Saturday, July 07, 2012

Itsy Bitsy Spider

I was having a conversation last week about superheroes and their arch-nemeses with a friend of mine on Twitter. My friend was wondering if Black Manta was Aquaman's arch-nemesis (I believe that he is). In truth, I can't name any of Aquaman's other enemies. I only know Black Manta because he was in the Legion of Doom on Superfriends (and is prominent in the currently-running Young Justice cartoon). Coincidentally, there was a story on IO9 this week suggesting that there are really only a handful of A-list superheroes. Charlie is probably right about that, though I think she significantly undersells Wonder Woman. In any event, I began thinking that there's a correlation. Is a deep and interesting rogues gallery the hallmark of an A-list superhero? It might be. Look at Batman: by the fifth big screen episode, without repeating ANY of the previous villains, they were still populating the movie with interesting villains (Ra's Al-Gul and The Scarecrow), and they still haven't exhausted them. The same thing can be said of Spider-Man. Even throwing them at the screen three at a time, as Spider-Man 3 did, did not exhaust them. And here we are in 2012 with a rebooted franchise and they've provided one of Spidey's major villains, one that hasn't been on screen before. Spidey, it seems, is on the A-List.

Like Batman Begins before it, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) grasps an essential fact about Spider-Man: so long as you stick to the basic origin (and don't do anything egregiously stupid like hire Joel Schumacher to direct your movie), you can perform all kinds of variations on the theme. The sheer volume of material you can work with from fifty years of Spider-man stories means that you can pick and choose all sorts of elements that don't match up with other interpretations while still hewing to the canon of the character, and while still making a movie that's recognizably about the same character. This movie doesn't much resemble the Raimi movies (much), but it's still Spider-man. This is a neat trick.

The essential thing about Spider-man's origin story is its simplicity. The original story from Amazing Fantasy #15 runs to an economical eleven pages, after all, so you don't have to waste a lot of time on it. Just hit the notes--as this film does--and off you can go. I'm not particularly grumpy about seeing this reenacted so soon after the Raimi series, really. I like seeing different actors in familiar parts, and both Sally Field and Martin Sheen are good as May and Ben Parker. The core lesson at the heart of the Spider-man origin is there, too, with a few interesting wrinkles thrown in. I like what this movie does with that lesson, but I'll come back to that in a bit.

The story in this movie reintroduces Peter Parker as a Midtown High science whiz who is bitten by a genetically engineered spider on a visit to Oscorp Tower. He's there, because he's following the clues left by his dad, the late Richard Parker, to a secret project being run by his dad's partner, Dr. Curt Connors. Connors is investigating the possibilities of cross-species genetic therapy. In Connors own case, he'd like to gain the power to regenerate his lost right arm. To this end, he's researching lizards, who can regrow lost limbs. Parker befriends Connors and inadvertently helps him with his research, and just in time. His higher-ups at Oscorp are demanding results. When Connors is pressured to accelerate human trials (without telling the subjects what they're testing), he refuses. Upon being fired, he tests the serum on himself. Lo, and behold, he regrows his arm, but he has other problems, too. The serum doesn't stop at his arm, and soon Connors is transformed into a huge lizard monster, bent on eliminating the weaknesses of mammalian human beings. Peter, meanwhile, spends his nights looking for Ben Parker's killer and attracting the attention of Gwen Stacy, the cute girl who is Peter's equal in science. Gwen's dad is Captain Stacy of the NYPD, and Captain Stacy thinks Spider-man is a menace, an amateur with a vendetta, which strikes at Peter at the very center of his identity, because he knows that Stacy is right. Spider-Man and the Lizard eventually cross paths, and Spidey realizes that he has to sacrifice his own agenda to stop him, because the Lizard is planning something horrible for the people of New York.

