There’s a rather infamous story floating around out there about me making my very pregnant wife stand in line for over two hours to make sure I was able to get a ticket to see the first “Spider-Man” movie on opening night back in 2002. I was working for the hometown newspaper at the time, and I wasn’t going to be able to get off work early enough (in my estimation, at least) to get a good spot in line. According to IMDB, “Spider-Man” released in the U.S. on May 3, 2002. My oldest daughter was born May 19, 2002, so you can imagine what kind of shape my beloved bride was in at the time.
Why would I not vehemently deny such an outrageous story? Well, um, because it’s kinda true. Actually, it’s totally, 100 percent true.
Before all you moms and moms-to-be take up your torches and pitchforks, let me put this story into a little more context. When I was a boy, I wasn’t reading classic novels like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or “Bridge to Terabithia” or even lesser fare like the Hardy Boys. I was reading comic books – tons and tons of comic books. Mark Twain or C. S. Lewis or A. A. Milne didn’t birth a desire in me to write nearly as much as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did. I dabbled with pretty much all of the Marvel titles, but the one I kept coming back to was Spider-Man, maybe because I felt he was a little bit like me in some ways – unpopular with girls, always broke, kinda nerdy, etc., etc.
If what I did have in common with Peter Parker initially drew me to him, though, it was all the wondrous things he could do that I couldn’t that made me love his alter ego. I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to have “the proportional strength of a spider” or be able to stick to walls or possess a special sense which warned me of danger before I saw it? Super powers may have caught my attention, but the intangibles of Spider-Man were also things I wish I had – bravery, commitment, , work ethic, intelligence, courage and even humor in the face of adversity. “With great power comes great responsibility…”
So when I found out my childhood hero would (finally) be getting the big-screen treatment he deserved, wild horses wouldn’t have been enough to keep me away opening night. Sam Raimi’s vision was far from perfect, but I could tell as I watched the movie he had picked up on the same things I had as a kid. Sure, there were costumes and powers and fights and all that, but there was also the story of a teenager coming to grips with the fact that the world was about more than just what he could get out of it. He suffered pain. He lost a loved one. He was immensely talented, but couldn’t catch a break. And he still didn’t get the girl in the end.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I was waiting in line at the local movie theater just before midnight May 4 (sans wife this time), surrounded by people much younger than myself and wielding everything from Nerf Thor hammers to Hulk hands, to see “Marvel’s The Avengers” on opening night. It should also come as no surprise that while I was excited to see some bang-up super hero action, I was also hoping to glimpse some other things in the movie. How would Captain America react to the 21st century? Would Tony Stark learn to “play nice” with the rest of the team? Could Bruce Banner control his anger? Would Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner actually make me believe normal folks could have a place alongside super soldiers, demigods, and an “enormous, green rage monster”?
Without going into endless detail (which I could easily do), the film met all my expectations and even exceeded most of them. Heroism, compassion, perseverance, affection, cooperation, and acceptance were all major themes in the movie. I not only loved all the action, I actually left the theater feeling good that someone – in this case, director Joss Whedon, who displayed some similar themes in his film “Serenity” – still thought these traits were worth celebrating. If not for the high level of violence and some mild cursing, I probably wouldn’t have any problem with watching the movie with my children, if for no other reason than to inspire them to the same ideals.
You can imagine my dismay, then, when even critics who seemed to be entertained by the film kept referring to it as merely “popcorn entertainment.” I always understood “popcorn entertainment” to refer to movies which more or less paid lip service to the attributes I mentioned above while stacking layer upon layer of action, special effects, and generally anything else accessible to the filmmakers on top of a highly suspect story. I would put the “Transformers” or “Men in Black” films in this category (although no amount of window dressing could ever disguise the vileness of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” scripts).
I realize there must be a certain aloofness which accompanies being a critic of anything, whether it be popular entertainment or fine cuisine. If you’re going to make a living off of telling other people what to eat, which movies to see, how to dress, etc., etc., you must project some type of superiority to the people you’ll be addressing. Some purveyors of opinion cross the line, however, of simply critiquing things and develop an elitist attitude in which anything outside of their narrow viewpoint is deemed unworthy of any real, meaningful praise.
Here’s an example: Upon the hospitalization and, ultimately, death of former Nixon White House Special Counsel and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries Chuck Colson, Eric Metaxas, a writer and social commentator, was chosen to fill in as the host of “Breakpoint,” a daily radio commentary Colson provided. Shortly after watching “The Avengers” in the theater with his daughter, Metaxas recorded a segment titled “A Diet of Popcorn,” in which he had the following disparaging remarks concerning what was, at the time, the number one movie at the box office in America:
“For over two hours I stared at the screen and saw, well, nothing. I left the theater not knowing what to make of what I had just watched. There was nothing particularly offensive about the film. Nor were there any ideas that I needed to discuss with my daughter afterward. In fact, there were no ideas at all — the phrase that comes to mind is ‘mindless spectacle.'”
I’ve written in this space before about how certain music critics will imply that if you don’t feed your children a steady diet of Bach and Beethoven during their early years they will somehow grow up behind the curve on the intelligence scale with their peers. It’s almost as if people with this mindset cannot fathom enjoying something simply for the sake of enjoying it. Where the true tragedy becomes apparent, though, is when they feel the need to criticize even the attributes they claim to champion. In the aforementioned segment, Metaxas states that “we need to ask ourselves about things like pleasure, play and what media does to us.” If a movie such as “The Avengers” can stir thoughts on the value of freedom, friendship, and virtue, is it a crime if you don’t need a Ph.D. to enjoy it?
So, in the base, crude terms of a common man, I would offer this piece of advice to the great critical thinkers of our day: Shut up and enjoy the movie. In a few months, you’ll have a new musical version of “Les Miserables” to fawn all over. In the meantime, pass the popcorn and mingle with us commoners for a while. You might just learn something.