Tag Archives: Spider-Man

Haven’t We Heard This Before?

Spider-Man’s a superhero whose central theme is conveniently spelled out for us: with great power comes great responsibility. And it’s a great one too. A nobody gets given amazing powers and has to learn what to do with them. It’s a pretty essential part of most incarnations of Spider-Man, be it Miles Morales or even more recently when it’s Gwen Stacy that gets bitten by the radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Woman. It’s always that balance of power and knowing what to do with it.

When there comes time for a cinematic Spider-Man that’s the theme of the (two) hour(s). In Sam Raimi’s original film, Peter Parker’s irresponsibility is what gets Uncle Ben killed, and his acceptance of his responsibility leads to him fighting Green Goblin. The conflict of the second Spider-Man is him giving up the mask, only to take it back up because he’s the only one who can stop Doc Ock. In Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man we see Uncle Ben die (again), providing the impetus for Peter to use his powers to stop crime. Powers, responsibility, and Peter Parker reluctantly being the hero.

So Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have its theme waiting for it: responsibility and all that (most likely through the death of Uncle Ben). Except Peter is already Spider-Man. And Uncle Ben is already dead. And Peter really likes being Spider-Man.

Right here this sets up a different sort of superhero narrative. The usual internal conflict for a superhero is their unwillingness to do the heroing (and so the climax is them deciding to hero). Tony Stark becomes Iron Man out of a sense of guilty responsibility, not for the fun of it. Thor’s a self-serving blowhard who learns humility. Batman operates out of a just vengeance. Spider-Man usually Spider-Mans out of a sense of responsibility. But this Spider-Man really likes crimefighting; he gets a thrill out of the heroics. In fact, he wants more: he wants to be an Avenger. Like Iron Man.

It’s hard to give an eager hero internal obstacles. Tony Stark is hung up on guilt and the idea that he has to do it alone which makes things difficult for him. The Guardians have to overcome their infighting and greed to fight Ronan. Even Captain America questions if it’s worth it. But Homecoming‘s Peter is go-go-go. He’s got the power, and he’s fighting crime with it. Where’s the classic Spider-Man theme?*

Here’s part of Homecoming‘s genius. Responsibility in this movie doesn’t just mean crimefighting and heroing, it’s the reason for doing so. Peter, in the aftermath of taking part in Civil War‘s airport battle, wants to be an Avenger. He wants in on the big leagues. He bugs Happy Hogan to tell Tony about what he’s doing and he chases the Vulture because this is his chance to make it big.

The film’s climax, and Peter’s self-actualization, comes when Peter decides to hero not for the glory or to impress Tony, but instead to save the day. It may not sound like a huge difference, but, without spoiling anything, the film makes the distinction clear. It’s when Peter heroes for the greater good and not for himself, that he becomes a real hero. Spider-Man Homecoming is still a movie where Spider-Man learns a lesson in responsibility, it just plays out differently than usual.

We’ve had enough versions of Spider-Man over the past fifteen-odd years for the idea of a new Spider-Man to be met with a hint of tiredness. Here we go again, Spider-Man has to learn how to Spider-Man and responsibility. And Homecoming is about that, but it handles it in a much different manner than prior renditions. You don’t need an edgy and avant garde narrative with brand new everythings to tell a new story. Sometimes just digging into your core theme is enough. I think that’s why Homecoming is able to be quintessentially Spider-Man while still feeling incredibly refreshing. Jon Watts and the team didn’t feel the need to completely reinvent Spider-Man, rather they explored the story a bit more and found something new.

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Not Another Peter Parker

I’ve had a relatively busy couple weeks, which means less time to see movies and play new games, so more yammering on about recent events (either that or wax on about Agent Carter again, but I’m waiting on that one.

So let’s talk about new news, comic book news. Namely, Spider-Man’s going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to standing alone. Which is cool, because we’ll finally get to see Spidey swinging on the big screen while Iron Man and Cap stare disapprovingly. But then, a new Peter Parker’s being cast, thereby throwing out Andrew Garfield and giving us what’ll be the third live-action Peter Parker in barely twenty years. In other words, we’ve got ourselves another Spider-Man reboot.

Another!?

I really enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire. He struck me as feeling more like a teenager, felt a bit more true to my idea of Pete. Then there’s the question as to why we even need a reboot in the first place. The original Amazing Spider-Man would have worked in fairly neatly with the MCU, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though a narrative train-wreck, hit a key moment of the Spidey mythos that could really deepen future installments. But fine, an all-new Spider-Man. Again.

