Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Re-visitation (The Amazing Spider-Man)

When my wife and I went to the theater to see The Desolation of Smaug in December, I got to watch a full-length, big-screen trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 during the Coming Attractions. And I found myself geeking out for it pretty hard (in fact, I geeked out to the point where it was visibly noticeable to my wife sitting beside me). I phrased the previous sentence the way I did because it was a somewhat surprising reaction, as far as I was concerned; I had previously been utterly indifferent to the existence of the first film in the new Amazing franchise, and had never made time to sit down and watch it.

I may have alluded to this before, but permit me to explain my multi-layered opinions on the relatively recent (2008-onward) explosion of Hollywood adaptations of comic book superheroes. Obviously at the most basic level I have been thrilled with the results, or at a minimum with the fact that we live in a world where the less-than-stellar products of the trend at least had a chance to take their shot, however widely they missed their mark (looking mostly at you, here, Green Lantern). All of the Marvel movies that fed into The Avengers were great, and I’m a big defender of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but considering most of the public has at least heard of Captain America or Batman, those were more or less low-hanging fruit. Another gratifying development, as far as I was concerned, was the fact that more obscure (again, not necessarily to the nerd-circles I move in, but to the general public) comic books and graphic novels made it to the silver screen. Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Wanted - again, the actual artistic results may have been a mixed bag, but it was very cool that they got their moment at the multiplex. Not to mention the original creations that weren’t adapting any specific comics but clearly were inspired by them, whether it was an overstuffed mess like Hancock or a real gem like Chronicle. For someone like me, a huge fan of big-budget spectacle and superhero stories, it’s been a crazy paradise of possibilities.

And because of all that, thanks to the high bar set by modern adaptations of classic Big 2 (DC and Marvel) properties and the constant expansion into indie comics and whole-cloth new concepts, it really rubbed me the wrong way when they started going back to some of the not-all-that-terribly-old wells. First the X-Men film franchise re-invented itself by recasting almost all of its characters and going back in time to tell the genesis of the team (as opposed to How They Met Wolverine) as a period piece. Then the Spider-Man franchise pulled a full-on reboot, not looking at untold history but simply calling a do-over on the hero’s origin story, which struck me as even more egregious. In both cases, it had been a mere five years since the last film installment of the respective properties’ trilogies. X-Men The Last Stand came out in 2006, and First Class bowed in 2011; Spider-Man 3 hit theaters in 2007 and The Amazing Spider-Man premiered in 2012. And yes, sure, Last Stand and Spider-Man 3 were pretty much the death knells for each series, they were plagued with all the worst pitfalls of sequelitis and disappointed a lot of fans. And yes, as well, a year or two after those dismal diminishing returns limped off screens, the first Iron Man movie came out and the superhero cinema renaissance began, so there was a brand new model for how these things could be done right. But still, five years seemed like too little time. Give each generation their own Spider-Man films, every twenty years or so, that would be fine by me. But why the scrap-it-all-and-start-over approach for Spidey so quickly, when there were so many other characters who had never gotten the greenlight?

(I’m aware that a lot of the answer has to do with different studios having different legal rights to limited subsets of characters, and those studios wanting to make money with those characters, and the perception of sufficient value in the Spider-Man characters and story possibilities to justify another attempt at a series of flicks to cash in on that. I do get it, commercially. My objections are purely, and admittedly unrealistically, about overarching philosophical aesthetics.)

I gave in and watched X-Men: First Class eventually, after a couple of my buddies (whose opinions about comic books and related entertainments I respect) assured me that it was really quite good and not at all the creatively bankrupt desperate grab for audience share I had assumed it to be. And they were right! But on Spider-Man, I held out quite a bit longer. Partly that was because of what I expressed above: a retro getting-the-band-together approach was a lot more forgivable than a re-hashing of the birth-of-the-hero story that was only ten years in the past. And partly it’s because, subjectively, I liked the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man film a great deal. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot seemed inherently disrespectful to a work that I was very sentimentally attached to. And in final part, it was because I have a certain attachment to Spider-Man as a character, as I’ve expounded on at length. I had a hard time accepting that a new cast, new screenwriter, new director, and new sensibilities could do the story justice; the modern superhero flick renaissance has excesses of its own, and it was a distinct possibility (in my mind, at least) that the Amazing reboot could have learned all the wrong lessons from the boom. For all that I talk a good game about how no interpretation, no matter how high-profile and aggressively marketed, can really reach backwards and ruin its source material just by association, there’s still a non-rational, fan-emotional risk to be factored into decisions about checking something out or not. With Amazing Spider-Man, I opted for “not”.

At least, for a while. But as buzz started to build for Amazing Spider-Man 2, my own curiosity started to outweigh the risk aversion. And then there was the trailer in the theater, and then at the Super Bowl party there was another trailer commercial for the sequel. I turned to one of my buddies and we simultaneously confessed to never having seen the first installment while also thinking the follow-up looked pretty compelling. And inevitably, once again, our other mutual friends who had seen the first film impressed upon us that it was really good; one even offered to loan it to me, since he owned it on dvd. I didn’t take him up on it, but I did bump up Amazing Spider-Man in my Netflix queue (where of course it had been lurking for months) and I watched it this week.

And oh man, it was so good.

Here’s the thing: I had been clinging to a fundamental belief that the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie had done so many things right that the reboot could only ever distinguish itself by its missteps. Raimi’s version was a bold, bright love-letter to the original comics, and either Amazing (which I suppose I could start referring to as Marc Webb’s, although “the Webb version” seems borderline absurd in its self-referentiality) would cover the same ground and be redundant, or go super-dark and angst-y and be something which was both not my cup of tea and not altogether true to the character. Certainly based on what little I did osmotically absorb from the popcult-sphere about Amazing Spider-Man seemed to feed into the second possibility, from the redesign of Spider-Man’s costume to the fact that the bulk of the movie seemed to take place underground or at night (or both).

