Amazing vs. Spiderman – A Deconstruction

A couple of weeks ago (actually, only a week at the time of this writing but longer once this actually goes up) I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2. I’ve heard a lot about how Marc Webb’s Spiderman movies are superior to Sam Raimi’s, usually from the perspective of faithfulness to the comics, but personally I wasn’t sure what that was based on. I felt that Spiderman was a better movie than The Amazing Spiderman but then I’m not super familiar with the source material. People were saying the sequel was also really good, and that this new Spiderman franchise was shaping up to be great. So I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 expecting to see something better than the first movie.

I was… somewhat disappointed.

So I was thinking to myself, how can I turn this waste misapplication of time and money into something useful? Then I realized! It’s time for another episode of disappointment deconstructed!

OBLIGATORY SPOILERS WARNING! I CANNOT DISCUSS THE THINGS I WANT TO DISCUSS HERE WITHOUT SPOILERS! DO NOT READ PAST THIS POINT IF THAT BOTHERS YOU!

Okay, with the obligatory spoilers warning out of the way let me start by saying this analysis is going to be entirely about the writing of the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies and the first two Marc Webb Amazing Spiderman movies. Here are things that I’m not talking about:

  • Faithfulness to the comics version of the character. I’ve never read any large amount of Spiderman comics, although I have seen some of the 1990s Fox animated series. More on this later, but I just wanted to say –  I care more about the movie being as strong as it can standing alone than being totally faithful to the comic book character. Spiderman is like any comic book character who’s been around more than ten years – he’s been written by a lot of people in a lot of different ways, I’m not sure it’s fair to say there’s any one right way to depict him. The Raimi version may have been farther afield than most, but the real question is does that make the movies better or worse as movies?
  • Andrew Garfield and/or Toby Maguire. This isn’t about the acting in the films, most of the cast did well with what they were given. I think Garfield did a better job as Peter Parker in his two films than Maguire did. He’s better suited to the role, he felt more engaged in his performance and he’s got great physical humor skills. But you can hit a home run in a disappointing movie and the movie will still be disappointing.
  • Cinematography or effects. This have come a long way in ten years. It’s not really fair to compare them. They certainly don’t define how good a movie is.
  • The directors. While I’m going to be occasionally identifying these movie franchises as “Raimi’s” and “Webb’s” I do recognize that directors don’t usually have that much influence over the scripts they’re given. It’s just a way to refer to the movies without having to type out the longer titles – and the Spiderman movies are often tied back to Sam Raimi when they’re mentioned anyway. Why fight convention?
  • I’m not discussing the third movie in either franchise. One hasn’t been made yet, the other may as well not have been. ‘Nuff said.

So what, exactly, is it that disappoints me about The Amazing Spiderman and The Amazing Spiderman 2, particularly as compared to Spiderman and Spiderman 2?

Power vs. Responsibility 

Uncle Ben’s declaration that with great power comes great responsibility is such a classic piece of Americana that I knew it even before I’d seen or read any Spiderman at all. It’s supposed to be a foundational part of Peter Parker and Spiderman.

Raimi’s Spiderman takes this lesson to heart and becomes a costumed hero, defeats some villains and does his best to do it quickly, before anyone gets hurt. He feels bad about screwing up his job delivering pizzas, missing dates with his girlfriend and cutting class and, while he keeps doing what he knows needs to be done, he’s not sure he makes a difference. Spiderman eventually grows to the point where, when he faces down Doc Ock, he passes on what he knows – the Doc is the one to face up to what he’s done and clean up the mess he’s created, not Spiderman. Sure, Otto needed Spiderman there to smack sense back into him but ultimately the runaway fusion project is ended because Spiderman convinces Doc Ock of his responsibility to fix things, not because Spiderman is a hero.

Although in some ways teaching heroics to others might make him one.

Webb’s Spiderman doesn’t seem to learn anything about responsibility. He makes a promise to Captain Stacey which he clearly has no intention of keeping, wastes time yammering at crooks for no good reason instead of getting with the arresting, all while the city around him is shot up and run over by crazed Ruskies, and eventually sees another person he cares about die so he can relearn the lesson he supposedly learned when Uncle Ben died: he has an obligation to protect people with his abilities. Seriously, why did I sit through the second half of The Amazing Spiderman and 98% of The Amazing Spiderman 2 just to discover that Our Hero has made no appreciable character growth?

