Mighty Marvels: The Spider-Man Franchise(s)

Edited

*For an attempt at something a tad lighter than my usual reviews, here’s the first in a month-long series of reviews of various superhero film franchises (because I hear these are popular nowadays).

Spider-Man

While a somewhat unexpected choice at the time, in retrospect Sam Raimi was a perfect match to the goofy world of comic book fervor set up in Spider-Man. Taking a far larger budget than he’d ever worked with to create, of all things, a heavily marketed B movie, he ended up making one that works precisely because it is unabashedly in love with the fact that it is a B-movie, Snidely Whiplash-encrusted villain and all. While other films would come and go and do far more for comic book storytelling and character development in the process, Spider-Man does not bother with such trifles. For its whole running length, it is only itself, and it’s rather happy to be so at that.

If Raimi’s deft understanding of tone and his midnight movie drive-in Saturday morning cartoon style of whiplash direction and pop-colorism don’t work for you, perhaps the film’s most important narrative revelation will. Namely, while other comic book movies would attempt to explore the complicated inner-workings of the human psyche, usually lacking a script to back up their narrative ambitions, Raimi’s film boils the appeal of a comic book down to its beautifully terse yet effervescent bare essentials: there is a person, and they do not have powers, and then they acquire powers, and then they have a time with them. Spider-Man vaguely approaches morality fable toward the end, but the main narrative is mostly a clothesline with which to capture smaller more character-based moments of a geeky high schooler acting out the fantasies of a geeky high-schooler. Of course, the B-movie stylings are fundamentally linked to this fact – they openly reveal the film as less a reality and more a fantasy fable or a power-crazed dream. This is not a graphic novel, but a comic book, and it is damn proud of it.

So where does that leave us? The fact that Spider-Man, far more than the 1990s Batman films and the 2000 release of X-Men, has contoured none-too-insignificantly the rise of the increasingly tepid modern superhero film doesn’t negate that it was a breath of fresh air in 2002. More importantly, surprisingly, and perhaps fittingly, this film’s lithe, whiplash approach to teenage escapism and campy B-movie theatrical non-sensery is even more refreshing in today’s climate of bloated, holier-than-thou summer drag-fests – unlike all these films, Spider-Man has a sense of its own limits and sticks to what it does best. For this reason, more than any other, the film soars.

Score: 8/10

Spider-Man 2

For about four years, the end of the “before” in the before-and-after cultural dichotomy moment that was The Dark Knight, this was “the” superhero movie. It was the one to beat, the big dramatic well-centered sequel that flew past its immediate predecessor and gracefully moved into the stratosphere with flying colors. Today, it’s very well regarded, if less rapturously so. Most of the praise for Raimi’s film essentially reduced it to “more Spider-Man, but better”. While I understand the sentiment, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Put simply, the things that Spider-Man 2 does well are not the things its predecessor does well. While that film was so unforced and cheerfully loopy, this is a far more dour affair with much more on the mind. The villain, for instance, is actually successful in a non-“sneering B-movie clown” sense of the word, and Alfred Molina gives a nuanced, textured but still rightfully campy performance as the Shakespearean Doctor Octopus. His character, unlike Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the previous film, is its most commanding figure – all eyes go to him when he’s on the screen. He gives the film weight and existential propulsion without ever dragging it into maudlin histrionics. His film is an altogether weightier work, more forceful and better prepared for the big leagues.

At the same time, the film is much less successful as pure escapism – there’s too much fussy drama clouding its thoughts for it to work in the single-minded, gleefully un-complicated ways of its predecessor. Thus, this film is in many senses “better” – better directed, better paced, better acted, and better written – but it sacrifices a certain breezy pizzaz to achieve this. Of course, considering what Raimi comes up with in its place, the trade-off seems fair. So we have a lil’ give and a lil’ take – thus is the world. Perhaps it’s merely the passing of time – in 2004 when comic book movies never took things seriously, a film of dramatic heft was what the genre needed. Now, the pendulum has turned, and Spider-Man appears a wee bit more refreshingly singular and kinetically non-realist than its successor.

