So, last week I caught this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man in theater. As someone who loved Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie from 2002 (and its sequel, but the third not so much), I came to the film hopeful but also nursing a bit of a grudge. It’s only been ten years since the last series of films and they did a pretty good job all around, capturing the dynamic of Peter Parker and Spider-Man really well and staying true to the source material while still making it relevant for today’s audiences.
Well, sadly, the grudge bore out. I left the theatre really disappointed, and not just because I thought it had many critical failings but it felt like it had a potential — in casting and imagery — that just wasn’t realized.
The core of the Spider-Man story is that Peter Parker is a struggling kid from a poor family. Brains he may have, but a wide supportive social network and a middle-class background he does not. Brains, if anything, are what keeps him on the outside socially. If he was dumb or fit, he could find himself a place in the American High School Ecosystem. Once he’s out of high school, he’ll land on his feet, but that’s several years of daily abuse away. Orphaned, he’s raised by an Aunt and Uncle, also struggling, who do their damnedest to provide what they can and raise their bright charge to be a good man. Once he gets his powers, they put him and his ethics to the test and it is only after much struggle and soul-searching does he strike a balance that he can more-or-less live with. Peter’s story is a story about a young man trying to do his best when no one appreciates, or even knows, what it is that he does night after night and yet makes it his priority to still do right by everyone usually at great personal cost.
And crack-wise. The movie really only the cracking-wise part right. The rest of the film was reduced to no more than flickering homages to the original comic book origin story and to Peter Parker himself.
One of the biggest reasons why this movie fails is that they took from Peter one of things that made him different from other superheroes of the day — they didn’t make him poor. After being treated to a gratuitous setup for subsequent movies (i.e., seeing Peter’s parents up and abandon him in the night…bwa? Like the bad guys can’t find their kid’s new guardians through the phone book?), we are shown Uncle Ben and Aunt May living in a very nice brownstone in New York City, enjoying a pretty comfy middle-class existence. These are not lean and hungry days for the aging couple, who work at something though we aren’t sure what that might be. It’s not science-y, certainly, which got the other Parkers in trouble in the first place.
In the comics, when Peter first gets his powers, he sees it as a money-making opportunity, something to help out his adoptive parents who don’t quite make ends meet. Trying to help out financially is part of Peter’s struggle to become a man, to do his share. Sure, he gets off on being powerful, because it’s the first time in his life he can fight back in ways that his bullies can appreciate: brute force. And he’s a teenager. But he does it behind the mask, not as Peter. While most Spider-Man origins show Peter making good against the school bully Flash, this public take-down is never so obvious that anyone with half a brain could see that Something Has Happened to Peter. The demonstration usually comes off as having gained confidence, not super powers. In the current movie? Yeah, a student body living in a city with probably the highest number of superheroes ever? Sort of obvious that Peter’s just not the same kid anymore when he does the impossible while putting Flash in his place. To the non-scripted, anyways. Conveniently, nobody figures it out until Peter tells them.
By taking away poverty’s keen edge, it removes half Peter’s motivation. It means no need to have Peter take photographs to sell for small bucks and he doesn’t need to wrestle to earn money that would help pay the rent. The only nod to wrestling, the source of his costume idea, comes at the end of a scene where he breaks through an old floor in a bad part of town and lands in the center of abandoned arena. The only nod to photography is taking pictures for the school yearbook, which we never see him do, with an old-fashioned SLR camera that was old back in 1988. No one uses that kind of camera anymore. NO ONE. Not unless they have a dark room full of chemicals and haven’t left it for fifteen years. (I laughed hysterically and painfully loud in theater when I saw it, never mind the exceptionally lame label-maker sticker on the back of it proudly declaring PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER. They might as well have just labeled it PLOT POINT.)
They could have spun this old camera as part of the struggling lower classes angle. It’s still a good camera, but Peter would have limited ways of being able to control the development process unless he had a part time job at a photo lab. Or, better still, and would have given us a better example at his tech-savvy nature, mod it to become a digital camera. I don’t care how possible or not possible that would be — it would be in keeping with the spirit of Peter Parker and is no more ridiculous than being Spider-Man and inventing web-slingers. Instead, he spends his time making inordinately complicated locks on his bedroom door to keep, what, Uncle Ben out? Please. And where does he get more gear? No worries. Just lift it from OSCORP when you’re touring the facilities with a fake name. It’s only theft.
No, no real camera means no newspaper storyline, and no J. Jonah Jameson, Spider-Man’s constant antagonist through every adaptation. We don’t see the media furor over the vigilante, we’re just to trust that it’s there, happening in the background. The same background which never shows us a single newspaper stand or negative network coverage. Nor do we see any social media. ANYWHERE. I’m sorry, but if there’s a pic of Spider-Man it’s going to be on every Facebook page, every Instagram knock-off, all of it. If you’re going to go through the trouble of updating a movie franchise that was only out 10 years ago, go all the way. In fact, you can even tie the failing newspaper industry into the whole story by having Peter promise unique, up-close and exclusive shots of Spider-Man to Jameson, which he could then leverage into helping save the paper.
Instead we get a paranoid Peter with the luxury of not needing a job experimenting with his new-found powers like a shmuck. Then, we watch the plot tick forward to the inevitable death of Uncle Ben (um, spoiler?) and Peter vowing revenge. What sets this in motion? Peter didn’t pick up Aunt May. From someplace. Why the able-bodied Uncle Ben couldn’t do it or why it necessitated Aunt May having to walk home 12 blocks (instead of taking a cab, or the transit) or how, by having Peter with her, the walking/cabbing/bussing wouldn’t have still been the same options, isn’t explained. It was just the lamest fucking thing you could have had them argue about. We don’t even get to see Ben’s funeral. Let me write that again: WE DON’T EVEN GET TO SEE BEN’S FUNERAL. The man who, just moments before, should have given Peter the wisdom that would guide this young man through all future actions and into manhood, not only doesn’t get the chance to deliver that line but we don’t even get to see Peter, heartbroken and heart-scarred, dealing with his failures and vowing to do right by the man that had died because Peter did the wrong thing.
The rest of the movie is a very pretty jumble. The effects are good, the wise-cracks (when we get’em) are decent. It’s a little out of place to see Peter enjoying is his powers so much after Ben dies. Should have been the other way around, but whatevs. They get to keep Emma Stone as the supposed-to-die Gwen Stacy around for the next movie, even though she’s wasted here and would have been a perfect Mary Jane. And I am sure this movie will make enough money to earn a sequel and more. I can only hope that Joss Whedon, Emperor of Marvel after his fabulous showing with Avengers, can come in and make sense of this earnest mess. Because while we have an actor that looks the part and the technology to do Spider-Man fantastically on the screen, the core of this superhero, the heart, is missing. Ripped out in a bad editing job. All we have left is a petulant, over-indulged teenager with a fast-and-loose attitude to the law, who will break an oath to a dying man because he likes a girl, thereby ensuring her eventual death. Stay classy, Spider-Man.
(Of course, this whole thing makes me think about reboots and remakes in general. Thoughts to follow.)