Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Avengers vs. Amazing Spider-Man

by TheLitCritGuy


First off, the bright eyed and bushy tailed that no doubt make up the majority of my traffic will notice that this is not a usual Page Boy adaptation.  In a wonder of tautological truth that is simply because this is SOMETHING DIFFERENT! In the most roundabout sort of way I’ve decided that whenever I find two films, or in some cases two books, I’m going to load up the double barrelled shotgun of reviewing and do a little side by side review. I’m not going to make this a regular thing but if I find a couple of films or books that lend themself to a particular theme or topic that’s been on my mind then you’ll see the DBS reviews up here.

So for the first double barreled shotgun review let’s talk about genre movies; namely, as the title gives away The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, two of the big three superhero movies coming out in summer 2012.

First up The Avengers, this has been the climax of Marvel Studios on-going attempt to bring comic style continuity to the big screen, starting with Iron Man and that now ubiquitous post credit teaser scene with the sudden appearance of Samuel L Jackson.  Looking at how popular that scene is now in the superhero genre it is easy to forget the huge gamble that this represented. Outside of the comic community these Marvel characters were as well-known and would certainly not qualify as household names. Now, half a decade on Marvel studios have done something that many believed to be impossible. The movies succeeded in Taking little known and often complex characters to the paradigm of the simple action movie – the good guys who save the world and get the girl. What made the films so great is that they weren’t dependent of viewers being familiar with the entire Marvel universe, sure it helped, but the interdependence of the films means that Marvel can build their universe at the own pace. The plot of all the Avengers movies is basically the same thing, a unique individual is required to use their abilities to save the world/town/nine realms of space/whatever and become the hero they were all along. What sounds initially unpromising is made to work through top-notch understanding of who these people are – their arc may be the same but the way they come to it means that none of these characters feel samey, all the characters drawn deeply enough to bring flesh to the bones of their archetypes.

The Avengers was the culmination of this project and was a colossal success not only commercially but interestingly, for a genre movie, critically. So here’s where we come to it – yes, technically every film is a genre movie but the distinction I’m trying to draw here is the difference between “films” and “movies” and unquestionably The Avengers is a movie with a capital “M” – designed for opening night bonding and popcorn munching. So what made the Avengers able to be acknowledged by critics who would normally ignore something so unashamed-ly ‘blockbuster-y.’ To try to answer this in terminology I have used before – the Avengers does not suffer from cool shit syndrome. Yes, there are loads of cool things that happen in the film, but all of – EVERY SINGLE THING – happens for an incredibly good reason. Nothing is superficial – action is there, not for its own sake, but to further either character or plot development, which is what action is for. All of this is down to one simple thing, the quality of the writing and the directing from Joss Whedon. The well-drawn characters and interesting dialogue allows the film to make the audience care beyond the spectacle. Yes, you can enjoy the stuff blowing up, but it is more involving when the characters being blown up are ones we relate to and like. Plus the fact the film is incredibly funny in places allows for dramatic juxtaposition  – a character we like and laugh at his jokes gets murdered and we feel much more invested in what is happening. In short, the rules of the genre work well together to involve the audience and bypass whatever limitations of the superhero genre might be.

What this allows is for the film to operate within the limits of its genre but not to be trapped by it. Do you want to know what you get when a film is trapped by its genre? Transformers 2. That’s what you get. Messy, loud, annoying spectacle and that is it –and that just isn’t a bad genre movie, that’s a bad movie full stop.

Let’s Move on to the Amazing Spider-Man, which I just got back from seeing. And this, quite obviously, fits in the super-hero genre perfectly. Almost too perfectly and this might well be why I left the cinema feeling that ‘Amazing’ was hyperbole. Rebooting the franchise, clearly for no other reason than to hang onto the intellectual property the film does have some very good points – so lets deal with the good bits before talking about my problem with it and why I think this film shows the limits of the generic movie.

So, the good points, which has to start with the cast. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as the teenage leads are both very good, the fact that they are a real life couple making them the chemistry between them palpable. In the hands of Marc Webb, responsible for the indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer, the scene with Peter and Gwen are probably the best in the film. The new world of the inevitable franchise is skilfully rendered, leaving the somewhat cartoonish Rami vision for something more realistic. The ensemble works well – Martin Sheen being a highlight, because, well he’s Martin Sheen. Furthermore this re-imagined Peter Parker is more complex and the scenes of him and his adopted family working through his issues are very strong. And by and large the rest of the supporting cast do a good job. What’s to the directors credit is that he has talent at conversation and character able to deal with scenes of emotional weight.

When we move to the action part of the movie problems do creep in. Starting, sadly, with the bad guy played by Rhys Ifans unfortunately burdened by some frankly god awful make up and terrible CGI. Yes, Ifans is a good actor but how can an audience be invested or scared of a lizard monster who makes me want to laugh. Whilst this sounds like a minor niggles, it leads into a bigger problem; in short, this would be a great movie if it wasn’t a superhero movie. The actions scene are good, but spectacle wise it isn’t anything new and feels bland and predictable. You’ve seen these scenes a thousand times before, and the final fight can be predicted beat for beat by anyone with an understanding of action movies.

Yes, the same could be said of the Avengers but Spider-man doesn’t make the effort to rise above meeting our expectations. Everything about this film is fine. Just fine. Not bad. Not amazing, but just good. The dialogue? OK. The good guy? Good. The action? Action-y. But that is all. Maybe it might be that a re-boot of Peter Parker just isn’t possible as pretty much everyone already knows the major beats of his character already and if you make the bold choice to mess with it, then it isn’t really the same character anymore.

Now some people will defend it saying this is just the first part of a new franchise and that we need to wait to fully get the vision that is being articulated. Now, there are two reasons why this is rubbish. Firstly, films are not trailers for other films. They are films! If a film cannot stand on its own merits then what I am I doing watching it? The first two Christopher Nolan Batman films stand up well on their positives. For proof that a franchise can operate individually as good films, look at the Avenger’s movies, (maybe not Iron Man 2…)

To conclude then, the two seen side by side show the genre at its very best and at its most basic, when operating within the confines of a genre, creators have a clear choice. they can either use the rules as the Avengers does to try to tell a story of quality or use the rules of the genre as a substitutes for the ambition that this takes. Following the rules of the genre won’t necessarily give you a bad movie, just one that misses ‘amazing’ by quite some distance.