Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Depressing Spider-man

Once upon a time in movie-land, Sony had the rights to one of Marvel's most popular comic book heroes and put a film into production. They hired a director who had very little blockbuster experience, a lead who had one or two roles that gained him interest from critics and discerning audiences but was nothing close to a movie star yet, and a cast full of reliably great character actors. The result was a good movie that not only made money, but managed to capture the elusive "feel" of the classic Spider-man comics that made the character so enduring.

Unfortunately, that movie came out 10 years ago - the new one is pretty crap.

So yes, The Amazing Spider-man is "the #1 movie in the world" (for about 5 minutes) and somehow doing okay with critics, but I'm pretty baffled as to why. Because there's frankly nothing here that hasn't been done before, and done better. Not only is this new movie a shameless beat-for-beat rehash of nearly everything in Raimi's original Spider-man (yeah, that "Untold Story" marketing line is total BS), but every time this film is relying on this well-worn blueprint it only underlines how much of it the movie gets wrong. For example, the "Big Bad" of the movie - the Lizard - is pretty much just Norman Osborn from the first movie as a reptile. Genuis scientist that bonds with Peter over science? Check. Desire to improve humanity through genetics? Check. Gets fired, tests things on self, turns evil, and starts having Gollum/Smeagol conversations? Check, Check, Check, and Check.

Only he has no clear motivations for anything or an interesting personal struggle (which is what made Dafoe's fantastic turn as Osborn work so well) - he just turns evil as soon as he's the lizard. Oh, and he also decides to turn everyone in New York into Lizards. Because. . . reasons. Yeah, there's a lot that doesn't make sense in this movie, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

This sort of check-the-box retreading permeates the entire film, and always feels entirely artificial. The Amazing Spider-man even tries to copy the "people of New York come to Spidey's aid" bit with a massively stupid crane sequence, but while that worked in Raimi's movies (partly because the movies' overall tone matched the feel of that sort of on-the-nose pulpy moment and partly because the amount of time Spidey spent helping the people of New York made it feel earned), here it's just stupid. And nonsensical to boot.

But the recycled elements from 2002's Spider-man aren't the biggest problem. The villain isn't the biggest problem. The tonal issues aren't the biggest problem. The most glaring issue with the movie is that Peter Parker sucks.

He does, and it really bums me out to say this considering how much I love the character in all his various media forms. But Peter sucks as a character in his own right, he sucks as an interpretation of a comic book hero, and he also kinda sucks as a person. Now no protagonist should be flawless (it's the overcoming of obstacles, most often with personal stakes, that makes a good protagonist compelling), but turning a lovably down-on-his-luck science dweeb into a selfish dick who plays at being a dangerous loner was a profoundly stupid move. Whichever of the film's 3 credited writers (all of whom are better than this crap) is responsible, they should feel ashamed of themselves.

Worse, Peter has no actual character arc. Through the movie he's constantly doing a "dangerous loner" James Dean through the lens of Edward Cullen pastiche and never grows as a person. Peter in the comics and in Raimi's films is a guy who made a fatal mistake, regrets it intensely, and devotes the rest of his life to try to do the right thing in a world that never makes it easy. This new Peter barely seems to understand the concept of "the right thing" as being a thing at all.

Let's examine what is THE defining moment of Peter Parker's life and the impetus for him becoming Spider-man: Uncle Ben's death. In the comics and the films (even the new one) Ben is killed by a petty crook that Peter could have stopped. Peter's guilt over his inaction leading to his uncle's death is every bit as important to Spider-man as the webs and wall-crawling. Raimi understood this, but apparently no one involved with this new film did. When a corner store robbery goes wrong and Ben is killed, what does Peter do? Is there a moment of self-examination and personal growth? NO. Peter starts finding and beating up random crooks who match the murderer's description.

And from there. . . well, the movie's been out for more than a week, so I'm just going to spoil the hell out of it.

This new movie wants to meld the "snark" and "hip" of Iron Man with the brooding angst of Batman Begins, but not only does it fail to understand why that combination doesn't work for Spider-man (or at all really), it fails to grasp why it even worked for those films. There's no accepting of responsibility here - Peter goes from angry vigilante to "I guess I should help people" because of a lecture from his girlfriend's dad, not from any sort of personal growth. It's a poorly-written transition that comes off like he wanted to impress the hot girl's family, and the fact that he ends the movie breaking a promise (made to the the same guy as he's dying because he SAVED PETER'S LIFE) just drives home how confused and poorly-written this character is. "With great power comes great responsibility" is outright ignored in favor of "The best promises are the ones you can't keep."

