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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Tobey Maguire

The-Great-Gatsby

Jimmie Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby, debuted in dual-identity crime fiction long before the prototypal Bruce Wayne slipped on his Bat tights.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rolled off the press in 1925, Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939. When Bob Kane and his writers (probably Bill Finger, possibly Gardner Fox) tacked on an origin story six issues later, they set the alleyway murder of Bruce’s parents “Some fifteen years ago.” I’m not suggesting Gatz (it’s slang for “gun”) was that homicidal thug (one of Mr. Wolfshiem’s other associates would be a better guess), but the Gatsby and Wayne funerals would have been simultaneous. Which might explain why nobody attended Gatsby’s. Though I suppose friends of the extravagantly respected Waynes would have snubbed a West Egger regardless. Thomas and Martha Wayne were tight with the Buchanan crowd.

“Jay Gatsby” is a disguise, one as elaborate as the mild-mannered reporter a certain Kryptonian invented for himself. Jimmie Gatz was born on the alien planet of smallville Minnesota. To the snobbish Nick Carraway, he might as well have crawled out of New York’s lower East Side or the swamps of Louisiana. He is a rough-neck trying to pass as an Oxford man. And, unlike Bruce and Kal-El, he’s not one of the good guys.

Jay is a party-crasher to a long tradition of gentleman thieves popular in the first decades of the century. For an origin point, see E. W. Hornung’s 1898 “A. J. Raffles,” a man of seeming wealth and leisure who secretly burgles his fellow aristocrats. Hornung was a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and his character is an inverted Sherlock Holmes. By 1925, the character type’s anti-heroism had mutated to Robin Hood do-goodery, the mission Kane and Finger burgled for Batman. Graham Montague Jeffries published Blackshirt the same year, another tale of a thieving yet well-intentioned well-born—this time inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 too, a treatise Tom Buchanan and many of his fellow East Eggers sent up the best seller list.

As far as supervillainous schemes go, the Gatz Plan for World Domination is small-fry, mostly bootlegging and stock scamming. Unless you count his secret identity itself. “Jay Gatsby” is an agent of social chaos greater than Christopher Nolan’s Joker. To Tom Buchanan, the mere existence of the new money millionaire signifies the collapse of Aryan Civilization. Soon blacks and whites will be marrying. He’s the bridge beyond which anything can happen.

But what ultimately wins Nick over to Gatsby’s belated side is his other Plan for World Domination, the wooing of Daisy Buchanan. In addition to re-inventing himself, Jay invents a time-machine more complex than Dr. Doom’s or Kang the Conqueror’s. He wants to reboot the world and repair the moment he lost Daisy. And like any Quixotic supervillain, he can’t see the futility of his own plan. Of course he’s going to fail. That’s the point.

I miss teaching The Great Gatsby. Before I re-invented myself as a college professor, Fitzgerald was a perennial high point on my high school syllabus—same as most high school syllabi. I don’t need a time machine to visualize the filmstrips from the 1974 adaptation I had to watch when I was sixteen. It’s a god awful film, the surprisingly incompetent script penned by Francis Ford Coppola. So imagine my delight when I heard Baz Luhrmann was taking a fresh shot. His Romeo and Juliet was a delightfully frenetic mess, Moulin Rouge yet more so, and so who better to capture the excesses of the decadent 20s?

True to form, Baz delivers a circus wagon of a movie. I was planning to enjoy it, but despite the incongruous hip-hop beats, it was almost as yawningly dull as last time Gatsby the Great popped into our timeline. I admit much of the problem is me. I know the book embarrassingly well, and the Luhrmann script, like the Coppola script, is a collage of favorite lines. I know, you’d think that would be a good thing—Fitzgerald’s own words!—but it means neither doggishly devoted screenplay ever commits to its own storytelling.

Worse, Luhrmann loves voiceovers. Which isn’t necessarily an absolute evil in screenwriting. But instead of visual juxtapositions or contradictions, we get lazy repetitions. Tobey Maguire narrates what we’re already seeing. He tells us that his neighbor is standing on the dock reaching for the green light. And, yep, sure enough, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio doing exactly that. It’s the definition of excess, but not the fun kind (like replacing Klipspringer’s baby grand with a church-sized organ—why not!). Early comics suffered similar redundancy. Look at the Bill Finger panel declaring Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27: “As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure behind them… It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’” And, yep, that’s exactly what Bob Kane drew in the panel under it. Comics outgrew the flaw decades ago, making poor Tobey all the more annoying now.

But maybe Baz is fulfilling a larger theme here. Gatsby has to fail. It’s what makes him Great. Ultimately, he and Bruce aren’t very different. Yes, Batman directs his megalomania for good—but just barely. His never-ending war on criminals is about vengeance and self-punishment. He’s ceaselessly borne back into his parents’ alleyway, endlessly replaying a botched past he will never get right. Gatsby’s jilting at the hands of the Daisy is no different. It’s a fate he’ll never escape either.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

I can’t wait till the next time Hollywood reboots him.

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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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