What I had failed to consider was that Raimi’s film was far from perfect, and a lot of my sentimental attachment to it came from the fact that in 2002 I was starving for a halfway decent superhero blockbuster to redeem the genre after the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies had squandered themselves out. Spider-Man is halfway decent, but it has its own share of shortcomings, and it turns out it is possible to correct those without over-correcting, as Amazing Spider-Man capably demonstrates.

I’m not souring on Raimi’s work completely, and I think parts of it still hold up. JK Simmons is ridiculously perfect as J. Jonah Jameson, just as Rosemary Harris looks like she stepped right out of a Ditko panel of Aunt May. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst and James Franco aren’t quite as physically on-model as Peter and MJ and Harry, but they’re all very game in their performances. And the same goes for Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, but that’s where, if we’re being honest (and why wouldn’t we be), it starts to get a little wobbly. Dafoe chews his fair share of scenery as the arch-villain of the piece, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that; presumably that is why one hires the man. But it’s all a bit one-note, and that’s a criticism that could be leveled at just about everything in the movie. It’s a live-action comic book,but unfortunately that’s true in the more pejorative sense of the word: flat, four-color, streamlined and simplified. A fun ride, no question, but lacking a certain depth.

Amazing Spider-Man has plenty of depth. Peter and Aunt May and Uncle Ben in this new version all feel more like real people, given room to breathe and come to life as human beings with full complements of both virtues and failings. The rest of the iconic characters from the earlier film - the Osborns, Jameson, Mary Jane Watson - are all absent (and with good reason, see below), but there are other characters drawn from the old comics that fill similar narrative roles, and across the board they too are improvements. Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors makes a more understated antagonist than Dafoe’s Osborn. Denis Leary portrays George Stacy, a police captain who stands in for Jameson as the authoritarian establishment figure who distrusts Spider-Man but has real motivation for doing so aside from “cartoonish blowhard”. And Emma Stone brings Gwen Stacy to life in a way that (if you know the ins and outs of Spider-Man stories) is all but heartbreaking.

Those above-mentioned character swaps aren’t entirely arbitrary, either. In every case, they actually make more sense for re-starting the Spider-Man franchise from square one. For example, Curt Connors becomes the Lizard in a manner that is reminiscent of Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin. (Everything in the Spider-Man movies tends to revolve around Oscorp, and Connors is a scientist in their employ.) But the Lizard’s powerset as a man-animal hybrid makes a lot more sense, plot-wise and thematically, as a reflection of Spider-Man’s powers, than the Green Goblin as a superstrong lunatic with shiny weaponized technologies ever did. By the same token, making Captain Stacy and the police a thorn in Peter Parker’s side, as opposed to the press via Jameson and the Daily Bugle, gives the climax of the movie much higher stakes, as the general warrant for Spider-Man’s arrest complicates his ability to track and stop the Lizard.

In fact, all of the changes made in re-telling the origin story make Webb’s movie objectively better. Raimi made sure to include the sequence from Spider-Man’s first comic book appearance where newly empowered Peter puts on a cheap mask and enters a wrestling contest with a cash prize. It’s a faithful rendering, but it’s also a flashy, somewhat silly scene (with a gratuitous Bruce Campbell cameo), which is more or less a microcosm of Raimi’s trilogy as a whole. Webb omits that incongruous story beat entirely, with his Peter Parker testing his new powers not by trying to break into show business but by picking fights with muggers and lowlifes, looking for the man who killed his uncle. (But Webb does make oblique reference to the imagery by having Peter fall through the roof of a seedy building which used to be a gym and land in a wrestling ring; the fading posters of luchadores on the walls inspire the design of the Spider-Man mask.)

I could go on and on (and on, as I am currently proving) about the numerous choices Amazing Spider-Man makes to deviate from both 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 comic and 2002’s Spider-Man film, but this may be the most crucial difference between the two franchise-launching movies: in Raimi’s, Peter graduates from high school some time around the end of Act One and gets an apartment in the city with Harry, basically becoming a young adult who needs a job to pay the rent and so on. In Webb’s take, Peter Parker remains a high school student throughout. He’s just a kid, which really gets at something pivotal about the whole Spider-Man concept. And Andrew Garfield, who I haven’t really mentioned all that much yet, really brings out that fascinating combination of teenage vulnerability and exultant wish-fulfillment in Peter.

Is Amazing Spider-Man darker than its decade-old predecessor? It is, without argument. But, again, that’s a change for the better. It’s not excessively dark, and it had a lot of room to go a bit darker because, if anything, Raimi’s version may have been a bit too well-lit. And it’s an appropriate kind of darkness, because that’s who Spider-man is; for all the wisecracking and derring-do, for all the subplots about everyman problems, Spider-Man is a character born from grief and defined by failure. Or, spun more positively, an embodiment of the principle that heroism is all about how a man (or a boy) picks himself up and keeps trying after every fall, even if (especially if) it’s not just one failure that gradually recedes into the past, but a complicated human lifetime full of small stumbles and giant catastrophes.

So now I’m caught up on the “new” Spider-Man, and I’m entirely psyched for May 2nd and the sequel. And then three months after that, the Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out, which certainly satisfies my geek-purist desire for new movies featuring comic book characters we haven’t seen in multiple iterations already. Sounds like a win-win summer to me.

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