Great, so after two surrogate father figures are dead because of you, you've learned NOTHING about thinking of someone else before yourself.

If Sony wanted to do a more "modern" version Peter Parker, they could have at the very least taken some cues from Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky - an awkward doof with a wise mouth but one who is still a decent guy and sees more growth as a person even in a Michael Bay movie. The writing of the Transformers films is pretty bad, but they at least had a couple examples of "how to do this better." And when that qualifies as aiming higher, you know you've got a problem.

What's worse, this new Peter's just not a very likable person. Don't get me wrong, I love Garfield and there are moments where his performance is likable and fun, but he's given crap to work with from the words on the page and the director. Say what you will about Tobey Maguire's performance, his Peter Parker was always someone you could root for. Here we have a guy who's an asshole to his aunt and uncle, an asshole to the girl who likes him, an asshole to her family, and to pretty much everyone else in the movie with no sort of apology for his actions. He passes off other people's work as his own TWICE (taking credit for both his father's formula and Oscorp's "bio-cable" webbing), and even acts like more of a bully to criminals than a snarky do-gooder who - when you get down to it - is all about STOPPING BULLIES.

Hell, one of the first things he does after gaining spider powers is rip the shirt off of some poor girl on the subway. Not even joking - that's our hero.

The heroine doesn't fare much better. Gwen Stacey was never the most interesting of Peter's love interests, but here she literally only exists to be a damsel in distress and an expository device. The actors have an undeniable chemistry, but the love story itself isn't even a story. They meet. They like each other. That's kinda it. There's no conflict, no obstacle to the romance, nothing to overcome to "get the girl." In short, there's no drama or stakes to the relationship.

Emma Stone is likable and adorable, but she doesn't even get to show the spirit that Dunst's Mary Jane had. Gwen has no growth as a character and really no personality beyond "smart cute girl." Her reaction to Peter being an ass to her? "Come have dinner at my house!" Even worse, Peter then confesses that he's Spider-man (on the FIRST DATE) and when she seems shocked and somewhat afraid, does he comfort her or give her space? No, he tells her to shut up and kisses her while she's caught - literally - in his webbing.

Wow. Selfish, surly, and controlling? How romantic.

The film's also just a narrative cluster-cuss on a broader level. Story threads and characters get dropped with no explanation or utilization, and there are tons of scenes that jump out as feeling awkward and conflicting as well as heavily-advertised lines/scenes that just aren't in the film at all (signs of the re-shoots/edits meant to excise most of the "Untold Story"). It results in truly amateur-level storytelling. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a better genuine grasp of narrative propulsion, development, and character arc than this movie, and that thing was mess.

So that's a decent sampling of what the movie gets wrong. But while it's not a good movie, that's not to say it's completely terrible. It's not as abhorrent as X-men Origins: Wolverine or Batman & Robin. The leads do have great chemistry and are charming enough in spite of what the movie makes them do, the web-swinging genuinely looks even more impressive than in the Raimi films (though the action scenes themselves are nowhere near as good), there are some fun lines and moments sprinkled throughout (including a genuinely great Stan Lee cameo), Martin Sheen is fantastic as Uncle Ben, and James Horner, usually infamous for scoring a movie mostly by recycling his own earlier work, turns in some decent tracks with a couple respectful nods to Elfman's original scores.

But honestly, this pretty much a waste of time. We've seen Spider-man do nearly all this before, and do it SO much better. We've seen origin stories, we've seen brooding vengeful crime-fighters, we've seen CGI monster bad guys, we've seen vigilante heroes hunted by well-meaning cops. This movie provides NOTHING to justify its existence beyond allowing Sony to hold onto the Spider-man rights so they have a money-making franchise and so that Marvel doesn't get to throw Spidey into an Avengers movie yet.

I wanted to like this movie. I love Spider-man, and him being in a film this terribly disappointing is like seeing a friend hit a brick wall. Hopefully the sequel will be better.

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