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Does Whatever a Spider Can: Do Chronicle and Kick-Ass Render The Amazing Spider-Man Moot?

We still have a few months to wait before Marc Webb reboots Sony’s Spider-Man franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man. Despite some tonal worries, I’ll admit Webb has quite a talented crew assembled – Andrew Garfield is on the cusp of stardom, and Emma Stone is a bit ahead of him. However, I can’t help but wonder if Webb’s film might be a few months too late. After all, haven’t Kick-Ass and Chronicle offered a fairly solid deconstruction of the iconic web-slinging superhero? Is there really enough left to be said in the Spider-Man origin story when we’ve already seen it picked apart and subverted so often and skilfully?

Webb's Spider...

We all know the origin of Spider-Man, just as we all know the origin of Batman or Superman. Like most of the more popular superhero origin stories, it’s elegant in its simplicity and appeals to a fairly universal part of our nature. The young and geekish Peter Parker is a social outcast, picked on and bullied by his schoolmates, living on the poverty line, dealing with all the difficulties life throws at your average adolescent. There’s dating, college, his ageing relatives, his commitments. And then he suddenly gets an even greater weight thrust upon him. Bitten by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider, he gains the abilities of a spider. When the death of his uncle teaches the young boy a lesson about the way the world works, he vows to make his uncle proud by using his tremendous powers for good, despite the obstacles the world may erect in his path.

I think there’s something about that origin that speaks to people, and I think that’s a reason why Spider-Man has always been such a popular character. While Stan Lee might have kicked the Silver Age into high gear with his Fantastic Four, a team of superheroes facing real family problems, there was something inherently appealing about Peter Parker. Peter was a good kid, but the world never gave him a break. While the Fantastic Four might live in a skyscraper overlooking Manhattan, isolated from the realities of day-to-day life, Peter lived in the suburbs. He supported himself with a low-paying job while attending education.

Is Spider-Man's appeal starting to fade?

Peter felt real in a way that few superheroes at the time did. Bruce Wayne was a billionaire playboy. Superman seemed to treat his Clark Kent persona as an opportunity to revel in humanity. Hal Jordan flew fighter planes. Reed Richards and his family gained their powers in the space race. Poor Peter Parker seemed like he had to worry about failing his next exam, or struggling to find busfare. While his fellow superheroes never knew adversity in the same mundane way, that meant that Peter’s choice to do good was somehow more than just conventional superheroics. This was a kid who could easily rob banks or exploit his powers (and gizmos) for monetary gain, and we’d remain sympathetic – his choice to remain unflinchingly moral and upright in the face of such temptation makes him a more compelling protagonist.

And I think that Peter Parker sort of set that trend in superhero comics – the idea of the hero with the very human flaws. It became something of a Marvel trademark, as Stan Lee began to craft hooks into particular characters, adding a sense of depth and complexity that simply didn’t exist beforehand. I think it’s impossible to overestimate the impact that Peter Parker’s success had on the superheroes that followed, as one of the first of Marvel’s iconic Silver Age creations.

Swinging into action...

Fittingly, he was also one of the first superheroes who transitioned to film in the cinematic boom of the new millennium. While cinema had flirted with superhero fare before, the medium really embraced those sorts of characters in the early part of the last decade. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man really paved the way for the slate of summer fare many viewers take for granted these days. It seemed appropriate that Spider-Man would make the leap, and so successfully – he was one of the most iconic of the characters, and also something of a template for those who would follow. Raimi would lead the webslinger through a trilogy of films, before Sony decided to “reboot” the franchise, giving us a fresh cast and crew on the movie scheduled for release this summer.

However, superhero movies changed while Peter was gone. Initially the stuff of big-budget tentpole adaptations, the genre broadened its horizons considerably. I think it’s safe to describe Zack Snyder’s Watchmen as something a bit different from conventional superhero cinema. Christopher Nolan’s take on The Dark Knight demonstrated that even major heroes could be used as vehicles for deconstruction and critical examination, while we saw a whole slew of smaller and more exotic movies picking apart the idea of the masked vigilante. We saw Woody Harrelson play a delusional crusader in Defender and Rainn Wilson headline the quirky Super.

