A second look at 'The Amazing Spider-Man' only heightens the frustration
One thing became clear when we published our second look at "Prometheus" after the film arrived in theaters: you seem more excited about the conversation when you've actually had a chance to see the movie, and you participate more.
Makes sense. And on "The Amazing Spider-Man," I feel like there is a pretty wide range of reactions rolling in. I wanted to take a second look at the film because I'm a little puzzled by some of the wildly positive reactions, and because I'd love to see the movie that other people seem to be seeing, the one that they love so much.
Let's be clear about something: I don't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of the film. I'm not writing about it a second time to sway anyone else or to lambast people who feel differently about it than I do. Instead, I'm hoping to raise some questions here, dig deeper into why I feel the way I do, and try to sort out the reactions I'm hearing from others.
THE REBOOT QUESTION
The most common dismissal of my review so far is "You didn't want a reboot, so your opinion on the film isn't fair." That's not true, though. I don't have an inherent problem with the notion of creative solutions to the problems posed by trying to keep a franchise up and running for a decade or more. I can't imagine any creative team that would want to do the same thing over and over and over and over without eventually getting to the point where they want to move on and do other things. Something like the "Harry Potter" films come with an ending in mind, so there's always a sense of building to something, and there is a conclusion that means something eventually.
With comic book movies, I'm fine with the idea that things are open-ended, and the story is going to be told and retold and embellished and interpreted and remixed and reconfigured. That's the way comic stories have always existed. Even as a kid, I understood that the Batman of my comics was not the same character who was on the TV show or in the comics of the '60s or in the comics from the '40s. I've seen several different iterations of Spider-Man over the course of my life, and I'm sure there are plenty more to come in the years ahead.
So let's stop pretending that disliking this film has anything to do with disliking the entire concept of a reboot. I think it's a poor creative choice because of how it's executed, not because it's a reboot. I disliked sitting through an hour or so of origin story because of how it was told, not because it was an origin story.
If you're going to re-imagine every aspect of Peter Parker's life, I'd like to see it have some sort of thematic point. The reason to tell a new story using an established hero is to hopefully illuminate either some real-life idea using the fantastic premise, or bending that fantastic premise in some new and clever way. There are indications in this film that they did plan to try something different with this movie, but it also looks like they chickened out at the last moment, and what we end up with feels half-cooked and thematically wobbly.
What distinguishes this from the earlier version? And I'm not talking about minor details like the nature of the webs that Peter shoots or a few wisecracks. What does this film say or do that is fundamentally new or that adds to our understanding of Spider-Man as a character? Changing a few superficial details isn't reason enough to tell this story again. We live in an age where bullying has become a very different cultural touchstone, so if you're going to include that in the film, you shouldn't just pay lip service to it with a few scenes and then forget Flash completely. After all, they show in the film that Peter is a hero before he ever gets super powers. He stands up to Flash because it's right, not because he wears a costume. When Peter starts from a place of strength and emotional security, there's no real transformation in the film, and the worst thing we see from Peter in the first part of the film is a moment of selfish behavior that just coincidentally takes place two minutes and 100 feet away from where his Uncle Ben dies. It's such a direct, ham-handed bit of cause and effect that I'm not sure how anyone takes it seriously. And while Uncle Ben is always the voice of conscience in the story, he's actually wrong here when he dresses Peter down. The way Peter takes care of Flash after he gets his powers is about as non-violent as it could be, and the worst it does is make Flash feel stupid temporarily.
I'm okay with sitting through the hero's journey again as long as it is presented in a compelling way, and I just don't feel like it's the case here. I think it is a catastrophic miscalculation to turn Peter from an average guy who becomes exceptional and then has to struggle to figure out what to do with it into The Boy Who Was Destined To Be Spider-Man. Which brings us to...
PETER PARKER'S BACKSTORY
I wish I could have heard the story meetings that led to this decision. When that opening scene plays out and we see the last night that Richard Parker (Donovan Scott) and his wife (Embeth Davidtz) were part of Peter's life, I immediately got a sinking feeling from the imagery of the spider in the specimen jar and the drawing of the spider that's up on the blackboard that Richard erases. There is an excellent piece of marketing detective work that Devin Faraci posted over at Badass Digest today where he looks at the storyline that appears to have been excised at the last possible moment from the movie.
If it turns out that the shadowy figure we see during the film's final moments is Richard Parker, transformed into a villain in this series, I think that might be a deal-breaker for me. It strikes me the same way it did when I read the proposed "Superman" script where Krypton never blew up and Jor-El spent time going back and forth between Krypton and Earth. It's a radical shift in identity for the character, far more than it would be to simply cast someone of a different race.
Maybe it's not Richard Parker in the shadows. I think the most likely choice for who it is would be Norman Osborne based on what we hear characters discuss in the movie, and it makes sense to set up Norman as the bad guy for a future film. After all, they backed up to start the story over presumably so they can tell the Gwen Stacy movie correctly on film, right? Fans of the comics know where things are headed, which makes it interesting and tense for them, while people who only know the movies have no idea what's coming if they follow the Gwen storyline to its natural conclusion.