Most of the villains Spiderman confronts are representative of power without responsibility attached to it. Unfortunately all the slapstick antics Webb’s Spiderman spends his time on make it hard to see any contrast besides one of degree. Sure, Peter Parker’s not burning down the city or ruling the world but part of me wonders if a superpowered clown is really any better than a normal one…

Friendship vs. Obligation 

Harry Osborn is the son of Norman Osborn, heir to Oscorp and a friend of Peter’s. He’s supposed to serve as a kind of foil to Peter, they’re the opposites in terms of wealth, sociability and popularity.

In Raimi’s Spiderman we meet Harry almost as soon as we meet Peter. They hang out, they do stuff, they vie for Norman Osborn’s approval (well, more Harry tries to get some attention from his dad, Norman loves Peter).

Then Norman turns himself into the Green Goblin and fights Spiderman to the death. Harry never knows about his father’s alter ego but he does find Spiderman with Norman’s body, and forms a grudge. He knows Peter knows something about Spiderman and pressures his friend to do something to bring his father’s killer to justice. Suddenly Peter is caught between his friendship with Harry and his duty as Spiderman. It’s good, dramatic, character building stuff.

Webb’s Spiderman gets none of that. We don’t even see Harry until the second movie, we barely see Norman at all and he dies (of a genetic disease!) before he does a single thing of any significance. Peter doesn’t feel like he has any connection to any of the Osborns, except possibly through his parents who’s role in all this remains incredibly vague. Sure, Harry claims to have once been friends with Peter but we sure don’t see them acting like it much.

Harry and Peter’s friendship feels more like a plot contrivance here. They don’t have any real reason to know each other except that they need to argue with each other and a reason for Harry’s hating Spiderman needs to be established. This is achieved, but it’s sloppy and feels more than a little dumb. Instead of providing dramatic tension and giving character insight it just sort of sits there.

Acceptance vs. Rejection

Both Peter Parker and Spiderman are a kind of outcasts. Peter is ignored by his peers, Spiderman is reviled by a vocal portion of the general public. Both just want to be accepted for what they can do. This is one of the things that makes Spiderman effective as a teenaged and young adult superhero, as opposed to most superheroes who are depicted as mature, established adults. For must supers, even if their mask is hated they usually still have a stable secret identity to fall back on.

Now in Raimi’s Spiderman we get a sense of Peter as the exception to this rule. He delivers pizzas to make ends meet as a normal person and as Spiderman not only does the public view him with mixed feelings but J. Jonah Jameson, newspaper editor and occasional purchaser of Peter’s photographs of Spiderman, utterly loathes Spidey and is intent on destroying him in the press.

In short, Raimi’s Spiderman is in the middle of a classic teenager dilemma – no matter what he does he can’t seem to win. Why even bother? Other than Uncle Ben seemed to think it was a good idea, of course. And thus, conflict, character growth and story.

On the other hand, Webb’s Spiderman is… well, kind of a popular guy. At the least, the people of New York are happy to line up to help him in his final battle with the Lizardman and they all seem okay with standing around cheering during his fights with Electro. Sure, we’re told Jameson still hates the dude but we never see Jameson or hear any of his rants or really get any idea of how this makes Spiderman feel or how he struggles with it.

Gwen Stacey

Did anyone go to this movie not expecting her to die? Her death is apparently a major part of Spiderman’s character arc (or so I’m told.) I think it’s happened at least twice in the comics, maybe more. In fact, it is a trope.

So why waste two movies with her? Not to sound calloused, but the only reason to spend all this time on Gwen Stacey is to make a blatant bid to manipulate our emotions later on. I know that I’ve said the point of writing is to provoke a response but the key is to do it without being noticed.

It’d be one thing if Peter had started knowing Gwen, if she’d been the one bright spot for most of the first movie but we watched Spiderman slowly come between them – not necessarily as another love interest but just Peter’s new life interfering with his old – and they’d only come to an understanding as she died.

But instead we suffer through two movies of fairly unbelievable “romance” between the two of them, knowing that it can’t possibly go anywhere, until they finally kill her off. And, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t really feel like all this goes anywhere. Peter and Gwen don’t really grow as a result of all this. It’s just sort of there.

(Aside: if the writers really wanted to throw us for a loop they wouldn’t have killed off Norman Osborn without his doing anything. They would have let Gwen Stacey survive until the end of the series.)

In short, The Amazing Spiderman 2 was a mediocre movie at best. While it’s stars did a great job with the script they were given in the end there’s nothing there to elevate it out of the doldrums. In terms of writing it certainly wasn’t any better than Spiderman 2, although the acting may have been better. Should you not go see it? That depends on how much you like Spiderman and/or Marvel. If you’re a fan of either one, sure, go see the movie. You’ll be entertained. But I doubt you’ll still be raving about it in a year’s time. For my part, I’ve said my piece.

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