It’s been two weeks since Sam Raimi and Sony parted ways over the now not-to-be Spider-Man 4 and the prospect of a reboot was first mooted by the studio. In that time we’ve had the opportunity to fully consider the facts and little bits of news have been dribbling out. I was initially dismissive of the reboot, albeit in a sort of half-hearted ‘what can I honestly do?’ sort of way. How have the various revelations about the new film – including the announcement of Marc Webb as the director of the project – affected my opinion of this potential 2012 tentpole?
Not much, to be honest. Having Marc Webb on board – a smart and sophisticated indie director with one hit on his filmography, the superb (500) Days of Summer – helps the film’s geek credibility, calling to mind the original appointment of Raimi himself, a fringe director before landing one of the biggest movies of the past decade. However, there is no indication that Sony will let him put his own mark on the series. Logically, if they could boss around Sam Raimi who had given them a trilogy of blockbusters, what chance does Webb have of standing up to his studio paymasters? This calls to mind the infamous trouble on the set of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where indie director Gavin Hood was constantly railroaded by Fox – except that Webb won’t even have a matinee idol lead actor to back him up (Hugh Jackman had reportedly promised Hood complete artistic freedom, for all the good that did).
In fairness, I am indifferent to the casting of an unknown lead actor. I’m in the minority in that I was always fond of Tobey Maguire, but I can understand the desire to avoid picking a known leading man. Most obviously it saves money, leaving more for the rest of the film (we’re coming to that). I think that Ben Affleck as Daredevil demonstrated the difficulty with casting a recognisable actor in a lead role of a comic book character. Is the audience seeing the character or the actor? Of course, there are exceptions that have worked – most notably Robert Downey Jnr as Tony Stark or Edward Norton as Bruce Banner - but think about the rake of relative unknowns who have played iconic characters – think of Christopher Reeve or Michael Keaton. Even Christian Bale isn’t quite matinee idol fare. We won’t know until the film’s done, but I don’t think the name of the actor cast as Peter Parker matters – the movie will be a blockbuster by virtue of the name Spider-Man alone.
Other factors concern me a lot more. The most obvious is the ‘been there, done that’ aspect of Peter Parker’s origin. We saw it less than a decade ago. Since the whole point of having Peter Parker in high school would be to use the acquisition of his powers as a metaphor for puberty, I imagine that we’ll have to see that acquisition. It’s something that will have happened within a dozen years of this film. And it isn’t as though the origin of the character isn’t iconic – I can’t see Sony playing around with it enough to make it feel different. Reboots work when they give the audience a unique perspective – Batman Begins gave us the origin we never saw in the original Batman, for example – but I think there’s very little original to give here.
There is a faint bit of hope in the suggestion that this particular iteration of the character will draw heavily from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comics. Basically a ten year retelling of the character’s origins for modern audiences, Ultimate Spider-Man was one of the better Spider-Man books during the last decade. Bendis himself has consulted on Iron Man and has acknowledged that he would be delighted to help out with this movie. Sure, there’s a very heavy teen angst vibe running through the books, but isn’t that what the character is about? If you can do it right – or at least acknowledge the influence of someone who has done it right – all the better.
Speaking about reboots and original elements, there’s also the somewhat cynical suggestion that this will be a ‘darker and edgier’ reboot. Grim and gritty Spider-Man? I know that The Dark Knight made a lot of money, but these elements don’t necessarily work on every hero. Arguably Superman Returns demonstrated that Superman doesn’t fit within a cynical worldview. I’d argue the same applies to Spider-Man. Yes, his parents are dead (before the series began), and his uncle dies to reinforce the whole ‘responsibility’ theme. But that isn’t Spider-Man. He wears a bright red-and-blue costume. He makes jokes and wisecracks. His villains are just on the right side of ridiculous. Yes, the series deals with pretty serious themes – adulthood and responsibility – but it has an ultimately optimistic outlook. The comic book has attempted ‘dark and gritty’, but it’s never really worked – Spider-Man III attempted an adaptation of those sorts of arcs, but fell flat on its face.
