Film

Published on April 11th, 2014 | by Brad

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In Comparison – Spider-Man vs The Amazing Spider-Man

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At the end of the 1990s, the superhero movie was, creatively speaking, a dying breed. Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin had made a laughing stock of the Caped Crusader, Superman still hadn’t recovered from 1987’s appalling The Quest For Peace, and attempted Shaquille O’Neal vehicle Steel had, in the eyes of many, driven home the final nail in the coffin. Then films based on Marvel comics characters started to come out.

Driven by the 1996 bankruptcy filing by Marvel Entertainment (imagine that as a possibility now!), studios were keen to pick up film rights on to established characters with established fanbases on the relative cheap. New Line struck first with the cult success of Blade (marking the major breakthrough of David S Goyer, now ubiquitous in DC’s forays into cinema), then Fox followed with the surprise hit X-Men, a franchise due to release its seventh film this summer.

None of this, though, could have prepared anyone for the success in 2002 of Sony’s Spider-Man, directed by Evil Dead helmsman Sam Raimi. Upon release it became the first film to pass $100m at the US Box-Office in a single weekend. Its final tally of $821m worldwide leaves it still the sixth-highest grossing superhero film of all time, behind its own threequel ($890m) and $1bn+ successes The Avengers, Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight. Curiously, spots 7 and 8 on that list are filled by Spider-Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man, respectively.

All of these dizzying numbers should indicate the frankly enormous business superhero movies have become. So much so that, in the wake of Raimi and Tobey Maguire leaving during pre-production on Spider-Man 4 after creative disagreements with the studio, rather than risking the rights to their most lucrative cinematic asset reverting to Marvel, Sony elected to start the franchise from scratch. The result, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, with Andrew Garfield taking over the red and blue tights, debuted in 2012 to a middling critical response, and (for the Spider-Man franchise) a relatively paltry worldwide box office of $705m. Most of the (again, relative) negativity surrounded the fact that the franchise had been rebooted so soon after the Raimi series, a mere ten years after Spider-Man and just five after Spider-Man 3. Some have argued that “superhero fatigue” may have been a factor, with people starting to become a little tired of superhero films, but the $1bn successes of The Avengers, released a month earlier, and The Dark Knight Rises, two months later, would seem to put paid to that.

Spider-Man is, of course, not the first example of franchises being refreshed/relaunched/rebooted/remade for commercial purposes. From Alfred Hitchock remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much with James Stewart and Doris Day to the periodical recasting of James Bond to Christopher Nolan’s sensational Batman relaunch, Hollywood has always found a way to get money for old rope. What set Spider-Man aside was how soon they were doing it. Had the world really forgotten the origin of Peter Parker in the intervening ten years? Was there anything wrong with the Spider-Man beginning we already had from Raimi that needed retooling? Well, with the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 imminent, I thought I’d give them both a looking over, and provide the definitive answer on which is the better film. Definitively…

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So, I’m going to start with a look at our hero. Rolling back 50-odd years to 1962, a fella you may have heard of by the name of Stan Lee was revolutionising the comics industry. Alongside Jack Kirby, he was fresh off the back of creating the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man and Incredible Hulk, and in the next three years he would debut Thor, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil, Black Widow, Hawkeye, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Silver Surfer. In the summer of ’62, anthology series Amazing Fantasy, never a great success, was ending with issue 15. Lee, working with artist Steve Ditko, decided to throw a new character in, figuring that he had nothing to lose, it being the last issue of the book. The rest, of course, is history. Amazing Fantasy #15 becomes one of the highest-selling comics of all time, and from its ashes launches Amazing Spider-Man. Copies of AF15 now auction at over $1m, joining the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 and Batman in Detective Comics #27 as the only members of that exclusive club.

