Thursday, July 12, 2012

Whatever a Spider Can: Two Reviews and a Gift

It's really a great time to be me. Honestly, if you had told me when I was ten that in thirty years or so all my favorite superheroes would be topping the box office charts, I would have looked down at the ground, shrugged, said nothing and prayed silently that our conversation would soon end. If you had told me fifteen years ago that Marvel Entertainment Group, then languishing at less than a dollar a share on the DJIC, would soon be making a billion-dollar movie about the Avengers, I would have grinned awkwardly and shuffled away at my earliest convenience. But here we are, in 2012, and every few weeks or so I march out to the theater and watch all my heroes come to life.Like I say, it's a good time to be me.

The latest turn at the box office goes to The Amazing Spider-Man, which suffered a fair bit of incredulity thanks to the short span of time between its debut and the close of an earlier Spider-Man film franchise. Toby Maguire's Peter Parker has been supplanted by Andrew Garfield's take on the same; in place of Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson we've been introduced to Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy. Norman Osborne, so prominent in the first franchise, has slipped to the shadows in 2012--still an ominous presence, but so far we haven't seen his face.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is now, officially, my wife's favorite superhero movie. The chemistry between Garfield and Stone is great, and they pull off a nice awkward teen love vibe, despite both actors being firmly ensconced in their twenties. The quality of acting in this film is, however, not an improvement on the acting in the first franchise. I rewatched Spider-Man (2002) shortly after seeing The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) for the second time. Maguire, Dunst, Willem DaFoe as Norman Osborne and James Franco as his conflicted son Harry lead a strong cast of familiar character actors in that one, and while the leads seem less convincing in some respects as teenagers than Garfield and Stone, the former film is far more plausible. (Come on, a high school student is the lead intern at a multinational biotechnology company?) And as a coming of age film (trilogy of films, really), the first franchise is actually a better piece.

The key distinctives, for me, are the fight scenes, the villain, and the relationship of Peter Parker to the audience.

I remember sitting in the theater at my first viewing of the 2002 film and thinking how ridiculous the fight scenes looked, like an oversized episode of the Power Rangers. I had that same experience on my most recent viewing; the innovations in special effects over the ensuing decade are painfully obvious. That didn't have to be the case; other films around the same time, such as the 2000 film X-Men, didn't seem so overtly choreographed in their battles. Neither did they have the forced banter of Spider-Man calling the Green Goblin "Gobby" within a few minutes of their first encounter. The director pandered a bit too slavishly to the fanboy audience he hoped would drive ticket sales; or perhaps more likely, the director realized that Power Rangers fans would be looking for a film that delivered exactly what struck me as so silly. In that respect he was right: I remember a theater full of little kids freaking out over the action scenes that struck me as utterly ridiculous, laughing uproariously at the banter that was causing me to groan. The film scored $800 million-plus in global box office. Guess the director was right.

I've never been a huge Willem DaFoe fan, maybe because he played Jesus so unconvincingly in The Last Temptation of Christ. And in the clunky Green Goblin costume, with his heavily affected snarl, he looked and sounded ridiculous. But on my more recent viewing I was struck by how effective he was as Norman Osborne, at times utterly fragile, at times just barely containing the madness. In the new film the villain is much more sympathetic, as Curt Connors serves both as a link to Peter's past and as a stand-in for our own frustrations with weakness. His desire for "a world without weakness" is as absurd a premise to me as his selection of a high school student as his chief research aide, but I suppose you allow some absurdity in every superhero story. You root for him in his quixotic quest to grow back his arm (why not get a prosthetic?), and you suffer for him as you watch the madness gradually take over. Plus, when he fights, you actually can imagine someone getting hurt. So, like the fight scenes, the 2012 film wins out over the 2002 film in the villain department.

