Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Uanswered Questions and The Problem of Serialized Storytelling in Film

Just this week, Alex Kurtzman, co-writer, along with frequent collaborator Bob Orci, of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, went on record that the film will address the questions left unresolved by last year's controversial reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man:

“It’s interesting because the first movie asks all these questions and what I loved about it in so many ways is that it didn’t answer them. Part of what we were drawn to and intrigued by was wanting to know the answers to a lot of those questions.

“The villains emerge from a lot of unanswered questions at the end of that movie and none of them are random at all, they are all tied together by a theme, an idea, and I think they come from our curiosity about what was going on in the life of Peter Parker and his parents.”

My chief criticism of The Amazing Spider-Man was it seemed about concerned with setting up plotlines for future films rather than just being a standalone, so I can't say I share the same enthusiasm for what it was doing. The film's marketing, and the film's first act, suggested the main drive of the film was to be Peter Parker's (Andrew Garfield) investigation in to why his parents disappeared when he was a child, how Peter's father was connected to Peter's eventual gaining of spider-like powers, as well as how Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) relationship to Peter's parents. But the film pretty much drops these plot threads halfway through the way, only to remind us, in a mid credits stinger involving Connors and a mysterious man played by Michael Masse, that "Hey, come back for the sequel if you want to get any answers."

I understand what the filmmakers, most notably director of Amazing 1 & 2, and most likely 3, Marc Webb- they want to achieve what Marvel Studios has done and continues to do among its franchises, which is bringing expansive, comic book style continuity to the big screen- expect in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, the want to create an expansive universe in a singular franchise. It's an ambitious and admittedly exciting idea. There's 50 years of Spider-Man continuity to draw from, with almost limitless possibilities, and it appears this franchise is leading up to Sinister Six film, a reverse-Avengers, if you will.

But this brings up the difficulties of telling a serialized narrative in film. When you sit down to watch a film, even a film like The Amazing Spider-Man, where you know it's going to be the first film in a franchise (the second film was announced well before the first film hit theatres), as well as mostly a retelling of the Spider-Man origin story, you still expect a mostly standalone film. But I don't think The Amazing Spider-Man was designed to be a standalone film. In many ways, it mostly serves as a 2 hour pilot. This is not a pejorative swipe at TV mind you, I'm just highlighting how I think this film doesn't work as a film. I don't feel Peter has a character arc or that the film has a firm dramatic arc regarding its stories. This would work if the film was a pilot for a TV series, or the first few issues of a new Spider-Man comic. But it's neither of those things. It's a film, but it's not thematically well rounded or satisfying on its own terms the way a film, particularly an origin story, which in most superhero's case, especially Spider-Man's, are usually dramatically very pure and straightforward.

Compare The Amazing Spider-Man to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which, as the title suggests, is about Batman becoming Batman. It's focused almost entirely on Bruce Wayne's childhood, the death of his parents, his training and establishment as a vigilante in Gotham City, fighting corruption and forming a relationship with Jim Gordon, one of the few good cops in the city. But while a film like this could feel like just a set-up, which in some ways it is, Batman Begins still works very well as a standalone film about how someone goes from a child crouching over the bodies of his dead parents, to a figure of hope and fear. When that Joker card is revealed, it works as both an organic lead in to the next film as well as a great moment by itself, even if we didn't get a sequel. And the film genuinely feels mythic, despite Nolan' goal to set the film in a more stylistically and visually realistic universe than the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series. I feel The Amazing Spider-Man lacks that kind of mythic nature, and while I think the film wants to be the Batman Begins of the Spider-Man, and while I think in some respects it is successful in that respect, I don't feel it works as a standalone film the way Batman Begins does. And going back to Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film in 2002, even that film, while leaving room open for a sequel, ends on a strong not that concludes Peter's (Tobey Maguire) character arc.

Now, I'm not saying serialized storytelling can't work in film. The Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars made it work, and serialized storytelling, in whatever medium, can be rewarding. But I feel The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't as interesting a film as it could've been. The film had such rich thematic potential in regards to the mystery surrounding Peter's parents, how his father potentially gave birth to Spider-Man, and Peter's relationship to a man (Connors) who knew his parents and may have taken part in their murders (?) But the film doesn't truly explore this material, I think. To be fair, this film did suffer from post-production tinkering by Webb and/or the studio, which resulted in several scenes being cut out, one in which makes clear the fate of Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan).

I'm glad Kurtzman  says the villains will be tied to the themes and questions of the first film. One of the things I really liked about Nolan's Batman Trilogy was how the villains were representations of the each film's themes. Of course, we know Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) has a connection to Peter's parents, though I assume he won't become the Green Goblin until the very end of this film. I wonder how Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) will be connected to Peter, since he seems more thematically and emotionally connected to Spider-Man than Peter. I'm interested to see how the film juggles its multiple plot threads and relationships, including the continuing relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the reappearance of Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn, (Dan DeHaan), Norman's son, as well Felicity Jones' still mysterious role as the "Goblin's girlfriend."- Harry or Norman? I'm still a little disappointed that Shailene Woodley's minor role as Mary Jane Watson has been cut and I hope she comes back for the third film.

While it's nice that Kurtzman has implied questions will be answered, I think the film should be more than just answering questions, just as how the first film was as its best when it wasn't just asking questions. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needs to explore what these questions mean for Peter and the other characters, as well what consequences the answers will have. It needs to blow us away emotionally, visually and thematically. I hope it does. The superhero genre and this franchise has a lot of potential, and it'd be great if this film fulfilled that potential