NEW YORK — As always, the bard put it best: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we attempt to create a sequel to one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, or, for that matter, an Oscar-winning documentary that became better known for its makers' acceptance speech." A bit wordy, maybe, but you get his point. Watching Spider-Man 2 and Fahrenheit 9/11 on back-to-back nights right before July 4, I couldn't help but be struck by the strong parallels between them.
It's true, Michael Moore is neither a super-powered do-gooder nor a megalomaniacal would-be world dominator. (Well, at least, not one with four mechanical arms, anyway.) And Messrs. Raimi, Maguire, and Dunst haven't managed to work in references to Arbusto and the Carlyle Group - though J. Jonah Jameson's twisting Spidey's exploits to sell fear (and copies of the Daily Bugle) to the New York public are sure to remind viewers of Moore's interviews with a psychologist about the administration's terror alerts. But philosophically, the two movies are more alike than you might have thought.
It's true that Peter Parker's Aunt May is hardly a James Madison or a Thomas Jefferson, but she still manages to come up with a bit of homespun wisdom that resonates at the only time of the year any of us might try and recall what we learned about the Federalist papers in school. "I believe there's a hero in all of us," she says, and though admittedly not all of us have the proportionate strength and speed of a spider, Aunt May has managed to hit on one of the quintessentially American sentiments: the belief that when the occasion calls for it, we are able to rise to the solemn and wondrous ideals that a few men put to paper two hundred and twenty-eight years ago.
Despite what the Fox News Channel might have to say on the subject, it's fairly clear that Michael Moore feels pretty much the same way. "Fahrenheit 9/11" is not only an indictment of the Bush family, but it's also a paean to the extraordinary average American citizen, to the young men and women who are putting themselves in harm's way for the rest of us, at least in part because they believe in the ideals that this country stand for. The other reason they're doing it, Moore strongly suggests, is because in deeply depressed economic regions like his hometown of Flint, Michigan, they have little choice. There are few jobs and fewer opportunities, and so the military seems like the only way out.
In this light, the class war themes of the Spider-Man movies can hardly go unremarked: Peter Parker, in his crummy studio walkup trying to balance a pizza delivery job and a science major with his (shall we say) volunteer service, juxtaposed with James Franco's Harry Osborn, whose palatial Manhattan penthouse allows him primarily to brood and to drink. When he supports a science project with potential benefits to the general public, he does so only because it's good for his corporation, not for the country.
Peter Parker was drafted, albeit by a radioactive spider, and suffers for his good instincts; the Harry Osborns of the world are rarely forced to make these kinds of choices, particularly in an administration that hardly presses them to do so. (Yes, Harry doesn't have it so easy, but his particular problem - that his father was a super-villain killed by Spider-Man - is far less common nationwide than some might think.) This subtext - heralding once more the pro-populist, anti-elite message, that the struggle of the hero is directly related to the world's unfair propensity to withhold from him what he richly deserves - plays off Peter Parker's anger, a feeling that also emerges in waves from Moore's movie.
Both movies are, of course, manipulative. I was struck, reading an interview with Moore, that he met Lila Lipscomb, the bereaved mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, only after her son's death; the footage is shot and edited in such a way to give a strong impression that Moore has been talking with her since before the tragic event, and that her ideas about the war and Bush have changed over that period. And Spider-Man 2 is a Hollywood blockbuster, with all that this entails.
But the reason that both movies are so successful, in both artistic and financial terms, is that they have a core of deep emotional truth to them that resonates with audiences.