Time to hang it up?

However, two movies seem to have had a much broader impact, offering their own unique approaches to the superhero genre, and I’d argue that they’re both pretty tightly tied to Spider-Man. The first is Matthew Vaughn’s  adaptation of Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass. The second is Josh Trank’s found footage superhero film Chronicle. Both offer and explore subversions of common superhero tropes and trends, counting on the audience’s familiarity with how these particular plot points work, before brutally subverting them. I think it’s reasonable to argue that both films are very much centred around the core of the superhero persona that Stan Lee codified with The Amazing Spider-Man all those years ago.

To start with Kick-Ass, the protagonist’s story seems almost an update to the original status of Peter Parker. While Dave Lizewski didn’t lose an uncle in a crime, he’s a young socially-awkward teenager who decides to stand up for the little guy. Mark Millar’s original graphic novel is far more cynical than the film, but both are comparatively snarky about the trappings of the Stan Lee story. A young kid trying to do right by his community is a good thing, undoubtedly, but wearing a silly costume is probably a sign of mental instability.

Will the deconstruction stick?

Lizewski is brutalised over the course of the movie, and repeatedly placed in situations where he’s out of his depth – much like Spider-Man. While he survives despite the odds, much like the web-slinger, Millar is always quick to illustrate the consequences. It seems almost like an update of the mythos for the more glib and cynical generation of current readers. It’s an update that takes a step closer to verisimilitude  – offering blood spatter, broken bones and missing teeth – but ultimately validates the original story.

Like Peter Parker, Dave Lizewski gets the improbably attractive girl at the end of the story. Like Spider-Man, he manages to defeat an infinitely more influential and well-resourced criminal organisation. He even inspires the son of his deceased enemy to take up arms against him, almost playing out the relationship between Parker and the Osborn family. While Millar’s story is significantly grim and grittier, it ultimately validates the Spider-Man myth, by placing it through a crucible.

Yes, Kick-Ass also had a bit of fun with the Batman archetype...

I’m hesitant to describe the film as “realistic”, if only because the climax features all manner of gleefully outlandish superhero-ish ideas played out in a way that wouldn’t necessarily feel out-of-place in a sixties comic book. There are jet packs, kid sidekicks, ridiculous explosions – all stuff well outside the boundaries of reality, even if they are reconstructed for modern audiences. It’s bloodier and more brutal than the original ever was, but it probably has to be in order to resonate with a modern audience. In a way, Kick-Ass feels like an update to Stan Lee’s origin story, borrowing key beats and tweaking them slightly.

Next to that, I can’t help but wonder if Marc Webb’s reboot might seem a little bit safe and a little bit stale. After all, what’s the point in retreading a familiar origin that we’re all familiar with, if we aren’t going to update it in a meaningful way? Sure, the trailer hints that Peter Parker is now the victim of some conspiracy that claimed his parents, but that’s just window dressing. What will Mark Webb’s story say about how different it is to be Peter Parker fifty years after he debuted? I think that some of the edge might have been dulled just a bit.

Squashing it like a bug...

The moral of the Spider-Man story is familiar to modern movie-goers. Although Stan Lee might not have worded it as such, “with great power comes great responsibility” is a pretty awesome catchphrase, and it’s a mantra to any pop culture fan. If we all know it, what can Marc Webb’s film offer? Josh Trank’s recent Chronicle tackled this thematic ground in a fascinating way, with a bravery that could never be accomplished using Spider-Man. Following a bunch of kids mysteriously empowered, Trank and script-writer Max Landis dared to ask what might happen if great responsibility wasn’t necessarily part of the package deal.

The super powers used by the teens – telekinesis, flight, limited psychic ability – and the notion of evolutionary levels (such as an “apex predator”) might be more in line with Stan Lee’s X-Men, but the character arc and moral core are very much framed in terms the famous webslinger. It’s no wonder that a scene in the film features the lead character, Andrew, using his psychic powers to rip apart a spider – it seems a fairly overt visual metaphor. Landis and Trank rip one of the cornerstones of the Spider-Man mythology to shreds, pointing out that while the nerdy and bullied Peter Parker might be of strong enough moral character to use his gifts for good, it’s not necessarily a given.

