A Movie Entry – An Inevitable Comparison

I really didn’t want to write this entry.  “It’s overdone,” I told myself.  “It’s  divisive,” I told myself.  “You don’t need to go there,” I told myself.  “The  trilogy isn’t even over,” I told myself.  But then I actually saw Amazing  Spider-man 2 and all of my good, rational arguments were rejected by irrational  but irrepressible feelings.  I don’t like arguing from emotion; I prefer logic.   That said, I am a human being (by most accounts) and unable to completely divorce  my logic centers from my emotional ones.  That also said, I will present what may  turn out to be an unfair comparison between the previous Sony “Spider-man” trilogy  and two-thirds of the current Sony Spider-man trilogy.  In way, this also falls  under “Storytelling Failures” for the reboot trilogy, which is why I have tagged  it as such.

1) Visuals/Special Effects – I’m starting here because this is an easy argument,  and one I’m less emotionally invested in.  The Sony reboot has ten years worth of  special effects technology on its predecessor.  There really is no comparison.  The  original Spider-man looks like a rubber CG cartoon.  The rebooted Spider-man  almost looks real.  Almost.
Winner – Reboot.

2) Direction – I’m narrowly focusing here on the consistency of presenting a  vision for Spider-man, whether viewers agree with that vision or not.  The  original trilogy was tonally consistent; there was some Silver Age camp, a lot of  seriousness, and for the first two the focus was very tightly on one villain per  movie.  It did start to go off the rails in Spider-man 3 both for the overall  vision and tonal consistency (who the hell thought ‘jazz hands’ were a good  idea?), but the third movie still managed to hold to the overall vision, even if  it clearly wasn’t executed as well as the first two.

But the reboot?  The first movie was fine as far as overall vision and tonal  consistency, but the second movie went right off the rails.  It was 45% romantic  comedy, 45% blockbuster superhero movie, and 10% “Wait, what?” moments.  Examples  – the way everyone in that movie talked to Peter Parker, I thought they knew his  secret identity, and then when the Green Goblin shows up, he suddenly figures it  out?  The origin of Electro is very Silver Age camp (he falls into a vat of  electric eels!!!).  This vision is supposed to be more realistic and yet it seems  Peter Parker has made zero plans for what he’s going to do after graduating high  school.  Also, the soundtrack noticeably changed when the movie switched tone from  superhero movie to rom-com and back again.  That is a literally inconsistent tone.   The reboots also had half-developed subplots (the second more than the first)  that ended up feeling like padding to already quite long movies.
Winner – Original.

3) Plot/Character – I regard these as inseparable.  The focus is Peter Parker,  and as such everything in the plot is to develop his character.  If his character  is not well-represented, many of the plot twists will fall flat.

a) But here’s a brief mention of plot for both.  As the Honest Trailer points out,  the plot for each movie in the original trilogy is kind of the same, in a general  sense.  Peter Parker tries to be a superhero, messes up at it, tries to maintain  relationships with his family, friends, and romantic interest, messes up at it,  faces a crazy villain, and usually ends with a  funeral.  That tight focus isn’t  necessarily bad.  Sequels are almost bound to tell close to the same story  (because that’s what people liked in the original) with just enough changes people  aren’t bored.  So in the first one, Peter Parker learns to be a hero.  In the  second one, he struggles with the consequences of choosing that kind of life and  for a while gives it up.  In the third one, he struggles with the temptation of  his own power and anger.  But the plot is consistent, and that’s due to  characterization.

On the surface, the reboots are following the same kind of plot.  Where the reboot  messes up, especially with the second movie, is not having enough time to develop  the characters or enough time to develop the various subplots.

I) Why are Peter’s parents even in the reboot?  So far they have added nothing to  the plot or character except to give Peter something to whine about and to give  him a destiny, which kind of misses the point.

II) Why is the vulture harness, octopus harness, and rhino suit in Oscorp to begin  with in the reboot?  This franchise is having trouble focusing on individual  plots; trying to throw in hints and allegations regarding sequels and spin-offs is  just distracting (although I’m okay with this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe;  they do it better).

