Spider-Man and Me

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Who wasn’t blown away by CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’s latest trailer yesterday? It looks like the payoff for nearly all of the groundwork of the MCU: Ant-Man on Hawkeye’s arrows! Captain America and Iron Man philosophically reversed! A reprise of “I can do this all day!”

And a certain cameo at the end.

I’m not prone to fangasms or going full-fanboy, but when Spidey showed up, his eyes narrowing just like they did in the comics and cartoon shows, I felt a physical surge of happiness. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was nearly crying. I was 7 years old again.

And as a 7 year-old, I had needed Spider-Man.

That’s how old I was when the SPIDER-MAN animated series premiered on Fox Kids in 1994. My Catholic school had a 1st grade class of 25 kids, and only 8 kids from 3rd-5th grade. Nobody else read comics in my class, or seemingly the entire blue-collar town. Bullies targeted me for my comic-reading and for not suppressing my emotions. The worst bully persisted until 7th grade. My 1st grade teacher was also an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive bully. My parents both worked late, so I spent most of my time alone at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t have any friends, really.

SPIDER-MAN’s cartoon debut was life-changing. Peter Parker was a nerd who, even in high school, was still bullied; had a distant, fair-weather friend; was closest only with his immediate family; was bewildered by crushes; was misunderstood by the whole world; had self-esteem issues; and had a snarky mouth that got him into trouble.

Just like me.

Spidey’s smart-alecking to villains and his giddy freedom in web-swinging cranked my imagination into overdrive. I wrote and drew my own Spider-Man comics. I stood up for myself to bullies and to my teacher to show them they didn’t run the world. I read even more voraciously, dipping into other comics. The world, or at least a small fraction of it, made a little more sense. I honestly thought if I tried hard enough, maybe I could actually BE Spider-Man.

What I didn’t understand back then, was that Spider-Man was his own worst enemy. The cartoon show didn’t hammer on the Uncle Ben stuff, which is key to his social & emotional stagnation. I thought it was ok to have low self-esteem and a martyr complex, and I went through some dark times as a grade-schooler. Bullies did bad things to me, and I thought they were my fault. Sometimes I still catch myself thinking that.

Amazing Spider-Man

But Spider-Man was still a power fantasy for me. No matter how bad things got as Peter Parker, Spidey could still trick Doctor Octopus into walking into a magnet. He could still trap Sandman into a vacuum cleaner. He could still overcome the darkness of the alien costume. Just as Spidey got a little help from his super-hero friends, so did I from my family and the friends I’d make in middle school.

And after awhile, I didn’t need Spider-Man to feel confident. I could do it on my own, and I never apologized to anyone for it.

At the end of 8th grade, I saw Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002), knowing its whole plot from the novelization. It wasn’t my first time with a live action Spider-Man -reruns of the 1977 TV show had seen to that- nor was it “my” Spidey, as Raimi used 60s & 70s comics as his chief inspiration. It was, however, Spider-Man. It marked Hollywood’s slow realization that it was ok to embrace nerdy things. It marked my realization that maybe there might be something more to movies.

I’m glad that Spider-Man was there when I needed him, and I’m glad that there were so many versions of him, even in the 90s. Sure, people who read ALL the Clone Saga hate it, but its characters were great! Ben Reilly, Spider-Man’s clone, had even more trouble connecting to his friends and family. Kaine, Spidey’s monstrous failed clone, was anguished at being cut off from society. With Spider-Man as a struggling adult, it showed that not even grown ups had all the answers. Heavy stuff!

I’m happy that the other iterations exist too: Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Girl, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Silk, and more. EVERYONE should have a character that they can relate to. “I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

And Aunt May’s advice from SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) is why I don’t mind having drifted away from Spidey. It’s nothing condescending like saying that I grew out of him, but he’s no longer emotionally applicable to who I am or to what I need. And that’s ok. He shouldn’t have to grow up with me to be special. Because no matter what, he’s like that childhood friend from when you were too small to remember. The one that stuck by you when things were at their worst. The one whose jokes always cheered you up. The one who showed you that the world could be a brighter place.

He’ll always be Spider-Man.

As to CIVIL WAR, I obviously have a lot of assumptions at play. How do I know I’ll like this version of Spidey? I don’t. Haven’t I seen other live-action takes on Spidey? Yep. And I’ve always had mixed feelings about them. Is there extra baggage here, seeing a tonally & near-visually perfect Spidey when other favorite characters are getting reinvented and misrepresented wholesale? More than likely. After all, the last Spider-Man had water socks.

