Spider-Man: Is Hollywood Missing the Point?

If the Amazing Spider-Man franchise is going to move beyond its expected story beats, it needs to focus more on the characters.

This article contains major spoilers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Without question, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the most packed-to-the-gills vision of the Spider-Man legend ever put on screen. There are more villains, more iconic moments, and more hints and allegations about future friends and foes than we’ve ever seen, not not just in a Spider-Man movie, but possibly in any non-team superhero film. Spider-Man’s corner of the Marvel Universe is well-populated with some of the best villains and supporting cast members in all of comics, but in this film, as in earlier movies, sometimes what makes Spider-Man such a special, enduring character gets lost in the shuffle.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is deeply flawed, but chief among those flaws is a tendency to rush headlong through iconic moments in Spidey’s history, with little heed paid to why those moments are so crucial to the character and his history. That problem isn’t unique to this entry (although it does feature at least one of the most glaring examples of it), and it’s something that is likely to plague future installments of the franchise, as well. For years, fans were concerned about superhero films not being faithful enough to the source material. The Amazing Spider-Man franchise may be too faithful for its own good.

In any given telling of the Spider-Man legend, there are certain expectations that must be met. Peter Parker must be loveable but difficult, competent but fallible, and while he must be surrounded by nurturing, genuine friends (some of whom may be festering, lurking enemies waiting to happen) and family members, these relationships must, at all times, be made as complicated as possible by his life as Spider-Man. These are all things which made Spidey great in the first place, and helped set him apart from the other guys with stronger jawlines and better posture. 

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Those relationships, and the difficulty therein, are as important to the Spider-Man legend as his powers. Spider-Man’s supporting cast was initially established over years of serial storytelling, and while the Marvel Comics of the ‘60s and ‘70s allowed readers to get to know the characters, even those destined for bad ends (whether it’s villainy or death) first, before breaking our hearts. Because of the time constraints of film, this often isn’t possible, and a certain storytelling shorthand is both required and expected. Fair enough.

Essentially, what any Spider-Man movie should be doing (but most don’t) is introducing Peter Parker and friends to the audience as if we have never met them before. The first Spider-Man trilogy did a reasonable job of this with James Franco’s Harry Osborn, who, at least throughout the first film, gave the uninitiated little indication that his future held a descent into the same mental illness, obsession, and megalomania that claimed his father. Regardless of how you feel about Harry’s emergence as a villain Spider-Man 3, you can’t say that they rushed him.

When it comes to visual spectacle, putting Spider-Man into battle with some science-enhanced, animal-themed foe is easier than it’s ever been. Without giving the characters space to breathe and grow, these conflicts, many of which are fraught with personal ties and resentment, are rendered meaningless. The most important moments in Spider-Man’s history are rarely written in the details of his actual battles. Nobody cares about the comic book specifics of his first fight with Doctor Octopus (or the Lizard…or Electro). The defining moments of Spider-Man’s life, with very few exceptions, take place OFF the battlefield: the death of Uncle Ben, his first meeting with Mary Jane Watson, his personal, private triumph over the pre-Venom symbiote. The problem is, there are a finite number of these moments, and Hollywood seems more eager to put their stamp on them than on actually earning them.

To be certain, these are superhero movies, where subtlety is rarely rewarded or even expected. But the Spider-Man films in particular, perhaps because of the character’s pop culture ubiquity thanks to everything from Saturday morning cartoons to canned pasta (something which, until recently, one couldn’t say about Captain America, Thor, or Iron Man), seem willing to coast on audience expectations better than many of their contemporaries. But who, exactly, is the audience they’re catering to?

The previous Spider-Man franchise raked in a collective $2.5 billion worldwide, a number that so handily eclipses the combined sales of Spider-Man comics over the last decade or more that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Audiences come to a Spider-Man movie to see him do “whatever a spider can.” They aren’t buying their tickets to see careful adaptations of Steve Ditko or John Romita panels on the big screen. As long as the characters behave within established parameters and you don’t mess with Spidey’s costume too much, it’s unlikely that fans will complain.

