Sunday, July 18, 2004

curious parallels

One of the dangers of seeing two movies in rapid succession is that you can be tempted to draw parallels between them. Last week, I saw "Spider-man 2" and reviewed it; just yesterday, I saw "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." I don't want to review the latter here, except to say that it was a solid, if unevenly paced, adaptation of JK Rowling's not-just-for-kids novel.

Sometimes it's not a good idea to compare two obviously unrelated texts, but "Spider-man 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" lend themselves well to comparison. Let's give in to temptation and see what we can dig up by way of parallels.

The protagonists of both movies (hereinafter "SM2" and "HPPA") are young, geeky, gawky, and scrappers. Parker and Potter have had unhappy childhoods; both know what it's like to be womped on by tougher classmates. Both are blessed with power and ability, and are still exploring their limits. Both wear glasses (at least some of the time). Along with this, many reviewers have remarked that Tobey Maguire, when done up as Peter Parker, is the American answer to Harry Potter. I agree. I couldn't help thinking of Potter while watching SM2.

Potter and Parker are also members of boy-girl-boy triangles. The SM2 version of this is more rancorous because the characters are all older, and the feelings are more intense. In HPPA, our protags are on the verge of adolescence, and the movie hints that there might be a Hermione-Ron romance in our future (Rowling's books suggest this much more subtly; the biggest clue is that Ron and Hermione often end up in situations where they spend a lot of quality time together).

Both movies also have a fascination with flight. If you watch HPPA right after watching SM2, this parallel is too obvious to miss. In HPPA, you've got broomsticks and a hippogriff; in SM2, we follow Spidey as he swings through the man-made canyons of New York City. I was struck with déjà vu while watching HPPA: the final moment of the film ends in almost exactly the same manner as the final moment of SM2-- the protag whooping with delight while whipping through the air on the way to further adventure.

I also think both movies evince something of an anti-technological theme, though this is arguable. In HPPA, Hogwarts Castle is so heavily magicked that normal electronic devices don't work. Magic obviates the need for hi-tech, which I concede doesn't perforce make Rowling's story anti-tech, but does imply that magic provides a certain romance that crude Muggle artifacts can't (an opinion obviously not shared by the Muggle-loving Arthur Weasley in Rowling's books).

In SM2, anti-tech can be seen in the age-old "mad scientist" trope. In his excellent The Demon-haunted World, Carl Sagan complained loudly about this oft-recurring image in story and film. Scientists are frequently depicted as arrogant egomaniacs with a penchant for cutting ethical corners in an effort to realize an impossible dream. This is, as Sagan says, precisely the opposite of how most scientists think and act. And you can't help but notice that, along with being a mad scientist after his accident, Alfred Molina's Dr. Octopus is an awkward mechanical monstrosity who stands in contrast to the organic (i.e., not biomechanical) Spider-man, our inhumanly human hero.

I'm interested in where the boy-girl-boy triangles will lead. The story arcs of the Spider-man and Harry Potter series are, in the end, quite divergent. Parker is faced with different villains in every installment, but for Harry, there is only one principal antagonist (Lord Voldemort, who doesn't make an appearance in HPPA, but whose presence is nonetheless palpable). Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's friend, discovers Peter's superhero secret near the end of SM2. Osborn's final scene suggests that he'll become the next Green Goblin, which effectively signals the end of this triangle. Rowling's books still haven't made the Ron-Hermione romance explicit; Rowling is clever enough to throw us plenty of red herrings, so it's possible we won't see any real sparks until the seventh book finally comes out.

There's one final parallel between the Spider-man and Harry Potter film franchises: if they continue long enough, the stars will have to be replaced by younger versions of themselves. This in turn brings up parallel questions of fan loyalty.

But that's material for a different post.


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