The Amazing Spider-Man: On The Webb Trilogy and Its Failures.

The Raimi Spider-Man films are genuinely some of my favorite films of the 21st century. Wonderfully executed, terminally idiosyncratic and endlessly endearing, those three movies (yes, I’m counting Spider-Man 3 […]

The Raimi Spider-Man films are genuinely some of my favorite films of the 21st century. Wonderfully executed, terminally idiosyncratic and endlessly endearing, those three movies (yes, I’m counting Spider-Man 3 here. I’ll get to that) manage to convey so much love for the idea of Peter Parker and his adventures, it’s easy to want to be Peter Parker; even if Tobey Maguire’s performance is often questionable.  But this is Raimi’s show through and through, and while it’s obviously a showcase of talents for many people (will James Franco ever be this charismatic again?) in the end, it’s about a very particular vision, filled with love and pride for that nerdy kid from Queens who was bitten by a radioactive spider, was confronted with tragedy and then decided that that tragedy should not define anyone in the same way it defined him.

On the other hand, The Amazing Spider-Man films by Marc Webb are…well, they’re competently shot and wonderfully acted (Emma Stone in particular stands out) but the scripts are the ultimate example of what happens when you go by Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat formula without any heart or thought. Every scene feels like it happens here because that’s what the beat sheet said rather than because it evolved naturally from the events we saw before. See Gwen and Peter at the Oxford admission office or Harry telling Peter about his disease in the second film or the first film’s forays into back story for the parents.

However, I want to clarify some things before I continue. My issues with the Webb trilogy (Yeah, I know, please bear with me) aren’t related to me being conservative about comics adaptations. In fact, unlike many other fans, I’m quite fine with The Amazing Spider-Man ditching the “with great power” quote. Heck, I don’t mind that Norman Osborn was never the Green Goblin. My issues are related to three things: the Webb Trilogy constantly feels like the epitome of what committee writing looks like, it does not commit to the idea of being a creative reboot and, perhaps more importantly, the films are pretty ethically questionable (if I were to be charitable)

For the sake of contrast, let’s look at Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. The game was hugely different back then. Before Marvel Studios had basically perfected the idea of superhero movies being created by a company, superhero movies were seen as hugely idiosyncratic films made by auteurs with geeky interests because of Burton’s success in the Batman franchise. While there were some successful exceptions to this, like Blade (not Blade II, curiously enough), the norm was clearly that these were playgrounds for directors and writers to showcase their unique style. As such, Columbia lined up the likes of David Fincher, James Cameron (who had already famously written a treatment for a Spider-Man movie), the aforementioned Tim Burton and many others as candidates.

But Raimi won out and his passion for Spider-Man is the reason that is often cited. And to be fair, even if that wasn’t true, you would be easily fooled by those movies. Full of earnest speeches, a sense of composition that constantly aims for comic dynamism and a general love for outright silliness (see: everything about Willem Dafoe’s wonderful Green Goblin, from the goofy mask to his line “Sorry I’m late. Work was murder”) that all mix up to create a heartfelt journey of self-improvement around Peter Parker that never condescends or lets Peter off the hook for his mistakes and flaws.

 

Willem Dafoe was doing Gollum way before Andy Serkis

Whereas the Amazing Spider-Man often commits to letting Peter off the hook. He never really learns to treat people better as we go along and there’s no reason for him to. Yes, he made a promise to Gwen’s father but it’s pretty clear by the beginning of TASM2 that they both had agreed to date and while feelings and opinions can change, the reason why they change (Peter is constantly seeing Dennis Leary everywhere. Which, to be fair, is also my nightmare) is contrived and not active enough to justify his change of mind. More than that, however, they still get back together just by sheer chemistry. Peter doesn’t redeem himself for not considering Gwen’s feelings or ignoring their previous resolution. They just get back together, act cute together and then they make out. Rinse and repeat until Peter and Gwen are on top of a New York Landmark and Peter basically condemns Gwen to die by telling her he’d go to London with her.  That might be a bit harsh and of course, it’s not really Peter’s fault, but such a transparent attempt to raise the stakes makes a decision that should be heartfelt and romantic feel like, well, what it actually is: a death sentence.