Rhys Ifans seems pretty sure that it wasn't Norman in the shadows, though. I have trouble believing, based on the way the scene is played, that it's simply some new bad guy who hasn't been introduced yet, because why make it so secretive and mysterious if that's the case? All that fits is that this somehow plays into the storyline about Peter's special genetic make-up that this film excised, and at some point, Sony decided they wanted to hold off on revealing some of these things until there's a sequel. It's a fine line between successful franchise-building and shameless cliffhangers for films that no one wants, and this seems like the wrong version of a post-credits sting. Instead of dropping one irresistible clue, they've managed to make me wary of their entire franchise in one move.
It boils down to a general dislike on my part of a world in which every single event seems to revolve around Peter Parker. His parents were involved in something which left him orphaned. His discovery of their work leads to the creation of the villain in the film. His father's work is why there are radioactive spiders. His dad invented the formula for the spider-webbing which Peter evidently buys in bulk directly from Oscorp, because no one would find that odd or suspicious. Every bad guy seems to already know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, making his secret identity something of a joke. It's all about him.
I don't like that at all, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they bungle the basic building blocks of Peter's personality considering how badly they handle...
Let's set aside the fact that two out of the three Spider-Man movies that already exist have used the "Peter's idol/mentor/figure of authority becomes a bad guy" storyline. Let's pretend this movie invented that. If this was the only case of that basic framework being used for a Spider-Man film, it would still fail because I have no idea who Curt Connors is or what the Lizard really wants.
Is Curt Connors a good scientist who has a built-in flaw? I like that as a concept, a brilliant doctor whose desire to fix his own imperfections makes him take a calculated risk. That's a character I can sympathize with. I honestly don't know what character Rhys Ifans is playing because from scene to scene, I can't figure out his motivations or his behavior. One moment he's a scientist working for the good of mankind. One moment he's a guy with dark secrets involving Peter's parents. And when he's the Lizard, he's apparently just a big poorly-designed monster who wants to kill Peter Parker and turn everyone else into lizards for some reason. When I can't figure out the point of a comic book movie's bad guy plan, it seems like that's an issue.
What confuses me is when people refer to the movie's version of Connors as conflicted or even a tragic figure. If we saw something in Connors' personal life, like his family, we might understand why he's so driven, or if we learned more about how he lost his arm. Instead, he's just a guy who did something shitty to Peter's father at some point, who seems perfectly happy to throw scientific method out the window, and who becomes a big green creepy weirdo who terrorizes the city for no real purpose for a while before he suddenly has a change of heart.
Part of what bothers me is something that also bothered me about "Prometheus." Why do filmmakers insist on making character scientists if they're going to have them behave like scientists in any way. And maybe I'm confused about the way things actually work, but it seems very odd that Gwen Stacy is evidently a hands-on part of Oscorp's most important project even though she's a high school student. With all of that, I have to just accept that this is how things work in the world of "The Amazing Spider-Man," I suppose. Part of it is that Rhys Ifans simply doesn't seem to be playing a fully realized person. I'm not a fan of bad guys in movies where someone turns into a genuine no-limits snarling bad guy, and when Ifans is in full Lizard mode, there's nothing about him that's interesting to me. He's just a "bad guy." When Magneto tried to use a machine to turn everyone into a mutant in the first Bryan Singer "X-Men," it made sense because he had spent his life grappling with the frustration and the shame and the danger of being a mutant. He needed to change society to make a space for himself in it, and while his methods may have been wrong, his reasons made sense. That's a great movie villain because there is the seed of righteous behavior in there. There's not a single moment in this film that explains what it is that Curt Connors hopes to accomplish by turning everyone in New York into lizard-people. There are a few lines of superficial lip service paid to a motivation, but it makes no sense.
At least Connors is actually in the movie, unlike...
Here's where the ham-handed franchise building seems most obvious. When you've got everyone working at a building called OSCORP and we hear repeated references to Norman Osborne and a mysterious illness and there's some urgency about the work that Connors is doing because it might somehow heal Norman Osborne, all of that can pay off quite nicely when you introduce the character.
Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait for a sequel for that to happen because this movie doesn't include him as an actual character. He's a trail of bread crumbs in the shape of a name, all of it pointing to a sequel that sounds more interesting than this movie. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if they are planning to pursue the most famous Gwen Stacy film, then we know the Green Goblin is coming, so why not go ahead and cast the character this time out and give him a bit of onscreen time? Is it just a function of money and giving yourself room as a filmmaker to make that decision later?
