Sunday, May 4, 2014

In Defense of Amazing Spider-Man 2


I drove to Wichita Falls on Saturday, about an hour’s drive for me, in order to participate in Free Comic Book Day. In years past, I would make sure that we had copies of whatever movie-tie in comic they were promoting on hand at the theater to give away to the children at the matinee show. This always went over well, with a mixture of excitement and confusion. Parents would either get excited for the kids: “Look, Baker, Look Archer! Comic books! Wow, that’s neat! Can you say thank you to the nice, strange man?” Or they would look at me with dull indifference, take the comic book, and maybe the kids would read it later, maybe not. I didn’t care. I did it for me.

I haven't read it yet. I'm just glad
Doctor Octopus is no longer
skinwalking in Peter Parker's body.
As I looked over this year’s offerings at two different stores, I noticed that I had absolutely no interest in anything on the table. Not even for free. This didn’t bother me too much; the point of Free Comic Book Day is not to give me, the lifelong fan, a free comic book, but rather to try and hook new readers into the wonderful world of comics. I believe strongly in comics as a storytelling medium, one that is just as viable and important as movies, books, and audio drama. I don’t care what the kids start out reading, so long as they enjoy it, and keep on reading.

I ended up trying to find something to buy, instead—after all, that’s what Free Comic Book Day is designed to do: get consumers in the store and have them consume. I spent about a half-hour, looking for something to take home. I tried, very hard, to find something to interest myself. Anything, really; it didn’t have to be super heroes. Granted, I wasn’t at Austin Books, so my selection was limited, but after pawing through a dozen Spider-Man trade paperbacks and being either thoroughly unfamiliar with the storyline, or profoundly uninterested in the storyline (or both), I gave up. I tried this with several other “go-to” favorite characters of mine, from Batman to Captain America. In the end, I picked up the newest re-launch of Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man #1, with Peter Parker in the driver’s seat. $5.99. Jeez Louise. I also picked up a couple of action figures on clearance. Dr. Strange! Always good, never bad. They were symbolic purchases, obviously. In another time, I would have had to cut myself off, or do without some groceries.

Why aren't you reading this comic?
Go. Now. Buy it. Love it.
All of this made me wonder briefly if I’d outgrown comics. That’s ridiculous, I thought. I have a number of comics I’m reading currently: Fables, Hellboy, Conan, Red Sonja (by Gail Simone), Black Science, Bandette, Doc Savage, Velvet, Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and, unbelievably, Batman 66 by Jeff Parker sprang instantly to mind as I sat in the car, thinking. I still have favorite creators, for crying out loud! I have good friends in the industry who are turning out great work. That I’ve mostly jumped over to buying trade paperbacks is beside the point. I still even pick up the various individual issues, mostly just to see if I’ll like something or not. If I do, I add it to my trade paperback list.

However, what struck me about the books I still read is the lack of superhero comics from Marvel and DC I’m currently reading. There are a lot of reasons for this, ranging from the fact that I hate their editorial policy, to the fact that I hate every single thing that they are doing to their super hero line. Of the two, Marvel catches far less of my ire. I can see that they are trying creatively to do something different. This ranges from putting a half-black, half Hispanic kid in the Spidey suit to publishing comics with female super heroes that don’t look like the underage strippers and porn stars that DCis currently putting on its comic book covers in an attempt to be “edgy.” It doesn’t mean that I actually like a lot of what Marvel is doing, but that’s because I’m over forty and not part of Marvel’s target demographic right now. I’m not talking about making Marvel more inclusive regarding gender and people of color; that’s great. I’m talking about stuff like Doctor Octopus deciding to take over the body of Spider-Man and run around as him for a while. The X-Men remain as intentionally obtuse and soap operatic as they were back when I was reading them, in the time known as “the Good Old Days,” when Claremont wasn’t off in the weeds and John Byrne wasn’t bug-nuts crazy.

