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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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Tag Archives: Alvin Sargent

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I’m teaching my Playwriting course this semester, and the first scene I showed my class was from The Amazing Spider-Man. My colleagues could use this as evidence of an obsession gone too far, but hear me out. It’s the Peter-asks-Gwen-on-a-date bit, and it says everything a playwright needs to know about external and internal conflict.

The scene started back in 1965, when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #31. The two don’t actually go out on their first study date for another thirteen issues, so we’re going to look at the shorter version.

I’ll wait while you cue your DVD players to minute 36.

Ready?

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First time I watched this was in our local theater with my teenage daughter, and I don’t know which of us was giggling louder. I know James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves got credit for the screenplay, and I’m sure Marc Webb’s direction was perfectly impeccable, but I can’t help thinking Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone improvised most of that stammering, self-effacing, toe-curling flirtation.

The question is how.

And to answer that, I need to switch to Playwriting lecture mode.

The odd thing is the lack of overt dramatic conflict. Character A (Peter) has a goal (ask out Gwen). But for there to be conflict, there has to be an obstacle, otherwise the scene would last two lines:

PETER: Want to go out on a date?

GWEN: Yes.

Usually Character B (GWEN) would provide the obstacle (no, you freak, I don’t want to go out with you!), producing plenty of external conflict. If you like formulas, it looks like this:

Character A (goal) + Character B (obstacle) = dramatic conflict (character v. character)

In the comic book, Gwen plays Character A and has to chase the distracted Peter for a few issues before he even notices her. But Andrew Garfield’s Peter is all eyes for her. And Emma Stone makes it equally clear that Gwen wants to got out too.

So what the hell is driving the scene?

An easy trick is to throw in some convenient external nonsense. As in Amazing Spider-Man #44 when Mary Jane Watson suddenly struts into the diner and pulls Peter away. Or Webb could have sent the Lizard smashing through the wall of lockers just before Gwen can finish saying yes. That would be fun for the folks down in the CGI lab, but for the writing staff it spells B-O-R-I-N-G.

No, this scene has a much smarter engine: internal conflict. Peter WANTS to ask out Gwen, BUT he’s too damn bashful. Again, if you’re an algebra person, here’s the math:

Character A (goal) + Character A (obstacle) = internal conflict (self v. self)

But that’s only half the equation. You still have to factor in Character B. And, by my count, you only have seven options:

1. Character B is absent. Peter is rehearsing his lines before the big approach. It’s cute, but dramatically a stall. We need Gwen.

2. Character B is neutral. Peter’s stammering is so intense, Gwen literally has no idea what the he’s trying to ask her. Again, potentially cute, but it gets you maybe thirty seconds of dramatic action before the gimmick wears off. Quit stalling.

3. Insert a circumstantially opposing goal/obstacle. Is Gwen on her way to the Girls Room? Maybe the door to her classroom is closing and she can’t afford another tardy? You just bought yourself a few more seconds, but we’re still waiting for the real thing.

4. Character B opposes Character A’s goal. Now that’s what you call dramatic action. And, oddly, that’s NOT what Gwen is up to here. If she were, the scene would be two lines again:

PETER: Hi, Gwen, I was wondering if, you know, maybe, you might, maybe want to—

GWEN: No.

5. Next option: Character B opposes Character A’s goal, BUT with her own internal conflict (partial obstacle). In other words, Gwen doesn’t want to go out, but she also doesn’t want to hurt Peter’s feelings either, so she can’t say no directly. All sorts of dramatic possibilities there, but that’s still not the scene we’re looking at.

6. Gwen actually shares Peter’s goal. She WANTS him to ask her out. (Back in 1966, she did the asking herself, but apparently times have a-changed for the worse.) That describes Gwen’s goal, but if that’s all that’s going on, you’d have yet another two-liner:

PETER: Hi, Gwen, I was wondering if, you know, maybe, you might, maybe want to—

GWEN: Okay.

Which, actually, she does say, but the scene keeps going, and instead of the tension dissolving, it actually spikes. How??