I think some of my disappointment/frustration on this part stems from the fact that we’re getting another Peter Parker. I do wish Marvel had been willing to really shake things up. Why not have Miles Morales as Spider-Man? Sure, they’d have to play around with his backstory some, but it’d be really interesting to have someone else in the suit (and also because I still want to see Donald Glover as Spider-Man, even if he’s steadily outgrowing the role). We’d get a really new Spider-Man with a new inner-life and a new arc. And a little diversity doesn’t hurt once in a while. Granted, Peter has his, well, Parker-ness – but that’s been done. I want things to move on. Heck, at this point, why not really upend things and throw Spider-Gwen in, or even Mayday Parker or, heck, anyone but Peter Parker.

What’s especially bothersome, is that because of Spider-Man’s inclusion on the Marvel slate, Black Panther, Inhumans, and – most importantly – Captain Marvel have all had their release dates pushed back (And Thor: Ragnarok, but that’s not important at the moment). We’ve just had Marvel turn a bunch of no-name superheroes into megastars, and Ant-Man, another lesser-known hero, has a movie due out in a few months. It’s disappointing to see them take such a safe bet.

Now, yes, Spidey in the MCU is really cool. If they use him right, he can bring a new point of view to the series; he’s usually the kid, he’s a bit naive, and he’s not as mature as the other heroes of the MCU. Like Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel who’s arguably the new Peter Parker of the comics. A movie about her would be a welcome addition.

But hey. Kevin Feige’s involved and he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing and Spider-Man brings with him characters like Jessica Drew and Venom, so that’s cool. I’m bummed that the new movie will be pushing back fresh faces and I do wish that if we had to have a new Spider-Man that it’d be someone else after under the cowl. But the movie’s not out yet, so who knows, maybe it’ll be really good.

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Feels Like It

Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.

his ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.

It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.

A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.

he game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.

Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.

The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.

Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.

Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.

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A Narrative Is A Train

So I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though the final act is excellent, the film as a whole tends to stumble where the prior movie succeeded. Why? It lacked a central through line to follow. See, the first Amazing Spider-Man had a core theme: Who is Peter Parker/Spider-Man? Every thread in the story’s web (ba-dum tish) comes out from that; his tension with Uncle Ben is a question of identity, the conflict with Curt Conners is Peter looking for his father, his romance with Gwen Stacy is him coming into his own. It all served the central question.

I was told by a professor to think of a film’s narrative as a train. The plot is the engine, the driving force of the story. The subplots are the carriages that make the whole thing worthwhile. A plot is hollow without subplots to give it weight, and subplots don’t really do anything without a plot. They need both, and they have to work together.

Let’s look at The Avengers, a movie with no less than eight central characters that could easily have gone wrong. What’s the central through line/plot/train engine? What to do with Loki. Each character’s conflict emerges from that question. The tension between Iron Man and Captain America, for example, is their disagreement over how to deal with Loki’s threat. All the other bits — betrayal return, Nick Fury’s disagreement with the World Security Council, the highlighting of Black Widow’s red in her ledger, and so on — never feel tangential to the story since they’re rooted firmly in the central plot. This means that the film is free to explore character’s motivations and relationships without bogging the story down. The film still feels like a cohesive whole.

But back to Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, sadly, not as strong as its predecessor. It’s threads are all over the place. We have the subplot of who really were Peter’s parents that’s so peripheral it’s on a train unto itself. The main villain this time ‘round, Electro, doesn’t have a plot nearly as intertwined with Peter’s story as the bad-guy, Curt Conners, in the 2012 film (or Norman Osborne and Doc Ock in Sam Raimi’s 2002 and 2004 films). Even when Peter and Electro’s plots interact, it ends up giving Peter a whole ‘nother plot to follow, especially when complicated with Harry’s involvement. Meanwhile, his relationship with Gwen — and the question with where it stands — is its own plot.

Here we have Peter, our protagonist, following four plots that don’t really have any bearing on each other most of the time: who were his parents; should he help Harry; the Electro situation; and working on his relationship with Gwen. The reason these are all plots (and not subplots) is because they’re all on different tracks. There lacks a central train pulling them all together. As such, it feels discordant.

Something else I was told, by the same professor, is to always give solutions when finding flaws. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needed a through line. Maybe it could be Peter and Gwen’s evolving relationship. Better yet, why not the question of why is Peter special? Electro is mad that Spidey gets all the attention, that he’s the only special one. Harry wants to know what makes Spider-Man special, why he survived being bitten by the radioactive spider. Gwen wants to help Peter, that he doesn’t have to bear it all alone (and her choice matters too). Peter, meanwhile is trying to balance all the responsibilities that come with his specialness. There we have four subplots that all follow the main one and the central narrative becomes much stronger. Four carriages on the same train on the same track.

