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Crossing the Threshold

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Considering the way Spider-Man 2 ends, I couldn’t help revisiting Elizabeth Kendall’s wonderful book on Depression-era romantic comedy, The Runaway Bride. What, for instance, do you make of this passage’s (from the chapter on Capra’s It Happened One Night) applicability to Raimi’s film?

The runaway bride is one of the most joyous, kinetic, and rebellious images produced by mass culture in the Depression. What she signifies is the end of the extravagant, wasteful, snobbish life of the upper classes of the twenties. In rushing away from her wedding, [Ellie Andrews] is unclassing herself to join with Peter Warne in a new kind of unit held together by something besides class. The last image of the movie, the “walls of Jericho” falling down, refers to the real meaning of their marriage–not social but erotic, private. Here is one of the only moments in Hollywood’s history when a proper wedding stood for something undesirable: six or seven years later, when war threatened, on-camera weddings would regain their sentimental power… It Happened One Night makes a cross-class love affair between two consenting adults, begun on a bus, stand for a renewal of democracy.

The strong-willed lovers that peopled Capra’s neo-weepers with Barbara Stanwyck had survived, comicalized, as the leading characters of a movie fable that was custom-made, through trial and error and brilliant cinematic instinct, to speak to the anxieties of the Depression audience. It Happened One Night contained profound cultural resonances at the time it was made. As the lovers negotiate equality across the gulf of class and gender, they are metaphorically healing the painful divisions in American society. But, though they match each other by the end in self-knowledge and goodwill, it is still the woman who controls the action. She is the one who had set the plot in the motionat the beginning and the one who saves the romance at the end. It is true that the male protagonist, Gable’s Peter Warne, is asked to take a stand at a crucial point in the movie: he must choose between the heiress and a life of debauchery. His choosing the heiress, however, doesn’t generate the movie’s climax. That comes when Colbert’s Ellie Andrews realizes that she too has a choice. One of her suitors offers her upper-class status; the other offers her sex–and companionship, adventure, and good cheap fun. She chooses sex, which all Americans had potentially in common, over class, which they didn’t.

Now, for good or ill, class-conflict is no longer a major theme in our cultural climate–but that’s less important than it seems, because, in American art, “class” has typically been just another existential (sometimes very powerful) barrier to intersubjectivity, not a term of sociological analysis. What’s important is Ellie’s decision to choose something perceived as “real”, over another thing perceived as “easy”. We need only look at the history of romantic comedy since the Depression in order to assess the importance of class conflict in creating an atmosphere in which brave choices could be made. We live in an era with very few social taboos–and that’s good!–but it makes things tough on the storyteller in search of a “transgressive correlative” that is up to the task of conveying the “lunge at otherness” which is at the heart of romance.

Without Peter’s Spider-powers and his commitment to using them to fight crime, this love story isn’t much more interesting than Can’t Buy Me Love, or any of the other awful, derivative romantic comedies that fans of the genre have had to suffer through in the past fifty years… The “cool person” chooses the loser/nerd instead of another cool person–again, in real life, that’s great; however, in a film or novel, where the protagonist has such a marked epistemological advantage over the other characters, it’s hard to make “loving the loser” seem like a difficult choice. But what’s braver than saying you love someone enough to risk being killed by the Green Goblin every day of your life?

I think that Kendall’s most important point–that Ellie Andrews is required to make the hardest choices in It Happened One Night–is equally relevant to Spider-Man 2. We know that Peter isn’t going to give up being Spider-Man, but will MJ accept life with Spider-Man? It’s a damned hard choice to make–and, as I mentioned in the comments for the last post–one of the glories of the Spider-Man comics is the fact that it took her (and a bunch of different writers) 22 years to come to a decision on this matter! Although, to be fair, Gerry Conway did put together a complete blueprint for their relationship in his three year run on Amazing Spider-Man… what he did, in essence, was cast MJ as “Midge” (Barbara Bel Geddes’s character in Vertigo) to Peter’s “Scotty”, and then turned the story into a romantic comedy, which necessitated remaking MJ/Midge into a much more forcefully decisive character (unheard of in a Hitchcock woman, with the single exception of Teresa Wright’s Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt)

Alright, I’d better go–not that I don’t have a lot more to say about the film… particularly about the overwhelming resources available to an action filmmaker and what that does to the notion of Spider-man as crime-fighting comedian–i.e. all of that Elfman and high-decibel bashing renders the stakes in the fight scenes much too high, as far as I’m concerned–there’s no room for Peter to call anyone “bunkie” (in a film, fight scenes must either be all-out festivals of pain or “camp”–in a comic book they are free to be neither…)

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