Spider-itis, or Donovan explains his take on the Spider-Man films

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Jumping back five years earlier, we come to the first Spidey reboot film, which tops the bottom half of the list. Seemingly, this is where the trouble began, but again, I was ready for a reboot after Spidey 3. Having seen Andrew Garfield in The Social Network, I knew he was a capable actor (this guy only gets better with each performance in everything, up to and including Tick Tick Boom), but more importantly he looked more like Peter Parker to me. His hair was a warmer, comic book brown, and he was more typically handsome but not anything out of a GQ ad. And the trailer kept all the momentum going. This Spidey jokes! He has quips! Mechanical Web-Shooters! The costume’s colors are sharper! Action sequences that are mostly at night! A more grounded approach!

That feeling of hype sustained me throughout the theatrical run of the film. I had zero notes for it, aside from The Lizard being Fan4stic naked and not wearing his classic black tee, white coat and purple pants (there’s one or two shots where he’s wearing the coat, but that reeks of easter eggs where it could’ve easily just been the case).

Watching it again, I see the flaws much more immediately, and can separate what doesn’t work for the movie with what doesn’t work for the concept of the reboot, especially with going over the origin again.

Now I’m unsure if I’ve settled on redoing the origin, because Garfield is such a passionate actor, to skip over that pivotal decision which changed Peter Parker forever would do the actor a disservice. On the other hand, we just relitigated the Uncle Ben death in Spider-Man 3, so it’s already fairly fresh in viewers minds. Coupled with the fact that they kind of interpret it in the Ultimate Spider-Man fashion where it’s a street thief and not someone robbing the television station. The big problem however is that Peter never catches the guy on-screen, thus never having the realization that he could’ve prevented Ben’s death. That this film thinks it can get away with that is unreal to me, it’s everything Spider-Man is about. It’d be like Batman not knowing how his parents died.

Because of that, as an origin story of Spider-Man, the film is one of the darker entries in the franchise, arguably the darkest. Now I’m all for dark Spider-Man stories, I love’em. My second favorite Spidey writer is Paul Jenkins, who essentially wrote a perpetually depressed Peter Parker. But for an origin movie…the tone is off. Not finding the killer of Uncle Ben plus having his whole father issue deal (more on that later) makes Garfield’s Peter in this movie watch like a very troubled kid. Unlike Tobey, he actively antagonizes Flash in the gym. He’s chastised for it, but the movie clearly doesn’t see it as a big deal. I didn’t either, but consider what else happens. He sneaks into Oscorp, steals someone’s badge which results in an innocent guy getting kicked out, and spends the first half of the movie after he gets his powers on a violent rampage. His final scene with Uncle Ben – again, taken straight from Ultimate Spider-Man – has the characters tearfully screaming at each other. And when he hunts for Ben’s killer, he keeps nearly killing people.

This is all very powerful stuff which work in isolation in the movie. I love how his powers are depicted, where his super strength isn’t easy to control for the first hour. When he destroys the front door after slamming it during the yelling scene with Ben and May, that’s a great capper which shows the tearing away of his formerly normal life.

Possibly the most interesting scene to me, which ends with him getting the idea for the red and blue costume, is Peter hunting for Ben’s killer in a knitted hat and jacket. He finds some guy roughing up a woman in an alley and just lets loose on him. It’s pure violence, to the point that the woman screams at him and calls for others to come and beat him up. The line by the woman “WHAT ARE YOU, CRAZY?!” stings before the big running sequence with the BG music dropped off a cliff. Light flashes on Peter’s scruffy face. Then he bolts.

That scene is fascinating, especially after watching a cuddly Peter Parker from 2002. It’s a great moment of Garfield’s young Peter in over his head, letting his emotions and super strength just carry him wherever. But it’s also way too harsh and disturbing. We understand Peter’s emotional state at this point, but we don’t relish in seeing him lash out at people. And as Spider-Man, his jokey nature is coupled with an almost Deadpool-like lethality, nearly suffocating someone he thought was the killer. There’s a loud cockiness to him in his first few scenes in the suit, and believe me – that’s very early Ditko. I can see the character in there easily. But this couldn’t have been pleasant for fans of Tobey Maguire to watch, especially after seeing that guy smack Mary Jane in the face at the height of his symbiote-induced terror.

