Superhero Ennui

Spider-Man 2

The adjective “competent” is a faint compliment if it’s praise at all, but it’s all the enthusiasm I can muster for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

The movie is about as good as superhero movies get these days, but that’s not saying much; Raimi and Bryan Singer (with the X-Men films) deliver polished, professional works with little fat, but I’m looking for something transcendent. Where is the superhero equivalent of The Godfather (in the mob genre) or, with more modest aspirations, Heat (with cops and robbers) — something that’s meaty and resonant and affecting, something whose scale and ambition go beyond executing the paint-by-number genre plot well?

Spider-Man 2, as critics have correctly noted, is probably the best superhero movie since either Superman or Superman II. (Many people have fond memories of the Superman sequel, but when I saw it is an adult, it came off as a degraded imitation, down to the knock-off score.) But what, really, is that comparison saying? That Spider-Man 2 is better than Daredevil? Or Hulk? Or Tim Burton’s tedious Batman? Yes, and Babe was the best talking-pig movie since Charlotte’s Web.

Superhero films are hamstrung, first and foremost, by a built-in drawback that other genres don’t have: People with superpowers (or, in Batman’s case, super wealth) are inherently less interesting as characters because they are better-equipped to deal with physical threats — falls, bullets, knives, punches, boulders — than the rest of us; the danger they face rarely feels genuine.

In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker is torn between doing good as Spider-Man and his desire for comfort in the considerable bosom of Mary Jane Watson, and he also has the misfortune of having the superhero equivalent of ED, with his web-shooting abilities faltering at inopportune moments. Meanwhile, the eight-limbed mad scientist Doc Ock is trying to generate unlimited power through fusion, and his desire for energy independence somehow makes him the villain. Throw in the seething rich boy who’s still angry at Spidey for killing his dad, and you have all the makings of ... a rote, predictable story that can’t be saved by a handsome production, zippy action, a strong — perhaps even transcendent — performance by Alfred Molina (as Doc Ock), and special effects vastly superior to the 2002 forebear.

Superhero movies, including this one, are boring partly because they rarely diverge from the template, and because we’ve seen it all before. Spider-Man 2 has the obligatory villain backstory, the obligatory internal crisis (here aping the aforementioned Superman II, in which the protagonist had to go to considerably more trouble than throwing away his outfit), the obligatory pining for a love one cannot (or should not) have, the obligatory revelation of the hero’s true identity, etc. Spider-Man 2 does all these well, and as a diversionary entertainment, it’s superior. But that’s not enough for me.

Superhero movies can be great. Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie works so well in part because a nearly infallible man has to make wrenching choices: between wanting to rescue his love and needing to save a much larger population, and — in a moment of supreme grief — between selfishness and duty to his father. It’s not about who will prevail in a contest of strength; it’s about a moral dilemma that only Superman can have: Should I turn back time because I can or let events stand because I should? Superman’s makers understood that saving the world is easy for superheroes, but superpowers bring their own burdens.

Of course, Superman was a pioneer of the modern superhero movie, and studios have gone to the well so many times that anything that follows the genre formula is going to be more than a little tired. M. Night Shyamalan tried to breathe some life into the form in 2000 with Unbreakable, and as an exercise in narrative deconstruction and confounding expectations, it’s mostly successful, as Bruce Willis (Ponchoman?) realizes late in life that he has the special gift of robust health. The movie is all origin story, and it’s so determined to keep its focus on the human dimensions of the superhero that it has a deliberately quiet anticlimax audaciously bereft of action or suspense. The movie’s only real shortcoming is that it’s more intellectually interesting than enjoyable.

Perhaps taking a cue from Unbreakable, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (due next year) gives hope. It, too, focuses on the origin story: how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. With any luck, it will help lead superhero movies in a more interesting direction.

The Bourne Identity

Speaking of superpowers, Matt Damon has ’em in 2002’s The Bourne Identity, with Batman’s fighting skills and money and the sensitivity to his surroundings of Superman or Spider-Man. The comparison to superheroes ends there, though, because he also has amnesia and is a spy.

The movie, directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, Go), is brisk and invigorating, and most interesting because it chucks any notion of heroism. Jason Bourne is by training a government agent, and he’s done some horrible things in his life, but we assume that expert cold-blooded killer bears little resemblance to the confused man before us, who when the movie starts doesn’t even know his name. He gets by on survival instinct, and what’s so fascinating is that he’s learning about himself as the audience does. He doesn’t know what he’s capable of — physically or morally — and he also doesn’t seem to have much of an ethical compass; he wants to live, and he doesn’t want innocent people to get killed, but I imagine under the right circumstances even that could change.

The movie benefits from having a beautifully ludicrous hook (courtesy of the Robert Ludlum novels), but Damon, Liman, and a cast to kill for (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Franka Potente) make it something truly special. Yeah, it’s a spy thriller, but it’s so much better than that.

I’m just waiting to say something similar about a superhero movie.

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