The less I talk about DC comics, the better it’s going to be for my blood pressure. In the immortal words of Peter MacNicol from Ghostbusters 2 when he says, “Everything you are doing is bad. I want you to know this.” I am not even kidding. Don’t even bother to write me and say, “But Mark, you don’t know about yadda yadda yadda!” or “How could you ignore blah blah blah?” No, trust me, it’s all bad. But again, I’m not the target demographic, here. And that’s okay. There are enough older comics out there that I can buy and collect—comics that I always wanted to read and couldn’t, or didn’t, or whatever. I don’t have every single issue of Batman there is. If I really want to keep reading the stuff that I do like, well, there’s nothing stopping me.

This comes on the heels of a good Brian Bendis interview I recently read. Bendis is the current architect of the Marvel Universe, and the Ultimates Universe and the overall tone of Marvel Comics for the past fifteen years or so. In the interview he makes some really good points about recent controversies and conversations, and he furthermore talks about something I’ve always thought Marvel did better than DC and that’s playing the quiet moments between the Earth-shattering conflicts. This idea is an outgrowth of the original Marvel storytelling formula of portraying super heroes with modern problems. Bendis understands this idea especially well, and some of his best efforts (along with writers like Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker) really showcase the idea of creating dynamic stories in the quiet moments.

Bendis also pointed out something about the recent and controversial decision to kill Peter Parker in the Ultimates Universe and replace him with a person of color, Miles Morales. This was his point, and it’s a good one:
When you become the writer of Spider-Man, all of a sudden, every day, every week, every month, someone of color — all different races — comes up to you and tells you, "Spider-Man was my favorite and this is why," and then I hear a version of this story: "My friends, when I was a kid, wouldn't let me be Superman, wouldn't let me be Batman, because of my skin color. But I could   always be Spider-Man, and Spider-Man became my favorite. As a little kid, I didn't even understand why he was my favorite, but it was because anybody could be Spider-Man under that costume, because it was head-to-toe.
Now, I’m all for this, because of three things.

1. From a marketing standpoint, it’s genius. Spider-Man can be anyone under that mask. Why not replace him with someone more indicative of modern-day New York City?

2. Mile Morales in a comic book in no way negates, nor diminishes, nor threatens my 30+ years of reading Peter Parker Spider-Man in the least. Those memories and those physical comics don’t fade away like the photographs in Back to the Future. It’s all still there, for anyone to check out.

3. Having worked on the other side of the comic book counter (and behind desks and art tables) for nearly fifteen years, I can say with authority that white male boys aren’t the only people who read comics. If you tell a kid they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, it’s probably a good idea to have some black, Mexican, Chinese, and Hispanic (and others) superheroes running around in both the male and female varieties.

Doing that may not magically resuscitate the comic book marketplace to its Post WWII heyday, when millions of comics sold on a monthly basis, but it will at least be a viable option for the consumer who is currently reading them. No, not the various neck-beards, man-children, and doughy paste-eaters of the world; I’m talking about the 14-29 year olds of the world. That’s who DC is trying (and failing) to appeal to. That’s who Marvel is trying (and more or less succeeding) to appeal to. That’s the elusive Youth demographic, and if you believe the video gaming world, and Hollywood, it’s worth billions.

If you’ll look closely, there is no neck-beard demographic. Not one that matters, anyway. We are a subset of a subculture, now. We’re a niche in the subculture we helped make. Which brings me to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. From this point on, Spoilers Abound.

Why, yes, this is from the 1977 TV show. And yes, that is
his web-shooter, on the outside of his costume. And
you are correct, it's the only one. And yes, it's also
firing a length of clothesline. You are furthermore
correct: this was terrible. But it was all I had...
You may have figured out by now that I’m a Spider-Man fan. One of the first comics I ever owned was a Marvel Tales Spider-Man reprint, bought for me from a flea market. I grew up in the 70s, which meant I got to watch the 60s Spider-Man cartoons on television, along with the terrible, awful, horrible prime-time TV show in the ‘70s. I watched the Electric Company for years past my recommended viewing age, and why? Because of those Spider-Man live-action skits.  Years later, I raw across some Japanese Spider-Man live-action shows during a hitch on the Underground Tape Railroad. In this show, Spider-Man battles a number of exploding and multiplying ninja warriors until the main bad guy shows up and grows to a spectacular height, at which time Spider-Man summons his sleek roadster and drives up into his giant Shogun Warrior-style robot and battles with the monster using a magic light sword. I kid you not.

