Marvel: That Extra Limb… Where did it all go wrong for the Amazing Spider-Man?

What went wrong with the Amazing Spiderman?

Was it the adjective? A bit over the top? It worked on paper…

With a not inconsiderable haul of over $1 billion across two films, another of Spider-Man’s cinematic personas bit the dust earlier this year, without even getting in Kraven the Hunter’s sights … And it was all going so well, wasn’t it?

On the day Hollywood lost the great James Horner, composer of first film’s sublime score, it also gained a new Spider-Man in Tom Holland. So, just what happened to that famous spidey-sense? First, building up the Amazing Spider-Man.

NOT RENOWNED FOR HIS RETICENCE, SPIDER-MAN HAD LITTLE SAY IN THE MATTER AS INTANGIBLE CLOUDS FORMED ROUND HIM THAT HE COULDN’T PUNCH OR CATAPULT. Sony’s well publicised struggles combined with box office below the Sam Raimi Spidey films of last decade cast the web slinger in a colder light than ever before. Along with Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four, he was isolated against the growing dominance of the Disney run Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the year The Amazing Spider-Man (TAS) debuted the brand new Spider-Man, The Avengers ended Marvels’ Phase One and elevated the series to billion dollar blockbusters. It was a whole different universe to the one Raimi’s Spider-Man emerged to 10 years before. So, it was all the bolder that Sony attempted such a rapid re-origin.

Origin Issues

Cause for disappointment in what could be otherwise considered a major success.

There wasn’t really a precedent for a reboot of that speed, not with those figures involved, so the industry couldn’t help but squint a little. Batman Begins came closest in 2005, bringing a legitimate reboot to the Bat for the first time in 16 years. But then, Batman had two huge advantages: it came three years before Marvel’s plans kicked into gear and; the Dark Knight’s origins had never been fully explored on screen. Still, as subdued as that first film’s $374 million was, its two sequels more than evenly matched the Marvel machine. In comparison, TAS took $750 million, a clear $70 million less than the first of Raimi’s trilogy a decade before. That was cause for disappointment in what could be otherwise considered a major success. In part, it was unlucky too surface at the same time as The Dark Knight trilogy concluded with just over a billion dollars – and become the second best film about New York that summer.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The origin syndrome that shouldn’t be there

The Spider-Man reboot was a zinging effort, showing just as much confidence as Sam Raimi’s Spidey-debut in 2002. Its casting was spot on, showcasing fantastic chemistry between masterful leads Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Marc Webb’s direction buzzes to the point that it almost, just almost gets past the origin syndrome that shouldn’t be there.

The film Parker back at school, the Daily Bugle ignored, but the need to sink so much of the plot into Parker’s ‘accident’ was as much a response to Nolan’s tangled Bat web as it belied a slight lack of confidence. It’s only that the whole production is so well done that it’s so easy to swallow. And it had learnt from the series it rebooted. The quick subway carriage scene is as neat and comedic as anything Raimi provided, effortlessly introducing countless spidey skills as Parker discovers them.

Oscorp Rogues

The same old film rules of Spider-villains

More than showing us the origin of his alter-ego, TAS shamelessly slip one step further back. Shock, horror, it kicks off with a Peter Parker not orphaned, but with parents and in particular, a father whose mystery becomes integral to the franchise plot. Almost baiting the Raimi trilogy, Norman Osborn is pushed back to the shadows, seen only in passing on Os-posters and the side of the Oscorp Tower. The most telling reach back comes with the villain of the piece being the same as Raimi had been building to in his series. And this time Dr Curt Connors, AKA the Lizard, isn’t Parker’s high school teacher but an old partner of Parker senior.

TAS presents a wider web than had come before, slightly less comic-book and slightly more teen drama than even Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst had managed. TAS chucks in scientists gone mad, the mysterious disappearance of the Parkers, the lines of crime that seems to run under every facet of New York and the increased weight given to young Parker as a prodigious scientist himself. A dense but pacey structure keeps the plot points even laid out and even without fore-knowledge, there’s a greater sense of tension than Raimi’s films managed. And that’s despite the Lizard complying with the same old film rules that Spider-villains must lose their humanity, develop split personalities that argue with themselves and hide their faces during key battles. True, 2012 saw Bane carry a multi-textured film with his face covered – but didn’t quite make the same static mistake as the finale of 2002’s Spider-man’s finale or the disappointingly bland CGI of this Lizard.

