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Posts Tagged ‘Spider-Man’

I will not inflict upon you the heavily-vowelled utterance a friend of mine could not contain when he learned that the fourth Marvel superhero movie in five months was about to come amongst us; use your imaginations. Normally he and I are in different camps when it comes to this sort of thing – he would quite happily see the whole genre consigned to the waste-basket of history, whereas I, on the other hand, cheerfully organised the schedule of a recent trip to New York City so we could see Captain Marvel there on opening night. Nevertheless, I was more sympathetic than usual on this occasion – Avengers: Endgame was such a monumental piece of work, carrying such a significant emotional charge, that a lengthy pause in Marvel Studios’ operations in its aftermath would have felt logical and entirely appropriate. Knocking out another Spider-Man sequel to meet a contractual obligation… well, it almost feels like it’s too soon, doesn’t it?

Certainly the opening sequences of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home give the impression this movie has been slipped an almighty hospital pass, for it is almost obliged to try and make sense of the rather confused state of the Marvel movie universe in the wake of Endgame. Half the world was dead for five years, before returning to existence not having aged a day – the film is obliged to acknowledge this, but also has sound dramatic reasons for wanting to handwave it away as quickly as possible and get on with telling a story set in a recognisable version of a world resembling our own. It’s a tricky conundrum the film never really manages to get to grips with, and the way it still seems to feel the need to stress its continuity with the non-Sony Marvel movies doesn’t help much – there are endless references to the other films, much more than you find in any of the ‘real’ Marvel Studios productions.

Still, once the plot gets properly going the film makes an impressive recovery from this dodgy opening section. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his peers are all off on a tour of photogenic European capitals; Peter is hoping for a break from being Spider-Man and a chance to get a bit closer to the girl he likes, MJ (Zendaya Coleman). However, the various antics of Peter and his peers take a bit of a back-seat when the Grand Canal in Venice unexpectedly takes on semi-human form and becomes rather aggressive to everyone around it. A mighty tussle ensues, with the belligerent landmark on one side, and Spider-Man and an enigmatic new superhero on the other. Everyone is impressed with the new guy – ‘He’s kicking that water’s ass!’ cries one onlooker – who is soon christened Mysterio and turns out to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) turns up to make the formal introductions. It turns out Mysterio hails from another dimension where Earth has been devastated by hostile elemental beings. Now these creatures are coming to Earth, and Fury wants Spider-Man – anointed, it would seem, as the chosen successor to Iron Man as the world’s foremost protector – to partner up with Mysterio and stop the elementals from trashing this planet too. It’s a big responsibility for a young man feeling the loss of his mentor, to say nothing of the disruption this could cause to Peter’s school trip…

As mentioned, it seems like the Sony-funded MCU movies really do go out of their way to tie themselves into the wider continuity of the series, and on this occasion that proves to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Like I said, it does force the film to address the odd state of affairs pertaining after Endgame, which was always going to be tricky, and I imagine the film’s repeated use of Robert Downey Jr’s image will ultimately prove a bit exasperating for viewers who get the message quite early on, thank you. On the other hand, this is hardly happening frivolously: the events of Endgame are crucial to the plot, and the film builds intelligently on them to provide motivation for the various characters.

Nevertheless, this is still obviously a Spider-Man film rather than an addendum to the Avengers series, for all that the European setting is a bit unusual for this particular character. Now, you may well be thinking that Spider-Man teaming up with a new superhero to fight monsters from another dimension is a bit of a departure plot-wise too – well, all I can reasonably say on this topic is that you certainly have a point. That said, the plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home is quite a clever one, making some amusingly jaded observations on the ubiquity of superheroes these days and how silly the plots of some of these films have become. It also reinterprets material from the original comics in a convincing and imaginative way. The only problem is that it is very easy to guess which way the story is going, even if you’re only passingly familiar with the characters involved.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here: this is as much of a quirky comedy film as Homecoming was, and Samuel L Jackson throws himself into the funny lines and comic situations whole-heartedly. The film’s star turn performance-wise, however, is Jake Gyllenhaal, who makes the most of a part which really allows him to show his range as an actor. About fifteen years ago, Gyllenhaal was in the frame to replace Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man himself when Maguire’s bad back threatened to force him to withdraw from Spider-Man 2 – he was also apparently on the list of people considered for the part of Venom in Spider-Man 3. It’s gratifying to see that his arrival in the series (finally) is such an impressive one.

