We saw a cultural and generational coup d'etat this month, at least in cinematic terms -- if we were watching. Star Wars was challenged by millions of rebellious kids, who decided to choose a new kind of myth. The next generation unseated its elders -- as is the right of every generation - and is making its own culture, moving away from ours. In doing so, these kids balked at mega-hype, rediscovered earnestness, simplicity, the love story, some patriotism, punctured a billion-dollar balloon, and maybe even sparked a (relative) movement away from whorish sellouts, back to simpler story-telling. I, for one, sure hope so.
The evidence: In its first four days, Star Wars: Episode 2 -- Attack of the Clones sold nearly $117 million worth of tickets. When Spider-man opened two weeks earlier, it earned $115 million in just three days. Not only that, but the nerd-arachnoid drama earned another $48 million in box office during the weekend George Lucas' elephantine epic opened. And it shows no signs of slowing down. Spider-man is now on track to massacre Star Wars , perhaps out-earning it in the early days of the summer by as much as $100 million, if projected patterns continue. What happened? You can hardly call Clones a failure, but seeing it seems as much a reflex as a choice. And the grosses are below expectations, where as Spider-man is re-defining what a mega-hit movie is. I think Lucas and his movies have outgrown their audience, losing relevance to the young, the real avatars of culture, and are suffocating under their own enormous inertia and weight.
The late mythologist Joseph Campbell (who helped Lucas craft the Skywalker/Vader saga) wrote in The Elements of Myth that the hero-journey -- the often rebellious trek far from loved ones and home, finds a great teacher, battles evil forces in the world -- is inherent in every great myth, from cave-dweller's tales to Tolkien to Star Wars. It's certainly central to the story of Peter Parker, an unhappy and awkward kid who overnight goes from suffering at a nasty Queens high school to soaring over Manhattan's skyscrapers in search of the Green Goblin (this movie's Dark Side rep). In fact, every great myth has a lonely hero, a masked villain or two, and thinly-disguised spiritual choices between forces of good (God/a.k.a. The Force) or Evil (the literal Dark Side of the universe which shows up, Campbell wrote, in paintings that are thousands of years old.)
Why is Spider-Man's version surprisingly drubbing Lucas's, when he's cornered the global franchise on cinematic myth-marketing and he's one of the master cinematic marketers and hype-meisters of all time?
Several possible reasons. The Spider-Man saga is a simple love/adventure story, much like the first Star Wars, which didn't take itself nearly as seriously as the pompous sequels, pre-quels and tie-ins hatched at Lucas's secret ranch. In Spider-man, a nerd feels powerless, gets bitten by the bug, becomes powerful, goes on to confront great evil (and doesn't get the girl). Luke Skywalker, too, was powerless and trapped when we first met him. Then he met Obi-Wan, got in touch with the Force, went soaring around the universe to battle evil -- and didn't get the girl, either. Since the audience and industry expectations of Spider-Man were lower, the movie could afford to be looser, jokier -- more human. But poor George Lucas had dug himself a monstrous hole.
Simply because it's new (on film, at least) , Spider-Man arrives shrouded in less hype than Star Wars. When George Lucas decided to resuscitate his epic after a nearly generation-long respite, he could have chosen at least somewhat of a classier route and put some limits on the marketing that now engulfs big movies. Instead he acted like Jabba the Hutt, gorging on every dollar he could get. The producers of Lord Of The Rings curbed the marketing and toy tie-ins with corporations peddling food and dolls to kids out of respect for Tolkien. That makes Lucas, who showed no such restraint, all the more hypocritical and pretentious - polluting the series with trolls, Ewoks, aliens, soldiers, Jar-Jar Binks and his goofy patois, and all their inevitable action figures, light sabres, T-shirts and soda-cup representations.
Lucas created a brilliant film saga, then undercut it by demonstrating that there were few limits -- maybe no limits -- on what he would do to make still more money. The message to kids especially was follow the Force, but rake in the cash.
A franchise like Star Wars ought to be allowed to -- and can afford to -- retain some of its dignity and still make tens of millions. The movies make a fortune in their own right, a common experience that transcends reviews and tie-ins. When is enough enough? Lucas crossed the line, and cheapened his movies.
He also neglected to bone up on Campbell's books on the power and elements of myth. Spider-man is a simple love story about teen-aged angst: a kid almost anybody can relate to is suddenly transformed by a great power, grapples touchingly and hilariously to come to terms with that, and confronts a single bad guy and vanquishes him, though not without cost. Sound familiar? It ought to. That was more or less the feeling, despite the Imperial Death Star, of the original Star Wars. Spider-man was a cartoon myth -- part of the once-brilliant Marvel Comics factory, balm to nerds of the time -- and the movie doesn't forget its roots in the dialogue, plotting or action.
But what is Attack of the Clones about? The Skywalker genealogy? The Empire's evil origins? The birth of the Empire's Troopers? The rise and fall of the Queen of Naboo and her tormented lover and complex offspring? Trade unions and their relationship to the Galaxy? Legislative bodies and their place in galactic history? Lucas approaches the life and times of Darth Vader in much the same way biographer Robert Caro explores the life and times of ex-president LBJ (his latest book that's 1,300 pages long -- and that's just one volume of a projected four). Do we really care precisely how Anakin Skywalker got pissed off and turned to the Dark Side? Or would we -- especially the youngest among us -- be happy to see Yoda flashing his light-saber around and doing his Jackie Chan imitation?
Spider-Man is interesting on other levels, too. It's a very New York movie, set in working-class Queens and amidst the spires of Manhattan. It is unabashedly domestic and patriotic, even as Star Wars is pointedly other-worldly in tone and feel. Consider the Spider-man scene where New Yorkers cheer our hero from the Queensborough Bridge. It's heavy-handed but interesting. The movie ends with Spider-man draped around an American flag on a skyscraper not far from where the World Trade Center Towers used to stand. Holed up in his California cocoon, Lucas seemed to fall out of touch with post-9/11 America. He had too much genealogy to worry about. But the producers of Spider-Man, with a few last-minute adjustments, read it right. Star Wars was conceived in an era when Harrison Ford's Han Solo perfectly typified a generation's disenchantment with government and politics. Peter Parker has a different view, and so do the millions of kids making his movie a smash.
Attack Of The Clones is a cautionary tale, all right, but perhaps not the one Lucas intended. The real lesson is, if you're trying to make great movies aimed primarily at the young, avoid pomposity, self-indulgence and too much self-reference. Keep the story simple, clear and touching. Remember that movies mirror life. Films like this are about love, loss, conflict and fantasy. Spider-Man keeps that very much in mind. Attack Of The Clones seems to have forgotten it. That's why kids are flocking repeatedly to a new variety of myth, unseating the reigning one.