It makes it feel like this eventual trilogy is all going to center on the actions of two polar opposites, Peter and Norman, and everything else is just hanging off of that storyline. If that's true, then it's a bad dramatic idea to push Norman's introduction off completely until the second film. Then again, all of these thoughts are based on me as a comic reader getting ahead of what's actually happening onscreen in this film, and I'm doing the work for them, giving them the benefit of the doubt that there is a big master plan in place. If there's not, then it's even sloppier than it seems right now. Is that fair? When the filmmakers have already announced that they want to make three movies with these characters building off this continuity, should I automatically just judge this as the first act of a larger story? Is Sony willing to allow me to pay 1/3 of a ticket price to see the film? When did we all collectively decide that movies are just TV shows with bigger budgets, and it's perfectly okay to tell me a tiny sliver of a story where there's no real growth, no real resolution, and no dramatic weight to anything? You can obviously ask these questions about any movie in this age of franchise building, but it feels particularly egregious as an example in this film, and I can't pretend it didn't bother me while I was watching.
I've read repeatedly now that this is better than the Raimi films because it is "character-driven," but I'm not sure what people mean when they say that. I don't think these characters are consistently-written or interesting in terms of detail at all. Beyond that, I think this is far less character-driven than what Raimi was doing in his movies, and understanding what it means to be "character-driven" is key before you can start using that term to describe movies.
What I think people are really saying is "I like Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield," and I can understand that. They are both charming, and when you put them together, they are preposterously charming. Marc Webb certainly spends a fair amount of time letting them circle each other and stammer and sputter, but I'm still not sure why these two characters like each other, much less why I'm supposed to believe they're in love.
I think it's safe to say at this point that audiences love Emma Stone. She is adorable, and she certainly rocks the mini-skirts and knee-high boots look in the film. It's patently absurd to say that Gwen Stacy is presented as any more well-rounded a character than Mary Jane was in the Raimi films, though. Gwen is little more than an all-purpose band-aid in the film, a convenience that they use in several different places. It seems like the only reason they have Gwen working as a fully-credentialed scientist with access to all of Oscorp is so they can have an excuse for Peter to wander around the building and get bitten, and also so she can run throw together a quick antidote to a chemical formula that took over a decade to create. Because, you know, that's something a high school student would easily be able to do.
The "romantic" scenes in the film are profoundly frustrating to me as a writer because there's nothing there on the page. The scenes work because Garfield and Stone are both adorable kids who evidently were experiencing some very real chemistry as well. They stammer and stutter and smile their way through their various flirtations, and it's hard not to smile as you watch them. But it is a case of pure movie star magnetism, and the movie actually makes me nervous for Stone as an actor. If she can take truly awful writing like this and make it work the way it does here, that's almost an invitation to Hollywood. After all, why bother writing anything good for her? Just cast her in terrible trash, and she'll make it work, right? I hope she has a great team around her, because the temptation will be to take lots and lots of easy money for films that just aren't ready to be made.
You know… like this one.
In Garfield's case, it's a much stranger dissonance at work, because what he's playing is not what's on the page at all. The Peter Parker of this film, judged only on his actions, is sort of an asshole. I don't think there's much about Peter that is to be admired, with the possible exception of the scene on the bridge with the little boy. Garfield is able to project this wide open quality, this really good-natured quality that always feels slightly like he's teasing whoever he's talking to, but in a good-natured way. But the character on the page isn't anywhere near as complicated as the way Garfield's playing him, and watching him shower all these quirks and mannerisms and behaviors onto a thin, wrong-headed characterization just makes me more frustrated because I can't help but imagine what he could have done with a real script.
More than any other successful superhero franchise, the "Spider-Man" films confuse me as pieces of writing. At least with the Raimi films, each movie had a certain facet of Peter's growth that they were trying to explore and illuminate, but all of the films made by Sony so far seem like they were built from a kit, and because they follow this generic shape, they end up feeling soft around the edges. Even my favorite of the Raimi films features a fair number of things that happen for no reason other than the mechanical plotting of the film.
As I said, i don't mind that this film chose to restart everything, but I do mind that it seems so apathetic about it and that there's so little urgency to the thing. Events happen, and individual scenes play out in ways that work, but it feels like the kind of film you could cut into a radically different order without really affecting the way the story plays out at all. Stories… great stories… aren't just long series of disconnected scenes, and that's what everything else boils down to when talking about the problems here.
The thing I've always found compelling about the Spider-Man universe is the way the villains all have this bizarre theatricality built into their identities, and how Spider-Man struggles to balance his personal issues with his larger career as a crime-fighter. That doesn't mean I want all of his personal issues to tie directly into the villain he's fighting. It actually means the opposite. I like it when Peter's worried about how he's going to pay his rent, and at the same time, he's trying to avoid being hunted and killed by, say, Kraven The Hunter. When you take these two different lives and watch the ways they collide, it can pay off in stories that are both emotional and thrilling. Here, though, it feels more like someone made a checklist of ideas and scenes and beats that they wanted to see, and no one ever bothered to come up with a narrative shape that would allow for those ideas and moments to be fully explored.
I hope if Sony does continue this series, they don't just treat it like business as usual. If they just crank out two carbon copies of this film, I'm going to have a real hard time sitting through this trilogy. But if they take what works here, which is basically the casting and some of the details of the world, and they build off of that in a smart way, they could redeem this take. I may never end up liking this movie, but I hope I end up liking the series.
And if not? At least I can look forward to that reboot circa 2022, right?
"The Amazing Spider-Man" is now playing everywhere.