Hero Whipped: Why This Spider-Man Amazed Me

In this series of posts I tend to discuss comic book characters and my unique relationship with them since my fairly recent return to reading them again and I usually find a way to connect them back to movies somehow. However, since I decided that my posts may be a little different from hereon in, these posts may have a slightly different vibe to them.

Sure enough after that post The Amazing Spider-Man was one of the first things I saw. Now, in spite of my recent tendency to like superhero movies either a lot as the case is with say The Avengers and X-Men: First Class or somewhat as is the case with Thor or Green Lantern, the new Spider-Man hearkens me back to the original trilogy which were all released during my hiatus. Thus, this will be a heavily filmic post but it’s perhaps the most unique perspective I’ve yet had on a character.

It may be possible that I knew less about Spider-Man going into that first movie than I’ve known about almost any superhero before seeing their film. It was released at a time where I was typically attending films in a group so the selection process was fairly democratic. Going alone or with at least one other person, I could take it or leave it. To give you a sense of my lack of knowledge, after having seen it I was informed that in the books Peter created a web-shooter and it wasn’t a biological side-effect of the bite. So that frames it a bit.

However, I was a fairly blank slate. I didn’t have expectations I was just reacting to what I saw on the screen and what I saw there was something I didn’t care for much at all. In the post-film powwow I was the only dissenting opinion who chimed in “Well, I thought it really sucked.” I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it and the bad taste in my mouth kept me from seeing the other two.

I could identify easily enough with the elements of the story. Few and far between are the heroes whose archetypes that have a major variable. It was really a letdown in my eyes aesthetically, technically and viscerally. With regards to the viscera a lot of that boiled down to the casting of the leads. There is a certain alchemy in all of filmmaking but perhaps where it’s most present is in acting. Yes, there is a lot of technique and things that are good acting and bad acting just like in any aspect of filmmaking, however, an effective performer who doesn’t excite you in anyway is likely to be less engaging than a less technically skilled actor who is gripping, who has a presence. Tobey Maguire is not a bad actor and neither is Kirsten Dunst. I don’t find them interesting in any way, shape or form though. They bore me more often than not. It’s really a casting issue. Maguire is going to be seen in The Great Gatsby next. That’s great casting. He belongs in that film, here I didn’t care for it.

The casting and the actors get no help in the story department I remembered feeling it tepid and trite, nothing out of the ordinary, and getting back to the alchemy thing you have actors I felt were miscast, not particularly dynamic and then no chemistry too? Brilliant.

I was also not in the camp that ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the CG. Good effects work, truly good effects work is timeless. I doesn’t just stand up against contemporary expectations but stands the test of time too. I felt they were lacking in 2002, much less now. Whereas there are shots in Jurassic Park that are still astounding almost 20 years later.

It really seems in superhero cinema that much of it boils down to character, in the better ones performance, and spectacle. Very few are those films that will also make you legitimately, consistently, and even spontaneously, feel strong pangs of genuine emotion (Teaser: I got a lot of that in the new Batman and that’s the next in this series!).

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of watching any movie ever was the first time I saw Batman. You know the 1989 one, back when Tim Burton was Tim Burton.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” And thus, the crap was scared out of me and I was in love with that movie.

With Spider-Man you do have a basis for many emotions in the construction of his origin. As superhero films proliferate there will be more and more merit to the arguments about the viability of origin stories, however, in rebooting a series I have no problem with retelling. Similarity by itself is not cause enough for ridicule. Take the Psycho remake for instance (please?), if Van Sant had merely done the story over again: same place, same time, same characters, names; that probably would’ve been fine. However, he took it a step further into cinematic photocopying, which just felt flat.

I can stand a retelling, as I think I’ve stated before: I am fine with multiple versions of stories existing (and when I like the story I seek them out). I clearly wanted to be re-told this story based on my reaction to the first film. So, what was it in this new Spider-Man that worked for me? In short, practically everything.

However, as you may have guessed, it starts with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Just by looking at Andrew Garfield you may not imagine he’s the dynamic performer, but if you watch him you soon find out. I first saw him in The Red Riding Trilogy and I was a fan. There are quite a few things that perturbed me about The Social Network, but he wasn’t one of them, at all. Robbed of an Oscar nomination, is what he was.

