Spiderman [2012] and the Critical Agenda

There is a tension in critical thought between taking works on their own terms and applying to them analytical perspectives from your own interests. You could think of these as intention and taste, and going too far towards either can be fraught. If you subscribe too much to allowing works to set their own terms of reference you can become mired in hopeless relativism, where it is impossible to make any useful comment, or perhaps more insidious, you can probe endlessly for the “author’s intention”, as if it were the person who created it that was the real point of interest. Stray too far in the opposite direction and your absolute and idiosyncratic personal opinions make you the centre of all your commentary, rather than the work commented upon.

I think you can see this tension and vacillation present in Aristotle’s Poetics, where he prefers Sophocles to the other great dramatists because he sees a kind of perfect synergy between plot and emotional content. He, and many others, are disappointed with Euripides because of his extensive use of deus ex machina to resolve a situation which has apparently gotten out his control. The ending of Medea works only if you can appreciate her magically-aided flight as a deliberate artistic strategy with its own disjunctive message… if you think he simply ran out of time and ideas, it feels like a cop-out.

I think that you can see this thread pretty clearly in the various discussions of genre fiction. In the most simplistic terms, genres differentiate themselves from other creative works by the adoption of specific features. A famous example would be Edmund Wilson’s Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, but as pointed out by some guy I don’t know, all that the essay accomplishes is proving that “He … did not like detective stories. ”

Which leads me back to Spiderman, and specifically leads me back to re-engage with the film via FILM CRIT HULK’S smashing. Because I was conscious when writing my own little comment that I was essentially applying my own taste to the film, I wanted certain things out of the film which were broadly incompatible with the processes of Hollywood-at-large and so it was a failure for me. FCH was a little less honest about his biases though, and I think a lot of his critical commentary is based on his own needs and not really the goals of the film.

The Amazing Spiderman was conceived, billed, constructed and, crucially, watched as a piece of mass-market entertainment: candyfloss for the eyes and ears. There is nothing about any part of its construction which invites critical engagement. You could contrast, as another recently-excoriated film, Prometheus, whose meta-textual references both in the sequencing of the film and inside the diagesis really demand that you engage with it sufficiently to point out just how stupid it is. The whole film is predicated on the knowledge of the audience that Peter Parker will get magical powers from a spider, that Uncle Ben will die prompting his acceptance of the responsibilities attendant on that, and that he will fall in love with Mary Jane WatsonGwen Stacey. And people who’ve been kicking around long enough will recognise Webb’s main content change from Raimi as being even more canonical.

And there’s where FCH jumps off the boat. “THE DEFAULT POSITION IS JUST TO LET A FILM’S INERT QUALITIES WASH OVER YOU. … IS THAT EVEN-HANDED MEDIOCRITY REALLY ALL THEY WANTED? IF SO, THEN FINE. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” This is a point-blank refusal to engage with the film on its own terms: it doesn’t do exactly what FCH wants, and so he’s going to spell out now what it should have done.

While I was initially quite sympathetic to this argument, I started to think more about my own response to the film while I was watching it. I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t disengaged, I enjoyed it in the moment. The amount of skill put into the surface/shallow detail of this film, in order to successfully lull its audience in the way it does, is huge. The technical polish alone of the scene framing, cinematography, and FX, was astonishing and presumably the real point of the film. Far from mediocrity, this is true excellence. Just not in the area FCH wants. Now, I happen to have some sympathy with his desires – I too wanted something more from the film, but that’s not the fault of the filmaker.

The crux of FCH’s complaint is that “… THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN DOESN’T ACTUALLY HAVE A STORY.” He devotes quite a bit of critical effort in demonstrating what his opinion of a story is, and how TASM falls outside of that criteria. Which reminds you of Goddard’s famous truculence about the origin and function of story in cinema – does there have to be a beginning, middle & end? Yes, he said, but not necessarily in that order. A large number of well-received “indie” films have a hole in the centre around which the audience must build their story. They fill the time and visual space with significant silences, but are successul despite the apparent lack of “story”. Ask someone to explain the story of Lost in Translation, for example.