Dramatic roots

“This guy wears a mask like an outlaw”

In re-treading the origin of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, the audience is waiting for Peter to make a mistake and then face the consequences of his actions first hand. The famous “great responsibility scene”. Here, with the solidly cast Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the tragedy is maturely handled. Dramatic shorthand gives just enough room for the actors to stretch under the weight of a savage accident. It’s downplayed, it’s over milk. Really, it’s all over milk. There’s no wrestling as there was in 2002, well, until Parker falls into a disused ring and sees a mask during his obligatory vigilante phase (or anarchy as Denis Leary’s Captain Stacey has it). That sadly means no Bruce Campbell, as this proto-superhero wears a beanie in the alleys of New York (although the problem with New York, unlike Gotham, is that is has very few alleys), while at home Parker works on his mask and web slingers. In this version Spidey’s web-ability is no mutation, but biocable, a failed innovation first developed by Oscorp but then made into their own by science prodigy Parker.

The first step to differentiating TAS from its predecessors was the suit (here quite different, but even more ridiculously developed by a teenager) and then the mode of swinging. It’s a bold videogame technique Webb pulls in here – and it’s very effective. It’s an all too short first sling that lets us see the mask for the first time in the mirrored walls of a skyscraper, through Parker’s eyes. Other parts of the film take comparisons head on. The famous upside down kiss of the first trilogy is matched by the balcony kiss where Peter and Gwen gets that darned inconvenient secret identity out of the way. And if you remove that, there’s no need to worry about spandex infested love triangle.

Unmasked

The late James Horner’s mystical score is spellbinding

Elsewhere, the Williamsburg Bridge in particular, this Spider-Man shows that his identity means little when it comes to earning trust. When saving a petrified boy from a car hanging from the bridge he forgoes his web slingers for no discernible reason, just as he’ll later refuse to web bandage a severe injury later on. We can call that a learning curve, but otherwise he’s quite happy to show he’s human but not only showing his face but also gifting the child his mask. Again, there’s the feeling that the quality of the production is ‘masking’ some difficulties as it grasps for the iconic. Because that scene, in particular underlined by the late James Horner’s mystical score, is spellbinding. It’s all consciously fairy tale, the rooting of myth – but it’s just a little too try-hard. And not coincidentally, it’s the one incident that leads to an arrest warrant being issued for the ”masked vigilante”. And that’s not even considering that the child he saved could be the Vulture’s grandson or anyone!

Octopoda to Lacertilia

“Wonderful things are coming”

2004’s Spider-Man 2 sets the template for the villain here. It’s a wise choice, considering how successful Alfred Molina was as tortured scientist Otto Octavius. In this new structure of heightened science, the parallels with Connors are clear. But this time, there’s little comic book fun to be wrenches from Connors tragic transformation. He’s wrapped into the plot and left covered in grey by the shadowy suits of Osborn Tower. More greys are at play on the opposite side of the story, where Spidey’s operations away from the law tie straight into his love life. That comes to a head in the last half, after Parker goes to dinner with his girlfriend’s family, including her father Captain Stacy. It’s during this meal that across the city the classic scientist experimenting on himself under duress tale goes wrong and Connor gains far more than a replaced arm; a CGI bucket-load more. These greys are carefully laid out, but the performances keep it from being painful.

Underworld

“Too big to be human”

There’s a raw strength from the carefully laid web of TAS, all creating that myth. The flying god, the underground horror, the Frankenstein mix of modern-modern Prometheus. There’s even the misunderstood but fundamentally good man attracting the lynch-mob and being forced to that underground. And so as the Lizard retreats to the sewers of New York and Connors regains his human form, above ground the legend of Spider-Man grows. This particularly manifests in the third act sparring, a tense meeting of foes under the pretence of their alter egos that’s all spitting threat and double-meaning.

Another Cracked Actor

New York often glows here

Jokerside’s look at Gotham City on Film called The Dark Knight Rises one of the greatest Manhattan pictures of all time. And that was through the façade of Gotham City. Much of Marvel’s unity comes from sharing not just a tied universe, but the 1960s ideals of placing the fantastic in a real universe. It rarely fails, but comes off the worse against the Chris Nolan’s series that matched its comic roots by transitioning from the Windy City to the Big Apple. Webb certainly finds some different angles to film New York from, including the compelling and immediate bird’s eye. It may be slightly too CGI, but it’s just the right side of unnerving.

Few Marvel superheroes have both the roots on the streets and the view from above that Spidey has. His city often glows here, and no more so than during the transformation of the Lizard on the Williamsburg Bridge. But for all its looks and the way it’s tied into Spider-Man’s ascent against crime, it never becomes the character it does in The Dark Knight Rises.

Swinging Underground

The major superhero foe, the master of unravelling

Once Spidey’s wise-cracking in the suit TAS is a different film. Delicate bass lines turn Spidey into a figure of surprise and dark. When catching his uncle’s murderer, his eyes spark up in nothing short of devilry. It’s a strange and awkward, odd and exhilarating thing in a Spider-Man film to find yourself rooting for this darker version. At east, it banishes thoughts of 2007’s misjudged Spider-Man 3.