The movie is aware of Peter’s mental state, and moves him into a more heroic form. The bridge scene where he saves the kid is a fine “birth of Spider-Man” moment, and for all of the sturm and drang of the mystery of his parents, I really like C. Thomas Howell weepily saying “my son” over and over again as we push in on Spider-Man’s silent face.

The rest are plusses and minuses. Emma Stone’s casting as Gwen Stacy is one of the best things in the entire Spidey franchise, giving that character more heart and charisma than she ever embodied back in the Silver Age. That she and Garfield would become a couple for several years during the making of these films really kept these above water. She’s actually in the movie less than I remembered, but once she learns Peter’s secret, she’s got some of my favorite moments of acting. There’s a far stronger adult nature to their relationship (unlike the comics, these two characters definitely banged), from her answering of her Mom’s beckoning after learning of Peter’s secret with a breathless “I’m coming…” to the scene of her cleaning Peter’s Lizard wounds. The trading of dialogue “Easy bug boy…” gave me a stronger hint of her personality than just the good girl police chief’s daughter. And she was rightly terrified of the Lizard, but also was smart enough to fight back when she was backed into a corner. As much as audiences liked Kirsten’s MJ, Emma Stone’s Gwen is just objectively better as a character and a love interest.

Lizard’s fine, played adequately by Rhys Ifans, and depicted in the script more sinister than he needed to be. Maybe it’s because how they did Doc Ock, but Curt Connors in the comics isn’t traditionally a bad guy, so having him be gnarly and disgusting almost put me off. I think they played it both ways, with the pressure from the late Irrfan Khan representing Norman Osborn and the company. This actually recalled the original 2002 movie where Osborn himself was pressured by the Board of Directors and military contracts, so the similarities to the Goblin weren’t great, even though I hadn’t considered it until this viewing. I like that he survives the film, for once.

But Dylan Baker could’ve easily Judy Dench’d the role, and this is my revelation with The Amazing Spider-Man. It should’ve been a soft-reboot, rather than just a reboot. Like the aforementioned 90s Batman movies, they all ostensibly take place in the same continuity. Same with the Bond franchise prior to Casino Royale. We had Gwen and Captain Stacy introduced in Spider-Man 3, this could’ve continued that track with new actors. Garfield could’ve switched his costume (which I didn’t mind at the time but after other, better looking suits, it’s definitely not the best) from Tobey’s. The tone change and addition of quips could’ve just been attributed to the cast style. As I’m typing this out, maybe that’s not such a hot idea. The Raimi trilogy had a loveable cast who all kept coming back. To have no carry-overs might’ve been more than a bit insulting. But I think I still want to save this movie, as the problems for me come down to it being another version of an origin that Raimi perfected. Nothing about this retelling in terms of that I like better, save for maybe Peter’s power level. But aside from this being how Spidey begins, I love the dark tone separate from that. I love Garfield yelling at Sally Field to go to sleep because he can’t think of a decent excuse for his Spidey injuries. I love his slamming the front door to pieces. I love his tortured relationship with Gwen, and the tearful breakup scene after her dad’s funeral. I love how much of the movie takes place at night, and how the colors of his costume pop against the night sky and lights from the buildings. There’s a lot stylistically I really, really like.

It just doesn’t, nay, cannot work as a proper origin.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Landing smack dab in the middle is by far the most hated movie in the franchise. No points for guessing that between this and Spider-Man 3, one of those regularly ranks at the bottom for someone’s list. The unmet financial performance and critical shellacking resulted in the Holland-verse two years later, with Garfield’s Spidey career killed in its crib and giving him the shortest consecutive tenure in the webs.

But God help me, I really enjoy this movie.

Back in 2014, I knew this film had hella flaws. Electro’s realization as a villain carries zero depth or creative interest, relying everything to be held up by the pure charm of Jamie Foxx, who isn’t playing the version of the character that he wanted. He starts off in the vein of many a comic movie villain (Selina Kyle, Edward Nygma, Barbara Minerva, Aldrich Killian), playing a cartoonish nerd with a disturbing obsession with Spider-Man that’s less threateningly stalkerish like Jim Carrey’s Nygma and more approaching weirdly sexual in one scene. His turn from confused monster to evil criminal is very limply written and poorly motivated. He also dies (ugh, again?) with nary a sympathetic moment from the film to leave him with, which I think is a big mistake considering how Spider-Man tried to help him throughout the film.

