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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Andrew Garfield

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Once again Hollywood has kindly released a superhero movie during my spring term Superheroes course at Washington & Lee University. So my students abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville big screen. Here’s their (SPOILER ALERT!) verdict.

Tyler Wenger: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2 found the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. What Parker lacks in raw power, compared to his villains, he makes up for in his wit. Andrew Garfield portrays this comical side of the Web-head perfectly, a drastic change from the original Toby McGuire trilogy (sorry, old sport). He uses his comedy as a weapon—taunting Electro by calling him “sparky” and brazenly provoking the Rhino, causing both to attack rashly—and as a shield, protecting him and allowing him to bounce back from his many losses.”

Ali Towne: “The Amazing Spiderman 2, although in most ways a classic example of the superhero archetype, does break away from superhero norms. In one of its greatest divergences, Gwen Stacy, the love interest, is killed during a battle with the super villain Electro; Spiderman is not capable of saving her. This is entirely different from the normal superhero trope in which the superhero saves the “damsel in distress”.  By breaking this norm, the writers gave both Spiderman and Gwen a sense of fallibility, mortality and, therefore, humanity that is often lacking in many superhero narratives.”

Joy Putney: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows that heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin, and that their differing motivations determine whether they use their powers for good or evil. Electro wanted to be noticed, and he felt the only way he could achieve that was to remove Spider-Man from the spotlight. Harry Osborn wanted a cure for his disease, and when Spider-Man would not give it, he tried to destroy Spider-Man too. Both villains were driven by selfish desires. Only Spider-Man was selfless; that made him a hero.”​

John Carrick: “The Amazing Spiderman 2 was an exciting film that had plenty of action packed scenes and just the right amount of added romance between Gwen and Peter.  I enjoyed how the plot allowed Gwen to actually help Peter in his role as Spiderman.  She was able to help him figure out that magnetizing his web shooters would allow them to hold a charge.  She also helps save him from Electro and helps Peter figure out that they must kill Electro by overloading his charge capacity.  Although, at the end of the movie, I was very disappointed that they actually let Gwen die.”

Sam Bramlett:  “The Amazing Spiderman 2 is an interesting film in that it follows many traditional superhero tropes to the letter yet twisting the outcomes of these tropes to create greater emotional impact. For example, both main villains (Green Goblin and Electro) are classic examples of friend turned enemy, the Green Goblin being an old schoolmate of Peter Parker and Electro at one point being virtually obsessed with Spiderman. Another example, it is clear that while Gwen Stacy helps Spiderman save the day, she is indeed a damsel in distress. However, the movie has greater emotional impact due to her failed rescue. Allowing them to set up the next few movies with a new motive and plenty of new villains to choose from.”

Chase Weber: “What makes Spider-Man so endearing to many fans is his humanity. The audience members can relate to the triumphs and failures of Spider-Man. This is plainly evident in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man does not always win. As seen in the film, Spider-Man failed to save his love, Gwen Stacy, who Spider-man promises to her Dad he would protect. Spider-Man must deal with this guilt the rest of his life. This is much more relatable to real life. With audience members more devoted to Spider-Man, this makes his victories all the more satisfying. “

Flora Yu: “The role of women portrayed in the film interests me. Through his relationship with Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker learns that there are things one must abandon to persist in another; also, life is so fragile that sometimes even super power fails to it from mortality. Devastated by Gwen’s death, Peter eventually finds motivation for his next debut from two female characters—Aunt May and Gwen—both very important to him. He realizes he must bury grievous memories at the bottom of his heart and retrieve his other side—the side of hope and Spiderman.”

Faith Clary: “It’s interesting to me how death is such an integral part of who Peter is as a person. Death is present in all stages of his development – childhood with his parents, teenage years with his uncle, and now adulthood with his girlfriend and, metaphorically-speaking, his childhood friend. With Spider-Man’s disappearance from the city in the aftermath of Gwen’s death, this movie drives home even more than its predecessor that a superhero’s life isn’t just about soaring around skyscrapers and posing for the paper. When you put on that mask, it’s not just yourself who gets thrown into the fray.”

George Nurisso:  “After Uncle Ben’s death, Peter Parker’s realization that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ has been his motivating force. In addition to battling super-villains, Peter has inspired others with his bravery and kindness.  When Spider-Man rescued a kid named Jorge from some bullies and gave him some encouragement, he changed the boy’s life.  Jorge later became brave enough to stand down the ultimate bully, the Rhino. After Gwen Stacy’s death, Peter Parker learned that being a hero isn’t easy, but in the end the world is a better place because of it.” ​

Sara King: “What seemed distinct about this Spiderman movie compared to all the other superheroes we have read so far is the fact that Peter Parker’s secret identity is known by more than one person, thus causing him many problems.  His girlfriend, Gwen, is ultimately killed because she knows and his arch nemesis, Harry Osborne or the Green Goblin, takes advantage of the fact.  Is it possibly a problem that Peter Parker identifies more with his non-super identity than his super-identity, causing the movie to take a more eugenic turn?”

