For the love of Spider-Man and Mary Jane

October 30th, 2008

If you are in a good relationship chances are you’re bored out of your fucking mind. All good relationships are boring, all the exciting relationships are bad ones.

— Chris Rock, “Never Scared”

I’m a guy, which may or may not have something to do with my antipathy toward romance stories. Chris Rock pretty much nails the why: it’s mostly formula, it’s mostly boring and we know where every leading man and leading woman are headed.

Plus, once the characters are together, there’s usually nowhere to go with the story.

Think about it—name one story where it’s still interesting after the two lead characters get together. The formula is pretty straightforward: the couple won’t get together until the very end. All the drama, the tension and the conflict are gone when the two leads finally becomes a couple.

Who wants to see a movie that begins with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meeting at the top of the Empire State Building? All they’ll do is make puppy dog eyes at each other for two hours. (This is not to say that formulaic stories can be a lot of fun—I loved both “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “High Fidelity” which somewhat follow the romantic comedy formula).

It’s up to the writer to devise clever ways to keep the lead characters apart, to keep them from figuring out how right they are for each other until the very end, usually at some public declaration or airport chase. Gag.

There are exceptions, stories where it’s just as interesting to have the characters together as they are apart, stories that skew or ignore formula all together—”Annie Hall,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” to name a few.

But there’s a simple way to distinguish “Eternal Sunshine” from something like “27 Dresses”: a talented writer. A good writer can make the happily-ever-after just as interesting as everything that came before it.

Just ask Spider-Man, who may or may not pop his cherry this week.

Brian Michael Bendis’ “Ultimate Spider-Man” reinvents the title character for the 21st century. This comic brings Peter Parker back to his roots—an awkward high school sophomore who faces wedgies by day, evil by night. For my money it’s the best Spider-Man comic published today, period.

The turning point came early on for this series, when Peter told his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson about his secret identity. It was a pretty bold move, from a storytelling perspective—if the girlfriend knew about Spider-Man, where’s the conflict? What’s interesting about their relationship, if Mary Jane knows why Peter is always running off?

Plenty, it turns out. Bendis’ stroke of genius was to write it as (one of) the biggest mistake(s) of Spider-Man’s life. They’ve been dating on and off for more than 100 issues since and there’s nothing perfunctory about that relationship. In fact, this week’s Ultimate Spider-Man Annual No. 3 is being billed as “the sex issue.” I haven’t read it as of my writing, but from the seven-page preview online, Peter may have made another huge mistake by sleeping with Mary Jane.

I don’t care whether or not they sleep together. I’m interested in where the story goes from there. Remember when Buffy the vampire slayer slept with undead boyfriend Angel? He lost his soul and became the villain of the season. Yeah, it’s a big, obvious metaphor, but it was a lot of fun.

I don’t see the same thing happening from Peter and Mary Jane’s copulating, but Bendis has enough credibility as a writer where he’s only going to make things more interesting, more difficult in Peter’s life. He wouldn’t write Mary Jane into a box as Peter’s happily-ever-after girlfriend.

But that’s what happens in so many stories. It’s precisely why the “regular” Spider-Man, the one who graduated college and married Mary Jane, is no longer married, via editorial intervention: to keep the characters interesting.

Remember that Simpsons episode when Lisa asks author J.K. Rowling what happens at the end of the “Harry Potter” series?

“He grows up and marries you,” Rowling says, peeved. “Is that what you want to hear?”

“Yes,” Lisa replies, happy.

A happy ending is what readers think they want. But it often cheats the characters. Credit Rowling with her sense of humor, her imagination, the scale of her story palate, but her female leads are neutered the moment they couple up. There’s nothing interesting left, no conflict.

Or, to take an example from another British hero. Was there ever anything more ridiculous than James Bond’s marriage in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”?

Me? I like it when writers push themselves, like Bendis, trying to find conflict and stories after the happily-ever-after moment. As Rock says “all the exciting relationships are the bad ones,” and why should Spider-Man catch a break?

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeiserike@insidenova.com.

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