But more than that, the Spider-Man reveal was well-timed. We’d had over a year of rumors that he’d would show up in CIVIL WAR, and every day we wondered: “when will we see Spider-Man?” In the age of movie-scooping, I expected a pitiful behind-the-scenes leak, shot guerilla-style, as happened to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012), which took the wonder right out of the character. Marvel had the whole geek community waiting for Spider-Man, and somehow avoiding leaks, they delivered on their terms, revealing Spidey in all of his angsty glory. We’d been waiting for Spidey.

And maybe we didn’t know how much we’d needed him.

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An Autopsy of Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Jesus, where do I start?

On the broadest conceivable level, most of the movie’s scenes work well in isolation. It’s not until you look at, well… every facet of storytelling that this thing falls flat on its face. For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to link you to Film Crit Hulk’s incredible takedown. He covers just about everything.

We good? Ok.

1. What the hell was Sony thinking?

Coming off the modest success of The Amazing Spider-Man and it’s problematic story, Sony faced the issue of wanting to make it a lasting franchise, and a commercial hit, and a shared continuity franchise like the big boys at Marvel. What they really needed to do was make a strong sequel with market appeal and a tight story that smoothed out its predecessor’s big wrinkles. What they did was hire Kurtzman and Orci.

2. What the hell was Sony thinking?

Can’t say I blame them, at least on a financial level. By and large, Kurtzman and Orci have proven to be extremely bankable writers that seem to have their thumb on the pulse of general audiences (or at least the franchises they’ve worked in do), even if their films are continually panned by critics. In broad strokes, the hallmarks of their style seem to work for Spider-Man: daunted, frenetic everyman with hot lady troubles in a world of over-the-top characters and government/corporate conspiracies. If Kurtzman and Orci do anything particularly well, it’s write a breakneck-paced story with a consistent tone that makes it easy for the layperson to miss flaws in structure and character development. What they really needed to do was to sit back and let Kurtzman and Orci write drafts, receive notes, and just refine the hell out of the script. What they did was shove more stuff in.

3. What the hell was Sony thinking?

What is Amazing Spider-Man 2 about? I thought I knew, but it kept changing. The villainy of Electro? The origin of the Green Goblin? Peter’s quest to figure out his parents’ secrets? Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy? Setting up the Sinister Six spinoff movie? Peter’s struggles as Spider-Man? Peter’s struggles as a brainy kid just trying to make ends meet? All of them? What was it trying to say? It’s got at least 20 themes, none of them particularly coherent. As well as all of these stories are handled and for what little consequences they have, Amazing Spider-Man 2 might as well be about none of them. What they should’ve done is delay the project until they had a solid plan. What they did was hype the living hell out of it and release it anyway.

4. What the hell was Sony thinking?

Fucking terror is what they were thinking. By the sounds of it, the company’s suffering losses, and they’ve got to make back some serious cash. Spider-Man seems like they’re only bankable property, although the numbers on  boxofficemojo show the franchise in rapid decline. Whatever, they need cash and they need it in a hurry. Let’s do what all the cool kids –but mostly Marvel- are doing: sprawling movie continuities with comic book characters! Sony’s got to pay the overhead somehow and they can’t risk that on a property that nobody’s heard of. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve GOT to make Spider-Man not only a franchise (which was how Amazing Spider-Man got mangled), but they’ve GOT to make Spidey a shared continuity movie to spawn off other cash-cow franchises like the Sinister Six and Venom.

5. So what should’ve happened?

Amazing Spider-Man 2 (ASM2) shouldn’t have been made.

Seriously, I had a whole essay planned about how it was possible to make ASM 2 an excellent sequel, but given Sony’s demands and given the playbook established by Amazing Spider-Man, that would’ve taken the craft of fucking William Goldman or Lord & Miller to pull off, and even then, I’m not entirely sure.

Oh, a single or double-villain story? Sure, any screenwriter worth their salt should’ve been able to pull that off, but when you factor in all of Amazing Spider-Man’s mistakes and all that Sony decided they wanted mid-production in ASM 2, it would’ve taken the screenwriting equivalent of hitting a grand slam in the major leagues. Retrofitting and cramming stuff into scripts nearly always goes badly.

Where’d all this black stuff come from?

