Monday, October 29, 2012

SPIDER-MOVIE - PART III: Peter Parker (The Nerd Factor)

It's not enough to have Spider-man just be all awesome, swinging through the city like a free runner, base jumper, and trapeze artist all rolled into one.  Yes, we love it when he does a back flip while simultaneously kicking Venom in the face, but as with all good heroes there must also be a struggle from WITHIN.  And stuff.  Thankfully not only is Spider-man NOT exempt from this rule, but his struggle from within makes his back flips seem like a cakewalk; enter Peter Parker.

Peter Parker isn't awesome.  He doesn't do incredible back flips, win fights, or get the girl.  In the game of life he does not pass go, and he NEVER collects $200. 

Not even when he's playing SPIDER-MAN monopoly.

It's not that Peter is stupid or lazy; he's quite the opposite on both accounts, and in fact is arguably a borderline genius.  The reason for his down-trodden status is that he's spent an entire life of estrangement from people in general, and as such has a hard time making connections and relating.  This social disconnection may be why his intelligence is so developed, but it's definitely why he's so lonely.   There's no doubt, the guy is just an honest-to-goodness-down-on-his-luck underdog.  And while this aspect of the character's personality may possess less piszaz than his crime-fighting alias provides, it's also one of the primary reasons we love him.

It's really a no-brainer.  People empathize with the underdog because everyone sees THEMSELVES as the underdog in the story of their own life.  Peter Parker is the poster boy for underdogs.  Not only is the guy protecting the innocent from adversaries that constantly outmatch his own abilities, but he's usually making a personal sacrifice to be there.  Whether he's missing a date, Aunt May is on her death bed, or he's just late getting his English essay in, he always shows up to fight the good fight, and usually without so much as a thank you.  Noble to the end.  He's everything we admire in a hero all wrapped up in wish fulfillment.

That last part is important.  Wish fulfillment.  Without that element Peter wouldn't be Peter.  After all, if Peter had been born with amazing spider-powers he'd have been off partying, joining the sports teams (all of them) and getting laid numerous times before even hitting puberty.  Life would be easy for him, and that would be no fun for us.  However, with a healthy injection of the 'wish fulfillment factor' the audience can now root for him. 

We don't cheer for people who were BORN with power, we cheer for those who FINALLY have power; those who have suffered and waited for an opportunity to turn the tables; those who will finally make things right.  It's why we love Harry Potter (even though he's constantly doing stupid things), root for Luke Skywalker (even though he's whiny), and it's even why many American's voted for Barrack Obama (even though he's... a politician)

"Ha ha.  Very funny asshole."

In order for Spider-man to work Peter must first spend his life as an outcast, a nerd, or else he's just a cocky jock with super powers.  He must first begin with nothing in order to have wishes that need fulfilling.

With "the nerd factor" being so critical to any film portrayal of Peter Parker, it begs the question;


First up...

SPIDER-MAN (2002) – Directed by Sam Raimi

Peter Parker (as played here by Tobey Maguire) is portrayed almost exactly as he is in the comic.  He's a science nerd with a big brain.  We know this to be true because we're told he gets good grades, and numerous times throughout the series are told that he's smart/brilliant.  If that's not enough to convince you of what a huge nerd Pete is you need only look at his appearance.  Look at him!  What a loser.  He wears dorky clothes, his glasses look big and dumb (doubtless from doing so much geeky homework), even his haircut looks like it gets it's milk money stolen from the other more popular haircuts.  Throw in that he's awkward around girls and gets pushed around just for being so lame and you have the most pitiful person on earth.

Yup. All you have to do is take a quick look to see that Peter Parker is the LEAST likely person to become a highly acrobatic crime fighter.  And after all, isn't that the point?  Peter is an unappealing nerd.  Right?  That's what makes his transformation into the coolest person on earth so appealing.  It also works perfectly into the wish fulfillment aspect of the story.  With such a spot-on filmic adaptation of the character, it almost seems pointless to ask...


...Actually, a bit more than you'd think.  To be fair, it's really more what Sam Raimi's film 'left out' as opposed to what it 'changed' per se, but the result is the same.