Chris Myers: “Although “Electrode” undergoes a startlingly abrupt transition from Spider-man fanatic to his worst enemy, I thoroughly enjoyed the development of Electrode’s powers. Traveling as a current and departing from his human form, manipulating metal with magnetic forces, and shooting currents of electricity make sense for an electrical super-villain, although his ability to create dubstep music does not. His motivation to stay within the confines of New York made sense (defeating Spider-man), and by the end of the movie, he seemed to have realized the extent of his powers.​”

Abdur Khan: “Electro’s motives for becoming a supervillain match perfectly with the usual tropes involved in villainous origins. Max Dillon is a shy, miserable man who’s constantly pushed around, and once he’s given the means to assert himself, he does so in a powerful and violent way. His motivation comes from his need to be recognized, to no longer be “invisible”, as one Oscorp employee calls him. His anger when Spiderman doesn’t remember him or when Times Square erases his face is arguably ridiculous, but in his mind he is completely justified.”

Joe Reilly: “After experiencing The Amazing Spiderman 2, my heart ached for the tragic injustice towards the villains. Where most movies can only sustain a single antagonist to challenge the hero, the indecisive Spiderman swings from one foe to another beating each antagonist before they have time to know what hit them. Forced to fight tooth and nail with one another for screen time, the injuries towards the rogues’ gallery lengthen with poorly contrived motives and cliché origins. Spiderman faces an obsessive and accident prone Electro, a Green Goblin whose butchered comic origins as Norman Osborn are scratched and dropped for no reason into the lap of his spoiled brat son, and added to the confusion a random guy in a ludicrous rhino suit who arrives far too late toobare any actually meaning or impact on the plot. With flimsy origins, repeated defeats to Spiderman, and pitted against one another, the only true victims I felt in the latest Spiderman movie were the villains.” 

Mina Shnoudah: “The movie tells the story of Spider-Man’s parents, the origin of the Green Goblin, Electro, and Rhino. The common superhero tropes such as dead parents, revenge, damsel in distress, and friend turned enemy were ever-present throughout the film. Harry is the friend turned enemy by his psychological obsession to not turn out like the monster his father is. Furthermore, the parallels between Peter and Harry in their origin stories are another common superhero trope: they are both motivated to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.”​

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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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Sure, Andrew Garfield is adorable, and Tobey Maguire is an equally top-notch actor, but my favorite Spider-Man is still good ole Tom Cruise. Who can forget him back in 1988, fresh off the heels of Top Gun, swinging into his first pair of spandex for Hollywood’s original Spider-man adaptation? And what a supporting cast! Stan Lee as J. Jonah Jameson, Bob Hoskins as Doctor Octopus, and, wow, Lauren Bacall—what an improbably hot Aunt May!

No? Don’t remember that?

Okay, how about the 1996 Spider-Man by uberdirector James Cameron? Sure, Leonardo DiCaprio played a surprisingly potty-mouthed Peter Parker (“I’ll kill you!  Motherfucker!”), but it was really Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doc Ock driving ticket sales. Though my favorite Spider-Man villain will always be John Malkovich as the Vulture in Spider-Man 4 (2009). Followed by Dylan Baker’s Lizard in Spider-Man 5 (2011), a part made all the more poignant after seeing Doctor Connors developed as such a sympathetic supporting character in the previous films.

This of course all happened on Earth 2. Here on Earth Prime (or Earth-0000, as Marvel aficionados term it), Rhys Ifans (remember him as the nutty roommate in Notting Hill?) is the only Lizard around. Also, the pre-Scientologized Tom Cruise parachuted straight from Top Gun to Cocktail as a superpowered mutant bartender. And poor Mr. Cameron had to set aside his Spider-Man dreams to settle for the all-time biggest Hollywood money-maker, The Titanic (would you believe Avatar is number two?).

It’s not fair, but Earth 2 has a far richer Spider-Man filmography. Though at least we dodged that B-movie Roger Corman embarrassment from 1985, worse than Mr. Corman’s unreleasable Fantastic Four a decade later. Even in alternative universes, the guy should stick with low budget Poe adaptations. Also, the unfortunate 1977 TV show The Amazing Spider-Man was a hit for the Earth 2 CBS, where it ran for seven seasons, two longer than The Incredible Hulk. Our planet’s far wiser CBS never got behind the series, airing only a total of 13, sporadic episodes, before yanking the plug in 1979. The show still has a major cult following on Earth 2, but it’s not even available on DVD here.

Right now on Earth 2, Tobey Maguire is suiting up yet again for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 6, to be released in July 2013. That’s a whole year ahead of Earth-0000’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. That sequel is already in Earth 2 theaters, and it’s not bad at all. The big reveals are that (SPOILER ALERT!) Peter’s father is 1) alive, 2) evil, and 3) the secret leader of Oscorp, AKA Mr. Osborne. They ripped the ending right out of Empire Strikes Back: “Luke, I’m your father!” (In both cases, Uncle Ben dies.)

