Summer movie blockbuster season is upon us, and box office “records” of every stripe are being broken nearly every weekend. Spider-Man 3 kicked off the trend at the start of the season by shattering the opening-day and opening three-day weekend box office records set by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest last summer. (Two months later, the third Pirates movie came close to but did not surpass these particular milestones.) An entire column could be dedicated to the creative accounting, mammoth publicity campaigns, and unprecedented number of screens devoted to these films—all tactics guaranteeing rising box office tallies, which generally reflect little more than the enormous sums poured into producing and promoting these films. But I am more interested today in looking past the hype and thinking about what these blockbusters tell us concerning the culture and nation and world in which they are created.
Indeed, this is the task I set before the students who take my U.S. History on Film course. After much time spent watching, reading about, and discussing movies produced throughout the twentieth century—our important and rich primary historical sources—our grand finale is a trip to the local multiplex. We research the history of the movie theater as site of consumption—and then attend a summer blockbuster and analyze the experience—including the film. This assignment always provides a rousing and contentious end to what is always an outstanding course.
A note before we continue: what follows will likely strike some readers (echoing the opinions of some of my students) as “reading too much into” a popcorn film. However, I am a historian of media and popular culture (film in particular), and these kinds of cultural products help illuminate and shape the culture that creates them. My students and I regard diaries, newspapers, photographs, and other more traditional sources seriously, as part of the historical record; so, too, must we carefully analyze the detritus of today’s popular culture. Additionally, these summer blockbusters generally target a very young and impressionable demographic, both at home and abroad, and help shape worldviews. Finally, such films are one of the United States’ most lucrative exports, informing outsiders’ visions of the United States. I, for one, do not think people simply shut their brains down even when viewing the most escapist of flicks. Part and parcel of such films are cultural assumptions embedded in these narratives—such as the meaning of what it is to be a man or a woman, and who is or is not included in the polity.
After a vote this May, my class settled upon Spider-Man 3 as our summer blockbuster. We watched. We considered. We discussed. And fireworks ensued. My prime directive to my students: “Tomorrow or fifty years or one hundred years hence, what will this film tell viewers about the culture in which it was created?” My answer (as well as that of many, but certainly not all, of my students): “Nothing very positive.”
To begin with, the film is based on source material dating back to 1962, when Spidey first appeared in the pages of a Marvel comic. Much has changed in the ensuing forty-plus years, with regard to race and gender relations in particular, so the film’s obligation to remain faithful to such a dated universe—demanded by comic book devotees of such adaptations—really takes a toll. A film set in modern New York City—one of the most diverse cities in the nation and the world—has only one minor speaking role for a non-Caucasian actor. White Spidey goes “black” and then “bad” in this lily-white environment, as does the villainous and formerly Caucasian Venom. Spider-Man is afflicted by a black ooze from outer space, which threatens to become a second skin. Spidey is able to free himself and reassert his heroism; Venom succumbs and remains “black” and very wicked—and is destroyed by Spidey and his pals. As one of my students asked, “Is this blackface in the twenty-first-century cinema?” I wonder.
As for the women (who are all white and in need of constant rescue), a future viewer might well conclude that the second and third waves of feminism never happened. Our heroine, Mary Jane Watson, is an ambitious actress/singer who is quickly cut down to size. Her Broadway ambitions leave her little time to tend to the delicate Peter Parker; hence, one may conclude, her subsequent stage failure and demotion to singing waitress in a jazz club. This occupation leaves her plenty of spare time to devote to her insecure boyfriend—who is meanwhile being tempted by Gwen Stacy, a brainy college student working as a high-fashion model to pay her way through college. She might be a brainiac, but she is also hot—and in need of rescue whilst wearing little clothing and dangling from skyscrapers. Peter’s Aunt Mae is a housewife and a saint—nothing but a stock figure whose function is to inspire her nephew’s heroism and derring-do. Where’s the grrrl power?
In sum, our purported future viewer might conclude that early twenty-first-century United States was a violent world (did I mention the considerable violence in this PG-13 film?) in which brave Caucasian men rescue helpless Caucasian women. And in which “bad” people “happen” to have black skin—but you can blame that on a distant star.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures