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Cross Post: In Mainstream Films, Dead Moms Don't Count...

Women and Hollywood By Scott Mendelson | Women and Hollywood July 10, 2012 at 11:00AM

I had originally planned to do a spoiler-filled discussion of the various things that vexed me about The Amazing Spider-Man, but frankly my heart just isn't in it.  The film is obviously a victim of severe post-production tinkering (Devin Faruci laid it out here) and it just feels petty to further attack a film that A) I've already panned in 1,500 non-spoiler words and B) is more a disappointing mediocrity than an outright travesty. 
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Incredibly Close

I had originally planned to do a spoiler-filled discussion of the various things that vexed me about The Amazing Spider-Man, but frankly my heart just isn't in it.  The film is obviously a victim of severe post-production tinkering (Devin Faruci laid it out here) and it just feels petty to further attack a film that A) I've already panned in 1,500 non-spoiler words and B) is more a disappointing mediocrity than an outright travesty. 

Instead, I'd like to use the film's release to discuss something that has bothered me for at least the last several months, something I made a brief note about during the run-up to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  If you've seen The Amazing Spider-Man (and this isn't a spoiler if you haven't), you'll know that Peter Parker's emotional trauma is partially centered around the fact that his parents abandoned him when he was a young child and then died soon after.  But as the film progresses, it's clear that Peter's journey and Peter's discoveries center almost exclusively around his father (Campell Scott).  His mother (Embeth Davidtz) gets barely a line of dialogue and no real character to play.  And that's the pattern, it would seem.  Be they dead at the start or be they dead by act one, dead fathers are often fleshed out characters while dead mothers are, at best, pictures on the bookshelf.

When Mufasa falls off a cliff at the halfway point of The Lion King, it's a devastating moment for both Simba and the audience, since Mufasa is a full-blown supporting character who is basically the second-lead for the first third of the picture.  Yet the countless dead mothers in prior and future Disney animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Finding Nemo, etc.) merit at best a cameo in the prologue before being bumped off before the title card comes up (Bambi is the rare exception, where the doomed mother sticks around long enough to be mourned). Even The Princess and the Frog, another rare animated feature to spotlight a dead father and a living mother, makes a point to keep the deceased dad in the audience's minds throughout the narrative, including a climactic flashback that concludes Tiana's character arc. 

The recently deceased mother of Super 8 merits a photo and a name, while the dad in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is played by a major star (Tom Hanks) who has a supporting role throughout the drama despite dying on 9/11 in the opening moments.  Bruce Wayne loses both of his parents in Batman Begins, yet it is only his father (Linus Roache) who gets a real character to play and more than one or two lines.  It is his father whom Bruce Wayne holds as a role model and his father who Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) constantly refer to when discussing Bruce's actions and his moral worldview.  Martha Wayne is played by Sara Stewart, but that's all I could tell you about her.

The dead dad and his impact on the hero's journey is obviously a classic one.  But the odd thing is that even when both parents are dead, the focus is almost exclusively on the father.  Peter Parker doesn't get caught up in a journey learning about his parents, but rather one learning about his father's life and his father's work.  While it's implied that both of his parents are scientists (otherwise why would both parents have to ditch their son?), we end The Amazing Spider-Man knowing absolutely nothing about Mary Parker.  And while The Descendants tries its best not to utterly villainize the comatose wife/mother (Patricia Hastie) while husband George Clooney comes to terms with her adultery, nor do they bother to give the character any actual lines or actual scenes save a brief silent moment on a boat just prior to her life-threatening accident. You can be sure that if the story revolved around a brain-dead husband and the wife and kids who cope with his flaws, the film would give at least a couple juicy flashbacks to the doomed husband/father.  It's the difference between having the mother die in the opening moments and vanish from the film (Slumdog Millionaire) and giving the father a juicy supporting role that actually wins Christopher Plummer an Oscar in Beginners.  Heck, Captain Kirk's living mother (Jennifer Morrison!) in Star Trek gets less screen-time than his doomed father (Chris Hemsworth).

There are occasional exceptions to be found. The Harry Potter series always emphasized the life of Lily Potter while detailing James Potter's school days.  While Magneto loses both of his parents in a concentration camp in X-Men: First Class, it's clearly the death of his mother that scars him the most.  But the general rule still applies.  When both parents are dead, it's the father's influence that is most felt from beyond the grave.  And while dead mothers are often mentioned but rarely seen, dead fathers often have featured roles pre-and-post death in their childrens' stories.  Both Marc Webb (should be return to direct the Amazing Spider-Man sequel) and Chris Nolan (depending on if The Dark Knight Rises even remembers Martha Wayne) have a chance to buck the trend, and it will be interesting to see if either filmmaker takes or took the opportunity to expand the character of that 'other' dead parent.  While losing a father may be some kind of alleged rite of passage in classical storytelling, losing a mother shouldn't be either ignored or used merely as a cheap ploy for emotion. If there is another Spider-Man film in this current universe, it would be nice if Peter remembered that he had a mother too.

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Scott Mendelson writes film reviews, box office analysis, and film-related essays dealing with social issues and how they relate to film and television, as well as the similarities between Hollywood and politics.  His work can be found at Mendelson's Memos and he syndicates with Huffington Post and Valley Scene Magazine.

Reprinted with pemission


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