– By Sulaiman D.
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the significance of the year 2012 for comic book fans. Let’s start by saying that the very idea of having three blockbuster movies based on comic book properties in a single year to look forward to was a complete fantasy ten years ago. But documenting the reasons for Marvel and DC’s astounding success in making quality films that satisfy both the fans and capturing a brand new audience will have to wait for another blog. For now, I’m just going to talk about Spider-Man.
Remember when Spider-Man first came out, waaaay back in 2002? It wasn’t the first movie starring a Marvel character. Wesley Snipes’ Blade was one (if a little obscure), and the first X-Men film was released in 2000. But if 90s kids grew up watching X-Men, their parents grew up watching Spider-Man in one of his delightfully campy animated cartoons back in the late 60s. So literally everyone and their mothers knew who Spider-Man was. Spidey wasn’t just some comic book character, he was more than that. He was a genuine worldwide icon. So with all that taken into account, the 2002 movie was a big moment for superhero films.
And for a first effort, it was not bad at all. I remember loving everything about it, but that’s what happens when your vision is obscured by nostalgia goggles. Ten years have passed, and the special effects are looking quite dated. In hindsight, Tobey Maguire played the nerdy Peter Parker quite well but never really seemed heroic as the Webslinger. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson wasn’t as drop dead gorgeous as her comics counterpart, and all she ever did was to scream and wait to be rescued. Willem Dafoe acted the hell out of Norman Osborn, but he went really over the top at times and the less said about his costume the better. Suffice to say, the Sam Raimi trilogy hasn’t aged well. And a run down of the flaws of the sequels could fill a book.
So when the news rolled around that Columbia Pictures was rebooting Spider-Man, the news was met with a fair bit of skepticism. Spider-Man 3 had almost ruined the character in the fans’ eyes, and the convoluted plot involving three villains confused regular movie-watchers. Did the world really need another Spider-Man movie, so soon after the end of the first trilogy? I honestly felt they would be better off letting the character rest for a while. Besides, it wasn’t as if we didn’t have anything else to look forward to.
The Avengers! Dark Knight Rises! 2012 was shaping up to be a titanic clash between the best of Marvel and the best of DC, the sharp, witty banter and blockbuster action of Joss Whedon versus the epic, deeply philosophical conclusion to Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The Hulk and Thor bashing aliens while Catwoman lectured Bruce Wayne on the injustice of the 99%. Amazing Spider-Man? Just a footnote, something to be mentioned in passing. “Oh yeah, there’s that new Spidey movie too. With that kid from The Social Network and the girl from Zombieland. I’ll catch it if I have the time.” It was with this mindset that I sat down and watched Amazing Spider-Man. And I was to be proven utterly, utterly mistaken.
Massive Spoilers ahead, read only after having watched the movie.
Ok just us party people? Good. Now let me be absolutely clear, this movie is excellent. This movie is exactly what an origins movie for a beloved character should be. And yes, I do believe this movie is ultimately more entertaining than the Avengers. The reason why is due to one simple rule – when you’re making a movie based off a beloved, decades-old property, stick to what made it great in the first place.
1. Spidey is funny
Such a simple thing, and Raimi’s Spider-Man messed it up. I mean, go back and watch the first movie again, or watch the Nostalgia Critic’s review of it. Tobey Maguire has zero witty, funny lines when he puts on the mask. His Spider-Man spouts lame cliches and his lines just fall flat. Garfield’s Spider-Man is hilarious. That bit where he sits in the back of the car, keeps webbing the carjacker to the wall and casually dodges bullets at point-blank range? That is pure Spider-Man, right there. Any fan can tell you the number one thing about a Spider-Man book is that he never. Stops. Talking. Spidey is the most irritating hero in the Marvel Universe and we finally have a Spider-Man who lives up to that reputation.
2. Spidey is heroic
Think back to Maguire-Spider’s ‘big debut’. Remember the whole New York bridge thing with the falling cable car and the falling Mary Jane? We had something similar with Spidey chasing the Lizard and getting side-tracked. But instead of saving a whole cable car full of kids which given the weak CGI looks kinda lame, the new Spider-Man saves one kid. And somehow it’s a lot more emotional.
There has been a lot of criticism regarding Spider-Man’s mask and how in the movies it’s always coming off. We know the real reason – the studio paid a lot of money to get their actors on board, and very few actors can express emotions through a mask. But when Maguire’s mask came off all the time for no good reason, it broke our suspension of disbelief and reminded us that we were watching a movie. We don’t want that, we want to be immersed in the experience. So when Garfield took off his mask to reassure the kid in the falling car and calm him down, it was beautifully done for three reasons. It made sense in context, the actor got to show off his face, and best of all it was a genuinely heroic moment. Spider-Man doesn’t care about his secret identity if it means saving the life of an innocent child.
