Friday, December 7, 2012

SPIDER-MOVIE - PART VII: Serial Stand-alones

I'm going to attempt something VERY difficult with today's post.  I'm going to NOT bring up comics as much as possible.  I will have to refer to them at times, as this series is dealing with a character rooted in comic book pop culture;  Barring necessity, however, I plan to talk about the movies based purely on their merit as films.

So.  Jumping in.

When constructing a story it's important to decide which themes are going to take the primary focus, what will be used for support, and which parts of your story can be entirely removed.  As an outsider it can seem obvious at times, but a lot of writers/directors/storytellers can become attached to their own work and lose any sense of objectivity.  While it can happen in any entertainment medium, it is sadly film that hits this wall the most blatantly.

Pictured: A storyteller losing his objectivity.

The thing a lot of people forget about movies is that they are the short stories of the film medium.  Whereas with a show like 'Breaking Bad' the episodes behave more akin to chapters from a novel, films tend to be self contained and don't have the opportunity to delve into the individual characters and subplots as thoroughly (like a short story).  The exception is with 'film series'.  By that I don't mean franchises like 'Indiana Jones' or 'Die Hard' which are disconnected films about one character, but instead serials like 'Star Wars' or 'Lord of the Rings'.

Many times arguments will break out about which format is better, and as always, the answer depends on what you're trying to accomplish with the characters.  It's not enough to say that "a movie should be enjoyable ENTIRELY on it's own" because some films are crafted to be a 'part of the whole'.  It's fine for 'Fellowship of the Rings' to be your favorite LOTR film, but the fact remains that without part's II and III the first part doesn't have much of a resolution.  Does that mean that 'Fellowship' is a bad movie if part II and III don't hold up?  No.  But it does mean that when evaluating part I you have to consider it for what it is, part of a series and NOT an individual work.

If I watched the first episode of 'Firefly' with the same mindset that I watched (for example) 'E.T. The Extraterrestrial' and then decided that "it was bad" on the grounds that it left a lot of unresolved plot threads I would be rightly branded an idiot. 

"He didn't even watch 'SHINDIG'!?  I can't believe I gave him my phone number.  Quickly, Shun him!"

In order to accurately judge the show I would have to watch AT LEAST several more episodes to see how the story and characters progress. The first episode doesn't resolve the larger story because it ISN'T SUPPOSED TO.  It's a series.  That's the point.

Some films operate based on the same basic principle of a serial television show, except that in this case you can expect fewer episodes, greater distance between them, and a considerably larger budget each time around.  Not unlike a very expensive mini-series.  The Pro's are that you have more time to develop characters, introduce a larger supporting cast, and build to a bigger climax.  The Con is that a poorly executed climax can retroactively weaken the earlier films. 

"The first two were really good, and then that third one ruined the entire experience!"

The thing that needs to be considered when taking on a large character like Spider-man is; "what type of story format most adequately befits Spider-man?"  Let's take a comparative look Webb and Raimi's work, starting with...

SPIDER-MAN (2002) - Directed by Sam Raimi

I know a lot of people prefer Raimi's Spider-man films because they stood alone more sufficiently without relying (as much) on the other films in the series.  That is a fair opinion, but I'd be lying if I said that very same reason wasn't, in fact, my problem with Raimi's films.  That is to say; Sam Raimi's films would have been better if they HAD relied on each other more.

Also, it would have been better if this had just NEVER happened at all.

A big reason that Spider-man is such an effective character to begin with can be linked to the fact that he is a DEVELOPING serial character.  Over the course of his comic adventures the character grew and changed, graduating from high school and then college, getting into and out of several relationships, and getting into increasingly more embroiled battles with his recurring villains roster.  These weren't things we were just TOLD about, but rather things that we got to actually SEE.  It wasn't just that Spider-man saved lives while doing "all the things that a Spider can", it was that we got to see him grow and mature over the years as a character; something you can't accomplish in the same way with a single film.