Then there’s Emma Stone. I think everybody loves Emma Stone at this point. If you don’t you probably aren’t watching that many movies.

There’s a certain quietness and introspection to this film that allows the emotion to be wrenched out of it. I spoke of spectacle above, spectacle is very external. In many of these films there is rarely introspection. This film manages to do that, build these characters but also steadily build the intrigue. The characters arc, you see what makes them tick, you see and understand their decisions and I felt for them.

Now, the dynamic was changed in this film by bringing Gwen Stacy into the mix rather than Mary Jane Watson. Now, in my return to comics I haven’t delved into Spider-Man really. I’ve only really gotten to know and like him from his teaming up with The Fantastic Four after The Human Torch’s temporary demise, so Gwen was new to me and I think involving her is a great story decision that just makes this film that much better and resonant.

On a technical level, not only do scenes tend to be intensified by occurring at night but the filmmakers figured out that the web-swinging looks better then. Another interesting aesthetic note to me was that the camera was very much controlled, not an over-abundance of motion. The shots look good and composed and it hearken back to earlier superhero films, but are made with newer toys.

All those proclivities aside here are the two true litmus tests for superhero movies as I see them: One, do I want to see the inevitable sequel? Two, does the film make me want to seek out the character in print? The answer to both those questions is a a resounding hell yes. And that is why this Spider-Man amazed me.

Properties That Could Use The Avengers Treatment

Now speaking for myself (for who else would I speak for) I was most definitely delighted with The Avengers. Now, whether you loved it, hated it or felt indifferently towards it one cannot deny the box office records it shattered. Which gets me to thinking that imitation is the sincerest form of trying to make money in Hollywood; so what entities could benefit from a ‘team up’ mentality, aesthetically at least (as the box office is always a crap shoot)?

1. Turma da Mônica

OK, yes, this is absolutely my list and some of these ideas may not be feasible financially or even of broad appeal to a US audience. However, I am merely selecting properties where there can be a convergence of factions within a fictitious universe. This is a Brazilian comics universe I’ve discussed on occasion and the fact of the matter is there are many separate “Gangs” (as they’re referred to meaning more like Kool and the Gang, rather than biker gangs) that could each have their own films or a mash-up. There’s certainly enough characters and plots it’s about 11 sections and 100+ characters. Which does not include the new adolescent versions of many of the same characters.

2. Looney Tunes

This has been touched upon to an extent both in Roger Rabbit, Space Jam and Back in Action, which I did not see. However, the Looney Tunes ensemble is still right for a feature length film that doesn’t stitch together shorts but rather creates new material and introduces a new audience to these wonderful characters.

3. Disney

This was honestly the first idea that came to mind. Between the parks and the Epic Mickey video games (a new version to come next year) this idea is just sitting there. Disney fans are nothing if not loyal. We, for I speak as one of them, would gladly go to see a new story with old familiar faces in familiar contexts. This is much more in keeping with what will please us rather than uninspired straight-to-video sequels.

4. Walter Lantz

Universal Studios owns all these characters and only recently announced the development of a Woody Woodpecker feature. It’s a great property that should be exploited and while they’re doing that they may as well bring many back to us. Come on, Chilly Willy.

This group makes it on the list over something like Dick Tracy because at least here it seems like the current rights holder is seeking to do something with it.

5. Justice League

The status of this project is in the balance and rumored, however, that’s not to say it’s not a possibility. Chris Nolan’s Batman series is a benchmark. Superman is being re-started. Despite its box office and critical struggles (I liked it) Green Lantern has happened. Getting a few more ducks in a row (Meaning films and attaching cast/director) this could work. Seriously.

6. Animaniacs

I can’t be the only one who misses these guys and would absolutely love to see all the great characters this show created converge in one huge overriding plot. The common thread: everyone is, whether they know it or not, obstructing The Brain’s plot to take over the world.

7. Tiny Toons

This one is going a few years before that but, hey, Elmira is the crossover character! The Tiny Toons I felt were more unceremoniously dumped for The Animaniacs. They are far more legitimate heir to the Looney Tunes than the new Baby version which I can hardly bear to look at in a commercial.