7. So  what we have here is a real rarity. The last arrow in the love scene quiver. Character B shares Character A’s goal, but she has her own internal conflict preventing her from fully helping him/them achieve his/their goal. In other words, Gwen is just as bashful as Peter.

So the complete lack of external conflict is dramatically balanced by a double dose of internal conflict. They have the same goal (each other) and the same obstacles (themselves).

And that’s what we Playwriting professors call pretty freaking adorable.

Happy Valentine’s Day, people.

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And, once again, along comes a genetically engineered spider that sits down beside an adorable geek who sprouts superpowers and frightens a computer-generated villain away.  Not only do you know the story, Sony Pictures even recycled screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who co-penned those other semi-recent Spider-Man movies. They grabbed one of the Harry Potter guys too. Hollywood banks on familiarity. If bold risk-taking reaped revenues, Julie Taymor would still be swinging with the Broadway Spider-Man. If Sony could have kept Tobey Maguire, I’d be reviewing Spider-Man 4 right now.

Which is why I want to state with absolute clarity, while drawing on all of my expertise as a professor of English trained in close textual analysis, that The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) kicks the shit out of Spider-Man (2002).

I admit my expectations were low. I figured my night at the theater had peaked with The Dark Knight Rises preview. But within the first expositionally economic minutes, I realized that director Marc Webb landed the job for more than his unlikely last name. And once Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield started tripping through their adolescently awkward mating waltz, I was all grins.

Neither is a particularly plausible high schooler, but plausibility has never been job one in the spandex hero genre. Tobey spent months bulking up for his unitard, but the skinny Mr. Garfield has the advantage of actually looking like a Steve Ditko sketch.

Garfield’s feet, as my wife pointed out, are also bigger. Which, oddly, is the core of the whole movie.

I had planned on writing a Tobey vs. Andrew analysis, playing off the wrestling match motif from Lee and Ditko’s original comic book. But that’s the wrong metaphor. This isn’t hero vs. hero. Amazing is a son sliding into his father’s shoes. Literally. Scene one little Peter is playing hide and seek with Dad, who has left his shoes poking out from the curtains to fool him. Pull the curtains back and no dad. Just the empty shoes.

Lee and Ditko had nothing to say about Peter’s father. He was simply not there, not even mysteriously so. Everybody knows heroes are orphans. And it would have been too painful, too Batman, to have Dad gunned down by the guy his own jerk of a son let escape from the police. So shoot an uncle instead. But the Webb team fills in the missing threads, strings them back so everything is interwoven: the spider that bites Peter was designed by (SPOILER ALERT!) his own father. Superpowers are Peter’s paternal inheritance.

Sony timed the release so Amazing would be on screens for the 4th of July. Which explains the one clunky scene: all those fatherly construction workers angling their cranes to help their boy swing to victory with an anthem-like soundtrack and a literal American flag spotlit in the background.

But Sony should have aimed two weeks earlier. Father’s Day was June 17th.

Maguire is a little young to be Garfield’s father (Maguire’s son, Otis, is only three), but fortunately my eleven-year-old son was with us in the theater too. We watched Peter continue father seeking for the next two hours, as he grows into his superpowered footwear. Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, even the scaly Doc Connors, they’re all stand-ins for the ur-dad. And the triple orphaned Peter has to make peace with them all.

That means popping out your contact lenses and wearing Dad’s Clark Kent glasses. That means prowling mugger-infested back alleys for your uncle’s killer (a plot thread to be further plucked in Amazing 2). That means stopping your dad’s mad scientist best friend from fathering a race of uberlizards. It even means convincing Dennis Leary, your grouchy would-be father-in-law, that you’re not an anarchist vigilante trying to tear down governmental patriarchy. All you want to do is live up to your dad’s parting words:

“Be good.”

This was also Sony’s directive to the production team. Be good or we’ll forget you faster than we did your father, Mr. Maquire. Meanwhile, the Garfield boy fits amazingly well in those spider re-boots.