Considering how few actual comics are sold compared to movie tickets, it’s safe to say that most ticket buyers have never read a Spider-Man comic, and likely developed a relationship with the character through previous films, animated series, or even video games. There’s nothing wrong with that, as Spidey is now considerably bigger than his comic book roots. But it does make some of the storytelling (and marketing) decisions in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a little harder to understand.

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When Gwen Stacy died in 1973’s The Amazing Spider-Man #121, these things simply weren’t done. The hero’s girlfriend always survived the latest encounter with the villain of the month, and then went about her business being generally oblivious to her boyfriend’s double life. For Gwen to die, not just as collateral damage in a battle between Peter and the Green Goblin, but potentially because of a miscalculation by Spider-Man himself, was absolutely unheard of. It was shocking.

To be fair, the moment of Gwen’s death on screen was as sudden and violent as it was in the comics. But Sony was so intent on teasing Gwen Stacy’s demise that they even released promotional images with Gwen wearing the exact same clothes from The Amazing Spider-Man #121. Who were they appealing to? A comparatively small portion of the audience that already knew Gwen was getting her ticket punched?

Gwen’s death should not only be the moment that once and for all sets this version of the franchise apart from Sam Raimi’s, it should be as devastating as it was to comic book readers in 1973. Instead, we saw Gwen’s final moments in nearly every trailer and TV spot, and finally in an endless slow-motion fall. Had the filmmakers allowed Gwen’s cinematic death to be as unexpected as it was in 1973, superhero movies would have their first bona fide tearjerker on their hands.

There are three potential solutions which present themselves. The first would involve moving Spider-Man out of the cinemas and into the realm of television, merchandising rights and special effects budgets be damned. Since this is only slightly less unlikely than Sony ever relinquishing their hold on the Spider-Man rights, it can be dismissed outright. But it’s difficult not to look at a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and see the influence of Spidey and his supporting cast echoing throughout those seven seasons and get a little wistful.

The other would be to get away from Peter Parker for a bit, and introduce Ultimate Spider-Man‘s Miles Morales, something which Andrew Garfield certainly seems agreeable to. Unfortunately, Avi Arad recently shot this prospect down. But if it’s always going to be Peter Parker under the mask, then eventually, the franchise is going to run out of “important moments” from the comics to depict.

More realistically, Sony could simply take the Iron Man approach and churn out Spider-Man films that, while faithful to the spirit and tone of the Spider-Man mythology, aren’t beholden to particular moments from the comics. People buy tickets to see Spider-Man. Spidey’s rogues’ gallery is endless, and even his secondary villains are better than Iron Man’s top flight guys. And, unlike Tony Stark or even Steve Rogers, the character of Peter Parker comes with a certain built-in charisma that doesn’t necessarily depart with his lead actor.

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Marvel’s most recent success story, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is a perfect example. While heavily influenced by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s comics, other than a similar cast of characters and the broad theme of Cap’s former partner returning as a villain, The Winter Soldier shared few actual story beats with its comic book counterpart. Instead, it operated firmly within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, shared enough superficial similarities with its source material to keep the hardcore fans happy, but allowed plenty of surprises both for new audiences and ardent Marvel historians. The argument could be made that it also had a considerably more well-established cinematic playground to tell its story in, but its most crucial moments (the revelation of Bucky’s return, the emergence of the Falcon as Cap’s new partner, the collapse of SHIELD) all felt earned within its running time. The same can’t be said of Harry Osborn’s transformation or Gwen’s death in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The secret of Marvel’s success might not be their shared universe (it sure as hell isn’t their villains), but rather their willingness to play with the formula. Just as Iron Man 3 felt more like a Shane Black action film than a superhero movie and Captain America 2 flirted with the spy genre, so could Sony release Spider-Man vs. Morbius the Living Vampire in October or a cyber-thriller pitting Spidey against the Smythe family and their robotic Spider-Slayers…and these movies would still print money. While there is little danger that the Spider-Man franchise is in danger of becoming anything less than immensely profitable, the cinematic Peter Parker seems doomed to be caught in a Groundhog Day of diminishing returns, forced to relive the best and worst moments of his life over and over again. Unless, of course, filmmakers stop trying to replicate particular moments from Spidey’s comic book history, and instead focus simply on making better films.

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