I spent yesterday with my brother, and as usual, we went to see a movie I would never watch if I were by my self. Although I hate films like The Amazing Spider-Man, it is good to keep up on what Hollywood is capable of doing. And what they are capable of doing is striking another blow against the art of storytelling.
James Vanderbilt—with the help of Alvin Sargent, who has fallen mightily over the years—has the dubious distinction of creating a script that has no emotional core. The story arc is given by the material: nerd gets super powers, fights crime until super villain appears, destroys super villain. Clearly, you can weave just about any story in there. The biggest cliche is to have a love interest who is threatened in the third act by the super villain. Check! The second biggest cliche is to have the super villain somehow involved in the back story death of a hero’s loved one. Check! The third biggest cliche is the by-the-book cop who doesn’t understand our vigilante hero, but who eventually sees the light. But these are not necessarily bad things. The problem is that in The Amazing Spider-Man these elements are thrown on the story spine carelessly, as though the writers felt they had to but didn’t want to.
The girlfriend (smart young scientists dressed in fuck-me boots) is in peril and then the peril disappears without any help from the hero. The super villain is implicated in the death of Peter Parker’s parents, but only vaguely and it doesn’t matter to the plot of this movie. The only reason the by-the-book cop interacts with the hero is that he happens to be the father of the girlfriend.
The film meanders from action sequence to talk sequence. It is like Laurie Anderson’s song Big Science, but worse, “I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?” Here it is, “I think we should put Boots Girl here. Otherwise, what is the hero going to kiss?” But even in this endeavor, the film disappoints. For example, Parker starts up a relationship with the Boots Girl. Then Parker searches for the man who killed his uncle, and the action scenes go on and on until we forget all about the girl. But that’s all right! Just throw Boots Girl back in the plot. She is like a wave equation: when she’s on the screen, Parker is in love; when she’s not, she doesn’t even exist.
The Amazing Spider-Man also features an interminable epilogue, as if two hours of random shit wasn’t long enough. The best advice I’ve ever read about screenwriting (but it applies to all narratives) comes from William Goldman. He suggests the best way to resolve your plot is to do it as quickly as possible. This is advice that is seldom used in modern movie making. The reason is simple: there is no tension that needs to be resolved. This is film making by the numbers, and the third act is about creating 30 minutes of action, not about resolving anything because there is nothing to resolve. There is the Good Guy and there is the Bad Guy. The Good Guy will win because that is the genre. There are no motivations for the hero other than being good.
Too bad screenwriters don’t have this motivation.
There is far more to like Spider-Man than in many comic book heroes. In particular, I like Peter Parker’s aunt and uncle. His aunt even has a union job! Imagine that. Of course, the writers find it necessary to place Parker and Boot Girl in a high tech lab. And Boot Girl’s cop father has an apartment that looks like it would cost upwards of $10,000 per month. But mostly the film itself is grounded in the very middle class home of Peter Parker. Much the same thing can be said of Daredevil, which has a working class core to it, even if Matt Murdock’s home is a bit too high tech.
My biggest philosophical problem with the superhero genre is its romanticism. (It is funny that Ayn Rand novels like Atlas Shrugged are fundamentally the same, but somehow people think of them as serious.) The undercurrent of all these stories is that the government is impotent and we need a superhero to save us. If this smacks of more than a little fascism, it should. But the absurdity outs itself. It is never satisfying to have the heroes take on criminals as we find them; super villains must be manufactured. It is back to the Laurie Anderson quote. But in the end, these kinds of costume clad superheroes are not nearly the threat to social cohesion as plain clothes heroes like Dirty Harry.