(And if we’re talking about the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, how’s about this for a genuine visitor from another plane of the multiverse – Far From Home includes a cameo from JK Simmons, reprising his role as J Jonah Jameson from those films. Very nice to see him back, of course, and one wonders about the extent to which this opens the door for other stars of non-MCU Marvel movies to cross over into this series. Let’s have Alfred Molina back as Doctor Octopus, for a start, and Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider, and how about Wesley Snipes as Blade? Apparently Snipes and Marvel have had meetings…)

Once the film gets going, it is pacey and consistently amusing, even if it is also knowingly absurd in a number of places. The special effects are as good as you’d expect, and the film concludes with the best set-piece sequence around Tower Bridge from any fantasy film since Gorgo. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the greatest Spider-Man film ever, and it would be foolish to try and deconstruct it in the hope of deciphering what Marvel will be up to next (for the first time in years, they’ve released a movie without revealing what the next one is going to be), but this is still a fun, clever, and solidly entertaining blockbuster.

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…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project – there has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that to cast one actor as Spider-Man is a sound commercial decision, to cast a second might be seen as a little questionable, but to give three people the part in the space of only about fifteen years is arguably labouring the issue. And yet here we are, with another ingenue web-slinger in the form of Tom Holland, starring in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yup, it’s yet another comic-book movie, but try to keep your fatigue at bay, for this one has a number of points of interest.

The Spider-Man rights are considered to be such a sure-fire guarantee to make money that the $709 million made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 was somehow decided to be a bit of a disappointment. Holder of said rights, Sony, decreed that better must be done, and – in a move that brought wild excitement to many people who should arguably be old enough to know better – re-opened negotiations with Marvel, publisher of the Spider-Man comics and producer of their own series of wildly popular movies. Basically, the deal they cooked up is as follows – Marvel Studios are now making Spider-Man films for Sony, which Sony is financing and distributing. In return for this, and of course various hefty fees, Marvel now get to insert Spider-Man into their own movies, which is indeed what happened with his extended cameo in Civil War last year.

The new movie recaps Spider-Man’s trip to Berlin and shenanigans with the quarrelling Avengers, before moving on to pastures new. Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker (Holland) is still very young and keen to impress his mentor in all things superheroic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) – he chafes against Stark’s insistence that he take things easy and go slow and careful for a while. In short, he is in a big hurry to grow up.

However, staying low to the ground, as it were, brings Spider-Man into contact with someone else very keen to stay off the radar of Iron Man and the other Avengers – Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage engineer put out of business by Stark and the government, who has taken to scavenging alien materials and other miracle technology and using it to build high-technology super-weapons which he sells on to anyone who has the cash. Toomes has also built himself a set of jet-powered antigravity wings, because, hey, you’ve got to have a gimmick, I guess.

So, if going to your typical American high school, complete with stressful social rituals and ceremonies, wasn’t demanding enough, and trying to meet the exacting standards of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist didn’t make life totally unbearable, Spider-Man now finds himself forced to contend with the winged menace of this high-tech vulture. What’s a boy to do?

I have to confess I was less than overwhelmed with joy when the news of the Sony-Marvel deal came through – all right, it’s nice to have a version of Spider-Man in the MCU (the shared continuity of the other Marvel Studios films since 2008), but we have had some very good Spider-Man films already in the not too distant past, while there’s still no sign of a decent take on the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom. Or what about another solo Hulk movie? Or Devil Dinosaur: the Movie? That said, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a top piece of entertainment, certainly outclassing the Marc Webb movies, and perhaps rivalling the standards of the best of the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire films from a decade and more ago.

The at-a-slight-remove conditions under which the Marvel Studios people are working seem to have paid off, for while this film has a distinctly different look and feel to it, compared to the likes of Doctor Strange and the Avengers movies, this is by no means a bad thing – it has a lightness of touch and sweetness that is totally disarming. Much of it is written and played as pure comedy, and it is consistently very funny indeed, in a disarmingly oddball way.

