It looks like Spider-Man 3 did OK after all. In its opening weekend it grossed $148 million domestically and $227 million overseas, breaking the records sets by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, respectively. Sam Raimi's film is going to need every dime it can get at the box office. Spider-Man 3 is said to be the most expensive film ever made--as much as $300 million in production costs, plus another $120 million to saturate the planet with advertising. If Spider-Man ever encountered a villain with $420 million in resources, Spidey would probably lose.
Although Spider-Man 3 got tepid reviews from, among others, Manohla Dargis, Dargis urges us to go to the multiplex this summer with a clear conscience. She makes a pitch for the big-tub popcorn movies by pointing out that "just because a movie blows stuff up doesn’t mean it automatically stinks." Indeed, big-budget films have been central to cinema since its formative period. Dargis alludes to the Italian Superspectaculars of the 1910's, which established the feature film format as we know it today: one 90-minute feature film surrounded by lessor short films rather than an evening's program of two reelers. It's easy to dismiss the modern blockbuster as a vehicle for selling popcorn to bored teenagers, but a car chase is every bit as cinematic as an Antonioni long take shot.
What's interesting about Dargis's defense of the blockbuster is that she repeats many of the arguments of film studies at its least confident and most defensive. First of all, there's the problem of the deceptive lure of the image. Dargis paraphrases the commonplace characterization of summer movie fans as "hordes of popcorn-chugging, sugar-jonesing, under-age nose-pickers for whom the cinematic experience means nothing more than recycled big, bigger, biggest bangs." Everyone from Plato to Marx to Sartre has warned us about being too credulous before the image. Marx regarded the visual pretty much as the essence of false consciousness, while Sartre described the image as a negation of the world, like consciousness itself but without the capacity for reason. For Dargis, the way out of the scopophilic narcissism of the image is the human, that moment when something interior cuts through the spectacle of film, such as "Keanu Reeves coming down to earth in “The Matrix” as he realizes that he knows kung fu."
The second point is the vexed relationship between film and literature. Part of the reason we look down on summer blockbusters, Dargis says, is the "the literary bent of a lot of critics, who privilege words over images." Film studies people have long regarded literary studies people with suspicion, and vice versa. Lit profs tend to regard a movie as a kind of lite novel, something one might teach as a summer class when students' attention spans are shorter than they normally are. Film profs grouse that no one else sees the cinema as a distinct cultural practice in its own right, with a unique history, issues, and terms. Film professors and students tend to be possessive about movies; no one else understands the essence of the cinema like they do. Although these attitudes are grounded in academic turf wars, they shape discussions of the cinema outside the academy as well.
The defensiveness of Dargis's article is understandable--it is, after all, a defense of a particular kind of cinema. And her central point is hard to argue with: at their best summer blockbusters represent everything we value about the Hollywood cinema. But her defense appears alongside a report about weekend grosses Spider-Man 3, reminding us that while blockbuster may take us to places we've never been before, the return trip always takes us back to the money. Which is an essential part of the cinema, too.