This is a Spider-Man in need of a villain, and the Lizard is a powerful but blunt solution. If it all goes wrong we’re left with a CGI insect fighting a CGI dinosaur and that’s not emotion or really satisfying action fodder. And alongside the Lizard scowls the major superhero foe, the master of unravelling: coincidence.

Led to the sewers and the villain’s underground lair. It’s a sudden change of pace waiting for these foes to meet again, although it does serve up the extraordinary sequence of Spider-Man laying his web trap and cockily playing a dating mobile game until the strings of his web sound a cold-blooded tune. But in attempting to take rather obvious camera shots he makes the obvious mistake, and that’s rather a shame considering how closely plotted the origins and acquaintances of these foes are. It’s all very well marking his property but… Marking your camera with your name?

Back to School

“Why the sudden interest in the cold-blooded”

The next big set-piece comes hot on the spandex heels, swapping the villain’s territory for the heroes. The school rout does the Lizard favours, making him into a far more humanoid aggressor than a bogeyman that kids run from. There’s real bombast to this duel that marks it out as a highlight. A fluid camera, the Stan Lee cameo (that he leaked in 2011), the fantastic sound design, the neat touch where Connors use chemistry to scrap, then tries to plead his (misguided) aims to avert the battle… It’s more comic book than the earlier films with one-liners and comedy that mark it out as possibly the greatest page to screen adaptation of this hero so far. But it can’t quite make up for the fact that the Lizard when fully visible is the film’s major let-down. Ever so slightly stilted CGI motion capture and possibly an all too realistic attempt to blend human and reptile leaves an extraordinarily bland villain. There’s enough weight to this, enough heightened science to excuse a little more grotesque cartoon in what Connors becomes.

And as the plot is again propelled underground, with the hero putting his love in danger, the Nietzchean role that Connors quickly adopts is grating. His loss of all compassion is inexplicable, seemingly just to leap to the third act. The rather silly villainous plot, fuelled by toxin that pales in comparison to similar plots in Batman (particularly 1989’s original, but with the rooftop spat it’s even closer to Mr Freeze’s cold solution in 1997). Until this it foolishly seemed that comic book films had moved beyond the simple chuck a villain and watch the ‘em stick template that Batman and Robin exemplifies.

Settling Scores

“Poor Peter Parker”

Amid some imaginatively choreographed fighting, albeit CGI mask to CGI face, the pastiche of King Kong can’t be missed. But then again, when you have a giant lizard, why not? In the city’s final hurrah, the rotation of the cranes are a well thought out demonstration of the New York support welling around the super-teen. Odd it hasn’t been called the film’s Thatcher’s funeral moment, but I won’t start here. Much. And really, the finale belongs to two people. Once again we’re proved incredibly lucky that James Horner lent his talent to a superhero film during his illustrious and all too short career. At the top of the Oscorp tower, his score is quite extraordinary, taking us from the fairy tale of half an hour before to the piano sharps that turn Captain Stacey’s self-sacrifice to horror. And Denis Leary completes a fine, if slight role in that pivotal scene.

Web slings and arrows

“You owe the world your gifts”

TAS ends steeped in tragedy, and quite unexpectedly for a film where parker’s constantly betrayed his identity, a conflict between his two lives.

It’s has the webbing to end on a giant firework, miserable scientist guilt and that impossible deathbed promise of “leave Gwen out of it”. Yes, they quite rightly kept the villain alive, but in killing his love interest’s father we get a second and possibly more important “Uncle Ben speech” in this film.

The first film’s running time belies its simplistic and almost throwback take on the superhero genre, especially when compared to the epic scale that Batman had reached that year. Thanks to the heavy weight emotion and mythology Webb and the cast and crew pack into the piece, TAS may feel like 90 minutes but it’s an easy watching two hours.

In doing so TAS Left a mighty framework for a sequel, albeit one that relied heavily on its individual talent. The music, the direction and particularly the two leads are sublime. And for all the issues of rushing to reboot, it manages to reach higher points of comicdom and lower points of tragedy than any Spider-Man film before. As Gwen guesses the truth about her father’s final words amid heavy pathetic fallacy, it doesn’t take the most avid comic book reader to guess further tragedy is on the way.

In the eternal struggle of the father figures’ one-up-man-ship it’s Uncle Ben who manages the final word. How you have to confront not being able to wheel out your “Great responsibility speech?” Eternal life as a voicemail, like a digital Jedi Knight is certainly one way.

Spider-Man would return and the streets of New York were looking all too empty.

Next time: An answer to where it all went wrong for the Amazing Spider-Man: Are franchises electric?

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