Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Ever Expanding Spider-Man Narrative

I saw Superbad last night, a really hilarious movie, and another fantastic piece of work from the Apatow comedy machine. His recent run of films is virtually unparalleled in comedy history, both Knocked Up and Superbad had me laughing through the entire film, in a smart way, not the idiotic way of way too many mainstream comedies today.

But, Apatow’s films are symptomatic of a larger trend in films right now that’s gotten rather annoying. Grant Morrison talks a lot about superhero narratives as our modern myths, their archetypal journeys serving as templates for other narratives. Almost all superhero narratives hew pretty closely to the classic hero’s journey template, but there’s a world of difference between the Superman narrative and the Batman narrative. However, the narrative that’s dominating our culture right now is the Spiderman narrative. In almost all the mainstream movies I’ve seen this summer, with the ironic exception of the third Spiderman film, I’ve seen a replaying of the Spiderman origin story.

So, what is this story? Geeky guy wants attractive popular girl, but she’s in a relationship with a shallow attractive, popular guy. If only he could show her the real him, she’d fall in love with him and ditch that guy. Luckily, an inciting incident occurs that gives him the chance to prove his merit, and by the end of things, the geeky guy has proven himself worthy of the popular girl and won her affections. Adjust the details slightly and you’ve got the basic story of Knocked Up, Superbad, Stardust and various other contemporary movies.

There’s no problem with this narrative, it clearly has social resonance, there’s a reason that Spiderman was much more successful than Superman Returns at the box office, people want a hero they can relate to. However, I feel like the relating has crossed a line, and we’ve now reached the point where we’re glorifying the qualities that are actually these guys’ weaknesses, while at the same time reducing women to prizes to be won. The problem I have with the genre is that it’s always if only the pretty girl could see the real me, it’s never let me see something worthwhile in the girl who isn’t popular or pretty, but probably has a lot more depth.

It’s that element of the genre that makes it feel a lot like male fantasy. The female characters in Superbad have very little depth. While this is admittedly appropriate for the story they’re telling, it does reduce the characters’ entire motivation to I want to get with her because she’s hot. With Seth’s character in particular this was an issue. We’ve watched him do all kinds of awful selfish, but very funny and somewhat endearing things over the course of the film, but I don’t think we’ve seen any reason why Jules would actually want to be with him. It’s one thing to have this kind of logic gap in the McLovin storyline, but I felt like the Seth part of the film was meant to be a bit more reality based.

Knocked Up got a lot of criticism for similar issues, but I feel like that movie is actually a bit more honest about the incongruity of their relationship, and the entire film hinges on the fact that they really don’t belong together, but are put in this situation where they have to work together. Ultimately, that movie works because it engages in the drama of the situation, not just the fantasy of it. Superbad has much less emotional reality, it may be funnier, but it winds up playing as more of a fantasy, that you can have it all, not through sneaking it drunk, but through actual personal interaction.

Apatow’s work has always walked the line between hard edged reality and indulgent geek fantasy, never more so than in Freaks and Geeks. There, his guys hanging out milieu was balanced by Paul Feig’s dramatic sense. Never in the rest of Apatow’s work have we seen a female character anywhere near as well realized as Lindsay Weir. The more Apatow makes, the more it feels like he was mainly responsible for the lighter stuff on the show, mainly the geek side, while Feig lorded over the heavier dramatic stuff, particularly Lindsay’s arc.

I don’t think there’s a problem with having some films like this, where the schlubby guy is the hero and gets the girl, but I hope it doesn’t mean the disappearance of the ultra competent slick hero. Coming out of Star Wars, no one wanted to be like Luke Skywalker, the ultra sincere farmboy, they wanted to be like Han Solo, the badass morally ambiguous anti-hero. I’d much rather see heroes in the Han Solo mode, or the Batman mode, conflicted, uncertain, but always able to do the job. There’s more conflict there, and the characters have more agency. In Superbad, the characters ultimately don’t have to do anything to get what they want, they just had to show up. For me, it’s more interesting to wonder if an ambiguous character will choose to help someone than wonder whether a heroic character will be able to save someone.

Ultimately, both kind of heroes are a kind of wish fulfillment. One is presenting the audience as they are and showing them that it’s cool to be like that. The other is showing them what they could be. My taste in film runs towards the more out there and removed from reality. I like an emotionally real basis, but I’d rather see my world on screen through metaphors and surrealism than just straight up recreation. So, I don’t feel the need for the protagonist to be exactly like me. But, I guess a lot of people do, and that’s probably a big part of the success of a film like Superbad.

I think the change in type of hero is a big part of what soured a lot of people on the later years of Buffy. The first three seasons were all about wish fulfillment, taking these high school outsiders and showing that they were doing so much more than the popular kids. People complained that by season six the characters had become insiders, and the outsiders were the villains. I think that is a valid complaint, but it ignores the fact that the characters were much more interesting when removed from the strict social hierarchy of high school and placed into the nebulous “real world,” Buffy herself in particular.

Buffy began on the same journey as Spiderman, gifted with powers, uncertain how to deal with them, and constantly beset by troubles. By season six, she was on a much darker Batman style journey, identifying more with her enemies than the ‘normal life’ she once envied so. In general, TV allows for much more complex stories, and even something like the Sam/Cindy Sanders relationship on Freaks and Geeks had a harsh dose of reality, where the film would have ended with the clinch.

My favorite high school character in recent media was Claire from Six Feet Under, who dealt with the same issues as your classic geek characters, but actually had agency and an identity. She was the person she wanted to be, and just had to move on to a different social environment to get it.

So, I’m not sure there’s really a point here. I loved all the movies I’ve been criticizing here, it just bothers me that this fantasy is so prevalent for a number of reasons. One is I think it’s on some level pretty misogynistic, reducing women to an object to be one, and second, it’s just getting a bit tired. Let’s see a new narrative.


RAB said...

What you said.

In addition to "woman as object to be won" another trope we see more and more these days is "spouse/girlfriend as surrogate mommy." If she's meant to be a "good" female character she's nurturing and supportive, which basically means she reassures the hero when he's down, but otherwise stands to one side and stays out of his way when he goes off to have his adventure. A "bad" female character is a nag and continually demands that the hero do his adult chores and observe his adult responsibilities, and expects him to give up on adventures or heroing and all the fun stuff. Either way, in that dichotomy, "fun" is defined as the absence of women rather than something men and women can share. The fear of women displayed in that whole scheme of thought is pretty disturbing.

Patrick said...

In that respect, Knocked Up and Superbad remind me a bit of the Western, in that the whole appeal of the film is watching these crazy guys living outside the rules of society, but in the end, they're tamed and settle down to a 'normal life,' looking back at what they've missed. The last shot of Superbad implies that in getting together with these women, the two characters have given up their previous identities and become someone else.

It's really frustrating to see things go this way after a lot of progress in female representations on film. There's a reason Catwoman is the only memorable female in a Batman movie, she's his equal, not his support mechanism.

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