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The Amazing Spider-Man

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This is less of a review and more of a discussion/analysis. If you want to know whether I think you should see the movie, then I’ll tell you: yes.

The Amazing Spider-man

I enjoyed Amazing Spider-Man a lot. More importantly, however, I thought it was a good movie. It succeeded in places a lot of recent superhero movies have not, and I think it makes a strong argument for a new paradigm of superhero movie entirely. The film is not perfect, but before I get to its flaws, I’m going to talk about what it does right.

Amazing Spider-Man establishes a comic-bookish surrealism very early in the film and never lets up on it. Even before Peter Parker gets bitten, the audience is aware of the exaggerated nature of things. The first scene after the prologue, the first time we see the Peter we will get to know for the rest of the film, he gets his shit kicked in during recess by the resident bully/jock, Flash, in front of the entire school. There is no administrative action taken. Flash doesn’t get expelled and put in remedial school for assaulting a student. This is not a world of realistic actions with realistic consequences. Parker’s romantic prospect, Gwen Stacey, is not only dressed entirely too sophisticated and tastefully for a modern day high school girl, but she is an intern at one of the most prestigious and advanced scientific research companies in the world, OSCORP. Again, she’s in high school. This girl is a superhuman already, no powers necessary.

Once the powers get involved, though, the film shows zero restraint about using them to remind you of just how crazy, how exaggerated, how super this world really is.

After coming home from the lab where he was bitten (which he got into by observing a person put in one relatively simple password into a door), Peter catches a fly between his fingers in front of his Aunt May’s face. He then grabs an enormous amount of food (“He even took the frozen macaroni and cheese!”) and locks himself in his room for the night. When his alarm wakes him up in the morning, he slaps it, half asleep. It explodes into pieces. He goes to brush his teeth and squeezes the tube of toothpaste with such strength that all its contents shoot onto the mirror, in a relatively uniform blob. Groggy and unfazed, Peter goes to turn the faucet on and instead ends up ripping the handle off and causing a massive leak to start spraying all over the bathroom. He grabs a towel to stop the leak and ends up ripping the rack from the wall. After covering the leak with the towel, he tries to turn the shower on and rips that handle off too. Finally, he stops to think about what just happened and very carefully eases the doorknob open to leave the bathroom.

That’s seven different superpower mishaps in the span of three minutes, most of them occurring in the last forty-five seconds. It doesn’t stop there, either. It never stops. Peter Parker continues to accidentally destroy stuff for the entire length of the film. There are almost never consequences, either. We never see the faucet being fixed, the dry wall being patched up. Later in the film, a stray football almost hits Peter in the head as he is talking to Gwen in the stands. He rockets the ball back to the field instantly, without even turning his head to look. The ball hits one of the field-goal uprights and puts a massive bend in it. People are confused for a second and Peter gives a “whoops” face, and then they cut to another scene and everything is forgotten. Rarely do these moments ever function in the plot or work as character development opportunities. Their purpose is only to establish this tone of “superness”. This is a superworld with superactions and sometimes no consequences at all.

Everything in this movie is on steroids. This is one of the major developments in superhero movies that Amazing Spider-Man embodies so well. Most superhero movies up until the past few years have put incredible powers in the hands of real people in very real worlds. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is an example of how this can work very successfully. Batman as a superhero and a universe is also one of the more naturally gritty and realistic (his power is being rich), and that plays a big part in making those movies work. Most of the X-Men movies are examples of how that style can fail. When you tell your audience “this is a gritty world with serious guys and serious drama” it becomes hard to explain why everyone is wearing skin tight leather suits, elaborate metal helmets, and shooting laser beams out of their eyes.

The original Spider-Man was significantly more towards the realistic side of the scale as well. In the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man film, one of the more famous sections was Parker’s discovery of his own powers. He puts on his glasses in the morning to find out they obscure his now-perfect vision, and then looks in the mirror to see that he is as ripped as Bruce Lee. Then, at school, he accidentally provokes a fight with Flash and then punches him so hard that he flies 35 feet into a teacher carrying a lunch tray, which spills all over Flash’s face. If this scene had happened in the new Spider-Man, the spectating students would have cheered for a moment and then the scene would end. In the original, there is no cheering. Everyone looks at what just happened and says to themselves “How the hell did that just happen?” Then they look at Parker, scared and confused. “You really are a freak,” says Flash’s lackey. These are realistic consequences to an unrealistic action, and the first two Spider-Man movies get great mileage out of this model.

Captain America: The First Avenger was the first movie to achieve the “over-the-top” tone with reasonable success. It does so a little slowly, though, and it takes the viewer a while to realize that we are living in the world of an old-time adventure serial and that these Nazis are more out of Indiana Jones than Saving Private Ryan. Once you do, though, the movie becomes much more enjoyable. The moment for me was when Captain America is inside the Red Skull’s ship and sees rows of bombs with “New York”, “Washington”, and other cities’ names painted on them.