Over the next 40 years, and to this day, even despite Robert Downey Jr’s enormously popular performances as Tony Stark in the Iron Man series, Spider-Man became Marvel’s flagship character. In the Raimi series, the role of Peter Parker and his arachnid alter-ego was taken by Tobey Maguire. His career was on the up at the time, with well-received performances in The Ice Storm, The Cider House Rules and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas following a bout of alcoholism, brought on by being thought of primarily as Leonardo DiCaprio’s less-talented friend. After the collapse of Spider-Man 4, the rebooted series took on Brit Andrew Garfield, creating a brief, shining moment where the holy trinity of American superheroes, Superman, Batman and Spider-Man were all being played on film by British actors (Henry Cavill, Christian Bale and Garfield, respectively). Garfield was on the rise at the time, having followed turns on British TV in Doctor Who and the Red Riding miniseries, before achieving massive acclaim for his work in Never Let Me Go and The Social Network. Oddly, both actors were 28 when they took the role, though Garfield passes for 17/18 much more easily than Maguire ever did.

Maguire’s performance is very mannered. The Raimi film goes right back to the classic Lee/Ditko comics, the tone of which almost feels anachronistic when set in the present day as it was. As such, Maguire is almost mugging for the camera at times, an aspect which is taken to ludicrous, oft-parodied extremes in the third film. In this one, I actually quite like his Peter. Sure, he looks about five or six years too old to be in that high school, but I think he gets the spirit of it pretty well. He’s a shy, awkward, sensitive type, who, though initially overwhelmed by his gift, eventually grows in confidence, and as a man, to overcome what’s in front of him. The costume looks great. Steve Ditko’s design for Spider-Man is one of the defining images in 20th Century pop-culture, and the movie captures that look perfectly. The only major gripe I have his how he looks in action. Specifically, any time that he’s swinging. Now obviously, Maguire has no part in this, and the fault can’t be laid at his door. CGI was hardly in its infancy in 2002, but it was still developing, and sadly, Spider-Man’s CGI work is problematic. He never truly looks to have any weight or presence in those scenes, and it is very distracting. This was improved on in the latter films, and is never an issue with Amazing, but Spider-Man does look very dated.

Andrew Garfield’s performance is a subtler, more naturalistic piece of work. As I said before, he passes much more easily for Peter’s age than Maguire ever did, and he has a much easier comic timing and charm. The costume isn’t the best, but it does have a very tough act to follow with the Raimi series basically recreating the comics’ suit perfectly. His wiry frame does fit better than Maguire’s stockier build, though, and he handles himself brilliantly in the action sequences. Ten years have rather helped the swinging effects, as Garfield’s Peter seems to have some actual weight to his movements. His obsession with what happened to his parents is enormously frustrating to me, though, and I’ll get to that a little later.

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Peter Parker’s love life has always been complicated. The early days saw his affections drawn to Liz Allan, girlfriend of high-school bully and current Venom Flash Thompson. A relationship then blossomed with Betty Brant, secretary to J. Jonah Jameson. The two most recognisable women in his life, though, are Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. In 2002, Raimi turned to MJ, played by rising “It Girl” Kirsten Dunst, and in 2012 Marc Webb went with Gwen, played by rising “It Girl” Emma Stone.

Dunst’s MJ is… bland? She’s there to be kidnapped and scream a lot, and occasionally create friction between Peter and Harry with a forced love triangle. No slight on the actress herself, per se, she does the best she can with the part. I’ve been a fan of her work off and on since I saw Small Soldiers, a favourite of mine when I was a kid, which I still quite enjoy today. But MJ herself is one of the weaker female leads in comic movies, constantly getting into danger and requiring our hero to rescue her. She’s just the most dull, drippy damsel in distress you can imagine.

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, on the other hand, is top notch. Full of personality and charm, self-reliant, not defined by her relationship with our hero, she’s the very model of what the female lead in a movie centred on a male character should be. Her chemistry with Andrew Garfield is fantastic. Stone is a joy to watch in just about everything, and this is no exception. The decision to have Peter share his secret with her is one I actually quite like. I’ve always felt that keeping the secret hidden from their loved ones is a slightly tired, rubbish trope of the superhero comic. By sharing, Peter stops Gwen from investigating where he goes when he’s off being Spider-Man, thus offering her a greater degree of protection than he would by hiding the secret from her. I’m not saying he should tell everyone, he tells far too many people in this movie, but sharing it with Gwen makes total sense.

