Thursday, July 5, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: The Amazing Spider-Man

I think it may have been Tom Spurgeon who commented that, to him, Spider-Man was this thing that occurred between 1962-1972 or so.  And if you've ever read early Spider-Man, it's not hard to see why that might be.  So much of what came afterward has been either retread or adding unnecessary baggage to the Peter Parker formula that seeing the story about the kid who puts on tights to fight crime and super-villains got lost somewhere with alien symbiote suits, clones, clones of clones, clones in symbiote suits, etc...

I've read probably the first 100 issues of Spider-Man in Marvel's phenomenal Essentials collections (and that artwork sings in black and white.  Trust me.).  I can't exactly remember when I first came to Spider-Man, because he was on The Electric Company, starred in TV movies, was in the paper, and was on Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.  I don't remember either the first Spidey comic I read, nor the last.  I do remember reading the wedding issue when it hit the newstand (it was such a big deal, guys).  But reading Kraven's Last Hunt totally wigged me out and made a bit of a Spider-Fan of me.*

But between the cartoons, the mainline comics, The Ultimate Comics (of which I think I read the first 10 trades), and however many iterations in cartoon form, and stuck it out through JMS's implosion on the title...  I've seen me a lot of Spider-Man in my day.

I'm not sure I'm done with Spidey or Spidey origin stories, but I'm also a big fan of Sam Raimi's work on the first two Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire, partially because it felt so, so close to how I felt about Spider-Man and how I thought of the characters when the movies came out.  So, what I'm saying is that for this mid-tier Spider-Man fan, these guys had an uphill battle.

No question, this is an origin story for Spider-Man.  He doesn't put the suit on until at least half-way through the film.  It's also an origin story that's incredibly inward looking.  If you know your Spidey-lore, connections are created for the movie that didn't exist when some characters were created, and those that you know are inevitable are in place well enough that you can sort of see where the next few movies are headed.

The movie feels, in general, less like an attempt at epic mythmaking that I think Sam Raimi had in mind, and more of the modern era of comics with attempts at explaining it all for the audience.  Oddly, this focus on drawing causal connections has an odd effect on the overall pacing of the movie.  It sometimes feels like a series of storyline checkpoints whizzing by, focusing on some moments too long (sadface Peter) and not enough on building relationships between the characters in a way that feels tangible, including Aunt May and Uncle Ben (why hire Sally Field if you're going to sideline her until the last two minutes of the film?  She's frikkin' Norma Rae, for goodness sake).  And most especially between Gwen and Captain Stacy, when Gwen and Captain Stacy were such a big part of the comics for a period there.

In general, while it's very different from Maguire's sadsack nerd Parker (to me, lifted straight from the first 20 issues or so of the comics), Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker seems more like a guy living in his own world, maybe smarter than all the other kids to the point where he's figured out he's just in this high school thing as a transitional period.  Some part of him already has the edginess required to go off and do something as nutty as leap off skyscrapers whether he's bitten by a spider or not, but there's just something crucial missing for me in the reconstruction of the myth as director Mark Webb tries so hard not to just remake Raimi's movie and leaves out some important set pieces like the career in show biz.  This Peter is never set up with any life. There's no friends, no decoration to his room other than a pair of posters put there by some set-designer who feels like they've never seen a teen-aged boy's room.  He's all morose loss, and there's some of that which felt like it could have been handled a bit better.

But to be honest, as a Spidey reader, I'm glad we get Gwen Stacy before MJ, and I'm glad that the part is written as more than "girl in peril" and a peer of sorts to Peter.  It always felt that way in the comics.  Plus, Emma Stone really does a great job of doing more than just smiling and being desired by two guys.  She's her own character, on her way to a life of the mind.  It's pretty good stuff.