The first most noticeable change was the switch from Mechanical Web-shooters to Organic ones.  Initially this may seem less related to Peter Parker than it is to Spider-man, but you'd be wrong.  While the web-shooters may be used almost exclusively for Spidey's crime busting endeavors it was the CREATION of them that allowed for Peter's ability as a scientist and inventor to be realized.  Some would argue that by relegating Pete's webbing to an extension of his powers it downplays Peter's intelligence.

Think about how much more impressive his accomplishments are when you realize that he's whipping together batches of chemicals or even fairly sophisticated gadgets in his bedroom.  It's one thing for Batman or Iron Man to be genius Superheroes when they have billion dollar corporations to back them up, but when you can barely afford rent it becomes another matter entirely.

Pictured: An unfair advantage.

But then to be fair, I do understand the change to 'organics'.  After all it does seem strange to give someone 'all the powers of a spider', but to exclude the ability to make webs.  Even Stan Lee agreed with the change to organic web-shooters; and why, after all, should Peter's scientific prowess be limited to one device? 

In the comics it was often Pete's intelligence that helped save the day in the heat of battle.  Some villains need more than a punch to the jaw, and part of the fun was to see how Spidey would outsmart the villain.  And outsmart them he would.  Spider-man used his brains to assist him in his first battles with Dr. Octopus, The Lizard, and the Vulture, and that's just scratching the surface.  In the end I don't think the web shooters should HAVE to be necessary (even if preferable) as long as Peter gets to display the powers of his keen mind in some other way.

Seems fair right?

So on that note; quickly tell me one thing Peter Parker did in the entire Raimi Trilogy that displayed his massive intelligence, aside from being told he was smart, or getting into college. "That's easy" I hear you say, "right off the bat two examples from 'Spider-man 2' spring to mind."  And how right you are.  In Spider-man 2 we see Peter:

1.    Have an intellectual conversation with Doc Ock (prior to him becoming a villain).
2.    Do well in class during the montage immediately after he gives up being Spider-man.

Okay now mention one science based thing Peter Parker does to help him defeat ANY of his adversaries.  Just ONE time his scientific knowledge comes into play when he's fighting crime as Spider-man.   And the answer is... Nothing.  Zip. Nada. Don't believe me?  Allow me to list off all the ways Spider-man's enemies were defeated.

  1. Green Goblin: Stabbed (by his own remote controlled glider).
  2. Dr. Octopus: Convinced that being evil is bad, then sacrifices himself to save the city
  3. New Goblin (Harry Osborn): Gets beat up and decides to behave. Sacrifices himself to save Peter.
  4. Sandman: Gets blown up by Harry.  Even then, he still returns unharmed.  Ultimately Pete wins by getting him to apologize. But it's a really SINCERE apology.

"I'm not a bad person,  just had bad luck.  Like that unlucky time I 
was involved in your uncle's death, or when I kidnapped an innocent woman as
 bait to lure you into a trap so I could kill you.  THAT's how unlucky I am.  Sorry."

  1. Venom: Pete uses loud noises (sonics) to defeat Venom.  I would ALMOST count this as a 'science victory' except that Pete came upon it completely by accident.  He saw that the loud objects were causing venom pain and went with it.  Even I would have made the same connection, and I know almost NOTHING about science.

After dispensing the facts the only thing left is to pass my judgment.

For the portrayal of Peter Parker I give Raimi's film: 7 out of 10

I'm not going to get down on Tobey for working with what he had, and it wouldn't be fair to say they got Pete COMPLETELY wrong.  Indeed, they got a number of things right.  At the very least Peter Parker was a dorky nerd outcast, just like in the Comic Book.

So what about...?

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

For the portrayal of Peter Parker in Webb's film it seemed a no brainer at the time to more or less stick with the comics.  Again if it ain't broke don't fix it right?  And yet looming overhead was the ever present threat of the prior series which was still fresh in our minds.  What could they do with the character that wouldn't feel recycled?