In 'Spider-man' (2002) Peter is fast-tracked into becoming the fully prepared superhero by the end of the film.   Raimi did leave open a couple characterization points for a potential sequel, but there was an understanding that "if, for some reason, we don't get to make a 'part 2' then you should know that we've covered most of the major beats in Spidey's journey as a character."  Sure the sequels threw some new dilemmas, moral or otherwise, at the character but for the MOST part the man he becomes by the end of the first film is who he continues to be throughout the sequels.  His relationship status changes, and he goes through a couple patchy areas that test his convictions, but you could rest assured that by the end of each film he would be back to his crime-busting-web-slinging-super-responsible self.

Naturally, the Raimi rooters will point out all the wonderful supporting characters that Webb "failed miserably" to include in his film.  The most notable case of this would be that of the 'Daily Bugle' staff members such as...

-       J. Jonah Jameson
-       Robbie Robertson
-       Betty Brant

Yes, Raimi was able to include ALL of those characters (in his first film no less).  Good for him.  Sadly, it was also a feat that he 'Failed Miserably' to execute with any grace. 

J. Jonah Jameson was expertly cast (J.K. Simmons for the win) but he was two-dimensional at best, and even then he barely had time to do anything but loudly proclaim his distrust of Spider-man.  Most folk will argue that he was always a 2-D character in the first place, but that's not a good enough excuse for me.  Take 'Ultimate Spider-man', for example, where Jonah was portrayed as crusty and unpleasant, but also not without a human edge.  In that version of the story J.J. still maintained his vendetta against Spider-man but it also came back to bite him in the ass a few times.  His actions came with REAL consequences and a satisfying resolution (he ultimately admits his mistake).   In the movie he's played off as comic relief and does very little to further the actual story.  He's present in the film merely as a form of FAN service, but as a result does the CHARACTER very little service.

The same can be said for Robbie and Betty.  Robbie Robertson is supposed to be a strong willed hard-edged-but-moral counterpoint to Jonah.  He's the diplomat that smoothes things out with everyone else while respectfully calling Jonah on his bullshit behind closed doors.  In the film he's portrayed as a good-natured-but-ineffective sparring partner for Jonah.  Meanwhile, Betty Brant was chalked up to a glorified bit part in the film.  Obviously they couldn't focus on her too much as MJ was the main love interest, but to declare 'victory for Raimi' just because he crammed a character with the correct name into his film doesn't mean that it added anything beneficial to the story whatsoever.

Not that I was complaining at the time, mind you.

That's not to say that the bugle staff weren't memorable, or even fun to watch, but they did take up a lot of time that could have been spent on the other relationships.  Aunt May never really got a chance to develop into something other than a strong-yet-naive shoulder for Peter to cry on.  For that matter I never got a really clear idea of what Peter's relationships with Uncle Ben and Aunt May were, other than that he liked/loved them, and was sad when Uncle Ben passed away. 

For instance, when Uncle Ben gives peter 'the responsibility talk' it stems (seemingly) from ONE skirmish that Pete had with Flash Thompson.  Sure Ben makes some veiled references to "those weird experiments" in Peter's room, but really there doesn't seem to be a major reason to get overly concerned about Pete's behavior (at least not that Uncle Ben would be aware of).  The performances by the actors were pretty spot on, but as for the reason given in the script for the tension between the characters, it never felt QUITE right.   If more time had been spent on moments such as that one instead of trying to squeeze in as many characters/references from the comics as possible then the relationships may have seemed less... condensed.

Another thing I think Raimi's film suffered from (now looking back) was it handled the  incorporation of Spider-man's origin.  As I stated before, Spider-man's origin in Amazing Fantasy (Issue #15, august 1962) is a singular story entirely disconnected from any of the adventures he later went on to have with his more infamous rogues.  It's a good story, certainly, but not long enough to make an entire feature film out of, and as audience members we would all be pretty ticked if we had to wait for the sequel before watching Spidey go toe-to-toe with villains more challenging than the unnamed 'Burglar'.  So of course the challenge becomes one of trying to integrate two stories (the origin of Spider-man, and the Origin of his first villain) into one film as seamlessly as possible.