The B-Plot of the movie is the villain story in this film, and it uses one of my favorite Spidey villains, more or less reducing him to a two-dimensional mad scientist with a plan that I am sure was in the comics at some point when some writer's well had run pretty dry.**  In general I liked the pathos of Kurt Langstrom.  I mean, Curt Connors as he struggles with his transformations to Man-Bat.  I mean, The Lizard.  The movie removes the reason the Lizard can be interesting (he's normally a happily married scientist with a family), and like Parker, he's just a guy waiting around to get involved in the machinations of the plot.  When you compare this to what was going on with Norman Osborn or Doc Ock in the previous movies before they went all supervillainy, it just feels oddly sterile and lifeless.

The FX are pretty neat, the CGI fights convincing (did I talk about the web-swinging?  Man, yeah.  Webb did a pretty great job there) and not overwrought.  I do think maybe somebody overthought the whole "lizards can regenerate limbs" thing, but...  whatever.

At the end of the day, my problem with the movie is maybe one of the things I just am tired of in superhero comics, TV shows, etc...

Much like the events of Avengers, our lead character is dealing with a mess caused accidentally, incidentally, or intentionally by themselves.  They're basically cleaning up a mess that, in some way or other, they helped cause.  And I'm not saying that Peter wouldn't have done the things he did in the movie from a point of motivation, but...  it's all so insular that it sort of starts to make the whole universe of these movies and comics a lot more about personal responsibility much more than public responsibility.

I shall put it this way so as to avoid spoilers...

One of my favorite ideas around Superman is the John Byrne depiction that Superman more or less publicly debuts because he saves a crashing plane from (a) crashing, and (b) in the middle of Metropolis.  It's an act of generosity, and maybe he's compelled to do it because nobody else could do it, but he's not doing it because Superman by some omission or action caused the plane to crash.  He didn't enter the wrong flightpath in the computer.  He didn't inspire criminals to take the plane over and hi-jack it.  The plane is crashing, and he helps out.

It's a pretty simple formula, but while watching this film, I was struck by how everything was so connected, it felt almost hermetically sealed, like.. Spidey will always be fighting criminals ties to the OsCorp, who is also responsible for his father's death, which created him, which put him on a trajectory for...  I know it's fiction, but...  I'm not sure just dealing with your personal mess makes you a hero, even when you do it on an epic scale.  It can make you the protagonist, certainly, and there's no doubt Peter knows he should probably be the first one to take a swing at The Lizard, but the cops in the movie who show up to shoot at the the giant mutant thing without the aid of spider powers look a spot more heroic than our guy cleaning up the mess he made/ enabled.

It's hard to ignore the fact that I watched a different guy in the tights just a few years ago, and were Columbia Pictures not legally required to produce a Spider-Man movie within a fixed time period, I'm not sure what we'd be looking at when it comes to whether this movie existed or not (I don't think people would be sitting around emailing Columbia about a need for a franchise reboot).  But it is here, and it's on the studio's head to try to make me care.

Some other minor issues:

  • some of the news media voice over stuff was a little too on the nose
  • Peter lives in New York.  I think Raimi handled this better.  This felt like "generic city, USA".
  • Some of the graphics used to shorthand the science, etc... to the audience...  was just horrendously silly.
  • I think there's a cut out there that's 40 minutes longer that's probably a much better movie.

It's easy to bag on the things I had issues with while watching the movie.  But I would say:  it's fun, in general.
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield are actually pretty good.  The web-swinging stuff is great, and I like the fact that they used web-spinners instead of the organic web shooter concept.  Garfield in the suit looks like Spider-Man far more than Maguire did, and they really use that in the web-swinging scenes.  Some of the uses of webs were really creative.  I'm glad nobody in the movie in the immediate vicinity of Peter is played off for a bit of a fool with the dual identity jazz.

It's also often a very pretty and well shot movie, with seamless CGI inserted.

Again, this movie has Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 to love up to.  It's almost in that ballpark, but just didn't quite make it for me.  Where Raimi went appropriately storybook, this movie went for low hanging fruit and a straight forward retelling, and it seemed embarrassed to peddle the idea of heroism as a virtue.  Perhaps in the sequel.