I’m not going to comment on Ms. Stone’s presumably fashionable legwear. She’s one of my fifteen-year-old daughter’s favorite actresses. My daughter hasn’t seen Amazing yet (she was working at the pizza joint down the street where they got inundated when our 7:00 showing let out), but I’m curious if she’ll be as annoyed as I was when Gwen gets shucked off camera so her dad and boyfriend can go save the day. Sally Fields didn’t get much action either, not with Martin Sheen’s pompous voice-over hogging the avuncular glory. Someone must have been playing Gwen’s mother too, but it was hard to see through all the testosterone.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 release date is May 2, 2014.  A week before Mother’s Day. Maybe Embeth Davidtz, Peter’s still basically non-existent mother, will get a few lines next time.

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The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t due in theaters till July 2012, but Columbia Pictures has already announced May 2014 for the release of its sequel. I’m sure screenwriter James Vanderbilt has hashed through several drafts already, which is a shame since the best Spider-Man 2 screenplay was finished almost a decade ago.

It’s also the only superhero script penned by a Pulitzer Prize winner. After The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay gave comic books their first radioactive bite of literary legitimacy, Columbia Pictures hired author Michael Chabon to write the sequel to their 2002 Spider-Man. Compare Chabon’s script to the filmed version and you’ll understand why he sticks to novels.

He is only one of four writers on the final credits. He shares “story” with two others, but “screenplay” goes to Alvin Sargent. (Perhaps Columbia mistook Sargent’s 1972 adaption The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds for The Incredible Hulk.)

I’m not saying Chabon’s Spider-Man 2 would have won more awards (the Sam Raimi film took the 2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects), but it did deserve a fuller screening. Columbia rehired Sargent not Chabon for Amazing Spider-Man, so they could still bring in Chabon to take the new sequel “story” and craft an even better “screenplay” than his last.

Admittedly, Chabon doesn’t care much about supervillians. His death of Doctor Octopus reads like an afterthought. Like Cavalier and Clay, it’s the love triangle that gives his story its mutant bite.

Here are my favorite (albeit sentimental) bits (pay attention, Mr. Vanderbilt):

Peter lied to Mary Jane when he told her he didn’t love her. He thought he had to; she and Peter’s best friend James Franco (this is before Mr. Franco ripped off his hand in 127 Hours and caused the end of the human race in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) were already engaged.

It’s also before Doc Ock rips off the Spider-Man mask, and Mary Jane (“with dawning shock and horror”) yelps “Peter!” A few pages later and the two are face to face, the unmasked Peter with several tons of collapsing building on his back and Mary Jane and her broken leg pinned under him. (I didn’t say Chabon was subtle.)

Peter says, “Hi.”

What does Mary Jane say?

“Hi.”

(Improbably, this is one of the few times Sargent retains Chabon’s dialogue.)

Chabon counts down the inches, five, four, three, less than one, until their faces are close enough for a kiss. Only now, his mask gone, the weight of his responsibilities about to crush them both, can Peter admit his love.

It’s also apparently what Mary Jane needed to get her leg free. In the next scene she’s happily bandaged in her apartment with Peter for a bedside nurse.

Narrative law requires that once unmasked a hero and his love interest must immediately have sex and/or get married. Chabon suggests both. But first his Peter has to try the classic superhero excuse for non-commitment:

“I do love you. I have loved you all my life, Mary Jane Watson. I just can’t have you, that’s all. The danger, the uncertainty. The hatred. I can’t ask that of you. . . . ”

Chabon’s Mary Jane is too smart:

“You were given a gift, Peter. I want to share that gift with you. And I want you to share it with me. You don’t have to do it alone. . . . What, you think police officers don’t get to be in love? Firefighters don’t get to be married? That’s crazy.”

“Wait, did you say married?”

“I already know your damn secret identity!”

And there it is, Superhero Intimacy 101. Take off your mask, wear your heart on your spandex sleeve.

Peter carries Mary Jane up the side of her apartment building (I skipped the bit where she jumps out the window to make him save her) and back in through her window.

She asks, “Does this mean I get to see the Spider Cave?”

Peter says no, there is no Spider Cave, but their off screen voices vanishing into the dark of her bedroom suggest otherwise. She’s about to see all of Peter’s secret Spider bits, not just the ones Mr. Sargent liked.

All Chabon needs is “The Amazing” in his title, and director Marc Webb should be ready to start shooting.

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