6. Doomed from the start

Amazing Spider-Man was a ponderous mess of a screenplay that made some pretty central mistakes in the development of Peter Parker’s character. Primarily, we don’t know if he’s a nerd, a punk, or an everyman; we don’t know if his story is about ‘great power requiring great responsibility’ or about corporate conspiracies; and there’s no opportunity cost to being Spider-Man.

What does that last part mean? Spider-Man is about the heavy burden of being Spider-Man, who seems, on the surface, to be fun as hell, but is a vocational shackle to which Peter has affixed himself. He tried to use his powers for selfish gain, but it cost the life of his Uncle Ben. Peter would love to cast away his powers in light of his tragedy, but he knows that if he doesn’t use them to help people, it’s like letting Uncle Ben die over and over again.

And that’s what’s lead to him becoming an “everyman” hero instead of being a “nerd hero”: because he’s shackled to heroism, not livelihood, it’s doomed him to a working life of mediocrity when he could’ve easily been a Nobel prize winner. Instead, all of his potential is thrown into “with great power comes great responsibility,” which is why his relationships fail, and why he can’t commit to anything: he’s already committed to something greater. We’re left with a nerd who’s overqualified for everything, but suffers in the mundane.

Like Heisenberg

Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t get that. Spider-Man isn’t a burden to Peter, it’s initially a vengeance game, and later it’s just a game, to the point where he goes so far as to reveal his identity to the daughter of the NYPD Captain who’s declared martial law on him. Up until Civil War, Spidey was known as the hero who most ferociously guarded his secret identity in the Marvel universe, not even revealing himself to his closest allies, the Fantastic Four.

Why’s this a big deal? Because bad things happen when people know Spidey’s identity. Why’s this a big deal dramatically? There are countless dramatic opportunities in Spider-Man trying to balance a social life, academic, and working life while also protecting his identity. Don’t believe me? Look at Spider-Man 2. Sure it was campy, but it knew EXACTLY what it meant to have Peter create his own drama. A love interest who knows why her boyfriend is always late is going to be forgiving and understanding, which creates a dramatic deadzone, until she tearfully realizes that being Spider-Man will always be more important to Peter than she ever will be. Problematically, this ISN’T the Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man or ASM 2. There’s no “with great power comes great responsibility,” but “You know what I love about being Spider-Man? Everything.” Which was Spidey’s first line in ASM 2. It’s a power fantasy; the exact opposite of what it means to be Spider-Man.

This mentality prevents Peter from arcing in Amazing Spider-Man, as he doesn’t really learn anything, save that he can get away with anything and the city will love him for it, so long as he saves some people sometimes. As a result, we get a horrifically uneven ending: He’s just saved the city from the Lizard (Happy!), but Captain Stacy, his girlfriend’s dad, was killed in the battle (Sad!), and Peter has to promise to stay away to protect Gwen from himself (Sad!), so Peter breaks up with Gwen (Sad!), but renigs on it cheekily (Happy!). He should be in a PITIFUL mental state, but the movie’s determined to end on a high note. Thanks, Sony.

Furthermore, our post-credits sequence left us with the Lizard talking to God-knows-who about vague bullshit.

FURTHER furthermore, we haven’t wrapped up everything with Peter’s parents, who were apparently at the center of a massive corporate conspiracy at the time of their assassination.

So he’s happy and hopeful maybe, and he maybe has a big fight coming up with somebody, who killed his parents maybe?

“What the hell is going on?”

Fuck, that’s an awful place to start a script from.

So what did Sony want ASM 2 have to achieve, according to Sony? 1. Continue the Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy relationship. 2. Use a popular silver age villain (Electro). 3. Introduce the Green Goblin 4. Continue the conspiracy with Peter’s parents 5. Recreate in one movie the Peter/Harry dynamic that the Raimi films did in three. 6. Lay the groundwork for the Sinister Six. 7. Murder Gwen Stacy (for the fans). 8. Have a happy ending. 9. Make tons of money at the box office. 10. Do this WITHOUT being a reboot.

Double fuck, that’s an even worse place to start from.

You can shove all of Spider-Man’s mythology into the space of two hours, but you won’t get a movie:

You’ll get a mess.

7. Ok, so what REALLY should’ve been done?

Really? Sony owns the movie rights to Spider-Man and his affiliated characters. Start by making movies about those affiliated characters. This lets people forget that Amazing Spider-Man was awkward at best, awful at worst, and will allow you to rebrand as Spectacular Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, etc. after you’ve had a looooooong time to plan. Ideally, any of these movies can organically lead into Spider-Man with him either being a supporting character or him being the end teaser.