*man, that story.  I still think it's poetry in motion.
**just because it may have once been in the comics does not mean that it's automatically a great idea


Jake Shore said...

Superman may have been my favorite superhero growing up, but Spider-man was my favorite comic. I've heard so many different takes on the new movie, I don't know what to think. I liked the first two Tobey Maguire films, but I always thought they had a bit of Sam Raimi cheese factor. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was distracting. But they never felt much like the comics to me.

I think your insight about personal responsibility versus public responsibility is a smart one. And you're right. It's something that I think has been bothering me for a while, but I hadn't been able to put my finger on it. It's almost as if modern heroes are sorting out their own issues and if they save a few people a long the way - great. Now they're heroes. You're Superman analogy is perfect. I was thinking about Superman's debut in the first Richard Donner film where he saves Lois in the helicopter, or the plane in Superman Returns.

But now that you've identified the problem, I think it's your "public responsibility" to tell us why you think writers are making these choices.

My initial thoughts are that A) writers are too cynical (which covers a lot) and B) they believe that making the conflicts more personal, or personally involved makes for a more compelling story. What do you say?

The League said...

In regards to the movies: I don't know if it's cynicism, so much as option B. I would guess if the writer can find a way to make the entire enterprise feel self-contained, it leaves fewer plot threads to deal with and the "oh, this is personal" nature of the story merges "justice" with "revenge" and you can satisfy most viewers that way.

Frankly, I suspect that for both writers and audiences dealing with a personal issue probably makes more sense and leaves less ambiguity so the audience is never left asking "why doesn't s/he just let the cops deal with it?" or just do something much more relatable to the averagemovie go-er, which is just let things unfold and not step in.

It's the crossing the threshold of getting involved with things that don't directly concern the "hero" that I think may make some folks in the audience uncomfortable, even if its just a sort of subconscious discomfort. That's also what opens the doors to accusations of vigilantism, fascism, etc...

Re The Comics: I think in the Silver Age it was done in order to help everything make sense to the readers, kids between 6 and 13, for whom a family unit may have made the most sense. When Supergirl shows up, sure! She's Superman's cousin! Why not? Of a billion Kryptonians, of course the only other to survive is his dad's brother's daughter.

The problem is that comics more or less have forgotten how to even consider the world outside the comics themselves, and it's almost expected that this guy is the lost brother of our superhero, that the new villain is someone's child from an alternate timeline in the future... we decided that sort of convoluted storytelling was normal and, in fact, dramatic, when after you've seen the one thousandth contorted twist like that, it just Hurts.

To me, it's now fanboys writing fan fiction and forgetting that the stories they write about superheroes are supposed to be stories about people serving the public, not minimizing collateral damage during diety-scale family squabbles.

I think if you look at a comic's supporting cast, these days it's almost entirely superheroes just talking to each other. Fine in a team book like Avengers, but if it's a Spider-Man book, something's failed and the comic has collapsed in on itself. It's why I think those characters need their J. Jonah Jameson's, Aunt May's, MJ's and Captain Stacey's.

But I also think comics writers are so used to seeing these internal facing struggles that in trying to write a story for an adult audience, they almost can't conceive of why someone would choose to be a villain, or how that person might become a recurring character unless it's also their uncle or whatever.

It's just a guess.

I dunno. If I watched more soap operas, which apparently did this stuff too, I'd probably have a better idea of why the audience seems to eat it up.

Jake Shore said...

Regarding your thoughts on public responsibility in your second and third paragraphs of your last comment - I'm not sure I understand. I'm not being critical, I'm just not sure I see where you're going. Are you saying it makes people feel uncomfortable for heroes to save someone from drowning or stopping the mad scientist from turning the people of New York into lizards? Average people may not step in to danger themselves, but don't they expect that of that of heroes? Don't they aspire to be heroic?

Do people think Superman is a vigilante when he stops a nuclear bomb from blowing up Paris. His actions did result in releasing Zod and co., but at no point do we consider Superman responsible for their actions.

