24 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: What haven't we already seen?

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Though it's the fourth adaptation of Stan Lee's comic book superhero in ten years, The Amazing Spider-Man is what is now understood to be a 'reboot'. To avoid temporal overlaps and discontinuities, and to allow for the repeated exploitation of popular villains who might have otherwise been killed off, the reboot wipes the slate clean and starts afresh, going to some lengths to detach itself from previous versions of the same brand. It does this primarily by making wholesale changes in personnel and fulfilling obligations to remind us that this is not a narrative continuation but a reworking of a familiar franchise - itself recently reworked - designed to set up two sequels (preferably), in order to make that most marketable and digestible of filmic commodities: the trilogy. Not without its charms, The Amazing Spider-Man prompts before anything else an obvious question: what in any of this haven't we already seen?

In contemporary New York City, young Peter Parker is left by his parents, both scientists, in the care of Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen); we learn both parents died soon after. As a high school teenager, Peter (Andrew Garfield) endures playground bullying and enjoys the classroom affections of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Discovering secret files left behind by his parents, Peter visits their old employer, Oscorp, where he meets his father's colleague, Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans). During the same visit, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider and finds his physical strength and instinctive reflexes are considerably sharpened as a result. When personal tragedy strikes, Peter takes it upon himself to use his new powers to fight petty crime, devising a mask and suit as well as the moniker "Spider-Man". Meanwhile, Connors - who has only one arm - is working on a serum made from reptilian DNA that will allow human limbs to regenerate. When he injects the serum into his own stump, the serum takes over his body, and as a humanoid lizard, he begins to territorise the city; Spider-Man tasks himself with defeating the creature.

Peter is relatable. Nerdy enough to be an underdog, he has enough smartass rebellion in him for us to champion. Humiliated by the school jock, he's also subject to the same teacherly warnings as the other kids, and relies on higher-than-average academic merits (though he's still "second best in his class") to get away with riding his skateboard through crowded corridors with a slap on the wrist. In the role, Garfield seems suitably overstretched, stuttering his way through knowingly awkward scenes in that way he does, continuing in similar vein to roles in Red Riding and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and drawing upon the more dramatically nuanced roles of The Social Network and Never Let Me Go where necessary. As Gwen, Peter's impossibly understanding love interest whose scholarly focus is matched only by a killer wit and knockout looks, Stone completes the film's obligation towards teenage wish-fulfilment. Hers is the kind with whom every decent, studious lad wishes to share a belated first kiss and more.

Delaying the entrance of costumed Spider-Man for around fifty minutes, the film focuses on Peter's happier-than-most domestic situation, his dormant grief and confusion at his parents' death, and the pangs of a badly-kept secret crush. Post-spider bite, he endures amusing-cum-cool teen-friendly body horror that's analogous to the kinds of physical and emotional traumas synonymous with adolescence. When Peter finally assumes his alter-ego, the novelty of his powers are exploited by both him and the film's makers; payback is handed to the school jock and anonymous nocturnal crooks are bested in haste. Before any significant action occurs, the film's visually impressive moments come as Peter experiments with his ability to swing through the streets of New York from building to building, like Tarzan between trees. Director Marc Webb inserts frequent point-of-view shots into these sequences so that viewers - especially those consuming it in 3D - can sit through them as in a simulator, experiencing the illusion of flight.

Webb directs action set-pieces, meanwhile, with impressive spatial awareness, allowing the choreography itself to unfold at its naturally rapid speed, rather than editing so that movement and impacts are suggested through abstraction - as is the case, for instance, in The Dark Knight Rises. Such sequences are all the more convincing due to the CGI rendering of the Lizard, with whom Spider-Man interacts fully; the physical contrast between the duo creates a visually dynamic palette in which hard-hitting impacts against and through ceilings, walls and other surfaces are given priority over a genuine sense of peril. Indeed, this is spectacular but not bloated action filmmaking; swift bursts evince superhero mayhem without becoming flabby or too serious. A brief interlude in which the soundtrack assumes the point of audition of an oblivious, headphone-wearing music teacher as Spider-Man and Lizard wreak havoc behind him, is particularly inventive.

This is all well and good, of course, but to what ends have this film been conceived and made other than commercial? As fine as Garfield, Stone, Ifans et al. are, there's no real reason why a large part of this film's story couldn't have been presented as a successor to the Sam Raimi-directed threesome starring Tobey Maguire in the lead role. Why, in essence, return entirely back to the beginning? Must we expect the first installment of each new reboot to labour over and regurgitate the same old origins stories over and over? That's frankly a waste of acting talent and screentime.

Perhaps this is the coolest part to re-envisage as a writer, director, designer or an actor. But perhaps it's also art-by-algorithms. Without that "where it all began" exposition, for instance, filmmakers and studio heads run the risk of revealing these films for what they are: adaptations of juvenile material whose very nature is throwaway and episodic. There are new faces and creative heads, sure, but that's never been a problem with, for instance, the James Bond franchise - or at least, it wasn't until Casino Royale wiped its slate clean in 2006, as a kind of "return to Year Zero" that doubled as a cancellation of previous narrative incidents and errors.

It never mattered in the Bond films that the hero had a different girl to woo and a villain to fight with each new entry. Now, continuity is the buzzword of the day, as if it's the one thing that makes silly drivel turn to serious art, compelling cast and crew members to sign on for three films not one. It's all about making products marketable. If the strategy began or became popular with Batman Begins (2005) and continued with the Bond reboot, it's now permeated the Bourne trilogy; The Bourne Legacy trailers stress links to that trilogy while tipping us off that "Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg". This is as much a cliché as calling it a cynical cash-in would be a truism.

The inclusion of the backstory isn't to get new audiences on board. It's to give the illusion that this is material anchored by an individual arc, promising development and closure akin to a novel (unlike the 1960s Batman series or the 1970s-80s Incredible Hulk series, these trilogies display a casual disdain for the serial nature of comic books). It's also designed to imply that it is an adaptation of interpretable material. In fact, the first reason is a faux pas and the second is untrue; you can't interpret a Peter Parker or a Bruce Wayne (much less Spider-Man or Batman) in the same way you can Hamlet or Macbeth. Sure, you can re-work fluff in different enough time periods that separate versions reflect and are informed by differing zeitgeists or aesthetic fads, but the protagonists remain the same old digestible archetypes. Who are these people kidding to present them as otherwise? Is it genuine delusion, or an ongoing cultural conspiracy?

So why not make a tighter film featuring Dr. Connors and his reptilian alter-ego, instead of trying to juggle between him and the development of a protagonist with whom we're already familiar? That way, we might genuinely feel and connect with the tragedy that underlies the villain's desires, rather than merely getting an impression of it. Fresh, new angles might emerge from such an approach, whereby the adaptation can challenge or problematise its source material, expand upon it, liven it up... But the purpose of these reboots is to make money. That can be achieved in a number of ways, of course, but pitching and investment are short-term games, where art is risk-assessed and pre-packaged. Such an approach wishes to exploit and contain, not expand and challenge. Films become feature-length trailers not for their sequels, but for themselves.