3. Spidey is driven by guilt
This is perhaps the single most important detail of the entire Spider-Man mythos. It is the defining characteristic of who Spider-Man is. Superman does good and saves the innocent because he wants to and had awesome parents. Batman punishes the guilty because he’s suffering from extended PTSD. Cap does it because it’s his job, Iron Man does it because he’s slowly dying and wants to go out with a bang (in some continuities, at least). Other heroes have even murkier motivations for being heroes. But not Spider-Man. Spider-Man has a very clear and very famous reason to do good.
Peter Parker is a good person in a lot of ways, but he’s not the most emotionally healthy person around. He basically spends his life atoning for one mistake. To maximise the pathos and tragedy of that one horrible moment, it must be Peter’s fault that Uncle Ben gets shot. It’s even better if it comes about as a result of simple human pettiness. How many times have you said or done something thoughtlessly cruel or callous to the people you love, and afterwards wondered how could you have been so small-minded?
It’s emphasized even more in the movie because we see that Peter is genuinely a good person, studies hard and loves his adoptive parents very much. But in that one moment where he acts like a dick, or in other words gives in to the very human impulse to be selfish, he is punished for it in a very disproportionate manner. That’s the genius behind Ditko and Lee’s original Spider-Man, he can never simply hang up the mask and follow his dream of becoming a top scientist. He can never simply enjoy married life with his supermodel wife, even if it’s for the best all round. He has to be a hero, in a way a lot of other heroes don’t.
Uncle Ben’s death was done well in the 2002 Spider-Man , and it’s also portrayed with the right amount of emotion in Amazing Spider-Man. The sheer teenage bitchiness of Peter ditching his responsibilities, running off in a fit of anger and the brilliant moment after Uncle Ben dies where he crouches in his room alone, his head buried in his hands, his body shaking with sobs. You can feel the raw grief pouring off Peter, and know that he’ll spend the rest of his life wishing he could take it back. It’s also appropriate that Peter tries to stem the flow of blood from his uncle’s gunshot wound with his bare hands, a touch of Macbeth with his uncle’s blood forever staining his hands.
4. Closer to the comics and Gwen Stacy
There were a bunch of unnecessary changes made by the 2002 movie, chief of which was that Spidey shot webs directly from his wrists, instead of inventing web shooters. Other writers have pointed out it hilariously resembles ejaculation, particularly in the first scene where he’s alone in his room, possibly as part of Raimi’s intention to make Spider-Man a movie about puberty. We may never know the truth.
Marc Webb sensibly goes back to basics, with Peter inventing web-shooters using material taken directly from Oscorp. It’s better for two reasons. First it demonstrates Peter’s scientific and technological genius. He’s actually a pretty smart guy, and inventing webshooters would be a huge breakthrough worth millions if he ever decided to be boring and sell his technology like a normal person. It ties into the sense of guilt mentioned above, that Peter is destined never to have nice things. Secondly, they made a point to highlight that the web itself is an Oscorp invention. I’m just waiting for that moment in the sequel when Spidey realises his main weapon and tool that saved his life and the lives of others so many times in the past was developed by his greatest enemy.
Another change that brings the movie closer to the comics is starting with Gwen Stacy as Peter’s first great love. Although I maintain Emma Stone would have made a perfect Mary Jane Watson, being a natural redhead, she is very good as Gwen Stacy. There’s a nice little nod to the Ditko Gwen Stacy with her preferred outfit of high boots and short skirt, and of course it’s great fanservice as well. But the most positive and refreshing aspect of the Gwen Stacy character is that she isn’t the helpless damsel in distress Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane was. She is smart, has a life outside of Peter Parker, actively helps in saving the city, and the best part of all, refuses to listen to Peter when he’s giving her ‘a direct order’ to run away. That’s exactly what Spider-Man’s love interest should be, and they got the perfect actress to portray her.
Besides, you know the moment when the Green Goblin murders her will be one hell of a kick to the gut.
5. The Action
There are certain things we expect as fans when we go to see a movie about a character. We expect Superman to be bright and sunny and heroic, we expect Batman to be dark and brooding, the Hulk to smash stuff and so on. The greatest appeal of Spider-Man is his ability to leap and bounce around the concrete jungle of New York City and Amazing serves us all the action in spades.
With so many great scenes and action sequences, how to pick just one? Horsing around in the dockside warehouse, swinging on the chains. Balancing precariously on his fingertips on the ledge of a skyscraper, which is one of the finer heart-in-your-mouth moments ever filmed. The POV shots where we see how dangerously close Spidey comes to smashing his skull on a stray railing or brick wall and never does. The fight scenes are extremely well done too, with more imagination and inventiveness than the Raimi movies. Spider-Man isn’t just a brawler, his fighting style is unorthodox (because he never trained professionally), frequently non-lethal (because he’s somewhat of a pacifist) and very creative with his webs (because he’s a genius). The movie brilliantly emphasizes these aspects of his character in the fight scenes, and it all comes together with pitch perfect precision.
But if nothing else, the one thing you should takeaway from the movie is the final scene. That one moment, frozen in time, as Spider-Man is poised between one swing to another high above the ground in the heart of New York, looking like a dazzling Todd MacFarlane cover being brought to life, big and bold and impossibly heroic…
That my friend, is the pure distilled essence of comics.