Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Changes in the re-telling (Amazing Spider-Man 2/X-Men: Days of Future past)

SPOILER ALERT BWOOP BWOOP BWOOP: This post is about a couple of movies that came out back in May of this year. It is also about the comic book storylines that inspired said films, which ran through issues of the source titles published literally decades ago. It contains spoilers for all of those. Odds are the spoiler warning is more relevant for the recent movies than the old comics, but I’m of the opinion that all are fair game at this point: four months is just about forever in internet time, and I’ve been thinking about these movies all summer while giving everyone else a chance to catch up. Grace period over. You’ve been warned!

Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die.

That’s the thought that kept occurring to me when I walked out of the theater after the final credits had rolled on Amazing Spider-Man 2. I liked the movie, on balance. It maintained a lot of the elements I thought really worked about the first installment of the franchise reboot, and progressed things along through the master plan for the trilogy-slash-expanded-cinematic-universe that we’re really only going to be able to judge on its merits when its completed (or at least substantially further developed) years from now. But for all the right buttons it pushed and notes it hit, the part of the movie that stood out in my mind was the sad fate of Peter Parker’s true love.

Really, it shouldn’t have been surprising at all. In the comics, sure enough, Gwen Stacy died. And much like in the second movie, it happened in the comics as collateral damage in a fight between Spider-Man and his nemesis the Green Goblin. It is probably one of the most pivotal moments in modern comics history, using a fairly broad definition of modern since it happened in 1973. But given that superhero comics started with Superman in 1938, there were thirty-some years of history before that and there have been forty-some since, so it’s as decent a boundary marker between “old” and “new” comics as any other. Better than most, many comics fans would argue, since the general characteristics of comics in the old days, the Golden and Silver Ages, were optimism and happy endings and the inevitable triumph of good over evil and all sorts of other things which are considered (rightly or wrongly is a debate which could take up another few thousand words some other time) kiddie stuff; whereas newer comics tend to be hyper-focused on appealing to mature tastes (again, all extremely subjective and debatable) with tropes like ambiguous morality, Pyrrhic victories, failure as commonplace as success, and so on. When Spider-Man’s arch-enemy caused the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, a tragedy which Spider-Man tried mightily to prevent and yet still failed to avoid, it was arguably the end of innocence for all of comics. It certainly was for Spider-Man, and for a long time it was a sacrosanct part of the character’s mythology, crucial to understanding his outlook. You couldn’t contemplate the real Spider-Man actually saving Gwen’s life any more than you could imagine Spider-Man still having a living, breathing Uncle Ben. Gwen dies, Peter tries but fails to save her, it’s ultimately the Green Goblin’s fault: these are all pieces of the canon.

Except … they didn’t have to be. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t just thinking that Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die in the third act of Amazing Spider-Man 2. Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die in the final pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #121, either. If you dig into the history a bit you’ll learn that Stan Lee, the living embodiment of Marvel Comics particularly in the early days through the 60’s, wrote almost ten years’ worth of Spider-Man comics from Peter Parker’s first appearance onward before finally stepping away as he became more focused on running the business aspects of his company rather than the purely creative output. In all that time, yes, Spider-Man was defined by his “with great power comes great responsibility” ethos, inspired by the guilt and sadness at having failed to act once and contributed to the chain of events that led to his beloved uncle’s murder. You won’t hear me arguing that Spider-Man still works without Uncle Ben’s death, which is about as intrinsic to the concept as the explosion of Krypton is to Superman and the fatal mugging of the Waynes is to Batman. For eleven years, Spider-Man had a perfectly good personal tragedy in his past and zero dead girlfriends, and he was a strong enough character to become the flagship icon of Marvel Comics.

Which in turn meant that when Gerry Conway took over as regular writer after Stan Lee (and Steve Ditko) gave birth to Spider-Man and steered him through his meteoric ascent, he was stepping into some incredibly big shoes and he felt tremendous pressure to maintain the quality of storytelling in the Spider-Man title while also making his own mark on the book. And Conway literally thought to himself, “What’s the most shocking thing I can do, to shake things up and signal that I’m more than just a steward of Stan Lee’s previous work?” Which is how he hit upon the idea of killing off a major character to raise the stakes of Spidey’s feud with the Green Goblin, and ultimately Gwen Stacy became the sacrificial cast member.

It was a choice, and I’m not saying Conway didn’t have every right to make it. It was consistent with the Green Goblin’s character to have him strike at Spider-Man through his personal life. It was thematically in keeping with the established motif of Spider-Man having the worst luck of any superhero. It was narratively viable, but it wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t what the Spider-Man story had been steadily building toward. It was a choice rooted in its essentially arbitrary nature. The end goal was to shock the regular readers, by steering into the unexpected, and in that it completely succeeded. But to say that Spider-Man isn’t Spider-Man without the death of Gwen Stacy is just demonstrably false. She didn’t have to die, she just did.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate it when the makers of comics-derived movies refer to certain touchstones of the source material, especially when those reference points are good. And don’t get my contrariness wrong, either; whether or not killing off Gwen was a necessity, the storyline itself isn’t just a classic for the what-happened factor, it’s genuinely good storytelling full of operatic emotion rendered in fantastic Gil Kane/John Romita Sr. art. But, at the same time, I’m perfectly all right with the movies deviating from the source material as well. In fact, when it better serves the needs of cinema (as opposed to serialized monthly installments of graphics and prose) I prefer the movies to take liberties, condensing or expanding or remixing at will. And certainly the makers of all the Spider-Man movies have felt at liberty to do just that all along. Back when Sam Raimi made his Spider-Man movie, he wove in the whole Spider-Man and Green Goblin and Spider-Man love interest battle, but he used Mary Jane Watson rather than Gwen Stacy (presumably since, at the time, in the comics Peter and MJ were married and she had over the course of almost two decades replaced Gwen as the one true love interest) and, for that matter, he had MJ nearly fall to her death but allowed Spider-Man to successfully rescue her at the last moment. Marc Webb, on the other hand, was working with the Peter and Gwen love story but skipped over Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin to jump straight into his son (and one of Peter’s best friends) Harry in the glider-riding, bomb-chucking villain. None of those alterations stood out to me as egregious violations of the spirit of the source material.