Don’t get me wrong, I still liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I don’t think it was as strong as the first one (which my brother vehemently disagrees with me on), but I do think it felt very Spider-Manish. As someone who grew up on the cartoons and video games, recently began reading the comics, it felt right. Spider-Man quipped, which is important; New York was there (Union Square! The Highline!); and there was a Marc Webb Musical Moment™. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be a messy movie, but it’s a wonderful mess.

And the final act is brilliantly done.

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Thrilling Heroics

Every boy has his favorite superhero. Doesn’t matter if they’ve never read a comic; pop cultural osmosis will take care of that. Growing up, my favorites were Batman and Iron Man. My brother was a Spider-Man fan. I’ve got a buddy who loved Green Lantern and another who liked Robin. But why is it that we love heroes (super or not)? Whether they’re named Tony Stark, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Buffy Summers, or Atticus Finch, we have our heroes. But why? Why do we love having heroes in fiction?

Barring the rare invincible abnormality like Superman (in which case you’d need emotional tension to… that’s another essay for another day), heroes have a risk of death. Sure, we’re sure (well, kinda sure if it’s written by Joss Whedon) they’ll survive, but there’s that potential. Towards the end of Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard’s armor has been destroyed and half-melted, but still our hero presses on, blood dripping from his wounds, in a final desperate attempt to save the galaxy. This is Shepard: the living legend who defended the Citadel from Sovereign, halted a Collector invasion, and united the races of the galaxy for the first time in millennia of history. He’s been augmented with cybernetics and carries enough firepower to take on a small army. Yet even he bleeds. Great, a lot of heroes get the crap beaten our of them. So what?

It proves they’re human! We love the everyman, the hero we can relate to. When creating Uncharted, Naughty Dog chose to stray from the trend of super-soldiers and overconfident protagonists and give us a fairly ordinary man dressed in a simple shirt and jeans: Nathan Drake. He’s a wisecracking smartass who spends as much time stumbling and falling as he does fighting bad guys. Drake’s snarky and funny, amusing us as he fumbles (sorry, improvises) his way through his adventures. It doesn’t take much to see that his bravado and bluster is just him trying to build himself up: an a attempt to steel himself for the perils that await. But he feels fear, he feels desperation. When Drake sees his friends get hurt his courage falters and we see the man within, we see ourselves. We like him because we’re like him. Drake isn’t that much different from us: he’s who we hope we’d be if we were in his spot, albeit wittier.

Similarly, Peter Parker, more so than most other superheroes, is terribly ordinary. He’s a teenager in high school striving for good grades and trying to win the heart of his girl. And he’s got spider-like powers. Nonetheless, he’s every one of us back in high school. Marc Webb captured this so well in The Amazing Spider-Man by introducing us to Peter the boy first. We get to know him before his powers, with his powers, and then when he finally calls himself Spider-Man. We’re not following the story of Spider-Man the superhero, we’re following story of this kid named Peter Parker. Even when he’s ‘officially’ a superhero, he’s still not invulnerable. Multiple times Peter shows up after a night of crime fighting battered, bruised, and bloodied. He’s just a teenage boy trying to do what’s right.

That’s the crux of our heroes. We want to know they’re vulnerable, we like them human (or at least mostly), but we want to see them do what’s right. We want our heroes to get beaten up and choose to go on because we hope that were we in their spot we would have the strength to continue. As an audience, we’re normal, powerless in our situations. None of us would stand a chance against the Reapers, Zoran Lazerevic, or the Lizard. But then, neither would Shepard, Drake, or Spider-Man were it not for their circumstances. Maybe, and just maybe, that could be us.

Our heroes aren’t perfect and invincible. Underneath the Iron Man armor is a middle-aged man on the brink of death. Green Lantern is just a guy with a fancy ring. Captain America was an earnest runt given a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The only difference between us and our heroes are our positions.

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” said Joss Whedon once. In these heroes, super or not, we find our strength. We see our weaknesses and fallings mirrored, but more than that we see them overcome it for the sake of good. The exhausted Sam carries Frodo up the side of Mount Doom. Atticus Finch risks his standing in the community to do what’s right. Luke Skywalker refuses to strike down Darth Vader.

No matter how hurt or broken our heroes are, they choose to do the right thing, to carry on and fight again.

And we hope that we can too.

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