Then it happened.  The Trailer was released, and with it all our worst fears were seemingly realized.  Physically Andrew Garfield was a perfect fit (even most of the naysayer didn't have anything against the casting of the actual actor), but it was the presentation that people found off putting.  In terms of hair style, clothing, and physical demeanor this Peter appeared to be a fairly typical looking teenager (well movie teenager anyway) and that was no good at all because everyone, EVERYONE knows that Peter needs to be an uncompromising wimpy looking nerd.  HOW DARE YOU TAKE THAT AWAY FROM US!?

Truth be told, this is the only reason I buy tables in the first place.

With such blatant disregard for the source material it almost seems redundant to ask...


Well... some stuff, I guess, but it's a little tricky to put into point form.

It's important to remember that Spider-man was first introduced in 1962. Peter Parker was structured to be an anti-social misfit with a HUGE inferiority complex.  An outcast.  What better model to fit the bill of an awkward high-school outcast who constantly strikes out with the girls?  Clearly, a nerd.  A Geek.  A Bookworm.  In fact even during my childhood being a geek was a social death sentence.  But somewhere in the late 90's and early 2000's something happened.  Suddenly being a nerd stopped being a sign of weakness and started being this.

HAH!  What a nerd!  Everyone must HATE her!

The problem isn't that Peter Parker became obsolete, but rather the framework in which his character was built did.  To excel in Math, Sciences, English, History, or to display any extraordinary intelligence isn't enough to brand you outsider anymore; at least not on it's own merit.  For that matter, reading a Walking Dead comic doesn't ensure ridicule any more than going to the midnight screening of 'The Avengers', the latter of which makes you about as unique as... someone with tickets for a movie.  That's not to say that there aren't ANY socially awkward kids left in existence, because of course there are.  Indeed some of these individuals bury themselves in homework and comic books (or video games as the case may be).  But the difference is that being smart on its own is actually valued (as it should be), and comics, role playing games, video games, and science fiction have all simply joined television, films, sports, fashion, etc. in the grand world of pop culture.  Pop.  As in Popular.

Sticking with the traditional adaptation of the Peter Parker character becomes a problem because we can no longer accept his social alienation at face value.  Back in the day he was bookworm, which equaled LOSER.  Only the socially deficient and physically atrophied had time to devote their mental faculties to higher learning!  All the cool guys were too busy being cool, playing sports, driving cars, and dating girls.   Now, finally, add on that the comic series initially had a target audience of boys aged 6-10 (ish), an audience with whom simplicity is key.  In 50 years time the series' audience has (questionably) matured, and not only do we demand that our tortured protagonist have a legitimate roots to his problems, but that they're portrayed in a way that rings true to the year 2012.  Not 1962.

So back to 'The Amazing Spider-man'.  Have they changed Peter? 

Yes, and No.

-      Yes, in as much as that he now dresses like an average teenager (instead of a caricature of a dork).
-      Yes, in as much as that he isn't an especially weak teenager any more than he is especially strong.

Otherwise No.  The character isn't really changed at all.  The things that we've all been recognizing as 'changed' are all peripheral aspects of the character, completely dependant upon the era in which they're presented. The real threat this movie presented had nothing to do with Peter's updated fashion sense, but rather that they would try to give us some 'improved' explanation for Peter's ant-social behavior.  Thankfully the writers realized the work had already been done for them.

Peter had parents.  Now he's an orphan.  In fact not only is he an orphan but he was also old enough to remember who his parents were when they left.  Of course it was quite a while AFTER Spidey's first introduction before the comics touched on the subject, but that's to be expected.  The beauty of making a film based on a serial comics character is that you have the power of hindsight.  You can choose which story elements and characters to use, save for later, and discard completely.  Unfortunately Raimi's films decided to put the topic of Pete's parents in the "discard completely" pile, and that was the last of it.  THIS time around however the writers NEEDED to use it, and (perhaps inadvertently) tapped into one of the juiciest eggs in the Spidey mythology.