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It’s often said that a superhero is only as strong as his rogues gallery, and Spider-Man has one of the best in comics, second only to Batman in the villain stakes, in my opinion. And, where Batman has the Joker, Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis has typically been the Green Goblin (though that status is debatable for him, with many, myself included, favouring the Superior (see what I did there?) Doctor Octopus, whereas the Joker’s status is irrefutable), and it made total sense for Raimi to launch with him in the villain’s role in 2002. Debuting in 1964, the Goblin would plague Spider-Man for two years before his identity was revealed to be Norman Osborn, father of Peter’s best friend, Harry. Their antagonism would come to a head in Amazing Spider-Man #121-122, a storyline I won’t name for fear of spoiling the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2, in which a particular participant appears to be wearing their outfit from those issues, as Spidey fights (amongst others) Harry Osborn as the Goblin.

To portray Norman and the Goblin on film, Raimi turned to Willem Dafoe. Dafoe’s offbeat weirdness, mixed with a willingness to try anything, has led to both some of the most interesting, memorable supporting performances of the last 30 years, and some utter dross in equal measure. In Spider-Man, and his cameos in the sequels, he brings it. His Osborn is slimey, weird and unpleasant, and his Goblin is a cackling delight. There’s a sequence in which the two sides of the character are conversing in a mirror that is the most ludicrous, daffy, entertaining moment of the entire film. He’s utterly unrestrained, and completely steals the film. That said, I can’t ignore the suit. It’s been done to death, for sure, but for good reason – he looks like a terrible Power Rangers reject. It’s so distracting. The Goblin is more exciting and entertaining in his dressing gown than in costume, and that can’t be right. Beyond that, his motivation is more than a little shaky. Taking revenge on the Oscorp board, I get, but his sudden all-consuming hatred of Spider-Man never quite sits right. I mean, sure, Spider kicks him off his glider during his big moment at the parade, but he still managed to successfully murder those who he felt had wronged him. Then again, he is completely nuts, so maybe that’s it. Norman Osborn will return in Amazing Spider-Man 2, played by the great Chris Cooper. I can’t wait to see what he does with him. My hope is that he raps about how wealthy he is.

For Amazing, Webb turned to Dr Curt Connors, AKA The Lizard. One of a plethora of alliteratively initialled characters created by Stan Lee, Lizard is traditionally more of a tragic figure, a scientist with one arm, trying to unlock the regenerative abilities of reptiles to grant humans the ability to regrow lost limbs, he tests the formula on himself, and is mutated into a giant lizard. We’ve all been there. Interestingly, the character of Curt Connors was a supporting player in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and 3, played by the fantastic Dylan Baker, whose presence, due to the film Happiness, I never find anything other than unsettling in anything. After the collapse of Spider-Man 4, Baker was replaced in the role by Rhys Ifans.

As with just about everything else between these two films, Ifans is a much more restrained presence than Dafoe. Like Dafoe’s Osborn before him, the change in Connors is the result of rushed self-experimentation for the sake of Norman Osborn. This thread that the Amazing films are pursuing, with Oscorp as the greater evil behind the villains, is an intriguing one, and should hopefully lead to a greater sense of coherency throughout the series. However, again following the tack of Dafoe before him, when in villain form, he looks goofy as hell. He looks more like Killer Croc than the Lizard, but with a touch of the horrible CGI on The Rock as the Scorpion King at the end of The Mummy Returns. His plan to disperse a toxin over the city using the central hub smacks more than a little of Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, too.

With both films covering Spider-Man’s origin, their first halves tread very similar waters. Coming first, Raimi is able to pretty much cover the classic origin verbatim from the comics. As such, we get that hilarious sequence in which Peter shows up for the only real wrestling match ever, meeting the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo and the howlingly funny performance of Macho Man Randy Savage as Bonesaw. All together now – “Bonesaw feels no pain!” Admittedly, catchier than if they’d used Peter’s original wrestling foe’s name. Can you imagine “Crusher Hogan feels no pain!”? This sequence of course leads to Spider-Man’s key formative moment, being indirectly responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. Ben and May Parker can be quite one-note characters if you get them wrong, with Ben particularly existing chiefly for the purpose of dying to make Peter accept his Great Responsibility. They become memorable here by the fine work from Rosemary Harris and the late Cliff Robertson, imbuing them with charm, humour and likability that make Ben’s loss and Peter’s relationship with Aunt May so involving.