Gwen’s death is probably the budding film franchise at its weakest. I may be speaking personally because I wish that for once, just for once, when a female character was given agency, it wasn’t just to get her on the battlefield so that she could raise the emotional stakes for our hero or, you know, to die. And I also wish more female civilian characters realized the trappings of the genre and that the superhero battlefield is not for civilians in the first place. There’s no real reason for Gwen to be there when Peter fights Electro. And this doesn’t get into the problem with the way Gwen is written in general, where it feels like she is constantly not making decisions unless they revolve around Peter. For example, see the Oxford arc, which is mostly unseen until it is relevant to Peter’s own tribulations. Obviously she does have some agency in the plot, but it’s mostly as eyes and ears to Peter’s hands. An exposition device, if you will. Admittedly, both characters are easy to like and it’s because Garfield and Stone have genuine chemistry with each other, but most of the time, their relationship feels toxic and harmful in an unintended way. It isn’t just the tried and true dynamic of “we can’t be together because of my enemies”. It’s the fact that Peter constantly imposes his will and feelings on others and the fact that Gwen’s agency and choices are often related to Peter to an alarming degree (e.g: her decision to leave for London is entirely based on her trying to move past her relationship with Peter)

 

The other big problem that has plagued the films in their two installments is their indecision between new and old. While the script is clearly aiming for a completely new story that doesn’t have a lot in common with the comics, the stylistic choices, from the cinematography to the structure of the films themselves often falls right into Raimi homage in a way that feels like playing it safe rather than remembering the past. This can be seen in scenes like “New York believes in Spider-Man” that both films have in their third act in order to effectively crown Garfield and Maguire as Spider-Man and “New Yorkians give their opinions on Spider-Man”. The wobbly commitment between renovating and sticking to the established is probably what robs these movies from the joys that defined the Raimi movies. As overstuffed as Raimi’s third Spider-Man movie, it still was definitely a Raimi movie, filled with the same flair for silliness and drama that actually managed to be genuinely and emotionally powerful in its climax, were it not for the rather obvious retcon regarding Uncle Ben’s murder. None of the Amazing movies so far can claim such a thing because of their deliberate presentation as lower-key affairs, which would be fine if it committed to being low-key but by the end of the first one you have Rhys Ifans releasing lizards all over NYC.

Webb’s movies don’t feel like they were directed by the man who gave us 500 Days of Summer outside of the chemistry between its two leads. Webb’s movies feel bland and as if they were written by a committee of men whose entire mission is to build a franchise around these movies. Which, well, is what it is, of course, but it should not feel like that. The Marvel movies fit that description to a T but they feel like genuinely powerful and unique stories in and of themselves. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 just feels like a bunch of post-credits teasers stitched together to get you excited for The Amazing Spider-Man 3, the Sinister Six movie and the Unnamed Female-Led Spider-Man film.

Last but not least, Peter Parker’s actions outside the mask color an ethically and morally stunted manchild who can’t accept the idea of a world where people don’t hate him, so he constantly lashes out at people and isolates himself from them. This would be fine (Hell, it would be my kind of story, even) if it was acknowledged and intentional. But it’s not and you can tell because nobody ever brings up how he, say, beats up Flash Thompson for actually coming up to him and giving him condolences after the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben. While I don’t mind that the movies have decided to ditch the Great Power quote, I do mind that they have forgotten what that quote is about and constantly let Peter be an emotionally irresponsible person to everyone around him without consequence.

The exact frame where I realized these movies weren’t for me.

I genuinely love Peter Parker. He’s probably my favorite cinematic character of the last decade or so and that doesn’t take into account that the source material and Stan Lee’s original run is nothing short of phenomenal (and my personal candidate for the Great American Novel, alongside Teju Cole’s Open City) so that means that I have high demands for stories that feature him. I do believe that Peter can be flawed, irresponsible, cruel and outright selfish. But the higher point is that Peter is soulful enough to understand (eventually) when he’s being those things and actively goes out of his way to solve them, which is why it’s so easy to get invested in his happiness and the happiness of the people around him, who constantly sacrifice themselves for Peter’s sake. Marc Webb’s movies constantly fail to account for any of this.