There were other animated series, both syndicated and sanctioned by Saturday morning, along with this kind of unspoken truism that it would be just too difficult to pull off a live-action Spider-Man movie. For one thing, there’s the swinging. And then there’s the web-slinging. And the sticking to walls. And how do you do Doc Ock’s arms? Stop-motion animation? Sheesh, fuhgettaboutit.

When it became possible to do super heroics (starting with The Matrix movies), and do them well, the first thing that went into pre-production in the new digital effects age was Spider-Man. Granted, they optioned everything, but notice that Spider-Man came out right on the heels of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies.

When Spider-Man came out in 2002, I saw it opening day and it brought tears to my eyes. Not because of the special effects, which were terrific, and worked like a charm, and for the first time ever gave us a sense of what being Spider-Man would actually be like. Not because of the casting, which was great. It was because Sam Raimi nailed the emotional core of the character. For all of the concessions they made to the Spider-Man canon—organic webshooters instead of the mechanical ones Peter invents; replacing Gwen Stacey with Mary Jane Watson in the Peter Parker/Harry Osborne/Green Goblin triangle storyline; all of the truncations and adjustments, like the Green Goblin’s helmet mask—you’ve got to remember that this was before Marvel took control of their movies. This was pre-Avengers. This was pre-Marvel Studios making five movies just to set up making a sixth one. It was still a Hollywood movie, not a comic book movie, and for all of the other baggage that came with that, they got one thing right. The most important thing right. The thing that made Spider-Man work on the big screen.

At the end of the movie, Mary Jane tries to tell Peter she realized all along that he was the person she was supposed to be with, and here it is, the one thing Peter has always wanted, right in front of him, and then that voice-over kicks in: “No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, the ones I love will always be the ones who pay.” And he walks away from her. “With great power comes great responsibility. This is my blessing. My curse.” And we cut to Peter as Spider-Man, swinging through Manhattan, and that final swinging sequence still gives me goosebumps. That was Spider-Man, right there, in a nutshell. Raimi understood it and he stuck the landing with that movie. Everything else was just window dressing, meaningless details.

Of course, some of those promises made in the first movie were dashed on the rocks of focus groups and Hollywood heavy-handedness in the second Spider-Man movie. I guess to make up for the fact that he didn’t tell the love interest his secret identity in the first movie, Spider-Man is unmasked in front of a train full of commuters and no one snaps a picture. He also tells Mary Jane, and we get the impression that Robbie Robertson at the Daily Bugle and Aunt May both know he’s Spider-Man. There are a number of extra Hollywood-isms and of course, the ending is so riddled with plot holes it’s almost ridiculous. Doc Ock suddenly wakes up and decides to not be a villain anymore. He drops his sun into the ocean and well, that’s that. It’s not very satisfying on any level, but the movie continues to focus on Peter Parker having a choice between his obligations and being happy. And while the unmasking is problematic, that scene has all of the heart, the drama and the emotional punch of the first movie.

The less said about the third movie, the better. It’s not really even up for consideration, because of the studio insistence to cut short the Green Goblin storyline in favor of some fresh blood: Sandman, who fundamentally changed the point of Spider-Man’s origin in a way that made me howl at the moon, and Venom, hastily shoehorned into the plot so the Youth Demographic, who considered Venom to be “their” villain, would be represented and appeased in equal parts. It was all a mess. Just awful.

You can imagine, when Sony announced they were restarting the Spider-Man franchise, what howls of nerdrage followed. The casting of Andrew Garfield didn’t help, but it sure didn’t hurt. After all, have you seen that guy’s head? It’s the perfect approximation of both Steve Ditko and Todd McFarlane’s artistic take on the character. But that’s neither here nor there.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) made it very clear that they were updating, a la the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, the franchise to be more “modern” and positioned for the youth of today. See, Peter Parker rides a skateboard and has a hoodie. Modern youth, get it? They were all about keeping it real, except, of course, when they didn’t. Take Gwen Stacey, Peter’s new love interest, literally ripped from the pages of Johnny Romita-era Spider-Man comics, and of course, the death of her father, even if it wasn’t by the Green Goblin. But, since the Lizard was made at Oscorp, one can symbolically see the hand of Norman Osborne behind the whole thing. And we get the impression in the movie that we will see a Green Goblin in the next movie.

