Friday, July 6, 2012

New Decade, New Spider-Man

Spidey, what am I going to do with you? (Spoiler Warning for both the movies and the comics)

When The Amazing Spider-Man was first announced, it felt like a new milestone in Hollywood shamelessness. Another movie five years after Spider-Man 3 and only ten years after that trilogy first hit theaters? The idea brought exasperation, not excitement. Superheroes are supposed to have a long time out when their films ran out of gas, not just come right back with a different cast and crew. Disappointing me must be met with consequences! So why did they reboot the series so soon? Well, there's a fairly simple explanation for that. The rights for the character were set to revert back to Marvel Studios in 2013 unless Sony made another Spidey film. Just think, ole Webhead would probably be joining the Avengers and Sony would be missing out on beautiful money!

The scenario actually presents a tough question to film critics - should a movie's annoying real-life origin influence the assessment of its content? All the bad reviews I've read don't make any secret that they intend to punish this one for jumping the gun. But is that really fair? Is it fair to the new director, Mark Webb? (Yeah, that's his name. Hopefully that wasn't the only reason he got picked!) How would I have felt about this movie if it were the one that came out in 2002? Let's face it, the timing of this compared to the Raimi trilogy will matter less the more time passes, and this movie turned out to be a lot better than you would expect from a premature reboot.

But let's talk about those other movies first. Sam Raimi is a devoted fan of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics of the 1960s and he brought that old-school cheesy sincerity to the material. That first movie was unapologetically corny and less than a year after the horrors of 9/11, that was just the kind of comfort people were looking for. Spider-Man 2 was even better and perfectly captured the pathos at the heart of the source material (this new film clearly wants that too, but it's not there yet). What's interesting is that while I feel it's the better film (not exactly a controversial stance, there goes precious hipster cred), I've seen it much less times than the first film despite owning both on DVD. I think the reason for that is that the anguish Peter Parker goes through in that movie is just too powerful, too raw. I've always felt a lot of empathy towards the character and parts of Spider-Man 2 are just painful. An odd compliment, but it is one.

Then came Spider-Man 3, one of those movie disappointments that is so crushing that it doesn't sink in right away. You're trying to convince yourself "no, it wasn't THAT bad" because the thought of your wasted anticipation is too awful...but it was that bad and it's not hard to figure out why things went so wrong. There was just too much STUFF and too many conflicting agendas. The Green Goblin/Osborn dynasty story arc was in full swing and Harry Osborn needed to cause trouble with his dad's goblin gear. Raimi wanted The Sandman, another classic Lee-Ditko adversary. The studio wanted Venom, Spider-Man's black-suited doppelganger who helped sell a lot of comics back in the 1990s. So rather than save one for a fourth movie (Venom would have been perfect for that), they tried to get them all in at once. Only Sandman emerged with anything closely resembling dignity and that was mostly because of Thomas Haden Church's solid performance. Harry Osborn's storyline was truncated and unsastifying. Venom was completely butchered. Topher Grace was completely miscast as Eddie Brock (seriously, that's almost as bad as Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil. It's just that incomprehensible). And given Venom's origin, the movie also had to play out the famous "alien black costume" storyline. Raimi obviously had little regard for this arc and decided to just mess around instead - the scene where Parker adopts an emo combover, buys some cheap suits and proceeds to thrust his crotch at innocent bystanders is already infamous. Despite how much money that third film made, it was clear that the storytelling had hit a brick wall.

At this point, even people who have never read the comics are probably sick of Spider-Man's origin story. The new film is determined to do it justice and the results are hit or miss. One thing I like is the addition of Peter Parker's missing parents to the storyline. In the comic, they were Cold War-era spies whose plane was shot down over enemy territory. That's obviously too dated for a contemporary movie, so The Amazing Spider-Man has them involved in some sort of high-risk scientific research. It isn't fully explained, so I'm thinking it will also play a role in the sequel (based on early box office reports, that seems very likely).

