Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Watcher - Amazing Spider-Man

Just over ten years ago now, I went to see a big new superhero film with a group of friends. Everyone was excited thanks to the trailers, the cult director involved and the merchandising hype that was kicking in. After two hours in a darkened room we emerged into a warm early summer's evening and promptly headed to the pub.

My friends were all impressed and I remember animated conversation as we sat around our favourite table with our drinks of choice. But I was sat in the corner feeling glum. I was disappointed. The movie had felt wrong to me. The casting was wrong, the CGI was terrible and the villain looked like a bloody Power Ranger!

As a young teenager, I'd been a big fan of Batman: The Animated Series and the X-Men cartoon. The Spider-Man cartoon that followed was the Spider-Man I grew up with, and perhaps it's fair to say Sam Raimi created a movie that harkened back to the Spidey he grew with some decades previously. So maybe I wasn't his target market. 

But since I discovered proper American comics in the late Nineties, I've watched Marvel make numerous adjustments to the Spider-Man franchise, and yet the central character's baseline personality remains the same. Frankly, Tobey Maguire did not embody those qualities.

Whine, whine, whine. *headdesk*
The biggest problem for me was he whined, rather than quipped. This is where Andrew Garfield shines in this fresh new adaptation of the wallcrawler. He brings an emotional range to the role that was missing from the previous franchise. Rounding out the cast are the lovely Emma Stone, the excellent Martin Sheen and the perfectly measured Rhys Ifans. Marc Webb's film focuses on the human drama of Spider-Man, adeptly retelling the origin without labouring it. And gone are the maddeningly dull conversations through a chain link fence that seemed to make up an uncomfortable chunk of the first Spider-Man film.

With leaps in filmmaking technology, it feels like any good director can make a half-decent action film, but bad action movie directors simply don't make good character drama. I'm looking at you, Michael Bay. At points Amazing Spider-Man looks like a Steve Ditko or Todd McFarlane drawing come to life, and whilst that made this fanboy gasp, it was the emotional narrative that kept this filmlover engaged throughout. From flashbacks to Peter's early years, through to the fateful encounter with a spider and onto the discovery and exploration of his new powers, I found myself swept along and pleased with the results. It felt right. This felt like the Peter Parker from the Nineties animated show, or comics such as JMS' run or Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man. Gwen Stacey and her father have great scenes with one another and the eponymous hero, both in and out of the costume. And the fateful scene where Peter's inaction leads to Uncle Ben's demise is a believable and tragic chain of events rather than a clumsy shock.

It's also an adaptation that's confident enough to hold things back for later outings. There's no sign of Mary Jane here, fitting since the character didn't properly show up until issue #42 of the original comic. A copy of the Daily Bugle is seen, but there's no sign of J Jonah Jameson yet (though Peter is a school photographer so this avenue of making money seems destined to come a-calling in the sequels). Finally, while Oscorp is a big part of this movie, Norman Osborn himself is mentioned but kept off-camera. Clever choices throughout.

It's not a perfect movie however, despite my happiness with most of it. It seems that the negative feedback from many decrying this new reboot as "too soon" after Spider-Man 3 has left the scriptwriters desperate to not repeat anything we have seen before, despite wanting to still follow the iconic beats of Spider-Man's origin. In some places that works, and the ridiculous wrestling scene is thankfully omitted this time around, save for a cute little wink and a nod. Sadly there is much more desperation in their attempts to rework the way Uncle Ben tries to impart his renowned ideology to Peter. Numerous synonyms and alternative allusions are offered up in place of the simple, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

Hopefully Peter will have distilled his Uncle's (or indeed, Voltaire's) wisdom into that soundbite by the time Amazing Spider-Man 2 rolls around. Admittedly, in the original comics, this line was part of the summary narration rather than something Uncle Ben actually said, though it was later attributed to him through the joys of retroactive continuity.

See, no snout!
Similarly the design of the Lizard had seemed misjudged to me too, until a customer pointed out that his first appearance in the comics didn't feature the iconic snout. So despite evoking more of a sense of the Nineties Spidey for me than the Raimi films, if anything Webb's offering is even more faithful to the originals!

Plus, you know, real webshooters rather than ridiculous wrist nipples.

'Nuff said.

Amazing Spider-Man shows that Sony - like Fox with X-Men First Class - are taking note of the trail blazed by Marvel Studios with the Avengers movies and are pulling their socks up accordingly. It's a great time to be a fan of superhero movies!

Ben Fardon will admit to being misogynistic enough to miss the upside down kiss and rainsoaked wet t-shirt from the first Spider-Man movie. But the alternative first kiss in Amazing Spider-Man is classy, to the point of theatrical magic. Love it!

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