The first appearance of Electro. Note the
singular unfilmability of the costume
Electro is wearing. In 1964, this is was
the bomb. in 2014, it's just goofy.
And guess what? Harry Osborne comes back after his father dies and yeah, we get a Green Goblin, after all. Oscorp, in the newest refreshing of the Spider-Man story, is the big corporate bugaboo that is responsible for all of Spider-Man’s major villains. This is because when Steve and Stan were churning these stories out, over fifty years ago, they couldn’t waste time on things like a meaningful origin for villains like Electro. It was a throwaway bad guy. At the end of the original Electro story, in Amazing Spider-Man #9...I’ll let that sink in for a minute...after a two page origin story for how Electro becomes Electro, and the subsequent fight and defeat by Spider-Man, he unmasks the villain and realizes he has no idea who he is. He’s just some guy.

Of course, that was one of the famous documented fights between Lee and Ditko, concerning the origin of the Green Goblin. They made a big deal about him being a mystery man, and Ditko wanted to keep him a nobody—or at least, no one connected to Peter Parker directly. Stan disagreed, and felt that after so many years of teasing this villain out, it needed to be someone close to their main character. This was one of those calls where Stan was right. And the results of that storyline, which culminated in Amazing Spider-Man #121 and #122, some ten years after the first Spider-Man comics began, are among the most famous comic book stories of all time. The Night Gwen Stacy Died is in so many ways the quintessential Spider-Man story; the encapsulation of the whole blessing/curse dichotomy that Raimi tapped into for his first two Spider-Man movies.

I had some real problems with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and none of it was casting-related. In fact, it was that the through line on the Spider-Man character, i.e. “with great power comes great responsibility,” was noticeably downplayed for the vast majority of the movie. We were instead expected to care about the fact that this version of Peter Parker actually knew his parents before they disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Never mind that Uncle Ben and Aunt May were literally the coolest set of foster parents any kid could ask for; never mind that even though Peter is a little dorky and shy, he’s not the helpless, hapless and hopeless kid from the first set of movies. Even the fight that leads to the inciting event leading to Uncle Ben’s death feels petty and petulant. And yet, what I did like about the movie was that we had ten years of better movies and super hero shenanigans, which led up to a more active, more talkative, and more comic-book authentic Spider-Man than we’ve ever seen before. In costume, they really got Spidey right.

Thankfully, in Amazing Spider-Man 2, the emotional heart of the story has been addressed, and I was finally able to engage Peter Parker as a character. He’s likeable in this movie, and he and Emma Stone, looking even more like Gwen Stacey from the comics, right down to her vintage wardrobe, have real chemistry and it shows. 

Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t perfect. It’s still aimed at the teenagers of the world, and yeah, I’m including anyone under the age of 30 in that group. It’s loud, and everyone talks fast, and there are some great narrative shortcuts taken to tell the story, some of which work, and some that don’t. They skip over the difficulties of Peter and Gwen dating, which works great, but the re-introduction of Harry Osborne feels extremely contrived. Of course, a couple of scenes worth of set-up would have been great, but this movie clocks in at 146 minutes already.

It's hard to imagine how this shocked comic readers
at the time. Its influence on all other dramatic
comic moments since then can't be understated.
In some ways, this movie is the most authentic to the source material. For the first time in five movies, we’ve got the major plot points of one of the most famous Spider-Man stories ever—and yeah, it’s unfortunate that this is the second time we’ve gotten the Green Goblin, but to be fair, Raimi didn’t use him in this way. In fact, he goes out of the way to keep Mary Jane alive. This was back in 2002, when Peter was still married to M.J. in the comics. We’ll see if the third movie will push through. I have my doubts, as they are hinting broadly that they are going to try and field The Sinister Six. Frankly, it’ll be a magic trick if they can pull it off and not have it feel like a night of televised wrestling. I mean, by the end of this film, they’ve got four villains to play with: The Lizard, Electro, The Rhino, and the Green Goblin himself. And you would have had to been in the bathroom to miss Doc Ock’s arms and the Vulture’s wings in the super secret lab in this movie. I shouldn’t pooh pooh it, though. Ten years ago, I thought trying to make an Avengers movie was a stupid idea.