One of the movie's strengths is the casting. It's easy to buy the lanky Andrew Garfield as a shy, bookish teen. Martin Sheen is awesome as Uncle Ben, so it's a shame that his actual demise is rushed and somewhat sloppy. It's nowhere near as wrenching as when Cliff Robertson bit the bullet. As for Aunt May, this time she's played by Sally Field, who does well with the little material she has. Parker's freelance photography gig at the Daily Bugle is completely excised, probably cause everyone knew nobody could top J.K. Simmons, who had audiences howling with laughter in Raimi's films with his performances as publisher J. Jonah Jameson.

The Stacy family is also given key roles this time around (okay, Gwen showed up in Spider-Man 3 but that might as well not have counted because it was a total waste). Emma Stone plays Gwen this time and brings her natural charm to the part. Denis Leary plays her father, police captain George Stacy. Mary Jane and Harry Osborn simply don't appear. However, Norman Osborn a very brief cameo during the credits.

This suggests that this new series has paid close attention to how Christopher Nolan's Batman series handled that character's return to the screen. In your first movie, you start with villains who haven't yet gotten the proper screen treatment. For Batman Begins, that was The Scarecrow and Ra's Al Ghul. For The Amazing Spider-Man, it's The Lizard. He and his alter ego, Dr. Curt Connors, are played by Rhys Ivans. He's fine, but all I could think about was how badly Dylan Baker got screwed. He played Dr. Connors in the last two Spider-Man movies and had to have been told at some point he would get to be The Lizard. Owch.

I didn't love the movie's treatment of the character. His plight should have been compelling and something was just missing. I think it was his family. In the comics, Martha and Billy Connors had to live in fear of Curt becoming The Lizard again even though he thought the evil reptilian personality was repressed. The family became quite close with Spider-Man over the years, despite never learning who he really was. But that's the kind of rewarding continuity you just can't get when the movies keep starting themselves over.

Dedicated fans of the comic know that both George and Gwen Stacy are eventually killed. At the end of this film, George meets his heroic end at the hands of The Lizard (in the comics, it was Dr. Octopus). Those who are just getting introduced to Gwen Stacy in this movie are in for a brutal surprise in the sequel if the producers decide to go for it. Hopefully, Spidey-fans will behave as well as Game of Thrones viewers who have read the books and know about the shocking character deaths ahead on the TV series. They have shown remarkable restraint out of a selfless desire for the viewers to have the optimal experience. So...they'll have to be much more careful than I just was...but hey, there was a spoiler warning!

According to the Nolan formula, once the franchise is established the second film brings back the arch-enemy. But as important to the Spider-Man lore as he is, the Green Goblin is just not as compelling as The Joker. Not even close. But here are some predictions. The second film will be called either "The Spectacular Spider-Man" or "The Sensational Spider-Man." Some kind of twist will added to Norman Osborn's supervillain debut. Perhaps he'll adopt the identity of The Hobgoblin instead. Another villain may be added to spice things up more. Ben Kingsley as The Vulture? Bruce Campbell as Mysterio? (You know that would be awesome). The third film may even take another shot at Venom, the same way The Dark Knight Rises seems poised to make up for Bane's laughable last appearance in Batman and Robin.

But here's the thing...I had an important realization. With Batman, the "definitive" version of the character to me is the one in Batman: The Animated Series. Kevin Conroy's voice and Bruce Timm's design always comes to mind first when I imagine the character. So Christian Bale's silly growling in otherwise great movies isn't something worth getting too worked up over...I can watch those cartoons any time I want. With Spider-Man, the definitive version isn't Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, or even Christopher Daniel Barnes's voice from the 90s cartoon. It's John Romita's drawing of Peter Parker. With that in mind, it probably doesn't matter what the movies do. And in this case, it's clear the people who helped create this new film did care about doing it well regardless of the money-grubbing Sony execs. I suppose that's about all you can ask for.

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