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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Marc Webb

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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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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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