I was a bit dubious about the fact the film is called Homecoming, mainly because it seemed like it was only there as a crashingly unsubtle way of emphasising the fact that Spider-Man is now back in the MCU along with all the other characters, which at times seemed like the movie’s sole raison d’etre. This shared continuity is rammed down your throat at very regular intervals in the course of proceedings: the very first shot is a picture of the Avengers. The first scene takes place in the shadow of Avengers Tower, and is set shortly after the climactic battle from the first Avengers movie. Scenes from Civil War are restaged, Downey Jr appears in both his Stark and Iron Man guises, Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films, Chris Evans cameos as Captain America, and another star gets an outrageous fourth billing considering they’re only in the movie for about two minutes. Marvel’s own movies take much less of a broad-brush approach to this sort of thing, but in the end it does kind of work, because a lot of the in-jokes and mickey-taking of the other films is spot on (this extends to some witty choices of voice casting and a brutally funny joke at the expense of the Cult of the Post-Credits Sequence).

One slightly ironic thing about this film that no-one has much commented on is the fact that Michael Keaton’s status as a ‘hot’ actor is largely down to his role in Birdman. Birdman was a film which gave its own sardonic commentary on the phenomenon of serious actors spending all their time in superhero movies, and yet Keaton has used it to get himself to this position, as a serious actor in a superhero movie – and, what’s more, playing the Vulture: someone who is, of course, essentially a… oh, work it out for yourselves.

All that to one side, Keaton is the film’s star turn when it comes to acting performances (although this is a notably well-played film throughout). We are quite a long way down from the pick of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, and the Vulture suit in this movie is a rather unwieldy piece of design, but Keaton manages to create that rarest of things – not just a great villain in an MCU movie, but a blue-collar supervillain is who both a plausible character and genuinely menacing. You really wish Keaton was in the movie much more – also that the MCU people start to create characters with this sort of presence and depth for their own movies.

I would say that the climax of the movie is arguably a little weak, but in every other respect Homecoming gets the mixture of comedy, pathos, and exhilarating action you’d expect from a Spider-Man film pretty much spot on, with the film’s insertion into the wider Marvel universe a real bonus too. How many movies in a row now, without a serious misstep from Marvel Studios? You would have to be a very brave person to bet on their hot streak ending any time soon.

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Which weighs more, a ton of oranges or a ton of feathers? It’s a trick question, of course: they are, in one respect at least, equal. But not identical: I know which one I’d prefer to nibble on – and which one I’d choose to nap upon, for that matter. I think this distinction between the ideas of identity and equality is an important one, too often overlooked.

This has been brought to mind by, of all things, the fall-out from the Sony hacking scandal, one of the consequences of which has been Sony relinquishing its death grip on the Spider-Man movie rights license and agreeing upon a sort of time-share agreement with the people at Marvel Studios itself. And one of the consequences of this looks like being the sacking of Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man’s on-screen embodiment, with open season being declared on recasting the character.

The internet has reacted to all of this with its usual restraint and objectivity. (Apologies, by the way, to any of the friends who’ve already seen me articulating some of the impending opinions in a different venue, and indeed to anyone who feels I misrepresent views which I disagree with.) One of the issues is – I am tempted to say ‘inevitably’ – that of diversity, and the possibility of casting a non-Caucasian performer as Spider-Man’s alter ego.

bwspidey

There is a wrinkle here. The casual movie-goer may be very aware of Spider-Man’s best known secret identity, Peter Parker, who has been a fairly middle-class straight white dude since 1962 – said movie-goer may indeed be sick to death of him, given there have been five Spider-Man movies since 2002. Rather less familiar, however, may be Miles Morales, a parallel-universe version of Spider-Man who’s been around since 2011. The key difference is that Morales is, ethnically speaking, black-Hispanic.

So it’s not just a question of whether the new Spidey should be white or not, but whether they go with the Parker or Morales character. There are, I would say, sound reasons for going with both versions: Peter Parker is almost as famous a character as Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, with the kind of audience investment that goes with this. On the other hand, using Miles Morales could spare us yet another instance of Uncle Ben taking a bullet, in addition to inevitably garnering some publicity for the change of character, and, yes, increasing diversity in the on-screen superhero community.

(I should say I am generally pro-diversity, but not militantly or dogmatically so, quite simply because I am dubious about using mainstream entertainment as an instrument of top-down cultural engineering.)