There’s other obvious problems that need little explanation beyond mentioning. The character of Ashley Kafka – comparable to Batman’s Leslie Thompkins as a kindly older woman in the medical field – is rendered a crazy male German scientist, played as a goofball, who dies in the background. B.J. Novak plays Alastair Smythe as a business head of Oscorp, who’s a jerk but has nothing to do with anything he’s famous for in the comics. The Rhino isn’t nearly as big a villain as the promos put him over as, although I do enjoy his presence as a lesser threat for Spidey to take on.

The biggest problem is that there’s too many plots, with the largest waste of space being the parents mystery. Peter’s obsession with his dad’s briefcase, complete with Charlie Day conspiracy wall and a musical montage, is entirely unmotivated. He didn’t see the flashback to the plane crash at the start of the movie, so what exactly tells him to start caring about his dad now? The mystery also goes nowhere, we don’t see him investigate until he solves the whole subway lab thing. It’s also endemic of a misunderstanding of the Peter character. Contrary to Garfield’s interest in exploring the emotions of an orphan, Peter historically isn’t concerned with his parents, and neither are the comic stories by-and-large. That the first film started off his origin by having him investigate his parents’ deaths put him on a path that diverted once he became Spider-Man. They don’t really have anything to do with his new life by the end, and in this film it feels even more incessant. It only serves to have Aunt May act like a jerk, claiming that Peter is “her boy”. Sally Field has gone on record to not think much of these films, but while she’s stuck playing a bit role with not nearly as much meat on her scenes as Rosemary Harris got, what she is given are scenes of her and Peter knocking up against each other. She’s less pleasant to watch in 2022, especially after the fact.

These plots all smash up against each other, as well as the Harry Osborn plot which seemingly necessitates the death of Norman offscreen. I say seemingly because apparently plans for the thirdquel would’ve revealed he faked his death, but that’s too convoluted to consider without more concrete details. But Harry’s plot also takes up space, however it’s the most compelling out of all of them.

But dammit…Andrew Garfield IS Spider-Man in this movie.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that Garfield’s tenure as Spider-Man is a lot like Colin Baker’s tenure as the Sixth Doctor in Doctor Who. Colin Baker served the then-shortest time in the role, with ratings dropping off severely, budget cuts keeping the show looking cheap, and BBC Controllers personally having it out for him. After his 1986 season aired, he was fired on the condition that the show would come back for another year. It’s especially sad because Baker was a huge fan of the series and the character, hoping to outlast Tom Baker by exceeding his seven year run. General opinions for Colin Baker’s stories are low, but it’s been increasingly agreed upon in the decades since that he was a terrific lead actor in the role.

I feel this way about Garfield. People come at ASM2 for its mashing of subplots, naked attempts to conjure up an extended franchise by seeding so many characters in at once (not only does this film force a “Felicia” on us, but originally included filmed scenes of Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson), and the bad writing that resulted in too few draft updates (“You’re a fraud Spider-Man!” could never have been saved by Dane DeHaan, but also “Don’cha know? I’m Electro” is also awesomely bad) … but I don’t care. Garfield is owning this role. He’s already completely alive as Peter, with his quirky body language, a smile that flexes from wry to gleaming at a moment’s notice, and his easy chemistry with Emma Stone. But early on, when he goes from walking away from Gwen after the two breakup for the umpteenth time, we immediately cut to Spider-Man as he races off the top of a building, and we get a montage of Peter keeping himself too busy as Spidey to suffer heartbreak. He interacts with the people of New York, saves a kid from being bullied, saves a convenience store clerk while trying to get cold medicine, and is being Spider-Man. And it’s just as entertaining as the opening action sequence with “The Rhino”. By now the angst and anger of the first film is gone, and he’s having a ball fighting bad guys. It is a wild difference from Spider-Man 2, which showed off how being Spider-Man for a few years has ruined Peter’s life. This is markedly different, but I’m not minding it. It’s an awesome sequence with enough balancing of stunt work and CGI and also shows Spider-Man go after simple gun-toting criminals which we don’t see often enough in the films.

