Billie Joe = Peter Parker?

Billie Joe = Peter Parker?

You’ve had a few weeks to digest Green Day’s new record 21st Century Breakdown. So what do you think? Brilliant? Sufficient? Here’s my take: The theatrical feeling that made American Idiot great is definitely present in the new record. There is a story and theme running through both records that leaves the listener affected and contemplative as if they had just finished viewing a well written and engaging film. It was this line of thought that brought me to draw a parallel between Green Day’s rock opera albums and the relatively concurrent Spider-Man film trilogy.

After Green Day’s 2002 effort Shenanigans, the band seemed to be on the decline. Record sales were down, and they seemed to be running out of creative steam. Many believed their 2004 effort (Which turned out to be the massively successful American Idiot) would be thier swan song as they passed quietly into the night.

Similarly, when Spider-Man was finally scheduled for release in 2002, Marvel (The comic company that owns the rights to Spider-Man) needed a hit in a bad way. A flop could have resulted in Marvel moving away from creating major motion pictures.

It takes guts to go out on a limb creatively. Both American Idiot and Spider-Man took risks, and both were handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

On paper, a politically charged rock opera from a band who had established itself as goofy, tounge-in-cheek pop punks sounds pretty bad. The result however was a thoughtful, relevant, and at times biting effort that allowed the band to reach new heights while connecting with a host of new fans.

The Hollywood tradition in the case of dual identity characters has led directors to choose the hero and make him geeky (See Christopher Reeve in the original Superman films). Sam Raimi chose to cast a relatively unknown and geeky Toby McGuire as Peter Parker and allow him to become Spider-Man. Many were clamoring for the star power of someone like Tom Cruise to take the role, but Raimi’s gamble paid off as McGuire won over audiences around the world. (Can you imagine how bad the film would have been with Tom Cruise as the lead?)

We’ll change things up here and start with Spider-Man. It is universally known that it is exceptionally hard to please critics and audiences alike with a sequel to a blockbuster. Spider-Man 2 was always going to be a challenge to bring together, but Raimi and company were up to the task. They were able to take what worked from the first film and expand on it. The villian was even more human and sympathetic, the themes even more universal. It was about people and relationships, not gimicks or effects. In my opinion, the sequel outshines the original in this case.

Like Spider-Man, American Idiot was a global phenomenon, and following it up presented unique challenges. “Avoiding the sophomore slump” cliché does apply here because American Idiot was such a new direction and revelation for the band. 21st Century Breakdown comes at a time when the political and economic climate has changed. The album, like it’s sequel counterpart, has taken what worked from the original and expounded and refined it. The villain here is also more subtle and sympathetic. The themes and structure are more coherent and defined. As time goes on, strong cases might be made that Breakdown is a superior album to Idiot.

I’m not referring to the Green Day album here. If Billie Joe happens upon this blog I issue him this warning: If you make another album, don’t let it become a Spider-Man 3. Everything that was done correctly on the second installment of the trilogy went horribly wrong with the third. Not one, not two, but three villains were added and went horribly underdeveloped. One of the worst gimmicks I’ve ever seen in film emerged (the Hobgoblin on a floating snowboard.) The story became so complex that it killed itself. I stopped caring about the characters.

When something tries to be bigger than what it is, it fails. When a story loses the human element, humans stop caring. As it stands, Green Day have held tight to the human element and in the process released in succession two extraordinary albums.

Read Rolling Stone Magazine’s take on the effort, and listen to the album in its entirety here.