Either way, I don't think this hypothetical viewpoint of writers gives the audience enough credit. I think audiences want heroes to be heroic; to do things not out of self interest. With regard to questions of fascism and the like, audiences will ask those questions when they're there, as in TDK movie, but I doubt any audience is going raise an eyebrow over Iron Man saving a village from Al-Queda killers.

All that to say, I would love to see a hero that takes his public responsibilities at least as seriously as his personal ones.

The League said...

I wrote a long answer, and I'm scrapping it. I'm trying again.

I will try this:

"Are you saying it makes people feel uncomfortable for heroes to save someone from drowning or stopping the mad scientist from turning the people of New York into lizards?"

I don't think so. Not the way you've described. But I think from a story standpoint, we may need the validation of the personal at stake or it may feel like something that just "happens" if you know what I mean.

"Average people may not step in to danger themselves, but don't they expect that of that of heroes? Don't they aspire to be heroic?"

Yes and yes.

"Do people think Superman is a vigilante when he stops a nuclear bomb from blowing up Paris. His actions did result in releasing Zod and co., but at no point do we consider Superman responsible for their actions."

I don't think stopping a nuclear bomb is a vigilante action by any definition. Beating holy hell out of anyone you believe may be a criminal? (Ahem, Batman) That may be seen a vigilantism. But what you're describing gets back to the sealed system problem of the stories working on a field writ large. Jor-El puts them in the Phantom Zone, so there's a personal factor at stake... it's tempered by the fact that I'm not sure Superman knows he released these guys. He just knows he needs to stop them.

"but I doubt any audience is going raise an eyebrow over Iron Man saving a village from Al-Queda killers."

I did. And I think everyone would frown on, say, some Boeing employees getting a drone up and running, arming it and taking it for a joyride. But, you know, it was a story, and I think they handled it reasonably well with ramifications into the next film. But there was a reason Rhody was freaking out when he put the pieces together. The movie just sort of glosses over how fast Stark would have been in trouble and how much, and that's fine. It's a superhero movie.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think the personal angle is a better package for people to grasp. Imagine The Punisher if he didn't have the "mob killing his family" as a backstory. That would be one (even more) f'ed up comic. Or if Batman were just a guy running around beating up mental patients?

I think we had a discussion around these parts about how Hal Jordan doesn't have a personal stake, he just goes off and is a space cop, and that makes his story weak. Or that Barry Allen just decides to put on tights. Now he's "boring Barry Allen".

There's something interesting about how audiences want that personal touch, or maybe that revenge or guilt factor or it doesn't resonate quite the same way.

Steven said...

I was not much of a comics reader, even though my D&D phase and all that ( w00t Steve Jackson Games! ). But when I had my odd run-ins with emergency rooms or a bout of pneumonia, the comics I was brought were my friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.

For a little kid in Louisiana, a place where there are buildings so tall that a man with web spinners could swing from one to another is slightly more astounding than that man landed on the moon.

In this way, it seems to me that Superman is the hero of the American heartlands ('sup Smallville), but Peter Parker has an urban voices (no, not a euphemistic use there). He speaks for ingenuity (spinners!) and creativity (swinging from buildings, really?!). And his angsts are those of a city dweller: where there's so much density the social customs are strange, anxiety-inducing. Peter's social misfit captures that pretty well.

As fans always point out, Peter goes to the laundromat. That's pretty quotidian.

I thought this did a pretty good job of capturing the urban-ness of Spider-Man in a cool way. I loved Emma as Gwen (what a peach). Something was just so...derpy about Tobey Maguire that I couldn't get around. I thought Garfield caught some of the anger of being an outcast much better. His awkward also had shades of aughty/Emo and less the late-seventies "he kicked sand on me!" indignation.

Thought it was a ton of fun too.

Jake Shore said...