I think that’s part of why I enjoy this one as much as I do, it’s the “day-in-the-life” approach to a superhero movie that I always want to see. Those serve as examples of why these characters are fun to check in with every month, living their lives and doing what they do best. The imbalance of plots hurt the film, but they also rather accurately represent the average Spider-Man issue. And Peter’s non-parents related conflicts feel like problems he’d be dealing with that don’t rehash anything from the Raimi movies. As Spider-Man he tries to shock-proof his webbing to fight Electro, as Peter he tries to help his best friend while also dealing with his relationship with Gwen, and maybe they don’t thematically blend together but they’re still problems that feel right for Spider-Man.

I also like Dane DeHaan as Harry. He’s a darker, more immediately menacing Harry Osborn than James Franco was, but the scenes with him and Peter work for me. When Garfield calls him Harry with the familiarity of an old friend, I believe him. When the two catch up, discussing girls and their families, it feels natural. And when Spider-Man crawls into Harry’s penthouse to deny him access to his blood, it feels like the character in spades. I will admit that as much as I cannot stand yanking the mask off to assure that the actor is in the suit, it can be difficult in scenes where costumed characters wear full-on facemasks and deliver dialogue. I think Raimi clocked that after the rooftop scene between Spidey and the Goblin in the first film, hence why the two sequels had increasingly less justifiable reasons for him to be mask less. But Garfield can act the hell out of it. It’s all in his body language and voice, and Dehaan meets him with outrage and fury that makes Spidey looking not embarrassed, but ashamed and in turmoil. It’s a great scene.

And Gwen’s death scene was perfectly done, more action packed than the 1973 original but harrowing and intense. Everyone nailed it. Would it have been better if Norman were the killer and not Harry? Sure, but back in 2014 such iconic comic book moments hadn’t been so regularly adapted, so the very invocation of it had me on edge the whole time. But should there have been a buffer film in between ASM and ASM2 for this to hit even harder? I don’t know…people have told me without knowing of the comic lore that her death was a shocker. Too much time in between and it becomes more expected. Whatever the case, even for people who hate this film, no one really rags on this scene…except for maybe the hand-shaped webbing.

And boy, do people hate this film, although – like Age of Ultron – I don’t understand what brings their feelings to such intensity. Yeah, it is friggin’ flawed. But there’s definitely a sense at the time of “Marvel’s kicking Sony’s butt, how dare they try and do a franchise? They should just give up and let Disney have Spidey”.

I don’t know. I like a lot of movies people hate. This one may have had a non-zero degree of cynical corporate arranging for future films in store, but that certainly hardly differentiates it from the MCU. But for now, this was the last we’d see of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. For my money, no matter the flaws of the final product, it was a great performance for him to go out on.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Coming into the top four, the difficulty has increased. These remaining films are all some of my favorite movies, and the differences in ranking come down to preference over quality, with hardly any flaws. That being said, putting Spider-Verse at number four feels like the most controversial decision, although I shared my list with some co-workers and the Zoomer kids were all pretty offended that Far From Home was at the bottom.

This is a movie that took me a couple of viewings to really know what I thought. It was obviously good. The film powers up like an anime super hero, with a sonic and visual charge that presages the comic book sensorial influences, speaking to the film’s best qualities. There’ve been movies that have played with the comic book form before, and most people my age recall Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film, but that – while well intentioned I’m sure – did nothing but take you out of that very somber story. With the speed and energy of this film, the comic influences (Sound effect lettering, captioned narration boxes, hard primary colors) work to enhance the film. So for my tastes, not counting Amazing Spider-Man 2 which I honestly think is the best the live action flicks have ever looked, this is the greatest Spidey’s ever looked on the big screen.