Even better, not only is Earth 2’s Julie Taymor still the director of Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn on the Dark, but she’s adapting the musical into a film too. Glee’s Kevin McHale will play Peter Parker, and American Idol’s season six winner, Jordin Sparks, is the new Mary Jane.

My only complaint about the Earth 2 Spider-Man is he wasn’t drawn by Steve Ditko. Back in that alternate 1962, Stan Lee worked with veteran artist Jack Kirby. Their Peter Parker finds a magic ring inside a spider web, and instead of web-shooters, he totes a web gun. He’s still a teenager though, and he still learns his with-great-responsibility lesson the hard way.

When I was reading comics back in the late 70s, Peter was getting cloned by the Jackal (a supervillain not even Earth 2 has filmed yet). So I have a pretty good theory where all these unsung spider-men are escaping from. I haven’t officially counted, but since it’s Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary this month, fifty is a pretty good estimate. Marvel celebrated with Amazing Spider-Man #692. The original teen superhero got his first ever teen sidekick:

Web-boy! No, wait. Spider Junior! That’s not it. Arackid?

Actually, his name is Alpha, and on Earth 2 he already has his own spin-off comic book, TV show, and film franchise. The bad news? Tom Cruise plays Spider-Man in all of them.

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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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Who’s the richest superhero? Billionaire Bruce Wayne is an obvious choice. Tony Stark would be a good bet too. Green Arrow, Booster Gold, and Mr. Fantastic are all 1%-ers as well. Before comic books, almost all superheroes were wealthy: the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel, Spring-Heeled Jack. Money is the original superpower. It sunk its radioactive teeth into you from birth. But who’s the uber-richest of them all?

How about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Look back at his 1962 issues and Peter Parker has to scrounge just to pay his recently widowed aunt’s rent. His first masked appearance was in a wrestling ring so he could take home some pocket money. When Tobey Maguire started playing the part in 2002, he just wanted to cash in, not listen to his Uncle Ben about responsibility and all that.

And cash in he did. The Spider-Man movie trilogy grossed just over a billion dollars. That’s about $371 million per film, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th biggest superhero money makers of all time.

Of course Bruce Wayne has some pockets of his own. The two Christopher Nolan films averaged $369 million, so just a couple of shakes of the piggy bank behind Tobey. Unless you average all six of the Batman films, including the 1997 franchise ending Batman and Robin. Then poor Bruce plummets to a $240 million average, way below Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man who ka-chings in at $315.

Fourth place goes to Superman Returns, the lonely solo reboot that still managed to gross $200.  Thor’s not far behind, debuting last year at $181. Though we may have to wait for Thor 2 to know the Asgardian’s real market value. And with Man of Steel in production, the Kryptonian is a wild card too. He could even redeem the collapse of his 80’s franchise when Superman III and IV pulled in a mild-mannered $60 and $16 million each.

Batman, however, has no flops in his bat closet. The 4 film franchise Tim Burton kicked off in 1989 averages $176 million, even with Schumacher’s Batman and Robin scrounging only $107. Ignore that low ball, and Batman flaps over Thor to perch under the 2006 Superman at $199.

Of course all this math is about to change.

July is rematch month for Hollywood’s billion dollar superheroes. The franchise-rebooting Amazing Spider-Man opens this week, and the reboot-capping Dark Knight Rises opens the 20th.

Despite Peter’s higher gross average, Bruce is the top seed. Dark Knight alone pulled in $533, more than doubling Batman Begins.  Until The Avengers plowed through box offices in May, Dark Knight was the third biggest money maker of all time, just under Avatar and Titanic (yes, uberdirector James Cameron hogs both first and second place). Adjust for inflation though and The Avengers plunges to 32nd, making Dark Knight s 28th the financial high bar for superhero films. (Gone With the Wind , the inflation-adjusted champion, opened way back in 1939, the same year the first 6-page “Bat-Man” premiered in Detective Comics.)

Peter Parker followed the more standard sequel trajectory, with Spider-Man 2 making a bit less than the Spider-Man, and 3 making a bit less than 2. Spider-Man 4 might have continued down that (still highly lucrative) slope, but post-trilogy contract negotiations were a supervillain Columbia Pictures could not defeat. Thus Andrew Garfield as the new Tobey Maguire.

Can Garfield really take on Christian Bale? Mark Zuckerberg pinned him in the first round of Social Network when Garfield played Zuckerberg’s less than savvy business partner. But Bale’s current Batman costume is so constricting, he almost passed out while filming.  Garfield also played a love-struck clone in Never Let Me Go, so Bale might have to face multiple spider copies. Of course Bale is also a two-time homicidal maniac from Shaft and American Psycho, so he could chainsaw all the Garfields Columbia throw at him.

Whatever the outcome, the fight won’t end here. Warner Brothers already has plans to re-reboot the Batman franchise after the Bale-and-Nolan tag team retires. And if Columbia doesn’t like Garfield’s performance, he could go the way of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. There are always more clones warming up in the locker room. And superhero fans ready to drop more cash into Bruce’s and Peter’s billionaire pockets.

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