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Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Tarantella: An Analysis of Two Spiderman Movies

Oh myyyy, I see you've returned, Captain. Hellooooo, and welcome back.

Now, if I'm doing my job correctly, you read that in George Takei's voice. However, apart from Mr. Takei's audition for the Spiderman musical, he is unconnected with today's theme: analysing and comparing The Amazing Spiderman (2012) to Spiderman (2002).

Incidentally, before we get this show on the road, here's the video, in case you were unfortunate enough to have missed it:

Source.Oh, George Takei, you so silly.

Moving right along, let's do a quick recap of the reason for the reworking of the franchise. Superhero movies have been a pretty regular part of the summer marquis features since forever, but the last three or four years have seen a really strong resurgence of good movies. The first two films came out when patriotism was on the rise in America, and it showed with the tone. People needed a hero, and Marvel gave us a bright, colourful, fun depiction of everyone's favourite witty web-slinger. He won the heart of Mary Jane (instead of Gwen Stacy--a rewrite) and fought his best friend's father, the Green Goblin. Willem Dafoe overacted in the most wonderful way possible, Aunt May and Uncle Ben were cute and funny parental figures, the side characters were cartoonish, and the film was a confection of wholehearted, enthusiastic fun. Tobey McGuire was a decent Peter Parker, though he was a bit wimpy, and fans were fairly satisfied. The second film involved Doctor Octopus and Alfred Molina, as well as some tension with Mary Jane, and it worked out to even more awesomeness. Fans were satisfied once again.

Then came the third film. It was a little late to the party, and promised Venom, the Sandman, and a darker continuation. Fans were nervous, but excited. We hoped for the best, and got...Tobey McGuire's emo phase, complete with bad hairstyle, excessive weeping and grumpiness, and a weak ending. With growing competition from DC and the magnum opus The Dark Knight following close on its heels the next year, the already bad movie looked even worse with the benefit of hindsight. Admittedly, the weepy emotional mess that had once been known as Spiderman was not going to fit into Marvel's Avengers plans.

Source.Really, this describes everything for me. Garfield, our new Spidey, even looks more heroic.

So, how do the two movies stack up? Which movie has more style, and which has more substance? And, since the loyalty to comic origins question has become sort of a moot point...which film is the better experience?

At the risk of inducing fan rage, I'm going to say that...both sets were good, in very different ways; the first films were for kids, and these are for grown-ups. Still, we can't leave it there! Let's talk whys and hows.

Visual Tone: As I said, the 2002 version is lighter-hearted; the 2012 version is not nearly as goofy. The second takes a darker and more subtle approach to visuals, giving us a shadowy city and confining most of the action to night, and to sewers. A few commentators have noticed that it seems to be going for a Nolanish feel, and I find that hard to argue with. I liked it, and it worked well enough, but the gritty feel sometimes felt forced. In comparison, the first film gave us lots of shiny skyscrapers, humour, and bright daylight settings, and frankly, I liked that. It suited the character very well, and gave the film a genuine comic-book vibe, a collection of bright colours and boom! Pow! moments. Still, this was a re-write, and a darker view, so those bright colours wouldn't have worked the second time around.

Hero/Villain Symbolism: The spider theme in the first film was pretty forced, and there was no previous connection between Peter Parker and spiders. The room of masks for the Green Goblin was cool, but for an origin story, we got a lot more information about the villain than our hero. It worked, but it didn't help McGuire when it came to establishing himself in the character. In this one, the connection between Parker and spiders was established, and Andrew Garfield put everything he had into putting the "Spider" in "Spiderman". The villain, Dr. Connors, really seems to care for both his subject matter and his symbol, lizards, but his movements were more Godzilla than blue-tailed skink or monitor lizard. Still, his strategy of underplaying the character works better for the scientist than for the monster.

Science!: One thing about the newest film that I loved--the science props and the labs look a lot more authentic. It was nice to see a few real technologies and bits of information--such as the spiel about dopamine and the use of virtual trials--in a Hollywood science lab. They even touched on the tensile strength of spider webs, and gave us a legit explanation for how the web shooters worked. I was so happy to see a portrayal of a scientist who is reluctant to start human trials, rather than throwing himself under the bus (or under the needle) right away. The self-aware jokes about mad scientists and superfluous spandex were also very pleasing.