In all fairness, Sam Raimi approached this problem in the EXACT same way I would have were I in his shoes. 

And it is the wrong way.  Sadly.

He did exactly what the comics did.  First he told the story of Peter Parker (while separately prepping the grand entrance of the bad guy), and THEN introduced the story of Spider-man's battle against the Green Goblin.  The first half hour+ of the film (being bitten by the Spider, Uncle Ben's death etc.) was completely disconnected from the rest. 

-       The Spider?  A complete accident entirely unrelated to anything to do with Norman becoming the Green Goblin.
-       Uncle Ben and the lesson of Responsibility?  Again, not connected to the Green Goblin.  Okay sure, Peter quotes the 'with great power' line later on in the film.  But after discovering who Ben's killer is, it's a lesson that he never returns to.  It is established why he's Spider-man, why he doesn't put himself first, but beyond that his origin has NOTHING to do with his relationship with Norman Osborn (except Norman being bad=irresponsible, and Peter being good=responsible).

'Spider-man' is practically two films somewhat awkwardly rolled into one.  It tells the story of Spider-man accurately and even reverently, but telling the story of Spider-man in the format of a film requires that the ENTIRE film feel connected in its accurate reverence.  It was a point many of my friends and a number of reviewers made about why they preferred 'Spider-man 2'.  With the origin out of the way the second film gets to focus on ONE story without having to deal with the chore of explaining who Spider-man is on top of that.  But why should that be a chore? 

'Batman Begins' was able to tell one story and tie the Death of Bruce's parents to his decision to fight crime and (by the end of the film) Liam Neeson.  'Iron Man' was also able to accomplish the same thing by accurately depicting his origin while tying it to the larger plot in the rest of the film.  His kidnapping wasn't a separate event that had nothing to do with the final 'boss fight'; instead it LED (or built, if you will) to the final battle.  Much in the same way a story would.  Just the one story.  To go with the one film.

As I indicated a few paragraphs ago, and in my last post (about the villains), Raimi's first film didn't really leave itself anywhere to go.  By the end Peter had...

-       Graduated high school? Check.
-       Come into his own as a superhero with a competent handle on his powers? Check.
-       Established a clear sense of purpose with all his priorities about responsibility in order? Check.
-       Successfully faced off and defeated his first major villain in life or death battle?  Check.

At that point there were only two unresolved pieces of the plot that (technically) needed to be tied up.

And contrary to what Raimi believed, "Who shot Uncle Ben" wasn't one of them.

Keeping the tension between the romantic leads works in theory, but the problem with the "love story" (besides what I stated before) was that its resolution in the first film was completely unnecessary.  Peter just decides for MJ that having her in his life will put her in danger, which is true, but shouldn't he maybe let MJ decide whether she wants to take that risk?  At the very least why not tell her "I'm Spider-man, and THAT is why I can't be with you" (exactly as he told her in the sequel).  Even that would be okay because it distances himself from her, but the problem is that he also indicates that he'll still be there for her, albeit as a friend, as if that'll be safer than dating her in some way.  How does that protect her?  If Peter's enemies discover his secret, are they going to just leave MJ alone because "she's JUST a friend"?  As if Super-villains have some sort of code that allows them to ONLY target 'significant others,' but to leave all the other close friends and relations alone?

Suddenly, Jimmy Olsen being Superman's 'pal' has a whole new meaning.

I don't care if Spider-man has broken up with women in the comics for the very same reason; it's bad writing. Period. And it shouldn't be repeated.   There was no REAL justification as to why Peter couldn't be with MJ beyond "it might not be safe... and stuff." It was poorly delivered, arbitrary drama, thrown in at the end just so there would be something for the sequel.  Because heaven forbid a superhero movie tackles a relationship BEYOND the stage of "will they or won't they?"

