Last week I might have made too much of the love interest's background as a car thief in Transformers. It's not as though that little bit of backstory turns her into as complex and interesting a movie heroine as Scarlet O'Hara, Margo Channing, Clarice Starling or even, to stick with action-adventure movies, Princess Leia.
It's interesting, and important, precisely and only because it takes the character out of the role of mere trophy princess and gives her something to do during the climactic battle besides stand around screaming while waiting to be rescued.
It's tricky, trying to come up with ways to make the heroine of a contemporary action movie active and attractive to 21st Century audiences without turning her into a boy with breasts. After all, these movies are working within a very old convention. Take away all the cgi and what you have left is a dragon or the armies of the Black Knight attack the castle and take the princess captive story. The heroines are trapped by the old narrative rules in the role of damsel in distress.
A typical way around this is to have the heroine turn herself into a female version of the butt-kicking hero and fight her way out. The makers of Transformers figured out that another option is to give the heroine a skill that is helps her effect her own rescue.
Oddly, this is not the option taken by the makers of what was up until the third installment a far more intelligent and dramatically interesting and grown-up action-adventure franchise, the Spider-Man movies.
Watching Spider-Man 3 for family movie night, it dawned on me that for all the films' contemporary slickness and hipster intelligence (that's Stan Lee's hipster intelligence, which makes it a a nearly fifty year old and therefore old-fashioned hipster intelligence), the Spider-Man movies are, when it comes to their heroine, content to be very traditional damsel in distress stories.
In the climactic battles of Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3, Mary Jane Watson is given exactly the same thing to do each time---hang around and scream while waiting to be rescued.
All old fans of the comic books have been aware from the first movie that the MJ of the movies has very little in common with the MJ of the comics. As she's been played by Kirsten Dunst she's been much more like Peter Parker's first true love, Gwen Stacy, more demure, timid, sensitive, and emotionally needy than the brash, sexy, independent Mary Jane.
Gwen was made to be a damsel in distress. Her job in life was to be taken care of. In fact, those are her father's last words to Peter (Captain Stacy was kind of a modern hero-king and Gwen was his little princess), Take care of Gwen.
Hanging around screaming while waiting to be rescued was what Gwen did best and it's how she died, when Spidey didn't arrive soon enough to save her.
So it wasn't surprising in the first movie when the Mary Jane/Gwen character is left dangling throughout Spider-man's final battle with the Green Goblin. I was a little bit perplexed when she wound up in the same fix at the end of Spider-Man 2, but the scriptwriters had done a good job of making her being taken captive by the dragon---I mean by Doc Ock---to get at Spider-man inevitable and they used it to advance the Mary Jane-Peter romantic subplot. But when she's at it again at the end of Spider-Man 3, hanging around screaming while Spidey and Harry Osborne fight it out with Venom and Flint Marco, I thought two things.
One, Kirsten Dunst has run out of ways to work herself up to scream convincingly.
Two, Come on!
Even George Lucas didn't blow up the Death Star at the end of every movie.
A little imagination here. I suppose it was inevitable that she'd wind up in one of Venom's webs---a good reason not to have brought Venom into the movie---but couldn't Mary Jane at least have learned by now how to climb down on her own?
After all, the chick's been dating Spider-Man for a year.
She gets away because she bounces out.
At which point she takes on yet another traditional job of the most traditional heroines of damsel in distress stories---she does nothing for the rest of the battle but weep over the body of a fallen knight.
By the way, given that Dunst's Mary Jane is really Gwen Stacy with red hair and a stalled acting career, it's extremely odd that the producers would choose to introduce into the story an actual Gwen Stacy character, who, as it turns out, has pretty much nothing to do in the movie except hang around screaming while waiting to be rescued.
This repetitive chaining of the princess to the rock outside the dragon's lair represents a general failure of imagination throughout Spider-Man 3. When we saw it in the theater back in the spring, I was mainly disappointed by the over-reliance on cgi and the obvious video game structure of all the battles. This time out, though, what disappointed me most was what was lost to make room for the video gaming.
It's not just the villains that are let-downs. In Spider-Man, Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin was a fun and funny monster of malevolence and Alfred Molina's Otto Octavius was a genuinely tragic figure in Spider-Man 2. In Spider-Man 3, Thomas Haden Church's Flint Marco is merely pathetic and Topher Grace's Eddie Brock is only a sketch that isn't filled in at all when he's taken over by Venom. But J. Jonah Jameson is used only as joke and Harry Osborne is pushed to the side and Doctor Connors doesn't have anything to do except play the role of Warning Voice of Reason. And Mary Jane, who in the first two movies at least had some good lines before she was carried away by the villains, and Peter Parker are drained of all their spunk, fun, and feistiness.
Tobey Maguire has a lot of fun playing the bad, bad Peter Parker, but his scenes are treated as a joke on the movie itself so that it's the treat of watching Maguire acting like a jerk that's amusing, not the sight of Peter, or Spidey, being a jerk.
Which reminds me that the only really good scenes in Superman III were the ones of Clark/Superman's dark side taking over under the influence of the red kryptonite and that reminds me that superhero movie franchises are developing a bad track record as trilogies.
Superman I and II were fun, but III and especially IV were terrible wastes of Christopher Reeve's time. I didn't care for Tim Burton's Batman movies because of the concept and the art design, but as movies they were pretty good. I know people who think that Batman Forever is unjustly under-rated, but those people tend to be smitten with Val Kilmer. I've never heard anyone, though, say anything kind about Batman and Robin. And the less said about X-Men 3: The Last Stand, the better.
The new Batman series got off to a great start, with Christian Bale being as great a Batman as Christopher Reeve was Superman, and the next in the series, The Dark Knight, which features Heath Ledger as the Joker, sounds promising. But I've heard that the third one planned will bring Batman together with the new Superman and that's not anything I'm looking forward to.