III) Why is Aunt May’s nurse training a secret?  It doesn’t make any sense; in  fact, there’s no reason for this subplot at all.

IV) Why are there two planes about to collide?  The main character doesn’t know  about this impending disaster and can’t know about it, so how does it raise the  stakes in the final combat?  It just comes across as unnecessary padding in a  movie that’s already very long, or a creative team who doesn’t understand how to  construct a dramatic climax and thinks more lives in danger = greater drama.

b) The Hero – Okay, this is where my feelings start fighting with my emotions.   I’m very tied up in the comic book Spider-man.  I can’t judge an adaptation  without judging how well I think it adapts the source material.  For example, part  of the reason Ghost Rider didn’t work for me, was that the movie wasn’t nearly as  dark and edgy as it should have been for the character and the world (yes, I am  actually arguing for more dark and edgy).  So, I’m going to try to parse out the  adaptation from the presentation.

I) Peter Parker as an Adaptation – Having read a good number of 616 mainstream  universe Spider-man comics and nearly all of 1610 ulti-verse Spider-man comics, I  believe the original trilogy much better adapts the character of Peter Parker than  the reboot movies.  Peter Parker is a lovable loser.  He’s too smart for his own  good and the subject of near-constant bullying from his peers.  He tries, and he  fails, and the world won’t let him catch a break.  The original encapsulates this  perfectly.  Hell, at the beginning of the first movie the school bus driver thinks  it’s funny to drive off without him.  Yeah, the guy whose job it is to pick up  kids thinks Peter Parker is such a loser he’d rather just leave him behind.  Wow.   This does make Mary Jane’s interest in him somewhat inexplicable, and I’ll get to  that.

The reboot Peter Parker is, well, cool.  He’s a good-looking, emo, hipster skater  kid who gives the impression that the reason he doesn’t have friends is because  he’d rather be a loner.  There’s really no sense of oppression or ostracism.   And yes, I know Flash beats him up in the first movie, but there’s nothing else in  that scene to convey that anyone is siding with Flash.  As far as Peter’s  intelligence?  The first movie tries to make him look smart (complete with nerd  glasses) but that falls apart when he has to look up YouTube videos to figure out  how batteries work.  He clearly tries several experiments to protect his  webshooters but fails to come up with a solution that Gwen gives him after all of  two minutes consideration. Winner – Original.

II) Peter Parker as Represented – more or less what I mean by this is how well was  the acting and characterization.  I will grant that the original actor was  somewhat blank-eyed and a little wooden, and I will grant the reboot actor is more  engaging.  However, the reboot actor also mumbles and stutters all the time and  believe me I don’t find that nearly as endearing as Gwen.  I want to be able to  understand what the actor is saying.

That aside, this is where the characterization ties so closely with the plot.  At  the heart of these movies is a hero’s journey.  Nothing more, nothing less.  We,  the viewers, are to go along with Peter Parker on this journey as he discovers his  powers, learns how to use them, and most importantly, learns why to use them.  We  watch Peter grow and learn both how to be Spider-man and how to be Peter Parker.   He learns what responsibility means.

The original presents this characterization and journey much better.  Peter reacts  to the terrible events that happen in his life.  Sometimes good, sometimes bad.   The death of his uncle fundamentally changes him.  The death of Norman Osborn  fundamentally changes him.  He makes a lot of mistakes, and eventually comes to  terms with the external and internal forces that pull him in too many directions.

The reboot Peter doesn’t learn anything.  I’m not sure if this is because there  isn’t a lot of time given to his character, but it seems to me his only emotions,  especially in the first movie, are stereotypical angry outbursts, being cool, and  being goopy-eyed over a girl.  In the second movie, his only emotions are  stuttering angsty, being cool, and being goopy-eyed over a girl.  He’s also a  selfish jerkass, especially in the second movie.  It’s clear he’s been jerking  Gwen around to the point she gets fed up, everything is about his guilt and his  desire to know about his parents, and when Gwen decides to pursue her own life, he  decides the most romantic thing he can do is declare his love for her and abandon  the city that clearly needs Spider-man so badly. Winner – Original.

