Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves, and Marc Webb, 2012
To wrap up 2012, I thought I'd have a look at the Spider-Man reboot. I watched the first two installments of the '00s Spider-Man franchise — the first because of Mike D'Angelo's rave review, the second for work — and found them excruciating: campy and melodramatic. This isn't quite as bad (that would take some doing!), but that doesn't make it good.
I'll start by saying the same thing I said about 2002's Spider-Man: in the comics, the thing that sets Spider-Man apart from other superheroes is that he's funny. The entire time he's fighting bad guys, Spider-Man is cracking jokes, and the jokes are good. We're not talking about a wisecrack or two at the end of a scene — he never fuckin' shuts up. These days, I suppose Deadpool has horned in on that territory, but Deadpool's sense of humor is from the Beavis and Butt-head school. Spider-Man is more in the Chandler Bing vein. The Amazing Spider-Man has one scene that tries to capture this, but only the one, and it doesn't really work on screen. Part of it is just that the mask muffles the jokes. This could be solved with overdubs, but that's another thing: it is perfectly normal for characters in comics to talk while wearing full facemasks, but in movies it's weird. It was weird when Bane talked in The Dark Knight Rises, too. It might actually be as simple as the fact that in comics you have pointers connecting the speech balloons to where the character's mouth would be! Or the fact that comics are composed of still images, so we don't expect to see a character's mouth move, while in a movie if the character's mouth isn't moving it feels like a voiceover. Anyway, I get the feeling that these filmmakers had the same frustration with the facemask — which in live action also makes it hard for the character to emote — because it seems like Peter Parker ditches the mask every thirty seconds. I know there are branding issues to consider, but given how many liberties these movies take with the characters — look what they did to poor Hawkeye! — it seems like they could have gotten away with saying that movie Spider-Man wears a partial mask like any of the various Spider-Women or Araña or someone.
Anyway, one of the interesting things about the notion of adapting Spider-Man for another medium is that so much about him is negotiable! Take his age. In the Ditko era he was a bespectacled 15-year-old; in the Romita era (which I think was the most iconic in terms of establishing everyone's look, yeah? didn't Romita make Ditko's stuff look retroactively wonky?) he's a swingin' college student; and from about 1970 on he's been a grown-ass man. All of these eras are available for you to draw upon, so if you're going to cast an actor who is thirty and looks it, that's totally fine. But it does mean you have to, y'know, adjust the origin so he's not in high school! When I went poking around looking at what people had said about this movie, I found a fair amount of debate that went something like this: "Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker is a huge douche! It's just dick move after dick move with him!" "No, he's a teenager! That's how teenagers act!" I would submit that the issue here may simply be that it's hard to register Peter's acting out as typical teenage behavior when it's coming from someone who clearly hasn't been a teenager for a decade. (Less Chandler in this case than Joey trying to pass for 19.) Seriously: when you cast Andrew Garfield, the first thing you do is update the script so that Peter gets bitten when he's a grad student. The story can still work. (Especially given that in the comics he didn't meet Gwen Stacy until he started at Empire State!)
Speaking of whom — yeah, this time around they're going with Gwen. Most Spider-Man reboots of late have made Mary Jane Watson the love interest, because (a) the girls Peter went to high school with in the comics didn't make much of a mark in the Spider-Man mythos, (b) Mary Jane is the one Peter actually ended up marrying, so retroactively she became The One, and (c) you can take a Mary Jane story arc anywhere you want, whereas Gwen comes with the baggage of ending the Silver Age by getting thrown off a bridge by the Green Goblin. (The '02 Spider-Man, being terrible, exercises this freedom by having the Green Goblin throw Mary Jane off a bridge.) But the Mary Jane of the comics was a ditzy '60s party girl whose characterization doesn't really fly today. The Ultimate imprint, for instance, gives us a Mary Jane who's a sweet science geek. It's tempting to say that she's Gwen Stacy with red hair, but in point of fact, when Gwen Stacy first showed up, she wasn't Gwen the Good Girl with the bright blonde bangs yet — she was a beauty queen who threw fits about the fact that Peter wasn't into her (because he was always too distracted by one thing or another to notice her). Even after they had become a couple, Gwen's characterization evolved a lot over time and in fact never really settled down. So, yeah — this isn't so much a matter of deciding between Mary Jane and Gwen as one of taking a vague love interest character and deciding whether to call her Mary Jane or Gwen. It sort of feels like the filmmakers went with Gwen this time just to differentiate this movie from the '00s series. (And maybe so the Green Goblin can go ahead and kill her in a sequel.)
And having mentioned the sequel — yes, the reboot also follows the recent formula of holding back the main villain for the sequel and picking a midlister for the opener, going with the Lizard, but finding nothing interesting to do with the Lizard. I guess one thing that's somewhat noteworthy about the matchup is that while one of the standard themes in a Spider-Man story is that he isn't admired the way other superheroes are, this movie pretty much discards that element — Captain Stacy harrumphs about his vigilantism, but Aunt May doesn't kvetch about that creepy Spider-Man and there's no J. Jonah Jameson to thunder that he's a menace. When you've got a city crawling with costumed crooks, it's plausible that a lot of people might take Spider-Man to be one of them, but that's not what we have here. Instead of costumed crooks we have a scary monster, and Spider-Man's fighting it, so public adulation follows — to the point that the hokey climax involves the appreciative citizenry moving cranes around to help Spidey with his web-swinging. (Which is significantly improved from the '02 version — it emphasizes the holyshitness of jumping off a skyscraper, while the '02 web-swinging looked like it took place in a world without physics.) Maybe the backlash is something else they saved for the sequel. I guess it's weird to speculate about a movie that already came out over a year ago, but I won't get to it for a while — I have all of 2013 to plow through first. But hey, I got through 2012 in seven months, so for once I'm actually gaining on the present!