The concept behind this plot is pretty solid in theory; "Disgruntled by his father's death the grieving son unknowingly vows vengeance upon his best friend." Sounds good to me. The problem isn't in the concept but, again, the execution.  The ENTIRE thing could have been avoided if Peter had just let Norman (a very dead man) take the fall for the Green Goblin's crimes.  You may argue that Peter is being noble in honoring a dying man's last request ("Don't tell Harry!"  *die*), but I would like to point out that No.  He is not.  Peter is not being noble.

"What are you talking about?  Harry is grieving!  If Peter reveals the truth about Norman to him it would crush him!  Also, isn't that rather selfish of Peter to go against Norman's dying wish JUST so he can clear his name?  Isn't that... IRRESPONSIBLE even?  Eh? Eh?"

Again.  No.  It isn't.

By not telling Harry NOW he's only setting him up for even greater pain and misery in the future.

Like, hypothetically speaking, an explosion to the face.

Of course learning that his father was an insane psychopath will be hard, but Harry is also this thing called 'a grown man.'  Just assuming that he's too sensitive to handle the truth is not only insulting, but it also leads to a whole ton of needless death, destruction, and property damage.

Remember that time Doctor Octopus threw a car at Peters head? That only happened because Harry told the Doc to talk to Peter about finding Spider-man, and... throwing a car at his head was the best way to... do that.  Or something. But I'm not here to question the good Doctor's questionable interrogation tactics.

Oh good.  Now that you're dead, would you mind telling me where Spider-man is?

What I AM trying to bring to your attention is that everything from then all the way to the ensuing train fight with the countless property damage is all because Harry wanted revenge.  A revenge he wanted because no one (not even that inexplicably gifted forensic analyst of a butler) bothered to sit Harry down and say; "Hey, about your father being dead.  That's because he was murdering people while dressed up like a power rang- I mean a goblin.  I really wish it could have gone down differently."  Peter is now suddenly RESPONSIBLE for a whole shit ton of misery and property damage simply because he didn't have the stones to tell Harry what he knew.

And as for honoring Norman's dying wish.  Why?  Why would you do that?  He's a bad man whose dying request should have garnered zero consideration from our hero.  "Don't tell Harry?  Fuck you.  You're EVIL!  Maybe you should have considered your sons feelings BEFORE trying to murder a trolley full of children!"

 "You have to choose between saving the woman you love or these innocent Children! 
...And don't tell Harry."

I don't have anything against the 'Harry hates Spider-man' story, but at least give me a logical explanation as to why it needs to happen.  As it stands Spider-man (along with Harry's butler) is either a complete idiot, a huge dick, or both.

My point is, of the two unresolved plot threads in the first movie, one was created for arbitrary drama, the other was poorly executed, and neither was about Spider-man's growth as an individual.


So if I were to rate the film?  Much like with my grading of the villains I would need to give the film two separate ratings to fairly evaluate it's worth.  Therefore...

As a standalone Spidey film I would rate 'Spider-man' as:  6.5 out of 10. 

In spite of my criticisms I really do really enjoy this film, but that enjoyment doesn't change the fact that it's still light, cheesy, popcorn fun.  Of course Spider-man SHOULD be fun, but being fun doesn't NEED equate to being campy either, and this movie is VERY campy at times. MJ and Harry's unresolved storylines were frustrating, but over all the film tells an enjoyable little story, just not a life changing one.  Once upon a time I would have given this a higher rating because seeing Spider-man on the big screen was a feat I never thought possible.  But in retrospect there are many elements of the film that don't hold up.  So, good job Raimi.  Not a great job.  But good job all the same.

As the first film in series I would rate ' Spider-man' as: 4.5 out of 10

'Spider-man' doesn't really leave itself any room to grow. The primary adversary is dead, and Spider-man himself has practically reached full maturity.  As a result the character is spinning his wheels by the third film, with increasingly contrived emotional obstacles being thrown at him the farther he goes.  It doesn't help that each subsequent villain is progressively underwhelming.

Okay, I'll admit this was pretty cool, but still.  "The chip made him bad?"  Come on.