Amazing Spider-Man tells the audience right from the beginning “This isn’t going to be realistic; this is going to be ridiculous.” It delivers. One of the greatest moments that this tone allows is when Spider-Man is fighting the Lizard in a science classroom at his high-school. The Lizard is the scientist, Spider-Man is his student, har har, that was a good one, we like it already. Then, after throwing Spidey through a wall, the Lizard notices some beakers and flasks filled with bright liquids on a table. He mixes them together and creates a bomb which he then throws at Spiderman. The scientist, using his scientist skills.

Another great moment I want to mention continues a theme that was very strong in the original Spider-Man films (no, not responsibility, although Uncle Ben has some words about that here too): Spider-Man is the people’s hero. Sometimes the Daily Bugle (which, after featuring so prominently in the other films, makes no appearance in AS) gives him enough flak that people start to see him as a menace, but usually they are on his side, shouting encouragement and helping him out on occasion, often in his darkest hour. In Spider-Man 2, there is a particularly great scene where Spider-Man, already exhausted and injured from a bad fight with Doctor Octopus, must use every ounce of his strength to stop a train from flying off into a bay. The feat leaves him unconscious, with his suit ripped and bloodied and no mask. The passengers on the train save peter from falling himself and then carry their savior inside (there’s a birds-eye shot of him crowd surfing with his arms spread wide, #jesus), where they lay him down. Upon waking up he realizes he is maskless and expresses concern (wordlessly, of course. This is one of Tobey’s greatest strengths. He barely has any lines sometimes and we know exactly what he is thinking). The people swear to not reveal his identity and then attempt to defend him with their lives when Doc Ock returns. They are powerless to stop him of course, because that wouldn’t be realistic.

The first time the Lizard strikes the populace in Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man saves a child from a falling, exploding car. Later, Spider-Man must go to the OSCORP building to stop the Lizard from releasing a virus that will turn the entire city into lizard-men as well as to save Gwen. Unfortunately, Spider-Man is exhausted and injured from a bad run-in with the police where he was shot. He is trying to do his web-swinging, wall-crawlin’ thing to get the building in time, but he is falling all over the place and obviously needs help. The father of the child he saved earlier happens to see him and also happens to be the head of a massive construction company with cranes on every street in-between Spider-Man’s current location and the OSCORP building. The city is being evacuated, but this man sees Spider-Man in trouble and orders all of the cranes to turn and create a path with which Spider-Man can easily swing to the building. This is already very, very ridiculous. Spider-Man seems to be doing well but ends up slipping and falling, even with the crane-bridge in place. Luckily, the captain of the construction team is operating his own crane in the exact spot where Spider-Man fell and catches him.

This is the scale of events in Amazing Spider-Man. None of this could ever, ever, ever, happen in real life, and it doesn’t take away from the greatness of it at all.

One aspect of the film that creates both great moments and strange ones is its speed. At two hours and sixteen minutes, Amazing Spider-Man is not a short film, but it is, by necessity, a fast one. The movie is really two stories squished together and somewhat intertwined: the story of Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, and the story of Spider-Man taking down the Lizard. Characters and situations develop and change at an incredibly rapid pace in order to fit these stories into one movie. As a result, the greatest moments are often when the writers found ways to accomplish things very quickly.

My favorite example of this is the scene where Peter reveals to Gwen that he is Spider-Man. Peter has just excused himself from his introductory dinner with Gwen’s parents, during which he managed to get into a heated argument with her father, the police chief, over Spider-Man’s intentions and role in society. Gwen is consoling him when Peter stops her and reveals that he has “been bitten”, which indeed he has, by a radioactive spider. “So have I,” Gwen responds, obviously with a more romantic interpretation of Peter’s words than he had intended. Caught off guard, he stutters and fidgets just when we, the audience, need him to say the right thing, something, anything. “I wish I could just… I can’t. It’s hard to say.” When he regresses into merely shaking his head and slumping over on the balcony, Gwen gives up and walks away, frustrated. The audience feels like doing the same. Then Peter catches her skirt with a strand of web, and pulls her, twirling, into his arms. Now she is lost for words, impressed with his powerful, wordless declaration of his feelings and bewildered by the sudden realization that her new boyfriend is Spider-Man. They kiss.

One action is all it takes to explain everything Peter needs to explain. In just over a minute, Gwen and Peter are solidified as a romantic unit and Peter, who we have known as a secretive loner, confides in someone for the first time since Uncle Ben died, possibly for the first time in his life. We and Gwen experience both the frustration of watching Peter shy away from himself and the joy and amazement of seeing him rise up and declare his identity. That’s fast, but it works.

There are some places, however, when fast just doesn’t seem right. Peter goes to a pretty average looking high school, takes pictures of stuff, is a little socially awkward, and skateboards. We are never given reason to suspect that he is particularly bright, beyond a nifty motorized lock on his bedroom door that he controls with the remote from an R/C car. Then, all of a sudden, he comes up with an algorithm that Dr. Collins, an obviously gifted scientist that has been working for decades on the subject, could never work out. While Peter certainly got help from the materials in his father’s old briefcase (his father and Collins used to work together), it is not clear just how much help he got. Even if he just copied the formula directly from his father’s notes, which is perhaps the most believable and likely explanation, he shows no signs of discomfort or confusion while working with Collins in his lab; he seems to keep pace quite well.