So what could they make?

A. VENOM

Yes, Venom is the antithesis of Spider-Man, but that’s looking at the provincial, 80s version of the character. Venom, or rather, the Black Symbiote, is Marvel Comics’ version of The Thing or The Blob: a terror that could be anywhere at any time, is cunning, carnivorous, and ever expanding/looking for new hosts. You could make this just like the Thing that suddenly reveals itself to be a Spider-Man reference. Hell, you could even do it in outer space with some weird alien race and make it like Prometheus, except the black gunk is what kills.

Not space penises.

Or, you could Nolanize it as a cloud of nanobots that got really resentful of the human race, but need a human host to do their dirty work. Any of these permutations might lead to an ending where a single survivor has managed to escape and make it to Manhattan, not realizing that the Symbiote/Nanobots were biding their time and have leapt to the nearest host: Peter Parker.

By the time this happens, you have the groundwork to make a Spider-Man movie about The Alien Costume (hell, there’s a nice title) with more depth and irony than the comics did; you’ll KNOW the creature is capable of, but Spidey won’t.

And if that doesn’t rock your boat, you could just straight up adapt Truth in Journalism. Or make it the story of a dark vigilante who, even without the Symbiote messing with his mind, is constantly teetering on the edge of sanity.

B. SILVER SABLE

A badass female character who’s the monarch of a war-torn Eastern European nation and who struggles to defend her people and her honor against the forces of oppression. Knowing that, despite her impressive diplomacy, the U.N. will never step in to help, she takes matters into her own hands with a squad of her royal guard-turned mercenaries. Throw in some near-future sci-fi bad guys like those in Metal Gear Solid and some anti-war themes, and you’ve got yourself a ballgame.

C. NORMAN OSBORN

Norman Osborn became the Green Goblin out of desperation, heartbreak, and arrogance. How about “After his own company buys out his shares, leaving him destitute, he takes an experimental military formula, becoming a crazed killer seeking vengeance.” Considering Osborn’s Dark Avengers, leadership of SHIELD, and political influence, why not House of Cards, but with the Green Goblin? Maybe you’d slowly build up to him becoming the Green Goblin to terrorize his company/political rivals on an airplane, which would give credence to the mask and glider iconography.

D. THE SCARLET SPIDER

Few people remember the Clone Saga fondly. I do, but then, I grew up in the 90s. To bastardize the story, after fighting a clone of himself years ago, Spider-Man is shocked to discover that he’s actually the clone with highly convincing implanted memories. Unable to determine what’s real anymore or what purpose he has, he leaves New York to find meaning while his clone gallivants as Spider-Man. The clone’s name? Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider.

This could be the Inception or Orphan Black of these pitches. The Amazing Spider-Man might be a clone memory in the eyes of Ben Reilly as he embarks on a road trip of existential and metaphysical discovery (fudge the details a hair) while Kaine, his imperfect clone, hunts him down. In their conflict, both discover, to whatever extent, the meaning of life, or the very least their own existence. At the end, Ben Reilly might head back to New York to stop his creator, the Jackal, and protect Spider-Man, whose life must be in danger.

Y’know, like The Lost Years.

E. CARDIAC

A medical thriller about a “medical terrorist” who steals from medical and pharmaceutical companies to provide medical attention toward the impoverished. Think Michael Moore’s Sicko, but as an action movie.

F. KRAVEN THE HUNTER

Cover of one of the greatest comics ever.

A jungle adventure tale like in movie serials, except near the end, Kraven, a big game hunter and explorer, is corrupted by the influence of a jungle potion that gives him superhuman hunting abilities. Think Congo’s structure, but with a much cooler ending.

G. THE BLACK CAT

An insanely rich heiress rendered destitute by her father’s rivals plots a high-tech and elaborate heist to get her family’s money back… and carve up some revenge along the way.

H. MORLUN

An immortal vampire who can only survive by draining the life essence of people with animal-based super powers. Dracula for super heroes, complete with Dex, his version of Renfield. Frame this as Dex helping Morlun kill the supervillain who killed his parents. As he helps Morlun capture and kill super heroes over the years, his admiration turns to terror and self-loathing until Morlun turns his gaze to New York’s hero: Spider-Man.

