Saturday, October 27, 2012

SPIDER-MOVIE - PART II: Origin Story (Adaptation vs. Interpretation)

As I stated in my last post, having a Superhero flick remain 'true' to the comics isn't always as imperative as we claim it to be.  Many elements of the comics have been altered in the films, and we usually don't even notice.  However, with even the most flexible of adaptations there are always certain parameters that must be, more or less, maintained.  The "unchangeables."  Of these 'non-exceptions' the most common comes in the form of 'the origin story.' 

For example: In Superman's origin story we insist that Krypton goes BOOM, and baby Kal-El escapes in a rocket destined for earth.  But really, no one cares if Krypton is an Ice Planet or an ultra cheesy shining utopia of intellectual perfection and atrocious fashion sense. There's plenty of wiggle room when it comes to the specifics, as long as the primary ingredients are maintained.

So too is this the case with Spider-man.  Who Peter's first girlfriend is, whether he's almost in College or just starting high school, is all irrelevant.   For the character to stay true to his comic counterpart the ESSENTIAL 'origin beats' that "MUST be maintained at all costs" are the following:

1.    Peter is an intelligent, teenaged, social outcast who struggles with life (in general) when...
2.    He is accidentally bitten by a Spider (that has been affected by whichever ‘science’ thing is currently topical) and, in turn, gains Spider based Super powers.


3.    Initially he is freaked out by this radical life change, but eventually comes to realize that having powers kicks ass.
4.    Over time he lets his new found abilities stroke his ego a bit more than is healthy and starts to act negatively, thus making poor choices.
5.    The last of these poor choices results in the escape of an armed robber who ultimately takes the life of Peter’s Uncle, Ben Parker.
6.    When Peter finds out that he is responsible for his uncle’s death (albeit indirectly), he turns his life around and starts to use his great power to help those in need.

Classic.  Everything you need in a good moral tale about heroism is right there, and now it's been filmed TWICE for your viewing pleasure.  This begs the question...


SPIDER-MAN (2002) – Directed by Sam Raimi

In respect to the origin story, Raimi’s film does get it pretty much spot on.   One could nitpick the odd thing here or there, but no one can deny that it’s a fairly accurate adaptation of the comic book.  Indeed, almost everything in the first 11 pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 have been brought to life in the first 30 minutes of "Spider-man", right up to the scene with Spidey chasing Uncle Ben's killer into an abandoned warehouse before making the heartbreaking discovery.


The film excluded Peter's mechanical web shooters (a subject I'll broach in my next post), as well as the fact that, in the comic, Spider-man actually had a major stint on live television before things went sour for him.  However, both of those are very minor plot points in the forming of our beloved character. 


For the origin of Spider-man I give 'SPIDER-MAN': 9 out of 10

An accurate adaptation, both serviceable and classic.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) - Directed by Marc Webb

I do not envy the position that Screenwriter James Vanderbilt must have been in when constructing the re-telling of Spider-man's origins a mere TEN YEARS after the original film (okay I might envy him a bit).   I won't beat around the bush; there are certain things that this film changed, which I suppose they had to, lest it feel stagnant with over-familiarity.   As such, I can't help but ask... "If Raimi's film had not existed would the changes that occurred in THIS film have taken place at all?"  Almost immediately I come to the conclusion that, no, they wouldn't have.  Still, the changes aren't necessarily bad.

I am a strong believer that restrictions breed creativity.  Obviously the writer couldn't all out change the origin, and yet he needed to find a way to make it interesting, to make us care. Again.  Which is easier said than done.  Simply making another Spider-man movie is one thing, but making another Spider-man movie about the SAME THING without causing the masses to yawn collectively is something else entirely.  For Raimi's film the challenge was much less severe than it was here.  We were so excited just to SEE Spider-man on the big screen that short of COMPLETELY screwing up we were going to love it no matter what.

It would be another two films before Raimi figured out how to convince us otherwise.

But with "The Amazing Spider-man" the writers had to come up with some new angle to present, and (surprisingly) as a result I actually found myself caring MORE than I did the first time around.  In "Spider-man" the origin focused on Peter Parker's journey into being Spider-man, whereas in "The Amazing Spider-man" it focused on Peter Parker's journey into being a man, during which he happened to get super powers.  I don't know if it was done on purpose, but we ended up getting an origin centered on CHARACTER dressed up as fun Superhero tale, instead of the other way around.  And I liked it.


Not as much as you might think, but a few things still.