Admittedly it’s less of a concern than other items, but I also wonder about the villains of the piece. Norman Osbourne is so tightly woven into the fabric of Spider-Man’s universe that it’s inevitable that we’ll see him in some form in the film. The smart part of my brain suggests that Sony should know better than to simply give us another Spider vs. Green Goblin film (after Willem Dafoe’s fantastic scenery-chewing performance in the original Spider-Man and James Franco’s appearance on the glider in the third film). On the other hand… I wouldn’t put it past them. If they go that direction, good luck finding a better actor than Dafoe for the role.
If not, who else might step up to be the villain? I really hope we at least get an original foe – one of the best things about Batman Begins was that it took two solid B-listers and made them work – but, again, I wouldn’t put it past Sony to give us a rehash of a character who we’ve already seen. Particularly if it’s popular villain. Yes, my real fear is that we get Venom… again. If there’s anything worse than an origin we saw twelve years ago, it’s a villain who failed to impress five years ago. Given that apparently the reason that Sony shot down Raimi’s choice of villain(s) was that they wanted a more popular choice, it seems logical.
Maybe we’ll get an interesting villain from the pool left to be touched – but, given that Sony found The Lizard and The Vulture too weird – there really aren’t too many solid choices left over. Maybe we’ll get one of the electrical-themed villains (they would be interesting to see visualised), but – if the series is going for grim and gritty – I doubt it. Ah well.
Maybe there is a bit of hope in those rumours which are going around that Clive Owen will be playing Kraven the Hunter. The character is one of the few remaining villains that probably isn’t too ‘out there’ for Sony, effectively being a guy in leopard print trousers who likes to… well, hunt stuff – as the name implies. In fairness, he seems pretty tame for a series which has given us a tentacled doctor and a man made of sand, but it’s better than getting another Goblin or another Venom.
Though there are reasons that Sony might be uneasy even using this most human of adversaries. The most obvious is that Sony don’t seem to be interested in a character’s longterm cult appeal or whether fans are interested in them – look at how they shot down The Lizard, despite a huge following, for example – they are just interested in whether the character is hip and modern. Kraven isn’t really either. In fact, he was killed in the comics in 1987 (in the suitably titled arc Kraven’s Last Hunt). So he’s probably not the kind of villain Sony can see selling the movie to the hip and young movie-goers who make and break blockbusters. I’d only consider him slightly more marketable than John Malkovich with wings or a giant lizard man. Still, these are early rumours, so there will doubtless be tonnes more in the weeks and months to come. Though,if their pushing for a 2012 release date, I imagine speculation like this will get sorted fairly quickly (the other Marvel tentpole, Thor, is already filming).
I can really only think of two aspects of the reboot that might be worth looking forward to. The first is the suggestion that this might be a pre-planned trilogy – the writers already have Spider-Man 5 & 6 written, which could reportedly be rewritten as sequels to the reboot easily enough. The idea of one carefully planned overarching trilogy means we may see the first truly consistent superhero trilogy – effectively a movie in three parts with carefully considered character development and consistent themes. Of course, this assumes that the movies are any good to begin with, but I’m trying to find something optimistic.
The second – and I’m really grasping at straws here – is the slim-to-impossible likelihood that Spider-Man might find himself intigrated with the Marvel cinematic universe, since Marvel Films might be stepping up their involvement with this reboot. It would be nice to see a reference to Spider-Man in the upcoming Avengers release (also that summer) or vice versa. Or even just that the movie might take place in a world that is slowly growing accustomed to superheroes (rather than the whole ‘this is the first time New York has seen a superhero’ schtick). Admittedly it’s unimportant, but it would show that there was some serious thought going into this film on at least one side of the co-production. Given how typically possessive Sony have been with the character (refusing him a cameo in The Incredible Hulk, for example), it’s never going to happen. Ah well.
Being entirely honest (and arguably completely shallow), the factor which most worries me about this film is the budget. Reportedly Marc Webb will have a budget of $80m to realise his vision. Sam Raimi couldn’t realise his vision on a budget of $230m. The first Spider-Man, twelve years ago, cost $140m – nearly twice as much, not even adjusted for inflation. Even X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a budget of $150m, and couldn’t pull off entirely convincing CGI. Spider-Man is supposed to swing from buildings, shoot webs and ‘do whatever a spider can’. Not even a spider could do much for $80m, to be frank. I guess we can give up on having any recognisable names in the cast.
I want to get excited about this, but Sony aren’t exactly making it easy.