It seems clear to me that Raimi really didn't go into this series with a distinct 'plan of action,' so much as a 'vague idea' that future sequels might be a possibility.  I don't think filmmakers should necessarily have to plan out each franchise three films in advance (some of my favorite serial television shows don't take such considerations).  But it sure would have been nice if Raimi would've stopped to consider that he was using up all his big ideas in the very first (and second) film.  But by the time Raimi realized his mistake it was too late.

Then again, I'm assuming that Raimi even realizes this was a mistake.

So how does all of this compare to...


There are three primary complaints that I hear about this film, often from the same people.

  1. It changed too many things about the characters and their back stories from the comics/ source material etc.
  2. It left too many loose ends.  Too many plots were introduced without enough payoff.
  3. The Bugle staff weren't present and that's supposed to be a huge part of the characters development.

I've already covered why the first complaint is objectively wrong here, here, and here; Right now I'm going to focus primarily on complaints 2 and 3.

As I said, part of Spider-man's appeal is that his adventures come in a long string or serial formatting.  From the get go 'The Amazing Spider-man' is made with building to a sequel in mind, but that doesn't mean that the film makers have free reign to do whatever they want.  TASM is still a single film, and seeing as it's not going to be releasing a second installment for a couple years (as opposed to a weekly tv series) the film needs to be at LEAST coherent and self-contained enough to deal with all of the major themes specific to THIS film.  In regards to this consideration there is ONE point of contention for many viewers; the mystery of Peter Parker's parents.

The film starts by introducing Peter's parents showing the circumstances that lead to their eventual disappearance.  From there we follow Peter's investigation into the truth behind the mystery, which of course leads to his becoming a Superhero and his confrontation with the Lizard.  The problem is that once the plot with the Lizard gets underway the topic of Peter's parents is effectively dropped from the film and never brought up again.  How annoying is that?  Clearly these guys couldn't settle on which story they wanted the film to focus on.  Idiots.

But, in this very way, it does what a series opener is SUPPOSED to do.  First It cleverly incorporates the disappearance of Peter's parents, the origin of his powers, the death of his uncle, and his first major battle, into ONE massive 'coming-of-age' arc about Peter.  Instead of trying to copy the comics (like Raimi's films) and have all of these events be separate occurrences that each happen to the same character, they coherently brought them together into one film, and presented it as a single story.  ALL the while staying true to the characters and the spirit of source material.

As for unresolved threads there is only really one.  Many had an issue with Peter not catching Ben's killer, but (as I pointed out in 'origin vs. adaptation') that change is not only resolved, but actually improved (in my opinion).  The only major unresolved thread is about Peter's Parents.  I never had a problem with it because from the very beginning it had the makings of a 'larger arc story.'  And for those who complain that 'the subject was randomly dropped part way through the movie'; Webb was very careful to leave one final after-the-credits scene to remind us that he hadn't forgotten.   Again, this is how a series works; by leaving us with enough room to grown into something even better.

It seems odd to me that so many people would be able to complain that a film doesn't spend enough time resolving it's own subplots, and then insist that the film would have been made better by cluttering it with more supporting characters.

"But Raimi did it!"

Yes, but as I pointed out before, he didn't do it very well.  I preferred not having J.J. around for this installment, leaving him to be introduced in one of the sequels.   As it was we were able to spend more time on Peter and his relationships with Aunt May and Uncle Ben.

With Ben and May we were able to see a real relationship with a teenager and his parental guardians; to see them get along AND argue.  Now, when Ben decides to have the responsibility talk with Peter, it actually makes sense.  Not only was Peter acting up at school, but Ben and May have also seen him coming home at night late and acting strung out, not to mention Peter forgetting to pick up his Aunt.  These are choices that have a genuine affect on Peter's relationship with his uncle, and which would realistically bring about a speech of that kind.  It's plausible cause and affect.

Even the relationship between Peter and Aunt May is dramatically improved upon.  I get that Aunt May is supposed to be loving and caring, but she's lost her husband and now her (surrogate) son is coming home with cuts and black eyes.  In the prior films there was very little conflict between the two (Spider-man 2 being the primary exception), but here it was nice to see the filmmakers address what happens when a teenager with super powers gets home late looking like he was mugged several times a week.  Having all this build to the touching scene at the end with the eggs (one of my favorite character beats in the film) resulted in some honest, engaging drama.