1.    In this version Peter never goes into wrestling or showbiz at all.
2.    While Peter does learn that his uncle's killer is the same man he let escape, Pete never actually does find or catch the man in charge.
3.    The Spider bite still remains an accident although Peter was meddling in areas he shouldn't have been.  Traditionally Peter's accident is a 100% fluke and in no way his fault.  I'm not going to bring this point up again, because due to the way the film executed it I don't think it really matters.  It was still an accident.

And that's it.  That's all that was changed from the comics.  How does it affect the character?  Not really at all.  The end result of who the character is and what he becomes is the same.  The only reason why the 'Twilight Zone reveal' mattered in the comics is because it was a more dramatic ending to a story that wasn't guaranteed a follow up series.  The original comic didn't have time for a 'main villain' or even a particularly strong supporting cast (seriously, uncle Ben only has two lines, and we don't even SEE his death), so the most interesting dramatic device the story had going for it was 'the twist ending'.

Not unlike M. Night Shayamalan's movies.

But for the purpose of moving our hero forward into a larger and more involved plot (such as a feature film requires) simply letting Peter realize his critical error is enough.  In fact, having him NOT catch Ben's killer after discovering the truth only furthers Peter's lesson in responsibility because now he can't even take it out on anyone.  Peter is now forced to live with his mistakes and shoulder the burden of responsibility on his own.  For a character whose origin is rooted in responsibility this change makes a lot of sense.

"What about the lack of wrestling/showbiz in Spidey's early career?"

Again all you have to do is look at what the purpose that particular story element served in order to decide whether it was still necessary for "Amazing".  The showbiz angle from the comics was put in place to allow Peter's ego to grow out of control.  "The Amazing Spider-man" still had Peter become arrogant, as one would tend to do with newfound Powers, but by replacing the wrestling career with, instead, an added focus on Pete's relationships the writers were able to deliver the same effect without having to sacrifice screen time for it.  If this had been part television series there would have been more time to focus on the wrestling gig (serial shows allow for broader arcs).   However, with a feature film, if you can accomplish the same thing in less time, do it.


There is one other 'change' that bothered some people, which is not really a change at all.   Many will note that never once does uncle Ben state the famous catchphrase "With great power comes great Responsibility".  Fans were upset because this was Uncle Ben's big defining moment, and it was completely stripped from him!  What an appalling injustice!
This is worth destroying my property over!

But I would like to bring your attention to the fact that Uncle Ben never actually said that in the comic.  For those in disbelief, please observe the following

If you can look at that and NOT think dirty thoughts you
 are much better person than I am.  Responsibility indeed.

Not a rousing speech in sight.  Uncle Ben only appears in three more panels after that, and doesn't speak in any of them.  In fact the familiar catchphrase, which we all associate with dear ol' Uncle Ben, doesn't appear at all until the very last panel at which point Stan Lee narrates:

"And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come-- great responsibility!"

Huh.  It's almost like Uncle Ben wasn't important at ALL beyond functioning as a stock character with a specific purpose within the confines of an incredibly brief throwaway story in the last issue of a dying comic series. 

It's almost like that because that's exactly what it is. 

Uncle Ben was only important to the development of the characters AFTER the fact in a very hindsight fashion.  Certain later comics and television series attributed the now famous line to Uncle Ben as an afterthought, but at the end of the day it wasn't really important who SAID it, but rather that Peter LEARNED it.

It should also be said that while "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" Is incredibly quotable, it doesn't really sound very good in every day conversation.  Does having Uncle Ben speak to Peter about Power and Responsibility make for a Great character moment? Yes.  Absolutely.  There's a reason that most modern updates including "The Amazing Spider-man" do it.  The only difference here is that the writers actually made it sound like something a father figure would say to his unruly surrogate teenage son on the fly, instead of it sounding like something he got from a hallmark card and set aside for future use "just in case".


Web shooters!  Peter's Parents!

This film they also included the mechanical web shooters, and introduced the back-story of Peter's parents.  The latter is a subject that was never touched on once in the prior Spidey trilogy (a brief mention simply alluded to their passing)

For the Origin of Spider-man I give 'THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN': 10 out of 10

A respectfully done interpretation of the character's origin.  While some minor changes were made in order to keep the story fresh, none of them altered the characters in any relevant way, and in some cases actually made for more compelling drama.

Obviously this is just one of the necessary ingredients in a good Spider-man movie, and I understand that numerous other considerations need to be taken before I can simply chalk up "The Amazing Spider-man" as the superior film.  That's why next week I'll be comparing how both films dealt with what (I feel) is one of the most critical elements of the franchise, the depiction of Peter Parker.   Don't miss: "Peter Parker: The Nerd Factor"

Until then
Thanks for reading,


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