Having found the Webb-Garfield Spidey films rather dull, certainly compared to the Raimi-Maguire ones from ten years ago, I’d personally be more interested in seeing a Miles Morales Spider-Man film than yet another incarnation of Peter Parker. But I wouldn’t be surprised if famously-cautious movie moguls opted to go with Parker again.

What does bemuse me a bit are suggestions that they go with Peter Parker again but change his ethnicity. This might make a bit more sense if Miles Morales didn’t exist as a popular alternative version of the character, but given a diversity-friendly alternate exists, why make fundamental changes to a 50-year-old and much-loved character? I can’t figure it out.

It’s not as if the movie is going to be called Peter Parker, after all: the name with marquee value is Spider-Man. There’s no reason why people wouldn’t go to see a Miles Morales movie that wouldn’t equally apply to one with an ethnically-transformed Peter Parker. If people aren’t going to go and watch a movie with a black superhero, it doesn’t make any difference what his civilian name is, and if they’re only going to see a movie featuring the Spider-Man they grew up reading, then they’re not going to go and see one with a black Peter Parker because the comics character has a five decade history of being white.

‘Peter Parker is not fundamentally white’ runs the counter-argument here, but I am not even completely sure what this is supposed to mean. It reminded me of a similar discussion – possibly I am gilding the lily here, because at the time it felt like an argument – about whether a particular character had any ‘essentially male traits’. The suggestion in both cases seems to be that being white, or being male, is not a trait – is meaningless in and of itself, and contributes nothing to a person’s essential identity.

If you discard things like gender, race, orientation, and so on, I wonder what is left as a basis of personal identity: memories and experiences, I suppose, but aren’t those fundamentally informed by all the elements I just mentioned? These things are not just cosmetic labels you can pull off and move around without it impacting every aspect of an individual – I said as much when articulating my misgivings about DC’s decision to make a character with seven decades of history as a straight guy suddenly gay. Changing any of these things basically means you’re creating a new version of the character, if you ask me, and to claim otherwise is a bit silly.

Championing the idea of a non-white Peter Parker seems to me to be an attempt at having your cake and eating it: you want to hang on to the name recognition and audience investment that a character has accumulated over decades of publishing history, while simultaneously making fundamental changes to that character in the name of diversity. It completely disregards the fact that characters as popular as Peter Parker have lasted so long precisely because people have invested so much in them: dedicated fans of Spider-Man, which I will freely confess to not being among, really care about Peter Parker, and think of him almost as a real person, complaining when he’s presented inconsistently, and so on. The one thing guaranteed to annoy this kind of fanbase is to make arbitrary, glaring changes.

It almost feels as though there is some kind of secondary agenda at work, one which is trying to suggest that notions of race, gender, and orientation are not just equal but actually meaningless, in the sense of expressing any real difference. I don’t see any problem with accepting that people of different ethnicities or genders or orientations are fundamentally of equal value as human beings. I believe that myself; you would be some kind of medievalist not to, I think. But that doesn’t mean there are not deep and fundamental differences between men and women, or between the cultural histories of different ethnic groups. Equivalency does not equate to identity.

I can’t help but see a parallel with another issue which has caused me some vexation and indeed heartache recently. Not long ago the BBC broadcast a series called Atlantis, about the adventures of a straight white guy. This was the replacement for a series called Merlin, about the adventures of a straight white guy. This in turn followed Robin Hood, about the adventures of a straight white guy. Now, there are arguably sound reasons for making Robin Hood a straight white guy, and also to some extent Merlin the wizard. But the main character in Atlantis was an original creation, and the BBC had a blank slate to do whatever they liked. Did they get any stick at all for not being even a tiny bit more adventurous? Not that I ever noticed.

Yet the voices clamouring for a more diverse recasting in Doctor Who are sort of relentless, once again despite the long history of the character operating in certain terms and the accumulated weight of fifty years of unequivocal masculinity. The demand is once again for absolute continuity and fundamental change at one and the same moment.

Just as the militant pro-diversity movement seems much more interested in interfering with the Doctor’s identity than in persuading the BBC to lead a less high-profile fantasy show with a non-white or non-male character, so there seems to be rather less interest in using the already-existing, diversity-friendly Miles Morales character than in bringing about arbitrary change in the much better-known Peter Parker. And I can’t help but wonder why. You want a non-white Spider-Man? Use the non-white Spider-Man who’s been appearing in books for years. Insisting on turning an established white character black when a viable alternative exists only suggests that this isn’t simply just about diversity.