8. Roger Rabbit

I mentioned this in a short film Saturday post but Roger Rabbit has unjustly vanished from the world after being poised to be a huge real life star (better than Goofy?) but it never happened. If it all goes well I’d like Robert Zemeckis to get to do this. In spite of his motion capture struggles this is his project if its a hybrid, I would not object to an all toon version though.

9. Fradim

This could work better as a TV show but it is a Brazilian choice. Essentially, Henfil was one of Brazil’s great cartoonists and his strip was extra-ordinarily political. Creating a feature-length pastiche of his works would be something quite special, not that his universe is as massive as some of these others.

10. Calvin & Hobbes

I could include this in another list soon but clearly your argument against it, aside from the purist’s one, would be: “Calvin and Hobbes isn’t a heavily populated universe, is it?” No, not with people but were there to ever be a film I’d want to to be every bit as varied as Calvin’s imagination meaning Spaceman Spiff, Dinosaurs, Old Fashioned Soap Opera-Looking adults, Aliens and other imagined realities and alter egos of Calvin would be included in the story.

11. The Peanuts

Perhaps no other comic strip was ever as simply philosophical and also got down to the brass tacks of childhood and life better than The Peanuts. Specials like at Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween are great but they only truly skim the surface of the series. With the Peanuts gaining new life in a series from Boom Studios and dailies being reprinted by Fantagraphics one would think someone would be able to edit and cull major story-lines that relate, and incorporate as many characters as possible into a tremendous feature.

12. Harvey Comics

Now, there were a few adaptations of Harvey creations both Richie Rich and Casper (the latter being better and sequels not withstanding), however, Harvey comics no longer exist but the characters still exist in the collective consciousness and are getting either re-imagined or re-issued all the time. There are many characters to leverage and crossing over was frequent so it wouldn’t be hard to do if someone thought there was an audience for it.

13. The Fantastic Four

I’ll admit that I have not seen The Fantastic Four films that were attempted and based on what I’ve heard they’re not high on my list. Since my return to comics the First Family has become one of my great loves. Jonathan Hickman’s run, which I am fully up to date on, is truly epic and the kind of story that is conducive to an elevated sensibility that has been applied to superhero films as of late. The characters within the Marvel universe have always been sort of a crossroads so creating an Avengers-like project with them would not be difficult.

14. Asterix & Obelix

Here’s another one where the population isn’t huge but the amount of texts related to the characters is. Essentially this would be a narrative bomb, likely involving time travel or some other fantastical means to travel to a plethora of locations in the ancient world.

15. Histeria!

OK, imagine if you will a world wherein The Animaniacs and Tiny Toons were hits. Got it? OK, that’s where Histeria! will logically come into play. Now, it didn’t have nearly the run as those other Warner projects but I liked this one just as much. Similar, to Asterix in as much as this tales is mostly about history there’d be some way for the characters to go through the ages and also be a bit more dramatized than they were on the show.

16. Archie Comics

Anyone who has been reading the Life with Archie series knows that the Archie Comics are into breaking the mold now (Shameless self-promotion: I’ll discuss that further in an upcoming post). The same incarnations of the characters you grew up with still exist and can be exploited cinematically also, but the more mature mind-bending interpretation is the one with the most potential.

17. Star Comics

OK, here’s another personal pick and one that’s far more likely if Marvel were to ever do shorts. The mash-up angle is that Star was an imprint dedicated mostly to licensed material but it also did include some newly created original characters namely Planet Terry, Wally the Wizard, Top Dog and Royal Roy. Crossing over could easily happen here. To further convince the cynic here’s the Marvel “bridge,” meaning how can we possibly get to Star characters: Reboot The Fantastic Four (Make tons of money), incorporate the Power Pack in a sequel (as they’ve always been connected through Franklin Richards [See, crossroads]) and then get around to Star via Fantastic Four and Power Pack.

18. Hanna-Barbera

We all know that this is a huge universe and also that they had crossovers, many of these are animated simply because the possibility of combining a large number of characters is very exciting

19. Stephen King

Here’s one I saw suggest by John Gholson on his twitter feed. I forget who he suggested but essentially with all of King‘s canon this could work any number of ways. It could be an assemblage of his greatest heroes, or it could also be new heroes and a few villains who survived (names avoided to not spoil). The third possibility is a poor, unfortunate schmuck goes through a horrific tour through King’s Maine, without any need to justify it. Because you don’t need one sometimes as King himself stated in Storm of the Century ‘When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, “Why God? Why me?” and the thundering voice of God answered, “There’s just something about you that pisses me off”.’