In the case of Peter's relationship to the audience, I declare a tie, only because I find the contrast so interesting. It's a vindication of the controversial reboot, I think; alternate visions of imagined characters don't have to compete with one another if each is fresh enough to stand on its own. In 2002 Peter was a narrator, filling the audience in as the story moved along. Maguire never quite winks at the camera a la Ferris Bueller, but you do feel an affinity with him, an almost conspiratorial relationship. By contrast, Garfield's Peter Parker doesn't know we're along for the ride--the director's goal of showing us the world through his eyes notwithstanding. We are voyeurs in this Parker's world, in part because he's a true teenager, and all worlds revolve around the teenagers in them but also because this Parker doesn't know himself well enough to narrate for us, to invite us in. I'm reminded by Maguire of the true original Spider-Man from the early 1960s, who let us in on the joke in every panel. Garfield's Spider-Man reminds me of the stories told by Brian Michael Bendis, which rely less on narration and vocalization and more on nonverbals. Maguire as Spider-Man is self-disclosing, and we love him for it. Garfield is brooding and inscrutable, and we love him for it.

Anyway, Spider-Man inspired a character, Night Vision, that I created in my book Comic Book Character to give a sense of the human drama in all superhero stories. I include that excerpt here as a gift to you. For the whole book, click here.

***

Consider a typical day for a junior-high-aged hero. In the tradition of matching initials (from Lois Lane to Bruce Banner), let’s call him Fritz Fryling. Fritz wakes up, tucks his wings into an oversized shirt and walks to school—even though he could fly. As he reaches his gym locker, he hears behind him the first of many taunts from the class bully: “There’s Owl-boy. I hope you don’t lose those Coke-bottle glasses of yours during dodge ball. Hoot hoot!” Then our mutant friend feels the sharp sting of a wet towel snapped against his legs.

He knows he could spin his head all the way around to face his attacker; he knows that he could easily fly out of reach of the towel; he even knows that his razor-sharp, retractable talons could quickly shred a bully whom no one would miss for long. He knows that he’s smarter and nicer to girls than the bully; he even knows that in reality he’s stronger and more dangerous than the bully. But he stays silent, and he keeps his secret.

That’s just gym class. We, the readers, know what our hero’s classmates, teachers and family don’t know, and we sympathize with his plight. And in a way, we share in his suffering because we are all too familiar with the pain of alienation, of victimization. We know that bullies call the shots in junior high and that one moment of satisfaction in returning violence against a popular, powerful nemesis would open the door to all kinds of trouble.

We know this whether we are the bullied or the bully. There are social forces at work in our lives, whatever season we find ourselves in. We are part of a pecking order because fallen human beings operate consciously and unconsciously in power dynamics. When we are weak, we wish we were strong. When we are strong, we fight to retain our strength.

I’d like to pretend, for example, that I was always the victim of such bullying and never the perpetrator, but I can’t. I certainly could have been: when I was a child, I was hardly ever in the in-crowd. I was a band geek who collected comic books, for heaven’s sake. As such, I was manipulated into helping pretty girls cheat on their finals, I was called a nerd and a loser to my face, and I was pointed out for public ridicule and threatened with a beating on more than one occasion.

And yet, I managed to find a way of asserting myself within the caste I found myself in. My friends and I invented ways of ostracizing people that would cause maximum pain—the most unimaginative being “the group” membership cards we passed out to those people we considered part of our A-list. (Imagine the humiliation of being rejected for membership in a group of nerds.) At my worst, I made a girl cry all the way home from school, and I beat up a boy for being too new to our town. I didn’t have much social power to defend, but I defended what little I did have with ferocity.

But back to our hero. Fritz trudges his way through a day filled with occasional humiliations and the constant awareness that at any moment he could overturn the power dynamics in place. That night he hits the streets, with wings spread wide open and talons extended. He is no longer Owl-boy; now he is Night Vision, ready to use his power without restraint against whatever forces of evil threaten the peace. And so are we. Just as our hero has escaped his everyday world to live free as his expanded self, so his readers leave behind the frustrations of paying bills and finishing homework and avoiding trouble and enduring rejection to play hero.

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