Many people will complain that the subject of his parents was left unresolved (I'll touch on that another time) but for the sole purpose of building the character it was handled brilliantly.  What better reason for an otherwise normal kid to be maladjusted?  No, he didn't have his parents taken from him by senseless violence (ala Batman), instead he was never given the closure of knowing WHY they were even taken from him in the first place.  What better reason to subconsciously avoid getting close to people, when all you've known is a world where the people who you love the most just disappear without so much as an explanation?

In this movie even Peter's intelligence (a trait he gets from his father) is fueled by a desire to make sense of the world he lives in, and the unanswered questions he so longs to have answered.  In this movie he's not unpopular, he's ignored (which is almost worse) because he's a loner, and people don't understand loners.  In this movie Gwen is plenty attracted to him (he's not ugly after all) but only AFTER he uncharacteristically does something which gets her attention.

In theory Peter, with or without powers, shouldn't have that much trouble succeeding.  He's a smart, good looking kid.  It's the psychological speed bump from a lifetime of uncertainty that causes Peter Parker to get in the way of himself, and having Super powers only exacerbates the situation.  He's thinks of others when he should be thinking of himself, and he becomes self centered when he should be focusing on loved ones.  He's a really good person, but he's also a screwed up screw up.  And that's the reason we love him so much; because no matter how badly he fails he will ALWAYS keep trying to make things right.

Speaking of Peter being a bright kid, remember my complaint from the Raimi films?  Well it was fixed here!  For starters the mechanical web-shooters were introduced, but that was small potatoes compared how his smarts are applied to the film's climax.

Pete uses his brain to beat the Lizard.  Yeah he fights him a bunch and uses his fists and stuff, so that was cool, but the proverbial nail in the lizards villainy-coffin was Peter's 'Reptile-be-gone' antidote.  No, it in no way mimicked anything remotely close to REAL science, but the point is that Pete's brain is the thing that saved the day.  For the first time I watched a Spider-man fight wherein Peter used his mind to win.

So, all that said, when people criticize the film for 'softening' up the character I can only shake my head in disagreement.  They cut away the fat and made him relevant to our era, and seeing as the film takes place in our era I have no problem with that.

Still, some of you out there have lingering complaints which I've not yet addressed, so I'll proceed to do that now...

  1. "Peter Parker isn't timid enough pre-spider bite": This is the thing, Peter Parker was never THAT timid to begin with.  Truth be told, he always had a bit of a smart-ass mouth.  The only way he was EVER considered timid was in regards to his physical inadequacies.
  2. "Peter Parker didn't have enough trouble with the ladies in this film":  Pete actually never had that much trouble with the ladies where his personality was concerned.  Pete's 'list of ladies' includes Betty Brant (the cute brunette secretary), Gwen Stacy (a drop dead gorgeous blonde and Pete's first true Love), Mary Jane (a fiery redhead BABE), and along the way he was even able to garner the affections of Liz Allen (The hot blonde who was often dating Flash Thompson, the jock).  Those are just the main ones.  The girls liked Peter just fine, his problems had more to do with his alter ego more than anything else.  Keep in mind that by the time the man got to university he had dated more women than I have in my entire life (that's not a complaint on my part, but I'm just saying).  Sure, the man may have relationship problems, but finding the women to have relationship problems WITH usually comes down to choosing from the waiting list.
"Eenie Meenie Miney Moe..."

So then all that remains is to give my...

For the portrayal of Peter Parker I give Webb's film: 10 out of 10

By shedding the character of any superficiality, and instead focusing on Peter's relationships and past, the writers were allowed to deliver much deeper insight to the psychological workings of the character.  That they were able to pull it off by actually USING the source material as a guide to offer us something 'new' makes it all the more satisfying.  Ultimately this is a Peter Parker I can relate to, and not just pity.

Getting Peter Parker is very important, but there is one other aspect of the character that needs equal consideration.  Part of the appeal behind the character is in who he becomes once the mask goes on.  With that in mind I will be talking about how both films handled the portrayal of the webhead himself, in my next entry: 

"Spider-man: Cocky Little Wall-crawler"

Until then,
Thanks for reading.


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