20. The Kids in the Hall

I preface this choice by saying I adore Brain Candy, I know I’m in a minority when I say that but I do. However, that’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see a Kids in the Hall film where they play say 995 out of 1000 characters and bring in many of their famous characters. One needs to only see the rendition of a film not unlike Kiss of the Spider Woman that Bruno Puntz Jones (David Foley) and Francesca Fiore (Scott Thompson) do to know how cinematic they can be and how easily they can pull it off.

Review- Green Lantern

Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern (Warner Bros./DC)

Note: Some spoilers within.

Of the rash of comic book films that are due out this year I’d put Green Lantern near the bottom of the list with regards to how much prior knowledge I had about him going in (As opposed to The X-Men with which I am quite familiar or the upcoming Captain America, which would rank lowest). Thus, the expectations might not be as great but the onus would be squarely on the film to convey who this guy is what the rules of this particular universe and his abilities are. It’s serviceable but it could’ve been handled better. A lot of information about who the Lanterns are and what they do is disseminated immediately in a voice-over and considering that there will be more information to absorb later along with a lot of flashy fight sequences that don’t require thought it’s a risky strategy and there was some debate of the finer points amongst my party after the film.

Having said all that for the most part the foundation is laid and laid well not only in establishing Hal, his world and how it changes when he is summoned but also going forward should the films continue. A factor this film benefits from is that it’s not a super-being tale but rather gifts endowed to a regular person, which makes identification somewhat easier. While typically I am more drawn to the vigilante-type a la Batman, this film does do enough well to be considered better than The Green Hornet, who is of the vigilante mold, especially when you consider that this film managed to incorporate comedy with making it one, which is a tribute to the casting choice of Ryan Reynolds.

One of the decisions that didn’t work as well for this film is that in essence it contained dueling antagonists. On the one hand you have Parallax who is essentially a personification of fear that grows more dangerous and violent the more it defeats and consumes, which was pretty cool and different from what you typically get, and on the other you have Hector Hammond. Hammond is a scientist who gets infected by contact with one of Parallax’s victims and that creates a psychic link. Part of the problem with devoting so much time to Hammond is that he’s essentially a tool. It does give us a good performance from Peter Sarsgaard but his narrative ends rather unceremoniously.

Not to say Hammond was unnecessary but it just feels certain aspects of the film are short-changed in the interests of keeping the running time manageable. While Hammond’s being developed, I wanted more Hal, while Hal’s having his doubts I wondered what was happening on Oa. It seems as if in the interest of trying to get a lot covered the whole wasn’t all it could’ve been. On the positive, I thought the sequence with the requisite backstory regarding Hal’s father was very well-handled as was the introduction of what relationship all these characters had to one another. It’s just that plotting and pacing suffered after a while when trying to do too much all at once.

There are then with two antagonists and two climactic battle sequences; little fish then big fish. While I’ll be the first to complain when one seems far too long these were oddly truncated and anti-climatic. They each have their “Oh, that was cool” moments but also have that “Oh, it’s over?” moment as well.

The animation was rather good considering that there was a lot of it but definitely could’ve been improved further. For the record I did not see this film in 3D as I saw no need to as it is a post-converted film and I try to avoid those.

Lastly, don’t leave as soon as the credits start rolling as there is a little teaser at the end. Or you could leave because it really bugged the hell out of me. Can we knock it off with the teasers already? I recognize that running time begins at fanfare and ends when the credits stop rolling but more often than not these tacked on scenes leave you scratching your head or rolling your eyes rather than giving you anything you’re actually glad you stuck around and watched. Any superhero film has a built-in “excuse” for a sequel: it’s about a superhero. There’s always a bad guy. You don’t need to bend over backwards for it.

Anyway, having said all that I do want to stress that I think this film does more well than it does poorly it just sometimes that the latter is easier to expound upon. It’s a fair indoctrination to the character and the Green Lantern concept as a whole and is enjoyable popcorn-fare.

6/10