The latest entry in an ever-intensifying game of iterate-me-with-your-best-shot that goes back more than half a century, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has inspired some rather high-profile musing about the superhero genre’s lizard-like propensity for storytellular regrowth. No review worth its salt has failed to mention that this is the second Spider-Man origin film in ten years, and I’m not about to buck that trend; however, where many commentators have adduced this fact in order to decry (or merely denote) a sped-up, played-out tendency of today’s entertainment industry, I am more interested in it as another indicator of the superhero’s crucial position as a four-color harbinger (and now Hollywood hallmark) of pop postmodernity.
As any diehard comic book fan will tell you, this business of rapid-fire “rebooting” has deep roots – Marvel (with its ill-fated premature attempts to resuscitate the Submariner and “Commie Smasher” Captain America) and DC (with far more successful second kicks at the Flash and Green Lantern canons) have been doing this kind of thing since the mid-to-late 1950s. Back in those pioneer days of belatedness (just as, I would argue, in our own), this process had exactly the reverse of the stultifying effect that Dargis and Scott ascribe to it upon the segment of the population that took note of its processuality. As I’ve argued (at remarkably tedious length) elsewhere (and perhaps especially here), the situation helped to produce the ideal conditions for a kind of lecture engagée that had no real precedent in the annals of mass pastimery. Of course, in an age before the advent of specialty collector shops (to say nothing of exhaustively complete, easy-to-find, and even-easier-to-afford internet archives), the segment in question (call them a “collecting remnant”) was rather miniscule. However, as the saying sort of goes: mighty coteries from little dork nodes grow. Today’s popniscient public offers living proof of that.
Don’t let your price guides (do they still publish those?) fool you kids, THIS is the Golden Age of superheroes. That’s not a very startling statement, of course – no one is denying that these characters are more powerful than they’ve ever been before. And I will even confess to sharing some of A.O. Scott’s concerns when he notes that “the scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost.” There’s no question that, in making the leap from the subcultural trash heap to the mighty multiplex, these stories have sacrificed a great deal of their underdog-in-the-manger vitality. At least on the surface. But to let the matter rest there would be to overlook the genre’s most extraordinary power of all – i.e. its ability to unite readers/viewers from across the political/social spectrum (many of whom would never deign to speak to each other in any other context) in passionate group appraisal and debate of each beloved character’s continuously evolving historiographical trajectory. As a kid, what I fell in love with about superheroes, far more than any specific panel or page, was the interpretive scrum that I plunged into every time I poked my nose into a letters page – and today, as an adult, my engagement with them is even more heavily focalized through podcasts, forums, blogs and the like. These are the places I turn to (certainly far more than any of our hopelessly uninspiring North American political institutions) when my faith in the democratic project wanes. These supposedly ephemeral products of the “superstructure” (and the even less heralded glosses and “fanotations” they generate) constitute, for me, the embryonic, but very definitely beating, group heart of a truly intersubjective community-to-come. And, strangely enough, that oddly spastic organ is now being kept alive (while also, I will readily admit, “being played”) by “Big Hollywood”.
All of that was just a round-about way of saying: “yeah, I saw The Amazing Spider-Man tonight, and I check out just about every superhero movie they churn out”. (And also: “yeah, I think they’re culturally significant events.”) Not only because many of these films do present the characters as “avatars of reaction” (to quote Scott and Dargis – and, I must say, I think that label applies more completely to Christopher Nolan’s Bat-chise, which these NY Times people seem inexplicably to like, than to just about any other genre entry I can think of), but also precisely because their increasingly reliable release schedule furnishes critics and commentators (both paid and unpaid) with regular opportunities to make these kinds of statements.
So what did I think of The Amazing Spider-Man? Well, I liked it a lot! And probably, I must say, more than I would have liked it if I hadn’t seen all three of the Tobey Maguire spideys first. It’s not that hated those Sam Raimi-directed efforts (each one definitely contained many likable elements – from J.K. Simmons’ JJJ to the strange chocolate cake wielding girl next door to Topher Grace’s gleeful, pre-alien-possession church prayer for the death of Peter Parker), but, on the whole, I really disagreed with Raimi’s gothic, Danny Elfman-ridden take on Peter (and even more so with his inexplicably stodgy deflation of the unsinkable Mary Jane Watson, whom I grew to love during Gerry Conway’s 1970s run on the comic book). As some critics have noted, the genre-splicing of superheroics with the indie-romantic-comedy-coming-of-age-film serves Spider-Man much more effectively than Raimi’s desperately auteurish superhero/monster movie mash-up. (This is why I find Dargis’ contention – and she’s not alone, by any means – that Webb didn’t bring a sufficiently original approach to the material so baffling – this spider-film isn’t even the same genre as the 2002, 2004 and 2007 entries!)
Don’t think I strolled over to the theatre as a “friendly witness”. On the contrary, the trailers for the film, with all of their talk of Peter’s special “destiny”, had me quite worried. As my tweets will confirm, I was not prepared to look kindly upon any story that deviated from presenting the protagonist as a regular schnook, randomly empowered and correspondingly forced to rethink his “responsibilities”. Well, there was a deviation, and, to my surprise, Marc Webb managed to convince me that Peter Parker (in the comic books that I grew up with) never was a regular schnook. How could he be, with all of this web shooter inventin’, instant photojournalistin’ and Gwen-n’-MJ-lovin’ going on? Peter, as conceived by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gil Kane, Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, Roger Stern and many other notables, is a personality-plus kinda guy. Sure, he’s a little bit shy when we first meet him, but even then, as film critic/philosopher Stanley Cavell (after Ralph Waldo Emerson) would say, “he is fit to stand the gaze of millions… [he] carries the holiday in his eye.” In other words, he’s a romantic comedy protagonist (Cavell prefers the term “Hollywood comedy of remarriage”). I liked Raimi’s films best when he veered in this direction (i.e. near the end of Spider-Man 2). Sadly, he didn’t do it nearly enough, and, even when he did, the bizarre, tortured performances that he demanded from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (both of whom I have liked in other films) worked against that kind of lightheartedly serious effect.
With the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (who reinvents the historically rather tepid Gwen Stacy as a character to be reckoned with, while keeping the fetishistic nostalgia fiends in the audience at bay by dressing in the time-honoured accoutrements of her feeble four-color self), Marc Webb got it right. Sure, the Lizard is a somewhat less-than-captivating villain (especially since he’s deprived of his perennially perturbed wife and son Billy, from the comics). Who cares? Spider-Man was never about the villains. It was – and, in this one writer’s opinion, IS – about a gifted young man webswinging his way between humor, hormones, and heroism (just another name for moral responsibility) – and doing his damnedest to avoid posing next to American flags. Marc Webb got that right too.
What do you think?