Itsy-bitsy spider...

After all, Andrew has a lot in common with Peter Parker. Sure, he might use a video camera instead of an actual camera, but he’s still a wimpy kid in a school populated by jocks. He is bullied and picked on by those around him. His family is unable to support themselves, and he doesn’t live a comfortable life style. Andrew does have a dying mother and abusive father, but Peter has often lost loved ones and faced the prospect of losing loved ones. Peter somehow resists that massive urge to use his gifts irresponsibly, and offers them in service to the greater good. Trank and Landis dare to wonder if that’s a massive leap – to assume that Peter was strong enough to fight the temptation to abuse he gifts.

It’s the other side of the same coin and, in exploring it, Trank and Landis buttress the original Spider-Man story. After all, they do present one character who isn’tcorrupted by his new powers. However, they draw attention to how much luck must have been involved – and how strong a character Peter Parker must be to fight off that temptation. It’s counter-point to the Spider-Man origin story, where great power is conferred, but the subject isn’t physically or emotionally capable of handling it.

Going against the grains...

It’s a daring way of examining the core of Stan Lee’s Spider-Man origin, peeling back the layers and daring to play with the engine that drives the stories. It’s precisely the kind of stuff that no big-budget adaptation of Spider-Man would dare to do. It makes me wonder what the point of Marc Webb’s relatively vanilla adaptation might be, when we’ve already been treated to such concentrated deconstructions and explorations of the same basic origin story?

Of course, that’s not to say that Spider-Man is necessarily less relevant because superhero cinema has embraced a more complex approach to that sort of tale. After all, Christopher Nolan has been able to find a deeply fascinating and completely compelling take on Batman, a character who is a couple of decades older than Stan Lee’s wall-crawling superhero. However, the success of such movies at picking apart the core ingredients of the Spider-Man story suggests to me that Webb has a hell of a task ahead of him. He needs to prove that the original story still has the necessary weight and dramatic power, even after it has been taken apart and examined in such depth.

Catching the train...

Time will tell whether or not Webb succeeds, but I think his film needs to be measured not only against Sam Raimi’s original big screen adaptation, but against the movies that have followed in the wake of the superhero cinema boom. Spider-Man has a habit of succeeding against somewhat unwieldy odds, so I guess we’ll know soon.

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4 Responses

  1. This is such bullshit. The trailer for Amazing Spidey looks incredible and the footage itself is actually exciting. Films like Chronicle are great, but the production values just do not compare to films like Spidey and The Dark Knight Rises.

    Truth rises.

    • Hello. I apologise if I offended you. That was not my intention. I’ve seen the trailer and the footage at Dublin’s Movie Fest last year, so I’m not writing based on nothing.

      The article’s more of a general question rather than an attack on Webb’s film. I hope it does well. I’m certainly interested, if not quite excited.

      I would, respectfully, disagree with your assertion that it’s a better film because it has a larger budget. I’d suggest that Cloverfield, for example, was a better Godzilla movie than the big-budget Matthew Broderick one, despite being made for less money.

  2. Stale would be the best world to describe this new spider-man, based on the trailer. I was willing to give the new Webb’s movie a chance. I enjoyed 500 Days of Summer so I hoped that his next movie would be great. I didn’t see anything in this movie that hasn’t been done before in the Raimi films already.

    The trailer had corny one liners, but came off to me as lame, rather than with a sense of charm that Raimi’s had. The “seriousness” seemed a little forced as well. In a way, the movie seems like Spiderman 4 with a new cast, rather than a real reboot.

    • Yep, trailer’s doing nothing for me. It looks like 50% Raimi Spider-Man, 25% Nolan Batman, 15% X-Men and 10% Webb and Garfield. Though I do like the idea that Peter wants to save Doc Connors because the Lizard is his responsibility.

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