How did he get so smart? These events do occur after he receives his powers, but super-intelligence has never before been listed among Spider-Man’s capabilities. He doesn’t display a particular aptitude or interest in such dense scientific theory anywhere else in the film, showing only a practical, handy, type of intelligence in building his web-shooters.

If Peter got into intense scientific theory and mathematics over a period of time, or was shown to always have a soft spot for it, his success might seem more within his character. It doesn’t strike me as inherently beyond his capabilities, just that, well, it happened a little fast. The development of his physical skills and acrobatics seemed equally rushed; one montage and he goes from accidentally destroying bathrooms to swinging around the city. I don’t know that there is a simple solution to these issues, but the film operates at a breakneck pace and some parts work better at this tempo than others.

The problem at the heart of the speed issue is that, again, there are two pretty distinct stories in this film. Peter’s confrontation with the Lizard is a fine story, but it is not so essentially tied to the coming-of-age, self-discovery story that is far more dominant and compelling in the film.

If you removed the Lizard from the film it would become a very different type of superhero movie, entirely about identity and probably a more psychological, less action packed, less traditional story. That’s not really Spider-Man. It occurred to me that, in order to tie the Lizard story to Spider-Man’s own development, they could have killed Gwen Stacey instead of her father. In case you didn’t know she was killed in the comics by the Green Goblin and it is widely recognized as one of the defining moments in Spider-Man’s history. This “solution” is far from perfect though, as it doesn’t seem entirely within the Lizard’s character to be that ruthless, and the ruthlessness is what makes it work. So, I don’t know how to fix it.

Luckily the movie is far from ruined by any tempo issues. It successfully goes over-the-top in the tone department and successfully plays it safe in the basic story and plot construction. It uses classic techniques to great effect. Early in the film, Peter asks Dr. Collins about one of the many strange devices in his lab. He explains that it is a device built to disperse any gaseous chemicals over large areas, even an entire city (Really? That’s funny, this movie takes place in a city). It had been deemed too dangerous and now it “sits here, gathering dust.” Yeah, right. In the final act it becomes both the weapon with which Collins plans to turn the city into lizard-people and the vehicle Gwen and Peter use to cure those already infected. Quite the device.

There is also an excellent “tending the wounds” scene with Gwen and Peter, a heartless businessman that values money over human life, a tough-love police chief that starts out thinking Spider-Man is a menace before growing to respect him, and lots of other old standbys that don’t feel like they were put in out of laziness, but because they are very effective.

I haven’t talked much about Uncle Ben, but Martin Sheen does an excellent job, as does Sally Field as Aunt May. One thing I particularly liked is that she figures out Spider-Man’s identity pretty quickly, all by herself. I cannot stand it when movies make characters exponentially dumber than they should be, especially when it concerns things that they know very well, like their nephew who they have been raising for fifteen years, or, as in Gwen’s case, their father. When Peter starts to avoid her, she knows exactly why, because she is not a dumb-ass. There is such an incredible precedent for making characters dumb-asses about these types of things that this movie deserves applause for not falling into that horrible trend.

The epilogue, that is, everything that happens after the Lizard incident is resolved, is quite slow. It drags on, even. This is the only point in the film that isn’t at Mach three, and it stands out. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, intentional or not. It was certainly noticeable though.

The film ends with Peter coming late to an English lecture. “I had a professor once, who liked to tell his students that there were only ten plots in all of fiction,” the teacher says. “Well I’m here to tell you he was wrong. There is only one: Who am I?” Including this in a film that plays so hard to traditional story structures and devices was bold and fitting of its over-the-top nature, but I disagree, seeing as this movie alone had two. Still, the self-awareness is charming. In fact, the whole movie is. I liked it.

Reboots

I wasn’t sure how much I could enjoy this film, given that it was a reboot of such a recent franchise. I enjoyed it a lot. Does this mean reboots and remakes and rehashes of all sorts of intellectual properties are acceptable? I don’t know. If there really is only one story, then maybe it doesn’t matter if you call it Spider-Man or not. The quality of the film may be entirely independent of the material it is based on and whether or not that material has already been made into film. I think it might get a little boring watching Spider-Man origin stories though.

Amazing Spider-Man is what I like to call “cheesy”. I’m introducing this as a new term because I’m not sure if people use it in the same way I do. It seems like most people interpret cheesy as a bad thing, but I don’t feel that it is good or bad, just a thing. Eighties action movies are often cheesy, but they are also often awesome. The same goes for eighties hair metal, eighties pop, and a lot of other things from the eighties. Cheesy just means that it embraces the traditional, the tried and true, and is unashamed of doing so. Amazing Spider-Man is very cheesy. Hollywood can do cheesy right.  I think Amazing Spider-Man is a success, but I’m not sure if modeling other reboots on it will work. Spider-Man’s source material is some of the most suited for a popular commercial film and this movie played to those strengths.

Basically what I’m saying is that Michael Bay will probably still ruin Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Fuck you Michael Bay.

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Written by metalsharkplayer

July 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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