 

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When is a Marvel movie not a Marvel movie? When it isn’t made by Marvel Studios itself, but by someone else who bought the rights to one of the company’s characters many years ago. It has been wisely observed that one of the things that makes Marvel Studios’ achievement in building up its world-conquering franchise-of-franchises so remarkable is that it has done so without access to Marvel Comics’ most popular characters – 20th Century Fox have the film rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, while Sony owns Spider-Man (for some reason Universal have hung on to Sub-Mariner and Lionsgate to Man-Thing despite neither seeming particularly keen to make a film about them). Marvel have built their empire with characters who are, comparatively, second-stringers.

This achievement has not gone unnoticed by the people who do own the rights to Marvel’s big-hitters, and it appears to be affecting how they make their own movies. You would have thought another decently-made instalment in the Spider-Man franchise would essentially be a licence to print money anyway, and this is basically what Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is.

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The sequel finds Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) juggling his self-appointed responsibilities as Spider-Man with his relationship with winsome girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone). He is constantly aware of the danger he may be putting her in, having already got her dad killed in the first film. He is also still trying to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance.

More pressing issues arise when a much put-upon and overlooked electrician (Jamie Foxx) suffers a freak accident and is reborn as vengeful glob of sparky evil Electro, while the death of dubious tycoon Norman Osborn leads his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) inheriting the company. Harry also learns that this isn’t all he’s inherited from his dad: he has a terminal genetic condition, but it transpires that – would you believe it!?! – the blood of Spider-Man could provide a possible cure…

As you can probably see there is a lot going on in this film: possibly even a bit too much. Then again, one of the distinctive things about Webb’s take on Spider-Man is just how many things are turned up to eleven – the colours are brighter, the CGI more elaborate, the emotional content more overwrought, the plot more crowded. Just about the only thing that gets soft-pedalled is the humour and quirkiness, but – as with the first film – I suspect this is more born from a need to be different from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy than anything else.

That seems to be slightly less of a concern this time around. While the appearance of Electro might indicate this run of films is intent on excavating the lower reaches of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, the movie also includes a new version of the Green Goblin. They still shy away from creating their own version of J Jonah Jameson, though. And there’s an extent to which they’re on a hiding to nothing with this approach, anyway: you can’t properly do Spider-Man on film without including plotlines about his difficult lovelife, so this film inevitably recalls the Raimi ones in that respect.

On the whole it is a fun and entertaining package: what it lacks in narrative focus it makes up for in colour and incident. Garfield and Stone are engaging leads, even if I didn’t find their scenes together to be as irresistibly cute as the director clearly did. The pathos of the Electro character is a bit undermined by Foxx’s tendency to go OTT, plus the character’s origin (he is basically savaged by a shoal of electric eels) – well, it’s possibly not the silliest origin story in the history of superhero movies, but it’s definitely high on the list. Dane DeHaan (possibly cast on the strength of his performance as a supervillain-in-the-making in Chronicle) is really much better as the new Goblin.

While we’re on the subject of villains, do not be fooled by the prominence of the Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti) in the publicity: he’s barely in it. His presence is part of the only element of the film which felt to me like a real misstep: an elaborate and drawn-out coda to the main action which is mainly there to set up not just the next Spider-Man movie, but also a Sinister Six spin-off. (There are not-very-subtle indications that other projects headlining Venom and the Black Cat may also be in the producers’ minds.)

It’s very hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to replicate the success of Marvel Studios’ model of putting out at least one film a year, but whether they can do so from such a narrow base remains to be seen: especially if, as is apparently the case, on-screen crossovers with the Fantastic Four have been ruled out. This kind of film has always been made with one eye on potential sequels – but now it seems that building a franchise is starting to take priority over the quality of the actual film. That’s something that the producers of the Spider-Man series might want to bear in mind in future – for the time being, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an entertaining film that ticks all the boxes for this particular character – it’s just a little too preoccupied with Spider-Man films of the past and future to really be something special itself.

 

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I suppose it says something about this year’s blockbusters, not to mention the quantity of associated hype, when a new Spider-Man movie has been on the schedule for ages but – until recently – has received relatively little attention. There’s a sense in which it’s been squeezed out by the massive buzz surrounding both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (expectations of which are reaching ominously Prometheus-esque levels). This is a shame because Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has much to commend it.