Ryan, I hear what you're saying about audiences and the personal angle and I don't disagree. I guess where this is going for me is that I don't see a reason why characters like Batman and the Punisher are necessarily more interesting because their actions and motivations are directly tied to their personal life. If a writer has to depend on this angle to make his story compelling, well... I would say he's just not a very good writer.

Batman may have a good pathos, but that doesn't mean Green Lantern can't be a great character or a better comic. I've been sniffing around for good Green Lantern stuff, and I get the sense (because I frankly don't know) that Hal Jordan just hasn't been done that well. Or at least he's a character that hasn't reached his potential. I don't why that is, maybe no one has loved that character enough, maybe the character just hasn't found the right writer, I don't know. But I hesitate to say it's a structural or conceptual problem with the character. Isn't it the responsibility of the writer to figure out a way make a character great? Was Daredevil interesting before Frank Miller? Animal Man before Grant Morrison? I have this running list in my mind of characters and comics that have stores of untapped potential. Once of us should do a blog on that.

Sorry, I know I'm going off on tangents a long way from a movie review, but I'm sort of thinking out loud.

Re: Iron and Al Queda. If you're arguing the larger point about a rich playboy with a powerful weapon, you're right. I was confining my remarks to that one scene where he saves the villagers from being murdered by the Taliban or whoever they were. In other words, if you ate an irradiated bowl of Wheaties and developed super strength and the ability to fly and decided to fight crime, it would be reasonable for me to question as to whether that was a good thing to do. But if you knew there was a plane on its way to hit the WTC or some third world milita was committing genocide, I would hope and pray you would go and stop it.

The League said...

@Jake: Yeah, I agree. I'm not sure what else to say.

I don't know WHY the pop culture pundits and many comics fans feel the need for the personal angle, but I guess I'm vocalizing that I think that it's really ingrained. And it IS the problem of the writers. I love the director's cut of "Superman: The Movie" as it includes the scene where he speaks with Jor-El about enjoying his new role, that he feels fulfillment in that role.

Frankly, part of me thinks that too many 20-somethings write pop culture columns and they may not have either the wide-eyed desire to fight bad guys kids have or the better understanding of cause and effect, and wider-world picture an adult might have, but they can relate to someone doing them wrong. In shedding the "With great power comes great responsibility" line from Spider-Man, maybe the filmmakers forgot to cast the narrative web wide enough.

And, yes, if I became Cap'n Wheaties, you can bet your bippy I'd be tossing myself in the way of hi-jacked planes.

The League said...

@Steven - Yeah, my entire concept of New York life came from watching Ghostbusters and reading Spider-Man comics growing up. I agree that by the 1970's, the character fit the age in a different way, but I also think Spidey and Superman are pretty similar. I think if you look at 1940's Superman and Batman, you get too very urban characters. Back then it was Superman who was unable to fly and was chucking himself around against buildings, but he did lack the ingenuity and high-minded science background that came with Spider-Man arriving in the space age.

But as per "a guy who does his own laundry and not at super speed", Yup. I think it's a huge draw to the character, and certainly was to me as a kid.

I actually think if you go back and look at Spidey 2 and 3 (and few ill go back and look at Spidey 3) that they do a pretty good job of showing that hard-luck struggling Peter in the big city, and I look forward to seeing Garfield as a post-high school Spidey.

Jake Shore said...

Finally saw ASM. Meh.

Jake Shore said...

I liked aspects of it. I thought the acting was better. Less cheesy, but much less fun. I thought the film connected emotionally better. I liked Gwen's character, and I liked what they did with Flash Thompson - not so one dimensional. Andrew Garfield was fine. He looked the part, and the Spidey suit was great.

Ultimately, the movie suffers from being a reboot so soon after the last franchise. Nothing that new or interesting. The web-swinging scenes were great, but there were too many slow-down "look how awesome this looks" shots. The Lizard, frankly, looked kinda lame. And the fights between he and Spidey were repetitive and uncompelling.

Having said that, I think they can make a better sequel, all the ingredients are there.