William Bowers

The following was originally published at Pitchfork Media on Monday, May 20th, 2002. It has since been taken down, and I’m grateful to William Bowers for permission to reprint it here. With the latest Spider-Man movie now gracing our theaters, ten years later, his critique of the first trilogy’s first film remains both timely and insightful. —Adam

Why I can’t escape blockbusters:

This is the richest country in the world. Corporations love us consumers and think we are so remarkable that they feel obliged to entertain us with lavish spectacles that confirm our know-nothing assumptions. In turn, we’ll skip out on visiting our grannies for free to watch a wealthy, soulless Richard Gere buy purses for a prostitute Julia Roberts.

Mainstream movies dominate where I live. Adam Sandler releases take up two theaters here. Screenings of Mr. Bean sold out in this town. People were dressed up for the premiere of Dante’s Peak.

Plus it’s hot. Plus crippled kids are always coming up to me asking will I take them to a blockbuster.

Why Spider-Man sucks:

Fifty million dollars was spent just to market it to consumers. Look up how much money goes to fight AIDS in Africa. Even the government calls us ‘consumers’ now. We used to be ‘people,’ or ‘citizens,’ then we were ‘voters,’ then briefly ‘taxpayers,’ now ‘consumers.’ Yeehaw McKickass.

This stilted clunker of a movie recycles the stilted hero fare that came before it, taking whole scenes from dumb movies about Bat- and Super- men. It even retreads Big and Teen Wolf.

Exposition is given via TV and computer monitors. Trust me that this isn’t the only component of the film that creates a vibe that you’re watching someone else play a video game.

The film’s a commercial for genetic engineering. And for Dr. Pepper, in the worst scene of product placement since that machine in Twister busted its nut in the gyno-gyre and all the sensors had Pepsi wings.

The film teases ‘nerds’ with a pathetic hope of a masculine transformation, an instant technology-assisted super-puberty that will compensate for their late bloom. Even stodgy middle-aged Bad Guy gets a libidinal ‘Performance Enhancer,’ a kind of Viagra Steroid.

The Bad Guy is a Jekyll/Hyde meets The Mask meets Norman Bates meets MST3K’s Crow meets Lockheed Martin meets the Wicked Witch of the West meets a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger villain. He rides an NRA-customized version of Marty McFly’s Back to the Future II hoverboard. The film’s real villain, though, is Danny Elfman, whose bombastic, bullying score abused its choir and even insulted my pet monkey, who usually likes how constant soundtracking helps him understand how to feel about the movies he sees.

After terror-rifically destroying some New York buildings and bridges, the film tacked on a patriotic New York/God Bless America mess in which citizens pelt the Bad Guy and yell, “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” This is hilarious because the Bad Guy is a defense contractor, a key nugget of the industrial-military-complex on which American cockiness rests. The united-we-stand lip service is also hilarious because, despite our unity, Americans still resent, misinform, poison, exploit, neglect, insult, abduct, rob, rape, and kill each other. The film ends with our hero guarding a flagpole. I was inspired to rise and salute, and then went out to get a flattop, some khakis, an SUV, and some TCBY. Then I kidnapped my neighbor’s thirteen-year-old Indonesian daughter and made her breathe toxins while she made my white kids some shoes and beeper holders.

The film’s two females are Subservient Fretful Provider and Vapid Hump Target. Both function as either furniture or villainbait. The young female is named Mary Jane and has the dimmed eyes of a habitual stoner—get it? She is a virtueless object who screams “Oh my God!” at new cars and who gets passed around by manipulative, abusive guys, including her Pops. Her breasts serve as identity supplements. The film proudly displays her wet, hard nipples right after an attempted sexual assault. What’s her dream in life? To be a famous actress! How brave of her to bring her Mytopia to our Youniverse!

The two vegetarian actors are great in the scene where they invite each other out for cheeseburgers.

The film doesn’t follow through with its homoeroticism. The majority of the hugging and romance and admiration and passion and emotion happens between men. The film even taps the most homoerotic sport, wrestling, in a scene where our hero’s in his pajamas, flanked by intimidatingly masculine women. The Bad Guy and the Good Guy practically drool with curiosity about each other, whether they’re in their flamboyant costumes or in their closeted-civilian guise. There was always something, well, gay about how comic book heroes and villains live to pursue and tussle with each other. True to most comic book villains, the Bad Guy here doesn’t even have any big crime planned, or anything to gain, he just wants him some of that Spider-Man action. Because Spider-Man, who is quite the seamstress, rejects an offer to be the Bad Guy’s ‘partner,’ the Bad Guy wants to eliminate the women in Spider-Man’s life. At one point, the Bad Guy cross-dresses to lure the hero. At another, he carries the hero lovingly in his arms. Bad Guy’s the head of a womanless family, but in the final reel the film goes Oedipal and the Bad Guy says some completely uncharacteristically lusty things about the young hero’s ‘girl’ and then he gets impaled through the groin. Hooray for American straightness, the movie remembers to say, even though Spider-Man ultimately rejects Mary Jane on the grounds that he doesn’t know what other guys might come along.

Like Jurassic Park and Titanic and Star Wars and every other hypocritical digital spectacle, this film contains a stern warning about the dangers of relying on technology. Bad Guy is machine-y, see, and the noble Jesus who gives his life for the film, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben (not to be confused with the imaginary black rice magnate), offers a touching speech about this crazy, computerized, corporate world displacing him. The film kills the hell out of him a few minutes later, after he’s had a chance to state the film’s moral, something like “with great power comes great predictability.”

Spider-Man is another entry into the cinema of the masturbation-myth, in which we are supposed to believe that something noble will come from what teenage boys do alone in their rooms. Remember in Gremlins, how the rules were that you shouldn’t expose it in bright light, get it wet, or ‘feed’ it after midnight? Booty call! Remember Billy’s mom finding slimy stuff in his room, his floor littered with spent testes, I mean, open Gremlin pods? And in E.T. how Elliott had a special friend in the closet that he wrapped in a blanket and bedsheets or dressed as a woman? And in Goonies how you’d get the ‘treasure’ of a ‘One-Eyed Willie’ if you just navigated some tricky tunnels and tubes? In addition to an obsession with phallic buildings, Spider-Man’s powers involve sticky fingers, gooey palms, and an ability to squirt a stream of clear substance, sometimes into people’s mouths or eyes.

What did I expect? The Crow atop a tenement, playing grunge on his Ibanez? An existential experiment in which the hero would have to admit that he was stumped and wanted to go home because the world was too fucking complicated to tame in two hours? Art? Entertainment? Mr. Pibb?

From 2005–9, William Bowers wrote the column Puritan Blister at Pitchfork Media. He hosts a weekly music show at Grow Radio.