I. IDENTITY CRISIS

Short version: After being framed for a crime, Spider-Man affected the personas of other Superheroes until he could clear his name. Exonerated, Spidey passed these costumes to other would-be heroes. Prodigy, a Superman-like hero; Hornet, a bug-themed Iron Man; Dusk, Batgirl but with a suit that can teleport between shadows; and Ricochet, an acrobat with a master of Chaos theory for ricocheting discs. Set this as a mid-low budget comedy about cosplayers who accidentally get real powers and have to defend against a major villain.

J. MORBIUS

A scientist at Oscorp creates the cure for leukemia, but is killed with his serum after refusing to exploit people with it. He becomes a “living vampire,” determined to continue his research while hunted by his former employers. A pacifist unless cornered, he only drinks the blood of criminals. Now you get to choose if it’s a Twilight vampire, an Interview with a Vampire vampire, or a 30 Days of Night vampire.

K. PETER’S PARENTS

Amazing Spider-Man eluded to a massive conspiracy surrounding Richard and Mary Parker, why not make a pharmaceutical thriller taking place before they dropped Peter off with Ben & May Parker, their escape, and their eventual murder at the hands of some roided-up Oscorp freak and what they do with their final moments?

L. STUNNER

A morbidly obese girl gets a brand new body, matrix-style, but despite her vigilantism, she finds that she’s just objectified in a different way and comes to respect herself for who she is. In essence, a deconstruction of the power fantasy of the male-gaze badass female character.

M. MILES MORALES

A teenager of Latino and African American heritage who becomes the new Spider-Man for the ULTIMATES continuity after Peter Parker is killed. This guy’s an EXTREMELY popular fan-favorite character. Perhaps his movie story is how to follow in the legacy of Spider-Man, and what that means for him and the city.

N. THE SINISTER SIX

You wondered why I didn’t mention this sooner, huh? To pull off the single greatest heist in history, a mastermind gathers a team of super-powered criminals from around the world/U.S., but not everybody’s playing by the same rules. Think The Usual Suspects meets The Avengers.

I could keep going. Seriously, I haven’t even mentioned the Prowler, Puma, the Enforcers, the Tarantula, Judas Traveler, or half a dozen other likely candidates.

As eluded, any of these movies could tell an elegant, character-driven story with enough genre elements to keep it rooted in the world of Amazing Spider-Man while leaving for sequels and crossovers. Each of these has natural, built-in themes, arcs, and action, not requiring anything more than a screenplay that knows exactly what it is.

8. This isn’t hard, Sony.

Sony has the brand; all they have to do is play with it a little bit. Most of these will get some internet play by the nerds like me who care, which is enough media attention for the studio to wave its arms going, “THIS IS A SPIDER-MAN TIE-IN!” which could draw in an appropriate-sized audience, if the studio played its cards right. Even more if they cater to niche audiences with uncommon genre films. Everything has a market, you just need to know how big and to whom to market.

Look at these numbers for Resident Evil, a Sony release. Over the entire franchise, they have budgets between 33 million and 60 million, which is enough for all the special effects they need, realistically, and they make gangbusters overseas. Low-budget horror is great for this. Check out The Devil Inside’s numbers. Bad movie, but it used a marketing strategy that worked for it, played extremely conservatively on its opening weekend and got the hell out of theaters before ill-will could spread. A lot of horror works on those kind of exploitative tactics.

These tactics work in the place of spending 200-250 million on production, another 40-50 million (or more) on marketing, and praying to God your movie makes bank at the box office and leaving it there until it does. Like ASM2. It’s making its money back, sure, and is, as of June 11, on the cusp of $700 million worldwide, but franchise fatigue is setting in and a bad script doesn’t help.

So why isn’t Sony making any of these movies with a budget appropriate to their material and with built-in connections to Spider-Man (seriously, look at these ideas. 90% of them could lead back to Spidey)? As mentioned earlier, Sony is in dire financial straits. They NEED a hit, a massive one, and they can’t rely on scrappy little budget genre movies, even with the vaguest name recognition. They need a massive hit, and they feel that they can only do that with a massive name with a massive budget with Marvel having a massive head start.

That’s like betting with a Full House when you know your opponent has a Royal Flush, and they remember how you played your last two hands.

To quote Jim Sterling, Sony doesn’t want some of the money, it needs all of the money.

Right now, it looks like the Amazing Spider-Man franchise might not be able to do that for them, at least insofar as they’d like. That’s ok, though.

Maybe Sonic the Hedgehog will get them out.