A special note should go to Raimi for the film’s best sequence, a piece of pop-horror so genuine and fun it towers above any of the film’s already great action set-pieces. In the sequence where Doc Ock …becomes Doc Ock, for lack of a better term, his robotic arms are let loose against his will in a hospital and have their way with a team of doctors operating on him. The scene is straight out of The Evil Dead, vintage Raimi (with an assured multitude of shots that no other director could pull off quite like Raimi, including the quintessential high-spirits low-position tracking shot). It’s the film at its most perturbed, and curiously, at its lightest. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

Score: 8/10

Spider-Man 3

Let me just get the difficult part over with: I do not hate, or even particularly dislike, Spider-Man 3. This is an imperfect film with a fairly disgusting final third, and it’s never close to great. Those first two thirds, however, introduce and tell a compelling story with Flint Marko, aka Sandman, played with such feeling by Topher Grace that it’s almost impossible to not get swept up. The action, although too prominent, is fluid, nimble, dynamic, and graced with the fleet foot of a director who obviously loves his cartoon physics. And, while the story is cluttered, a fair portion of it is at least cluttered in an ambitious, somewhat visionary way rather than an inscrutably drugged committee-driven way. That it mostly fails at being ambitious is a detriment, sure, but it’s not for lack of trying. At the end of the day, superhero movies are increasingly amounting to also-rans these days, and something that tries something new and fails in as many ways as Spider-Man 3 does is preferable to something that tries what every other film tries and succeeds at it. Spider-Man 3 is many things, but milquetoast is not one of them.

Case in point: the film’s most infamous scene, the “emo” dance-hall number roughly concluding its second act.  I understand the criticism, but for me, not only is it classic Raimi, but it’s one of the truest examples of left-field kitchen-sink directorial vision being thrown into these otherwise big-budget commercial tentpoles and at least putting a good ol’ effort into making them fascinating failures rather than boring ones. Does dancing belong in a Spider-Man movie? No, but that’s the point; at this point in the film he’s a different Spider-Man, infected by an evil symbiote, and with all that teen angst boiled up in goody-goody Peter Parker now let loose upon the world, it’s a thing of brilliance that his way of letting loose is acting like a douche-bag to women in a club rather than turning the city on its ear.

It’s completely at odds with the archly serious tone of the film, but the scene is constructed for this very purpose. It’s the image of a teenager trying to let loose and having absolutely no idea what to do to achieve this goal, a character whose conception of breaking out is really just a passive reflection of years of watching lame teenage movies and not understanding them (as well as years of ingesting male privilege). Its the character’s dark, id-driven side left untamed, the animal-male lurking inside of him when his goody-two-shoes nice-guy status loses itself to his male inhibitions. It’s supposed to make us uncomfortable as a slice of narrative because it doesn’t fit into what we might imagine a “Spider-Man” narrative to be, but it is exactly the counter to his normally submissive passivity and social awkwardness that would inhabit Peter Parker’s darker side. Wouldn’t his conception of “doing bad” be acting out the hopelessly lame come-ons and pick-ups he sees in film and television, the “comic book” depictions of alpha-males who think they are all the rage and don’t understand that everyone is laughing behind their backs? Wouldn’t his male privilege let loose upon the world by trying to take control of women, flinging them around like objects without any consideration for their personal status? In its odd way, then, this scene actually humanizes Parker for the comic book character he is, exploring his dark side in ways both cheekily surreal and deceptively realistic with a hint of snark. Would this Peter Parker try to take over the world, or would he try to act like one of the popular guys in his high school? If you ask me, I think Raimi’s busy mind has stumbled upon a more honest depiction of the teenage id than we give him credit for.

Speaking of being busy, Spider-Man 3 is a relentlessly busy film, on hot on its feet to get somewhere without any idea of where it’s actually going. The inclusion of Venom is a textbook example of over-writing: that last 30-minute fight scene, unlike the dancing, is a vacuum of hot air without the candy coating, and none of the build-up leads naturally to the conclusion that it ends up stumbling upon. Worse, the finale fits into the “dark” corporate blockbuster all too well –  more, more, and more action topped with more and more needless story creating a blockbuster of tremendous unwieldy girth and self-importance. Kitsch becomes gloomy grunge, and the two –  Looney Tunes adherent Raimi and money-making post-Nolan sour-puss Raimi –  do not meld in the slightest. And with so much weight, the shiny action coating holding the film together cannot but come undone at the seams – it collapses under its own suffocating, gluttonous morbidity.