The life of brainy teenager Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has been shaped by the death of his parents in mysterious circumstances when he was but a lad. Awkward and lonely, the chance discovery of some of his scientist father’s old papers changes his life, for they contain a (hmmm) secret formula which is the secret to trans-species genetic modification. His father’s old friend and unidextrous authority on genetic engineering and reptiles – must have been an interesting degree course – Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is still working on this and while visiting Connors’ lab Peter is bitten by a genetically-modified spider.

Weird things start happening to Peter. He becomes much stronger and more agile, starts sticking to walls, and finds himself completely unable to climb out of the bathtub unassisted (Don’t Write In Dept.: I know I used that gag writing about the first movie – if they start making original films, I’ll start writing original jokes). In an attempt to discover the reason for this, Peter passes the secret formula on to Connors, who – being a scientist in a Marvel movie – sees nothing untoward in using it to inject himself with lizard DNA in the hope his arm will grow back. Unfortunate events ensue.

If we were living in a parallel world where this was the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie ever made, I imagine The Amazing Spider-Man would have received very positive reviews, for it is undeniably an accomplished piece of movie-making. But I also suspect some critics well-versed in the lore of the comic would be nonplussed by the decision to use the Lizard as the main villain, not to mention the omission of key characters such as Mary-Jane Watson and J Jonah Jameson, and finally the decision to generally fiddle about with the Spider-Man origin story.

But, of course, this is not the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie (The Amazing Spider-Man was once set to be the title of what eventually appeared as Spider-Man 2). Sam Raimi made that, not very long ago at all. There are spiders and lizards and critters of all kinds in this film, but there’s also an elephant in the room, and that elephant is Raimi’s Spider-Man – as close to a perfect retelling of the classic Spider-Man origin as we’re likely to see. This film is effectively Spidey Begins – an attempt at a from-scratch reboot, but one unable to use one of the classic villains. (I believe the Lizard was one of the villains set to appear in Raimi’s abandoned Spider-Man 4.)

Webb’s movie has a much harder job to do than Batman Begins, in that the Raimi movies were made not that long ago and were, on the whole, considerably better than the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies. Setting out to do something tonally and narratively different, which was clearly part of the brief here, therefore involves intentionally moving away from something which was generally very good in the first place.

If we’re going to compare Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t, it’s fascinating to see how two films which visually look very similar can actually feel totally different as viewing experiences. The most obvious thing about Amazing Spider-Man is that it plays the story a lot straighter than Raimi did, with much less comedy and weirdness. Which you prefer is really a matter of taste, but personally I think Raimi’s approach was slighty more to my liking.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy in Amazing Spider-Man. The performances, from a strong cast including Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary and Sally Field, are uniformly very good. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker as less outwardly nerdy and more gauche and awkward than Tobey Maguire, but pulls this off very well and is – perhaps – better than Maguire at doing Spider-Man’s wise-cracking-through-the-fights schtick. The effects work and action choreography are also top notch.

I wasn’t so wild about the mystery-of-Spidey’s-parents plotline, an element which the now-obligatory mid-closing-credits tag scene promises will continue in any future sequels. It’s also a real shame that the only thing that Emma Stone is given to contribute to the film is a selection of short skirts and boots (and, given she’s playing Gwen Stacy, one wonders if she’s signed up for the same number of sequels as the other main actors). The romance in this film feels mawkish and syrupy rather than charming and it feels as if the whole thing grinds to a halt every time it goes into this mode – I felt like throwing things at the screen every time the ‘romance’ theme started playing. (James Horner’s score suffers from the lack of a strong theme for Spider-Man himself.) And a small quibble – Spider-Man’s habit of taking his mask off in public at regular intervals also makes the idea of his identity staying secret rather implausible!

It’s surely arguable that we really didn’t need another film telling the origins of Spider-Man only ten years after the last one – although I suppose a lot of the kids enjoying the screening I attended weren’t even born back in 2002 – but given that we have to have one, The Amazing Spider-Man does about as good a job as one could imagine, and, in all honesty, a much better one than I was expecting. Hopefully with the sequel Webb and associates can do something with much more of its own identity to it; I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

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