So what if I got a bit misty eyed?  If you didn't then you're a robot.

I think that header speaks for itself don't you?

-       Room for character growth in the protagonist?  Check.
-       The promise of an ominous figure pulling the strings from the shadows?  Check.
-       A mystery that connects that same 'ominous figure' to the disappearance of Peter's parents?  Check.
-       Foreshadowing that Gwen will die as result of being in Peter's life?  Check.
-       The potential for this to all tie together as part of one big arc? Check.

Whether the sequels will be able to meet our expectations remains to be seen, but one can't deny that 'The Amazing Spider-man' sets the series up with a substantially stronger foundation for the future than Raimi's 'Spider-man' ever did.

I've said all I've needed to on this.  Time for the...


As a standalone Spidey film I would rate 'The Amazing Spider-man' as:  8 out of 10.

As a stand-alone flick I still found this more enjoyable than Raimi's film.  It's like I said, all the elements of Peter's origin are actually tied together with rest of the plot.  As a character the writer uses Spider-man as a tool for Peter's growth into a man, instead of just having him achieve manhood, and THEN become a superhero, as separate character beats.  Even the drama between Gwen and Peter felt like it was derived from real conflict, and had a resolution that wasn't as needlessly frustrating. 

This film contains a more succinct and focused story than 'Spider-man' ever did, and all this in SPITE of the fact that it intentionally leaves certain threads open-ended for the sequel.  BUT.  If I'm being fair, that is also why it gets two points deducted.  If I were to find that the sequels were (for whatever reason) cancelled and that I would never get a 'part two,' it would somewhat impair (or at least frustrate) my enjoyment of THIS film, which is the potential downside of any series.


Therefore as a standalone film this gets an 8.   However...

As the first film in a series I would rate ' Spider-man' as: 10 out of 10

Without contest, this is EASILY a better series 'pilot' than Raimi's first installment could have ever have hoped to be.  As much as I loved this film it only fueled my excitement for the sequels even more.  Keep in mind that when this film came out I was as skeptical as everyone else. 

Beside the fact that Spider-man had recently been done, TASM initially felt suspiciously like a desperate attempt by SONY to hold onto the film rights to the character.  "Clearly they're creatively dying of thirst, grasping hopelessly at a Spider-man mirage that will, doubtless, slip through their fingers within a few more years," we all thought.  The most frustrating part was that this seemed to put the kibosh on any hope of Spider-man being a part of the 'Avengers' films (for those of you not in the know, it's this whole thing to do with studio conflicts).

Pictured: Hell freezing over.

All of this negative energy had been working against this movie for so long, but once the dust settled I found myself realizing something.   I actually don't mind if Spidey doesn't join Captain America and the gang for a little while longer, because I actually want to see more of the character on his own first.  Because this film is really good!  While I had been expecting it to be something that would 'pass the time' between 'The Avengers' and 'The Dark Knight Rises', I ultimately found that 'The Amazing Spider-man' was my one of my favorite summer blockbusters of the year. And it's not like it didn't have some contenders. 

The long and short of it is, this film had more reasons to fail than succeed.  It not only succeeded but also managed to get me more excited for the character than when I first heard they were making a Spider-man movie back in 2000.  As the first of a series, this gets a 10 for sure. 

'Nuff said.

Well it's been fun, but this is the last full entry I'm going to do on the 'Spider-movies'.  That said, I will be posting one more 'epilogue' entry to fully wrap things up.  There are a couple of 'honourable mentions' I'd like to cover; things I liked about the movie, but that I don't feel warranted an entire blog entry in and of themselves.  Until then I'd just like to thank all of you who have continued to read these over the past couple weeks.  It's encouraging to know that someone (someones? plural?) out there has been enjoying the fruits of my incredibly nerdy labour.

To that end, I hope to see you around in...


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