Things I like about this movie: I like the fact that Spider-man's transformation from self-involved teen to actual hero is more complicated than just reacting to the death of Uncle Ben. I like the nuance put on it by Spidey's relationship with Captain Stacy, because it balances the essential problem of the superhero archetype: is vigilantism a public good? No. It's not. And Spidey is totally a vigilante at the outset, not unlike a certain dark night detective. He's exercising his own deeply wounded psyche as Spider-man, something Stacy understands implicitly. The scenes between Peter and Captain Stacy are the heart of the movie, and he acts as a kind of second father figure--not providing the moral backbone of the character, but refining it. Denis Leary is unusually good casting for the role. There's an essential masochism to Spidey that the Raimi movies usually got right, but they didn't examine it as closely as this film does. The scenes when Peter stumbles home after a night chasing criminals are portraits of an unhealthy obsession, complete with the marks to prove it. The main through-narrative for Spidey himself is finding a way to move beyond that. This is a grittier Spider-Man, but that's not necessarily bad. This doesn't fall into the "grim and gritty" superhero trap, in which cynical concerns about "realism" trump what's good about the character. This is a merciful relief.

I also like the relationship between Spidey and Gwen Stacy a LOT more than I liked the relationship between Spidey and Mary Jane Watson. Gwen is a much different character, one whose self-possession makes her the one character in the film that Spidey doesn't need to save. She's the promise of a normal life to him. It doesn't hurt that Emma Stone plays Gwen. Stone has ten times the screen presence that Kirsten Dunst brought to Mary Jane. The end of the film is hopeful and sweet and if I didn't know how the story of Gwen Stacy plays out, I'd think the movie ended on a note of delirious romanticism. Unfortunately for me, I DO know how that story plays out, so it has ominous undercurrents.

Spider-man himself, as a visual element of the film, has been dramatically improved. Spidey moves like he's a real guy rather than a computer avatar. There are obviously a lot more practical stunts incorporated into this film than in years past, and it makes a huge difference. Spidey has weight, and when things happen to him, those things appear to have a physical impact. This doesn't stop the filmmakers from putting the Spidey from the comics on screen. The final slow-mo shot of Spidey at the end of the movie is designed to echo a certain iconic cover from the early 1990s that I would have thought impossible to recreate with a human being, but they manage it here. I find that neat. I also find it neat that Spidey starts thinking like a spider in this movie. There's a scene late in the movie where Spidey spins a web that is not intended to trap a bad guy or to provide transportation: it's a warning system. It's an inventive scene. Spidey finds a couple of more uses for his webs than he's shown in previous movies, too.

I'm a bit less sanguine about The Lizard. The character as depicted here is a retread of Doctor Octopus from the second Raimi film. Curt Connors isn't new to the movies. He was well-played by Dylan Baker in the previous series, but he never got the chance to step into the spotlight. Rhys Ifans plays him here, and there's more menace in Connors than I would like. Connors needs to be the devoted family man for the full tragedy of his transformation to really hit home. We never see any of Connors's personal life. We only see him take a moral stand against Oscorp, which is well and good. I was expecting a more sinister character based on the trailers. Had that been the case, The Amazing Spider-Man would have pissed me off. Fortunately, it dodges that bullet. Still, the actual design of The Lizard is horrible: terrible from concept to execution. The only visual I got a kick from when the Lizard was on screen was a short scene where he's wearing a lab coat. I laughed at that, but I'm a longtime reader of the comics and The Lizard was always my favorite of Spidey's enemies, so that scene has meaning for me. Others may not have any context for that. And the Lizard's mad scheme--as reminiscent of some of the Silver Age comics as it may be--is one of the sillier evil plots.

I'm also not particularly happy about the naked franchise building that's going on in the background. We're given hints as to the activities of Norman Osborn--more famous as The Green Goblin--and we're given a teaser for the future in a credit cookie. This stuff has nothing to do with the movie at hand, but is rather Columbia Pictures taking notes on the way Marvel has handled its Avengers properties. I'm so over these kinds of things being fun. They're a distraction to me now. None of this makes up for the absence of The Daily Bugle and it's characters, but you can't have everything, I guess.

Of course, the downside of putting the word "Amazing" in the title of anything is that you are making a promise to the audience. The audience is going to enter the theater expecting to be amazed. As much as I like this film--and I do like it; it tickles the twelve-year old comics nerd I used to be--I can't honestly say that it rises to the level of "amazing." But my yardstick for that has drastically changed since I was a kid reading comics in the back seat of my parents' car on long road trips. Your mileage may vary, of course, but to my mind, the act of rebooting a film franchise is antithetical to amazing the audience, because you're basically selling the audience the same thing they had last time. Repetition drains the magic over time. Still, I have a lot of good will toward Spider-man, and if Spider-Man 3 didn't wear out that good will, this film certainly won't. Take that however you like.

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