FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, cosmological*
The rebooted SPIDER-MAN franchise— ignoring everything established by the popular Sam Raimi-directed “trilogy”—proves better than one might expect. In comparison with Raimi, the appropriately named director Marc Webb provides a somewhat sunnier take on the world’s most neurotic wall-crawler, reminiscent of the late 1960s Lee-Romita comics-version of the character.
The Spider-Man born in the early 1960s descended as much from Marvel’s misanthrope-filled monster-comics as from the traditions of the costumed superhero. Raimi’s strength was to capture the visceral weirdness of the early Lee-Ditko feature, centered as it was upon the perennial loser-turned-hero Peter Parker. It could be argued that Raimi took the franchise too far into the domain of the grotesque, as when he transformed the hero’s famous web-shooting devices into icky biological excretions On the other hand, Raimi and his scripters captured the essence of Peter Parker as traumatized nerd, and even the weakest Raimi work, the third in the series, faithfully reproduces the fundamental egotism of a Nerd Gone Wild.
Webb’s Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has none of the original character’s repressed egotism or tendencies toward a martyr complex. In contrast to the bookish Raimi-version this Parker bops around on a skateboard, showing athletic abilities long before getting spider-powers. Raimi’s version is the school punching-bag; Webb is just barely bullied by jock Flash Thompson and even has a certain standing on the high school campus as the class photographer. Still, while Raimi’s version skimped on the character’s passion for the physical sciences and his clumsiness with girls, Webb’s version does capture these qualities somewhat better. This Parker’s fumbling encounters with Gwen Stacy recall the comic book’s characterization of the proto-hero as a “wallflower,” though to be sure, a lot of that early clumsiness dropped away following his ascension to heroic status. The passion for science is stronger here, though to be sure it is, as in the first Raimi film, tied into the hero’s acquisition of super-powers as well as his encounter with the person who will become his first super-villain. But whereas Raimi apparently thought his audiences wouldn’t buy the idea of a high-schooler managing to design artificial web-shooters to match his newly acquired spider-powers, Webb totally goes with the original comics-fantasy of the hyper-inventive teenager.
One thing Webb’s version shares in common with Raimi’s? Far too much time devoted to Uncle Ben and Aunt May, less to support developments in the narrative proper than to give the high-profile actors more to do. I would much rather Webb had spent less time with them and more with introducing J. Jonah Jameson, who represents a sort of “bad comic father” to Parker, but I assume he’ll appear in some subsequent entry.
Whereas Raimi chose the first Spider-villain to be the Green Goblin, possibly due to that villain’s symbolic status as an “evil father-figure,” Webb chose the Lizard, more or less a reptilian variation on the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme. Curtis Connors (Ryan Ifans), who will become the monstrous man-lizard, functions as a mild scientific mentor-figure to Parker, but his main purpose in the story is to change into a monster and tear stuff up real good.The best character-additions to the franchise are this film’s versions of Gwen Stacy and her father police captain George Stacy. Gwen, a creation of the middle 1960s in the comics, appeared in the third Raimi movie but wasn’t given much of a characterization therein. Webb’s film does something the original comic didn’t: it actually gives Gwen—whose only career in the comic was being Parker’s girlfriend—her own professional interest, in that she works for Connors’ research project. As for Captain Stacy, he makes for some good scenes as the overprotective parental figure. Unfortunately the script shuffles him off the mortal coil, which seems a waste, given that he would’ve made a good foil (as in the comics) to J. Jonah Jameson.
Garfield makes a decent but far from exceptional Spider-Man, and there are an awful lot of times he shucks his mask during his crimefighting, as if the actor were insecure that his face was getting sufficient camera-time. But the script here allows him more humor in the persona of Spider-Man than I saw in the “trauma-drama” Raimi hero, particularly a scene in which Spider-Man taunts a small-time hood before webbing him up easily.
On the whole, the Webb SPIDER-MAN comes off much better than many such franchises as they’re passed from talent to talent.
But a second film comes to pass, the omission of J. Jonah Jameson would be incredibly remiss.