And so it was that I found myself during the climax of Amazing Spider-Man 2 nursing a tiny yet insistent hope that maybe, because she didn’t have to die, that Gwen Stacy actually wouldn’t die. Slavish devotion to canon was not absolute, obviously. And real-life couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield had great on-screen chemistry. Honestly, I always preferred Mary Jane to Gwen in the comics, partly because Gwen died before I was born and I grew up reading MJ stories, and partly because even when I went back and read the old Gwen stories she seemed kind of boring and bland and unappealing compared to MJ. Emma Stone’s portrayal, and the fresh spins on the character inherent in the scripts, made me really like Gwen Stacy as a character for the first time. Why would they bail on a good thing? Why not explore new territory completely uncharted in the comics? Let the movies invent their own reality!

But I should have known better. For goodness sake, they basically put Emma Stone in the exact same outfit as it was drawn and colored in Amazing #121. And then they condensed Peter’s mourning over her into a late-reel montage, and included a brief epilogue of Peter finally getting over the guilt and grief enough to put the reds-and-blues back on and go out and stop the Rhino from rampaging through downtown. As if it were vitally important to get Peter into that position of having lost his parents, lost his uncle, lost his best friend and lost his first love but still dedicated to being Spider-Man by the end of Part 2 to set the stage for Part 3 (or for Sinister Six or whatever Sony manages to release next). Again, nobody owed me anything other than what I got when I paid for my ticket, they made their decisions on writing Gwen out of the saga (or maybe they had no decision to make because Stone wouldn’t sign on for a third installment, I don’t know), and so it goes. But, it’s disappointing nevertheless.

It’s a little bit apples-and-oranges, but I’m going to go ahead and segue into the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie at this point because it provides some pretty solid evidence for my basic thesis here, which is that the movies and can and probably should not just make superficial changes to the source material but really feel free to take things in new directions. The comics storyline which inspired the film was mostly about the Kitty Pryde character, since she was the one whose consciousness traveled back in time to prevent a mutant-human species war-fomenting assassination, and featured some memorable scenes of future-Wolverine, including his demise at the hands of the Sentinels, literally:

Whereas the movie is mostly about Wolverine doing the consciousness-time-travel trick, and Kitty gets relegated to a minor supporting role. It’s a potentially irksome change, depending on how attached you are to the original comics, but I get it in terms of Hugh Jackman selling a lot more tickets than Ellen Page. Still, because it was a purely mercenary edit, it’s not terribly compelling or interesting.

Much more intriguing, to me, was the way that Singer really changed the whole thrust and point of the storyline. The general framework of unintended consequences of political terrorism is in place in both versions of the narrative, comics and film, but in the comics it’s a relatively simple matter of the X-Men stopping the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by Mystique, from accomplishing their goal in the usual superhero manner: lots of punching is involved.

In the movie, the climax is really all about the parallel battles for Magneto’s and Mystique’s souls, and whether or not either of them still has room for redemption. Magneto’s not even in the comics storyline, and Mystique is a fairly one-dimensional plot-point-oriented villain. Those comics were released in 1980 and since then Mystique has become a more and more popular character, with more backstory and personality sketched in and even eventually getting her own self-titled series where she got in adventures as a kind of mutant superspy with questionable loyalties. And (stay with me here) those solo comics came after Mystique’s profile was enormously raised by being played by Rebecca Romijn in the first wave of X-Men movies. So by the time the reboot wave of movies came along, Mystique had a fanbase and it was only logical (and, yeah, again, somewhat mercenary) to invent a previously non-existent role for the character in the origins of the pre-X-Men and make her a sympathetic sister figure to Professor X who only turns to the dark side reactively.

But the payoff for Mystique’s arc in First Class really comes in Days of Future Past, when rather than being thwarted by fisticuffs Mystique turns away from the assassination by choice; Xavier talks her down rather than beating her down. And then again, she doesn’t walk into Xavier’s outstretched arms, and back to the side of the angels, she simply walks away. It’s wonderfully ambiguous (Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of the unresolvable inner turmoil of her character) and it has me dying with curiosity to see Age of Apocalypse and what they’re going to do with Mystique there. But most importantly, it’s completely different from anything the comics ever did with Mystique (to my knowledge). It doesn’t refer back to any previous source material, and that’s totally irrelevant because it makes for good, gripping storytelling.

I don’t know, maybe Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a lot more interesting than comic book Gwen Stacy, but still not all that interesting as a character overall. And maybe she had nowhere else to go in the planned Spider-Man cinematic universe, or any Spider-Man story. Maybe there will be some retroactively self-justifying payoff for her death in a future film in the franchise. Maybe Mystique is simply a more complex, more dynamic character with greater potential, and that’s why they were confident enough to take a leap into untried narrative territory with her. I don’t know. Maybe in another Spider-reboot or three, when the comic book death of Gwen Stacy is fifty or sixty or more years in the past, someone will reinterpret her character without the too-good-for-this-world dying young angle. I can only hope.

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