The other thing that I liked—no, loved, about this second outing is that Spidey does Spider-Man stuff and he does it well. From the web-swinging to the fisticuffs, from using his brain scientifically to dealing with kids and the general public. He’s a genuine hero in this movie, and he’s apologetically heroic. That’s nice to see, especially after the nihilistic disaster that was Man of Steel.

I’ve seen some of the reviews, and like most people who write movie reviews for a living, they fail to take into account that super hero movies are by definition spectacles. What I find most insulting is this tone that so many of them have, and kind of righteous indignation that the film is so excessive. I want to drop a couple of stats on you all.

The number of comic book super hero movies made from 1950 to 2000: 28, most of them being Batman and Superman movies.

The number of comic book super hero movies made from 2000 to 2014: 49 super movies to date, with 52 out by the end of the year.

In both cases, these are movies based directly on comics already in existence. It doesn’t account for non-super hero things like Ghost World or American Splendor, and it doesn’t count any original super hero movies like Hancock or Darkman. Obviously with those two categories added in, the numbers are much higher. Factor in television shows and animated series, and it’s higher still, although when you do that, you lose the spectacle factor I’m talking about.

In the interest of parity, I present to you
the first appearance of the Rhino, from
ASM #41. This was never a great
costume design, although to be fair,
in the 1960s, this was the height
of spectacle and drama.
Put simply, if you’re indignant because the movie is too loud and fast, and focuses on impossible action, then you are either an immigrant from the Moon, new to our ways and customs, or you’re pissing and moaning to justify you not getting it. That’s fine if you don’t, but let me be very clear about this: there will be other super hero movies, and they will always have some component of a vicarious power fantasy in them. That ability to deliver spectacle is one of the reasons why so many people want to see movies based on super heroes they love. But if you don’t like spectacle, and prefer cinema that enriches as it draws back the curtain on a different point-of-view, that’s okay, but please stop reviewing super hero movies. In fact, stop reviewing spectacles altogether.

It reminds me of the people who saw The Avengers without seeing any of the other Marvel movies and complained that they didn’t understand what was going on. I’m a little sympathetic, because no one has ever tried world building with a multi-billion dollar movie franchise before, so, you know, uncharted territory. But now that you do know, what did you expect? And also, how dumb are you, anyway? I really feel sorry for people who can’t enjoy Warner Brothers cartoons, The Three Stooges, and now Super Hero movies. It’s like trying to play with the weird kid in class by showing them your dinosaurs and they look at your plastic dinosaurs and say, “Those aren’t real animals.”

I do think this version of Spider-Man (in this particular movie) is as close to comic book Spider-Man that we’ve ever gotten. There are so many moments plucked from the Ditko and Romita era playbooks that are wonderful to see writ large on the silver screen. The first ten minutes is a jaw-dropping joy to behold, and easily one of the things I’d point to who asks me what’s so great about Spider-Man, anyway? As spectacle, this is everything I’ve ever wanted to see in a Spider-Man project, hands down. And it only took, what? My whole entire life?

I’m not going to defend Amazing Spider-Man 2 in terms of whether or not you found it emotionally lacking. It certainly does. What I am going to do is chalk it up to this movie being aimed at a much younger crowd. Case in point: every teenager that has seen the movie so far, including my staff, and one of my projectionists, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Spider-Man fan from a young age, have loved the movie. They cried when Gwen died, and they love Andrew Garfield’s take on Peter Parker. They love the wisecracking, and they are following the storyline with no problems, no concerns, and no questions. They don’t think anything about the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies. Most of them haven’t seen them, except my aforementioned Spidey fan in residence.  He made an observation that I missed: one of the other big influences on the movie is the Spider-Man animated cartoons that they’ve been churning out for fifteen years or so. Those cartoons trend young, and that’s who this movie is aimed at: people who are nostalgic for their childhood, watching the “old” Spider-Man cartoons.