There’s also so much love put into this. Right at the start we’ve got cheeky nods to Spider-History and more than a few references to the most memorable moments of the Raimi trilogy, but the prologue scene ends on Spidey’s inability to give up, which is often overlooked and provides a theme for the movie. We then cut straight into Miles, and – almost as if we’re watching his story unfold with Peter Parker – effortlessly fall in love with this kid. It’s rare for a movie with a kid protagonist, especially an animated one, to not have him be noticeably weird or anti-social or anything that sets him across from anyone else. He’s got a decent if at times trying relationship with his parents, he’s generally liked by the friends he’s leaving behind, and he’s got wit and smarts to navigate being the new kid at school while also having the requisite teenage awkwardness that naturally comes about whenever there’s girls in the room. Really, the one fact that sets him across from most all other young character protags in movies is that…he’s black.

It’s never commented upon, but it simply is. Nobody does an exaggerated double-take when Miles is brought in on the Spider adventures, beyond just wanting to know what he contributes. But the themes of the film – living up to “great expectations”, especially when there’s nothing seemingly special about you but unrealized potential – are woven terrifically between the characters and their implementation into the plot. Miles is different from the other Spider-Heroes in that he’s not from another universe, so he has to be the one to save them, but they all share a self-sacrifice streak that’s endemic to Spider-Man’s gluttony for punishment and is the consequence of the “Power and Responsibility” motif. My favorite things about this movie are the subtle ways it nails the Spider-Man idea without largely signposting.

Peter B. snapping back at Miles when he starts the “Power and Responsibility” quote.

The quick glance Gwen gives Miles and Peter when they’re in the Spider-Cave, after Peter loses himself in the picture of Mary Jane.

Miles’ reflection in the costume case not lining up with the Spider-Man mask until he’s ready to jump into action.

There’s also the final Stan Lee cameo (not counting Avengers Endgame), which is at both hugely poignant and knowingly hilarious, speaking to both how Stan inspired millions of us while also copping to the fact of his seersucker suit-wearing nature throughout the decades with the “NO REFUNDS!” sign. This movie came out soon after Lee passed away, months after Ditko died as well, and even though this only ranks fourth, I cannot think of a better film to dedicate their work.

So why is it only number four?

Just preferential reasons, really. Even at the best of times, I’ve trouble sitting through some of the really broad humor with Peter B. Parker, or even some of the Spider-Ham stuff. Don’t get me wrong, this is a funny movie, but it also stretches the tone in ways which I feel pull it just a bit too far. Like, I know Peter B. is depressed and all, but his first few scenes until they reach Aunt May’s house are a lot of the same “this guy is a loser” gag, which again – are done purposefully, but still aren’t fun for me as a longtime fan to watch. There’s also a lot of things happening in the final act that might be a bit too convenient for the needs of the plot. I love Miles’ ascension into his own costume, but my brother was watching this most recent viewing with me and thought that it leaped too quickly into what he needed to do. Same with Peter B. content to sacrifice himself changing his mind after a few moments upon seeing Miles in action. It’s all about ideal vision at the end of the day, and I’m a Peter Parker fan far more than a Miles fan, even though this is his movie.

Just to reiterate, I love this movie. Whereas the Raimi films are decidedly Silver Age in approach, the Garfield movies are a mix of the Ultimate Marvel universe and the Holland flicks are within the MCU (meaning no real visual style), this movie is so modern it’s futuristic. I wish every movie looked like this, which reminds me to check out Entergalatic, which brings a lot of the same approach to animation into that film.


4 thoughts on “Spider-itis, or Donovan explains his take on the Spider-Man films

  1. Your explanation here (and on the episode) of MCU Spider-Man really hit home for me, that essentially, because you have the Avengers making up Peter’s world/community, his actual world/community is considered secondary. That definitely puts a finger on why the school is characterized so blah, especially when compared to — at least my memories of — the original Spider-Man movies. The Raimi films almost felt overwrought with how much world there was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I remember reviews of Homecoming congratulating it for feeling the most like the comics because of the school setting, but Peter has zero relationship with Flash or Betty or any of his classmates. It’s all just window dressing, and the persistent sense that he’s above all of them is really anathema to the majority of Spider-Man media content out there. Spectacular Spider-Man – which doesn’t need me tooting its horn – has probably the best presented balance of Peter’s supporting cast and how they affect his life when he’s not Spider-Man that reflects the comics of the Lee, Ditko and Romita days.

      Like

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