Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Amazing Spider-Man is neither Amazing nor Spider-Man

Or a brief discussion on the intrinsic flaws of Amazing Spider-Man

Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a bad movie. The broad strokes of the story can be followed, the character’s motivations are clear enough, and the actors do a pretty good job bringing the characters to life. There are a few great moments in the film and some of the departures from Spider-Man dogma they presented were pretty clever.  At no point in this movie was I infuriated.

Amazing Spider-Man also isn’t a particularly good movie. The plot overall felt very unoriginal. If you saw Spider-Man, the Sam Rami film, you pretty much saw a bigger, campier and Spider-Manier film adaptation of Spider-Man with a similar collection of plot beats.  In fact, much of Amazing Spider-Man is an origin retread so a third of the movie is almost literally the same as Rami's Spider-Man. It also felt very… by the numbers? Things happened because the genre demands it without a lot of substance or explanation. I’d go so far as to argue that whole plot threads of the movie rely on our prior knowledge and expectations to make sense.1 So, while Amazing Spider-Man never made me go all geek-hulk, it didn’t really illicit any positive emotional reactions either. I’ve heard the whole Spider-meh joke, and I buy into that.

But there is more to my apathetic reaction to this film than its kind of lackadaisical take on the character. In my opinion Amazing Spider-Man is further brought down by two key general problems: it gets the soul of Spider-Man wrong and it makes ham-fisted attempts to tell instead of show. My analysis after the cut.

It should be noted that after the cut is going to be *SPOILER* rich… so go on at your peril.

Point the first: I feel like they got the character of Spider-Man fundamentally wrong. I'm not talking about the changes to the origin (which were largely pretty clever) or the fact they made Peter Parker a handsome hipster jerk (which admittedly didn't help matters). My issue is that Spider-Man is never altruistic in the entire film. To me Spider-Man is defined by an altruistic and maybe pathological need to take responsibility for the safety of others as a kind of penance for failing to take responsibility for protecting Uncle Ben. In Amazing Spider-Man, Peter doesn't yet understand the scope of his powers when he opts not to stop Uncle Ben’s killer and therefore isn't really responsible for Uncle Ben’s death (anymore than any other person would be for not accosting an armed robber). More problematically, Parker's decision to become a vigilante is motivated entirely by revenge. Seriously, he becomes Spider-Man to anonymously assault petty criminals who resemble his uncle's killer.  And what’s worse, he never confronts the guy who killed Uncle Ben directly and never makes the decision to let justice supercede his need for vengeance. Spider-Man never makes the transition from vigilantism to heroism in the movie. Also: his conflict with the lizard is him trying to make right his own involvement in the creation of the monster instead of an altruistic need to protect others. Spider-Man, therefore, never really is a hero in this movie, just a guy motivated by his own interests who has superpowers.2

Point the second: The film explains unnecessary things. From what I know about visual storytelling (like in film and comics) the trick is to show instead of tell. Amazing Spider-Man is really bad at this.

The Avengers, conversely, did a really good job of showing important plot points. For instance, Loki’s magic scepter clearly had the ability to brainwash people and was the mind-influencing factor that made the Avengers act all conflicty and arguey in that one Helicarrier scene. Nowhere was this explicitly stated as dialogue in the film, but everyone in the audience understood this because we were shown it. Of course, The Avengers was a really good movie in many many ways.

Amazing Spider-Man had this perplexing and off-putting tendency to explain things that we were being show on screen. At one point Spider-Man, while racing to confront the Lizard, is shot in the leg by a police officer which causes him to struggle to keep moving. A disembodied media-person voiceover immediately cuts in pointing out that spiderman looks hurt and might not make it there in time... WHICH IS LITERALLY WHAT THEY ARE SHOWING US AS THIS IS SAID.3 (Also the gunshot injury seems to clear up before the final confrontation scene minutes later...) The next scene with the Magguffin-drug-dispersal-machine included a synthetic voice, presumably from the machine, that kept announcing a time limit or the switch to an antidote or the antidote’s deployment despite all of this being rather obviously visually depicted. Following the films climax, another helpful media voiceover explains that someone released an airborne cure to the Lizard's mutagen despite our being shown the blue glowing cure-spores visually curing lizard mutants. It's aggravating and not terrible effective film making.

(I am also perplexed that these things were explained in detail, but nothing was offered concerning how the spider-bite from web producing spiders gave Peter amazing spider-powers4 or what the deal with the Lizard’s internal evil voice was. These seem like odd choices.)

So these are my general, systemic problems with the Amazing Spider-Man.

That said, I have some nit-picky ranty things to say... 

The way science is portrayed in this movie is really aggravating to me. The lab looked nothing like a real lab, it makes little sense for high school students to intern in a lab (and no sense for them to intern in a private company’s lab), no one stores liquid nitrogen on a roof, and the way they injected the mouse was hilariously unrealistic (if you happen to have experience injecting mice). My biggest critique, though, is that Peter Parker finds a mathematic formula from his father that suddenly makes genetic recombination between different species possible. Unless math has magic powers in the Amazing Spider-Man universe a simple formula shouldn’t be able to change the behaviour of biology. Math can certainly be used to describe nature, but math cannot control nature. It’s pretty annoying.

I know it’s ridiculous to argue about Scientific accuracy in a movie about a dude with spider-powers who fights a mutant lizard man (in fact, the film ridicules a couple of nerds discussing Spider-Man’s pendulum motion), but the movie spends a lot of time trying to justify the quasi-Science of the films events. If Amazing Spider-Man wants me to find its Sci-Fi elements realistically plausible… it has to be much more convincing than it was. The trick to making unrealistic super-science work in film is by not belabouring it too much. Spider-Man got his powers from a spider-bite of some sort? Cool. Doc Conners makes an elixir that turns him into the Lizard? Fine. The drug-releaser-Magguffin can disperse a cure? Right on, brother. But once you start saying things like “mRNA” or using a math formula to change how cells work you are inviting skepticism.5

On another side note: anyone else think the film had scenes that were riffing pretty hard on the Jurassic Park kitchen scene and the King Kong on the Empire State Building scene?

1. The romance subplot is pretty shallowly developed on screen… but we know Gwen Stacey and Peter Parker (or attractive lead male, and attractive lead female) are meant to fall in love, so it works sort of.
2. I guess this could be like in Batman Begins where we don’t see a fully realized Batman until the next movie…
3. You could argue that the media voiceover was needed to set up the cheesy scene with the cranes being moved to provide an express route for Spider-Man to swing along… but I suspect this could have been done in a more elegant manner.
4. For one, there was a room full of these things making a commercial web product. Presumably other people may have been exposed and potentially bitten by them. Also, Peter becomes a successful trans-species hybrid from the spider-bite despite a major plotpoint in the film being that trans-species genetic hybrids can’t be made. This film has issues with internal logical consistency…
5. The Avengers gave just the right amount of detail to make the fantastic elements work. Hulk turns green and smashy because gamma radiation and Cap’s serum: perfect. Cap was frozen for decades, and has powers from a supersoldier serum: nifty. Ironman has a futuristic weapon suit: cool beans. The Helicarrier is a flying aircraft carrier: awesome! Never did the movie try to explain the physics or biology of any of this because that would have just attacked the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Man, I heart The Avengers.

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