III) Spider-man – the character of Spider-man is different than that of Peter  Parker.  Spider-man is Peter being able to cut loose and enjoy getting a view of  the Big Apple pretty much no one ever has.  He is witty and friendly and dodges a  lot.  I’m not sure how much of the characterization of Spider-man depends on  special effects.  Believe or not, despite the flaws of the second part of the  reboot, I actually thought what little time they devoted to Spider-man was quite good.   I was annoyed with some of the casual destruction and disregard for human life,  but I can overlook that. Winner – Reboot.

c) The Villain – a superhero movie must have a good villain.  Weak villains do not  challenge the hero and the movie doesn’t work.

I) Norman Osborn/Green Goblin – this is almost an unfair comparison.  In the  original trilogy, Norman was the villain of the first movie and a recurring  nightmare in the other two.  He was awesome.

In the reboot, he was literally a man behind a curtain.  He was mentioned in the  first and onscreen long enough in the second to seemingly die.  I understand that  the reboot crew wanted to distance themselves from the original’s portrayal, but  even having Norman at all invites comparisons. Winner – original by default (Norman was barely a character in the reboot).

II) Green Goblin (Norman Osborn) vs the Lizard (Curt Conners) – looking at the  main villain of the first two, there are actually a lot of similarities.  Both  are green, for instance, and both are supposedly brilliant scientists.  Both get  impatient for results (albeit for different reasons), and both inject themselves  with an untested super-soldier serum.  The results are actually generally  successful, except for the crucial side effect of a split personality.  The Green  Goblin goes on a murder spree for Norman Osborn and that makes a lot of sense  given the background on Norman.  The Lizard decides he’s going to turn the whole  city into lizard-people.  Yeah, the Lizard’s plan doesn’t actually make any sense  at all, but in theory it raised the stakes for the climax of reboot movie. Winner – Original.

III) Harry Osborn/Green Goblin II – this character is supposed to start out as the  likeable, if obviously troubled, son of Norman Osborn.  Part of the depth of  Harry’s character comes from his interaction with his father.  So the reboot  already starts out handicapped because there’s almost no Norman Osborn.  While the  actor in the original may have been somewhat understated in his performance, the  reboot actor goes too far into madness too fast.  The original Harry’s  character/story arc was built over three movies.  The reboot Harry’s  character/story arc took place in only part of one movie.  Honestly, for such an  abbreviated arc, I would argue the character of Norman Osborn is even more vital  to establishing who Harry is, and the reboot tries, but there isn’t enough time.   I’d also argue the reboot Harry starts off, well, a bit creepy to begin with.   This may have been the creative team’s solution to getting around the short amount  of time to develop his character – just start with him kind of creepy.  And while  my friend D disagrees with me, I felt that Harry’s stone-cold murder of Gwen Stacy  came out of nowhere.  She’s really more of a victim of a random psychopath than a  calculated attempt to break Spider-man/Peter Parker.
Winner – Original.

IV) Doc Ock vs Electro – I realize this isn’t entirely fair either since Doc Ock  had a whole movie devoted to him and Electro had only part of one.  Still, a lack  of time is one of the flaws in the reboot.  The match-up here isn’t actually that  bad either.  Doc Ock is a brilliant physicist and Electro is a brilliant  electrical engineer.  Both of them fall victim to the malfunctions of their  creations.  Both of them have a psychotic break which leads them both to attempt  to destroy New York City.  However, Doc Ock was a well-adjusted person prior to  his psychotic break while Electro was a stereotypical nerd with some creepy  slash-fic tendencies.  I think Doc Ock’s indifference towards Spider-man worked  better than Electro’s sudden hatred of Spider-man.  There’s more tragedy with Doc  Ock.  I was sad he went crazy because I wondered what other great things he could  have done.  But with Electro?  I was sad, but less so because it was so obvious  that Electro was going to have a psychotic break at some point.  Doc Ock had more  depth.
Winner – Original.