But for the number of people who were just kinda "blah" about the movie, let me ask you, and I do this without any rancor: what do you want out of a Spider-Man movie? How do you tell the Spider-Man story that keeps its singular identity and also showcases the weirdness of Spidey's rogues gallery and have it be movie-worthy? What villain do you use that will connect with the widest possible audience? And don't say "Venom," okay, because there's too much backstory to that character to make it work. Not unless, you know, you use the revamped Venom from the Ultimate Spider-Man universe...yeah, see where we're at again?

Would Marvel Studios do a better job with the Spider-Man property than Sony? Maybe, but probably not. Given the small number of Spider-Man villians we've seen in past five movies, and even if they are really shooting to do the Sinister Six in the third movie, one third of these "new" villains will be revamps of the old villains we've already seen.

The point I'm making is this: it's harder than you think it would be. there are certain touchstone moments in the long Spider-Man history that rise above all the rest, and in keeping with the very nature of the character, they are inevitably the big epic tragedy stories. That's central to Spider-Man. The other stories that resonate are actually Peter Parker stories. In some ways, it's the same reason why they've rebooted Batman, starting with the origin: those origins affect and color every story that comes after it. And, unfortunately, in the movies, you've got to underscore the through line by emphasizing the important details in the origin. In Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, it's the death of Uncle Ben. In the new Spider-Man movies, it's the promise Peter makes to Captain Stacey and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Peter's parents that all ties back to Oscorp.

I say this because (and remember, I just wrote 4000 words explaining how much I like Spider-Man) there's not enough meat in the Spider-Man universe to hang a movie on otherwise. You've either got to stack up a couple of villains, really bring out the soap opera tragedy aspects of Peter Parker's personal life, or heighten one villain to Doctor Doom-like status and have him be an overarching bad guy for three movies.

The first appearance of The Sinister Six:
The Vulture, Electro, Sandman, Doc
Ock, Kraven the Hunter, & Mysterio.
A great, great comic book, but I'm
worried about trying to pull this off
as a movie. We'll soon see, won't we?
Think about it: what exactly would a Spider-Man versus the Vulture movie look like? About twelve minute of video game footage, is what. I could make an argument for a trilogy involving J. Jonah Jameson hiring several villains, such as Mysterio and the Chameleon, to mess with Spider-Man and create doubt in the minds of the public as to him being a hero. Then you fold in Smythe and the Spider-Slayers, the Scorpion, and hell, just for good measure, Man-Wolf. Would you watch those three movies, especially if I wrote them? Of course you would. But would they have the resonance that The Death of Gwen Stacey has had? Yeah, that's what I thought, too.

Considering the quantity and volume of Super Hero movies that have spilled out of Hollywood over the last ten to fifteen years, and how many of them have been better than we expected on up to freaking great, I think it's okay if some of the movies coming out aren't aimed at the neckbeards and man-children of the world. I'm willing to concede that this latest clutch of Spider-Man movies isn't great, as long as you're willing to admit they are better in some ways than the Raimi films. Whenever I come out of a super hero movie thinking, "Well,I would have done that differently," I'm reminded of the terrible mess that Spider-Man 3 was, and then I think to myself, if we'd have seen that movie first, in 2002, before X-Men 2, and Spider-Man 2, and of course, the things that came after
it, like Iron Man, et. al, we would have lost our collective minds at how cool we thought it was (and we would have shrugged and excused all of the nuttiness because, "Hollywood never gets it right, anyway.")

As a sub-genre of film, it has yet to fully define itself. There are indicators of what is possible, and there are zeniths (The Dark Knight) and nadirs (Catwoman). Much like the Supreme Court definition of pornography, we can't define what constitutes a good super hero movie, but we know it when we see it. When the dust settles, I think these new Spider-Man films will have a place in the conversation, if not outright at the table, because they handily fulfill the role of translating the power of the artwork inherent to our understanding of comics into real moving visuals that convey power, grace, and hyper-violence, in equal measure. Hopefully, the generation currently watching the movies on their portable electronic devices will want to have that conversation with us.
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