But at least its so obviously morbid while it’s at it. It’s a failure, sure, but it is as often perplexing at being so as it is a right drag. It is bad at a fundamental level, but it is invigoratingly, vigorously, happily, even dangerously bad, so off-kilter and rambunctious and gleefully messy with its high-camp badness and the astoundingly inept intersection of its shrill comedy and maudlin, morose drama. The jumble of tones functions like a stew of hyper-charged ions smashing into one another without rhyme or reason. The fallout is huge, sure, but at least it’s a surreal spectacle in the meantime.

Score: 6/10

The Amazing Spider-Man

That The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t need to exist is a dishonest critique of the film – depending upon the criteria, a charitable argument can be made that no film truly needs to exist. The fact is that this one does and what is more important than whether it retells the same story as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is whether it tells the story in the same way. And on this front, the answer is that it is sufficiently different, if not necessarily better. While Raimi’s Spider-Man was a kaleidoscopic exercise in kitschy pop-art, The Amazing Spider-Man is darker and has a greater sense of consequence. At the same time, considering this follows suit with just about every other mainstream blockbuster released over the past ten years, this is not necessarily a categorical good. If it gives the film surer dramatic legs, it also makes it rather clearly a less unique, special film, and less of a good-natured slap on the head to every other mainstream blockbuster out there.

As for what this film does well, almost all of it can be laid handily on the feet of director Marc Webb. A romantic, if pragmatic, empathetic at heart, his sympathetic direction is both graceful and nimble, and he develops the film’s central relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy far more efficiently and with more breezy teenage pizzaz than in any of the Raimi films. To this extent, both main star Andrew Garfield and partner Emma Stone bring an air of unforced charm to their roles , and their scenes together are far better than any of the needless heroing about that takes up the back half of the film. If Raimi’s films were comic book movies, this is a teen romance in disguise.

In the second half of the film, when things like story and action get in the way of character, it all becomes much less personal and far more confused by its own attempts at weight. At this point, it really starts to seem like a recreation of Raimi’s first film, and it all sort of goes sour. More tellingly, if Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 failed because it was an indulgent mess so desperately pained to bludgeon dozens of different tones and arcs into a nice little box, this film is the opposite. It fails not because it crumbles under it’s own effort, but because it lacks any real effort to speak of. It works in a decidedly low-key way, and if it’s wholly unambitious, it’s light, breezy charms are still present and accounted for in the first half. It’s a pity then – it had to go and be a superhero movie. If it had been honest with itself and taken off the spider’s mask, it would have been altogether more fulfilling.

Score: 6.5/10

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

For those who felt Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was a bit too much, the normally restrained Marc Webb is out to prove we ain’t seen nothing yet. In all seriousness, his roots in teenage romantic dramedy are well on display here, and in another film, they might work. As self-contained scenes, many of the film’s early bits function fine. Yet, as individual patches on a quilt, they crash and burn. If Spider-Man 3 was a collection of disconnected vignetters one after the other, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 functions like those vignettes were chopped up and reorganized with no sense of logic or emotional sense.

On one hand, we have a teenage romance, and on the other, we have the biggest, most chaotic mess of weightless, low impact CGI high-flying action the series has yet seen. Each could form the backbone of an okay film (I seriously doubt the action film element could have worked on it’s own as a truly “good” work of entertainment). But mashed uneasily together, they amount to far less than some already questionable parts. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a gluttonous mass that fails to realize it’s suffocating himself even before the film’s primary villain is introduced.

Within, we’re mostly left picking up the pieces – the final fifteen minutes which actually approach nuance and depth for instance – but the smattering of good isn’t worth the drag to get there. That this film closes in on two and a half hours is a decision of such a stunning kind of egotist madness and unchecked blockbuster over-indulgence it’s hard to fathom. The film is less a narrative than a collection of nonsense, and while I’m fairly keen on auteurist works that approximate a dreamlike collection of disjointed images rather than a cohesive narrative proper, this film is something very much less than the work of an auteur with a complicated vision of the world. While certain films may use this non-narrative strategy to convey the chaotic, confused distance of everyday life , this one stumbles upon it more as a result of general idiocy.

With a semi-central villain that is a complete failure (to the point of barely resembling a threat) and a severe case of tonal whiplash (at times seeming like a long-lost and unnecessarily found Joel Schumacher attempt to trade in one fear-inducing animal for another), it is nothing less than the ultimate culmination of filmmaking-by-committee. It pits several voices (the film has an ungodly four credited writers) all vying for their definition of box office success and paying no attention to anyone else involved, and the results are pretty much as expected.

Score: 5/10

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