V) Venom, Sandman, Rhino – Venom was present due to executive meddling.   Consequently, Sandman’s story arc was sharply abbreviated.  And Rhino was mostly a  cameo.  I’ll give this one to the reboot.  Instead of actually trying to juggle  three villains in the second movie, Rhino was left as a cameo.  In third  installment of the original, Harry/Green Goblin II was practically reduced to a  cameo.  Then again, there was almost no help for that as Harry’s arc needed to be  finished.  But still, Rhino was meant as a cameo and cameo he was.
Winner – Reboot.

d) Supporting Cast – all those other people who interact with Peter Parker who  don’t go crazy and try to kill him.

I) Mary Jane Watson vs Gwen Stacy – my friend S saw the first movie with me, and  not being a comic book fan in general, told me that she thought the Gwen Stacy  character was exactly the same as Mary Jane, except the creative team gave her a  new name and hair color to separate her from the original’s Mary Jane.  I don’t  exactly agree, although I think both characters were a little flat.  I also think  Gwen was a little too perfect.  MJ came from an obvious abusive household.  Gwen  behaved much better, but MJ was emotionally damaged.  Still, I understand why people don’t  like MJ much.  And at the end, MJ was meant to be a damsel in distress more than  her own character.  Gwen had a little more character, but again that was  calculated emotional manipulation (although I know that’s what movies do).  But  the actor playing Gwen is more engaging, and there is really no reason MJ goes  after Peter (unless she really is that damaged) instead of marrying the astronaut.
Winner – Reboot.

II) Uncle Ben and Aunt May – both sets of movies really brought out some acting  chops for these two supporting roles.  The reboot cast the Parkers a bit younger  than the original, and I don’t object to that.  Especially since the reboot added  in Peter’s parents, the age gap between Richard Parker (his father) and Ben Parker  might seem out of place.  On the other hand, I know people in real life who have  big gaps like that between siblings.  The reboot also decided to make Uncle Ben a  little more action-oriented, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but the actual  execution of the encounter with the robber made the rebooted Ben look like kind of  a dumb-ass.  What sort of unarmed person charges a clearly armed person?  Both  uncles are dead in the first movie leaving it to Aunt May to care for this surly  teenager.  I’m not sure why the reboot brought in a subplot with Aunt May trying  to be a nurse unless they wanted to make her look also more action-oriented.  Then  again, as the reboot May is portrayed as so much younger, her looking for another  job only makes sense.
Winner – Tie.

III) J. Jonah Jameson vs Captain Stacy – From a narrative standpoint, JJJ serves  as the voice of hostility.  He’s the one that views Spider-man as a menace and  he’s the one that constantly causes Peter to doubt if what he’s doing is the right  thing.  While yes, JJJ is full of bluster, he also sometimes has a point.  Captain  Stacy was meant to serve this purpose in the reboot, and I think served his role  well.  In the second reboot movie, the debate over whether Spider-man is a menace  is done through background sound bites on the radio or television.  Every single  sound bite describes his as a menace.  However, this proves to be pointless as at  the end of the movie, the citizens are cheering for him.  So the desired dynamic  is completely lost, and part of that is because there was no character to give  voice to it.  The ghost presence of Captain Stacy to underscore Peter’s guilt is  just unnecessary.
Winner – Original.

4) Final Thoughts – the third movie, if it even gets made, would have to knock my  socks off, wash them, dry them, and put them back on to begin to really have a  chance against the original trilogy.  And for me, here is what the difference  really is – I cannot root for the rebooted Peter Parker.  Adaptation aside  (really, I am not comparing the reboot to the comics), the rebooted Peter Parker  is a selfish jerkass that pretty much gets everything he wants with few to no  consequences.  “Oh, no,” I imagine I hear some detractors say, “but Peter’s  beloved uncle and girlfriend and girlfriend’s father died!”  To which I say, so  what?  Uncle Ben died?  Bummer.  Captain Stacy died?  Bummer too.  Gwen could get  killed?  Eh, worth the risk.  Gwen died?  Super bummer.  There’s a grieving  montage and Peter mopes and then eventually goes back to being Spider-man to a  cheering crowd no less.  If I want to watch a movie about a selfish jerkass trying  to be a hero, there are much better movies out there.

Sorry, Sony, but the magic is gone.  Your aim for a superior Spider-man failed.   You got an amazing Spider-man, but not in the good way.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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