Of course, there are the usual bits where the laws of physics are broken, and quite a few moments when the hero should have been a bag of meat and internal bleeding after being chucked around, but this is a superhero movie, and it would be a lot shorter if that rule wasn't ignored. Still, having him actually suffer from a bullet to the thigh (as opposed to an arrow to the knee, I guess?) and get more cut up was a nice touch. He doesn't bother seeking medical treatment for his concussion, bullet wound, or other trauma, but...superheroes.

Source. Because...science!

Themes: The first movie's basic theme can be summarized as follows: comics are awesome! Raimi didn't really bother embedding any subtext; cliches and tropes abound, and the film is a sort of homage to all that is goofy and noble. It didn't try to be a coming-of-age story, although there was some lip-service to the price of being a hero, and the sacrifices it requires. The new film did more work than that, exploring the ethics of science and human testing. Dr. Connor's ideas are portrayed as generally good; his downfall really comes from insufficient research and being rushed by The Man rather than mere stupidity or hubris. Sure, he ends up in the storm drains, going full-bore comic-villain, but until the serious front of the movie starts to crumble, there is a hint of real tragedy in the way his obsession makes him unable to use the research he's laboured over to truly help others.

Morality is a big theme in the comics and the movies, for reasons that will take a post of their own. In the first movie, we had that "with great power comes great responsibility" bit, and in this one, we have a longer spiel about one's duty to protect others. The lines are still forced and shoehorned in this one--it worked a bit better with the goofier setting of the first films, because of greater suspension of disbelief. Still, the community ties Spiderman has here are a big change, and the movie takes the time to show us that heroes don't actually work all that well when they're on their own, giving us intelligent cops and a payoff for the usual 'rescued child on a bridge' bit. The development and plot resolutions for minor characters was unusual for a superhero movie. His aunt and uncle felt far more like real people, partly because the wonderful Sally Field and Martin Sheen were given the screen time they deserved. The set-up for Uncle Ben's death was pretty poor, but the handling on consequences and grieving were excellent, easily one of the best parts of the film.

Source. I think someone showed them their paycheques for the sequel a bit early.

Protagonists: Every commentator on the internets will have tackled this one already, so I'm going to keep it very brief. Tobey McGuire is a wussy Spiderman, but still sort of appealing. However, Andrew Garfield has this one hands down. More subtlety, more spider, more self-awareness, more intelligence, more youth...and, yes, he's preeeeeetty. I'm not usually a cougar, but for this hero, I'd--wait, spider-pun mating metaphors won't really work here. Ahem. Anyway...what was I saying? Oh yeah, he was both attractive and portrayed the role well. He has a youthful enthusiasm and vulnerability that works, but he's clever, determined, and plucky: everything Spiderman should be.

I'd be remiss not to mention one of my favorite parts: Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey. The profoundly boring (and, to many, irritating) portrayal of Mary Jane by Kirsten Dunst can finally be forgotten. Stone is comic-picture perfect for looks, but also very smart and very brave. She acts like a teenager--a real teenager, the sort to take herself seriously and work hard for her goals. She tosses things back at Peter and fights off the Lizard with a propane burner: finally, a hero love interest who isn't just rescue-bait! Her legs were distractingly delicious, but her acting was solid and her chemistry with Spiderman was very good. The previous couple had better chemistry over all, but I'll trade that in for a blonde and slightly Zooey Deschanel-esque, competent scientist instead of a squealing cheerleader.

Final Prognosis: Over all, the new rendition of Spiderman may be less of a box office blockbuster, but it's a very solid film. Where the new one is sometimes too timid and awkwardly paced--let's not even talk about some of those weird, awkward edits--it's still a film made with passion and self-respect. It's still in its awkward teenage stage, but it's worth a watch, and sits at a solid 7.5-8 out of ten in my books.


As always, I hope you enjoyed today's batch o' fresh thoughts. There will be more thinky bits, more writing updates, some missed-it reviews, and very probably, both feminism and goofy pictures. Keep an eye on new releases by following on Twitter and on Tumblr. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

1 comment:

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