big action scenes.

What is most interesting about this movie, both on its own and compared to other big-screen comic book adaptations, is how surprisingly character-driven the film is. Stan Lee is no great dramatist, and his characters are not especially fleshed out, or fully three-dimensional. But the story and the film have some real moments. After the Green Goblin finds out Spider-Man’s real identity, he attacks both Aunt May and MJ, causing Peter to realize that he represents a danger to those he loves. Late in the film, MJ confesses to having fallen in love with Peter, the thing he has wanted as long as he lives, but he sets that aside. Rather than give up his activity as Spider-Man, which he continues as a way of atoning for his uncle’s death, he rejects the romantic love of Mary Jane that he has sought for as long as he can remember. He turns his back on his own selfish desire because, as his uncle lectured him, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
None of this is academy-award winning stuff. There are nuances to the problem, even at this level, that go unexplored. But on the whole the movie is as interested in the dilemma posed for Peter Parker as in the action sequences that the CGI guys can generate. And the film stayed true to Stan Lee’s early story, that denied any neat solution to the problem.

The movie is fairly violent, with lots of hand-to-hand fighting, and some explosions. But the violence didn’t really trouble me, per se, (see my post yesterday on violence to understand why). The message of the movie was very clear: some people choose to be violent, and to be evil, and other, good people have little choice but to fight back. In one scene, a cop is faced with arresting Spider-Man or allowing him to enter a burning building to save someone who is trapped. The cop makes the right choice. That’s why I took my young son to see it. The message he brought home from the movie was that the hero is the guy who stands up to the bad guys, and I’m really fine with that.

TRT on the other hand, makes every attempt to be as muddled and nuanced as possible. Though not in the “gay cowboys eating pudding” category of independent films, it nevertheless screams loudly that you would never have heard of it if not for the cast.

The extremely quick summary is, Royal Tenenbaum is a rich litigator in a New York-esque place, who gets thrown out by his wife when his children are small, and comes to regret it later, when he is finally thrown out of the hotel he has lived in for years. He has been disbarred, and spent time in prison, but seems unreformed and largely unrepentant. Though he does reget being cut off from his family, he doesn’t really address why that happened right away. He first try to inveigle himself back into their lives by faking a terminal illness, but of course the scam is discovered by the suspicious son (the one who actually got him disbarred). After this discovery, Royal is finally made fully low, when he becomes an elevator operator in the building he was ejected from.

The children are all screwed up in various ways. Chas is money-grubbing, and empty since his wife was killed in a plane crash, though he loves his children and their dog. His “adopted daughter” is extraordinarily alienated (which the movie cleverly signifies by making her a closet chain-smoker—how droll!). The Bomber is a professional tennis player in love with his adopted sister, who cracks up and is ruined when she marries. Blah blah blah. Lots of urban sophistication and deep-seated alienation among the family hangers-on.

Until Royal’s final humiliation, the movie lacks anything approaching redemptive value, not to mention any reward for the viewer for enduring all this nearly-French level of ennui. But with Royal being brought low, he finds that his last opportunity is to begin to make amends, which he does in several ways.

I’m not the sort of prig who says, “Since he didn’t seek God’s help, the movie is bad.” But the redemption of Royal Tenebaum follows an explicitly religious model, without ever acknowledging a religious aspect to it. It seems that writer Wilson went rather out of his way to avoid what is perfectly obvious about what’s going on in the character, and somewhat hard to explain.

It is a sort of post-modern Book of Job, with all the testing and testing, but ultimately doesn’t leave the satisfaction of understanding that Job does, that, however unanswered the question of suffering may be, the question of redemption is pretty well covered.

I haven’t really done a very good job with this particular blog, for which I apologize. I may refine and repost it in the coming days. Meanwhile, hug your local movie critic. Movie reviewing is hard stuff, man!!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home