Amazing has a thankless task in its first half, as it has to retell the same story, whilst endeavouring not to repeat it (albeit, having the opening titles look exactly the same didn’t exactly help). There are some cosmetic changes (instead of being bitten by one escaped gm-spider, Peter wanders into an experiment with dozens of them and receives multiple bites, for example), but there are differences. Chief amongst these is the obsession with the mystery of Richard and Mary Parker, something which appears to be carrying over into The Amazing Spider-Man 2, sadly. Uncle Ben’s death is tragedy enough to spark Peter’s journey, he doesn’t need his parents to motivate him too. And I have to say, god love Cliff Robertson, he’s not Martin Sheen. The relationship between Ben and Peter is much stronger in Amazing, and his death feels that much weightier. Sally Field does a fine job as Aunt May, but I think Rosemary Harris is a much better fit for that particular character.

Amazing takes the decision to keep Peter in high school, and away from The Daily Bugle. Though I’m sure this was a story decision, I choose to believe it was due to the peerless work of J.K. Simmons in the role of J. Jonah Jameson. It’s rare in live-action cinema to see such a dead ringer for a comic book character, but Simmons is perfect for the part, and embodies the spirit of the character to a tee. There have been many Batmans, many Supermans, many Spider-Mans, but it’s rare to see someone make a character so utterly their own. The Amazing series may move Peter out of school, but one of their biggest challenges, if they choose to go to the Bugle, will be finding someone who can step out of Simmons’ devilishly long shadow. Denis Leary as Gwen’s father, Captain George Stacey, does go some way to softening the blow, though. Gruff, snarky and with a pathological hatred of Spider-Man apropos of nothing, he’s a delight. No Simmons, sure, but we make do.

In the second half, the films do diverge a fair bit. One thing that remains consistent, however, is Peter’s quasi-mentorial relationship with his nemesis in their secret identity. Shorn of his father at a young age, and reeling from the loss of Uncle Ben, there is something of the surrogate father in Osborn and more particularly Connors. It’s only briefly touched on in Spider-Man, mind, before Norman goes mental and starts blowing things up. Peter’s scenes with Connors begin as an attempt to understand what’s happening to him post-bite, and how his father might be involved, before becoming necessarily adversarial in the second half. As Connors regains his senses, though, we see that he genuinely cares about Peter; Osborn is an irredeemable torrent of rage, and his violent anger ultimately proves his downfall.

My chief issue with Amazing Spider-Man, ultimately, is how little resemblance it actually bears to a Spider-Man story. The stated intent of rebooting the series was to do for Spider-Man what Batman Begins did for Batman. Now, what that sentence literally means is to revive a dead franchise by taking the character back to his classic roots, in a straight-up earnest take on the character and series as a whole. At this point, I had intended to do a snarky bit about how what they actually meant was “do a quasi-remake of Batman Begins only with Spider-Man”, and to an extent that does hold true. Changing Peter’s chief motivation from Uncle Ben to his parents is the most obvious similarity, and the aforementioned villain plan. But what I noticed on this watching is just how much it cribs from the Raimi film. Granted, there were always going to be similarities, but it does the “good reflexes” gag, the basketball scene with Flash is beat for beat the fight with him from the first one, the similarities between Connors’ story and Osborn’s that I discussed, it ending with a main character’s funeral, the city of New York banding together to help Spidey stop the villain… I could probably go on.

That said, I think Garfield and Stone are much more enjoyable in the leads than Maguire and Dunst. The supporting casts are about even; for every J.K. Simmons there’s a Martin Sheen, for every Dennis Leary a Willem Dafoe. The action in Amazing is definitely superior, but Spider-Man has a better plot for the character, and tells it better. It’s a closer call than I remember it being, but I’m going to go with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The Superior Spider-Man, if you will.

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Looking forward, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is out next week. It looks… busy? We’re going to see our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler take on Electro, Harry Osborn as Green Goblin, and the Rhino. The trailers look fun, but my concern is the last time we saw Spider-Man take on three villains in a movie, it was the rightly reviled Spider-Man 3. That said, my hope remains that we’ll be about to see the astronomical leap forward that we saw from Spider-Man to Spider-Man 2. We’ll find out when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hits cinemas on Good Friday. See you there.

Brad

Brad

Consumer. Scribbler. Occasional drunkard. Nice beard, though...
Brad

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