My main fear going into this film was that it would simply be a re-tread of familiar concepts, but that perspective constructs those sequence of events into a story, a progression of development and change. You could think about Robin Laws’ “Dramatic Hero” v. “Iconic Hero” as a handy distillation of the concepts in play here. Well, like most heroes, Spiderman is an “Iconic” character, rather than a dramatic one; and so his origin film is less about showing a growth and change than about explaining and showcasing the elements of that icon.

Think of the film not so much as telling Spiderman’s story, but as a loose narrative framework for showcasing different aspects of his iconic status – the geeky begining, the death of Uncle Ben, the wise-cracking, the need for love, the self-sacrifice… The story, which FCH sees is absent, is not in any way the point of the film. It’s intention is not to tell a story, but to establish a world reality, to put the pieces in play – it is entirely expositional in nature, with only the slightest narrative.

Is that okay? Is it what you want from a film? Well, as I say, this is a matter of taste and expectation, not, strictly, something absolute or divinely required. And many people liked Batman Begins precisely because it tried to transform Bruce Wayne into a Dramatic hero, from an Iconic hero… but as tog42 is fond of saying, in reality, all that meant was that it was a great trailer for The Dark Knight, where Batman’s established iconic identity got to do its thing to perfection, and Bruce Wayne, the dramatic hero, was submerged.

Which, I think, also explains why the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey works. FCH is perturbed by the lack of drama/conflict in the relationship: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE THE AUDIENCES RESPONDING TO? … HULK NOT SURE, BUT THEY MUST LIKE WATCHING PRETTY PEOPLE FLIRT.” The basis for this complaint is exactly the same: he wants to see a story arc, with a beginning, middle, end; he wants, in other words, a side-show of a romantic plot shoe-horned into a place where it’s not really needed, basically for the sake of it. Instead, think of that relationship as a core part of Spiderman’s identity, which the film is establishing by showing rather than telling.

If the relationship is simply a fact of Peter Parker’s life, a part of his identity, then the concept of a change in the relationship through the medium of film is no more or less applicable than his choice of costume. What we’re responding to is seeing a character on screen that already exists in that form and with the right features in our minds, because the entire production simply establishes what we already know.

The most telling bit of criticism I’ve encountered about the film is the outrage that the key line was omitted: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”. It’s the iconic line in Superhero lore, and from Spiderman especially. If you think about TASM as a self-contained and self-sufficient narrative, then the presence of absence of that specific line is purely down to the narrative needs inside the diagesis. If you think about it as metonymic for the whole of the Spiderman myth, then its absence is unbearable in a film slavishly devoted to showcasing facets of that icon.

Is that what I wanted from the film: by no means! But is it what the filmakers put there? I have no doubt of that whatsoever.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

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7 Responses to Spiderman [2012] and the Critical Agenda

  1. mr_orgue says:

    Nice.(Of course, that famous line was never spoken by anyone in the Marvel universe, it was a narrative caption in Amazing Fantasy 15 that wasn’t even used in Amazing Spider-Man 1.I think Ultimate Spidey included it as spoken dialogue though…)

    • mashugenah says:

      That’s intriguing. 🙂 I guess it’s like other famous misquotations that have appeared and become what we think really happened.

  2. milites says:

    Speaking of Prometheus, when describing it to someone last week queneva and I mentioned that although the movie was a) pretty, and b) stupid in many ways, we got to have hours of arguments and analysis about exactly how it was stupid, and that justified the sticker price.

    Many other films describable as mental pop-corn would not have provoked nearly as much thought, discussion and reflection.

    I guess I’d like a film that provoked such reflection without being stupid, but you take what you can get.

    • mashugenah says:

      I am sympathetic to at argument… But I am also conscious that a huge amount of that discussion was really spurred by a lingering interest in the original Alien. So the level of discussion around Prometheus needs to be seen partially in the context of the level of discussion around a 30 year franchise. The whole thing is underpinned by a really excellent movie.

      If you were setting out to make a film without that heritage that would spur discussion the way Prometheus did, you couldn’t be as ordinary as Prometheus was.

    • mashugenah says:

      (and as a sidebar here, this all just makes me even more nervous about the putative Bladerunner sequel, because if folks like you and me who know better go and see it so that we can engage in a public discourse, Ridley Scott will get the idea that this is what he’s supposed to be doing)

  3. Pingback: Hulk [2003] | My One Contribution To The Internet

  4. Pingback: The work of the Critic ™ | My One Contribution To The Internet

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