Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Amazing Spider-Man

Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Realism and ‘Realism’


From the beginning of the blog I have always tried my best to ensure that this site was kept free of technical jargon and dense language. This wasn’t out of any desire to dumb down, but rather out of the aim of keeping the blog as available to as many potential readers as possible – you don’t and shouldn’t need any background or expertise in arts criticism to feel like cinema and literature are places where you can contribute and take part in our collective culture. Books and movies are among some of the last cultural arenas that everyone can take part in. On top of this I wanted ThePageBoy to be a blog that helped generate discussion, provoked debate and even started some friendly arguments and that should happen in whatever language you possess. I go into all this detail for a simple reason, which is this isn’t a blog I started lightly.  However thanks to things like readers being engaged and full of debate things have reached the point that maybe I need to start being a little more adventurous in what I talk about.

With the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ a few weeks ago and now the first reviews from Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie surfacing there has been a lot talk of how superhero movies have become more ‘realistic.’ The Amazing Spider-Man is different because it is more ‘real’ than the Sam Rami trilogy and the reason this struck me as odd is that these films are about a teenager who is bitten by a spider and then becomes a vigilante to combat his guilt about his uncle being murdered. The Christopher Nolan trilogy starts with a billionaire absconding from university, running away from home and then climbing a mountain to join a ninja death cult. Does this sound like a Ken Loach film? No, not even a little bit – I know of nobody whose life is like this. Real life doesn’t consist of fights on top of skyscrapers with mutated lizard men.  Books also get lambasted for not being realistic enough; conversely a lot of young adult fiction has been criticized for being too gritty, or too realistic as if the two words were somehow synonymous

So this leads to an inevitable conclusion – the word realism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with real life; when a film is described as realistic it is not because it has anything to do with real life but rather the term is an aesthetic choice and the same goes for literature. So let’s start with the film and what makes these recent films qualify as ‘realistic’ and thus we need to go into a little history. The term ‘realism’ first came into the arts gradually during the period 1750-1850 (very approximately) in a variety of artistic fields. In a stereotype that is shockingly on point, the majority of the artistic fields that gave birth to the rise of realism came from the cultural heavyweight of France. In painting it came and thus literature inevitable followed. To put it as simply as I can, these pioneers, painters like Courbet and Chardin along with writers such as Balzac and Zola were attempting to do something special – create art that exists in third person or some sort of objective reality. Their aim was the production of verisimilitude of the real world. It sounds basic but this was an incredible radical decision for these artists to make. When literary realism reached England it provoked huge controversy; for an artist to make someone up that seemed to be real was considered to be ethically dodgy –lies sold as truth in the guise of art.

So, if this was the original aim of the realists, what changed? Well, two things have influenced where art has gone, firstly the artists themselves and secondly the people who view art, i.e. you and me. The first is possible more complex and certainly explains how films like the Amazing Spider-man can claim to be more realistic. As time progressed and artists continued to experiment the rules of ‘realism’ shifted. Through the realist writers different approaches developed, things like kitchen sink realism in British theatre and photography thanks to people like Dickens and his depictions of the life of the poor. The brittle sarcastic exchanges of the middle class English gentry in Austen are a world away from life in the dustbowl of America that Steinbeck wrote on, so literary realism became a form of the art rather than a description. The writer Henry James wrote a famous essay on the ‘Art of Fiction’ at the end of the 1800s that solidified this change – realism was less about the art but was no about the form it took. In literature the key points were close third person narrative and a direct access to the representation of a specific consciousness, and in many ways, regardless of genre this is still the basis of ‘realist’ writing today. I hope that goes some way to explaining how JK Rowling and Jonathan Franzen can both, in a sense, be considered realist writers  – with content subsumed to form this also applies to movies. As long as the form is still correct then the content can be as wild or fantastical as you like. From the literary form of realism realistic cinema we still have, (in most films in the mainstream) a three act plot structure, a close group of characters and unless the film is particularly avant-garde, a limited POV. Not in terms of cinematography mind you, just in the perspective the film is told from.

There is another, slightly more abstract reason why the term ‘realistic’ needs to be more carefully defined and this is about the very process of making art. Basically it’s this – my life doesn’t have lens flare. The very act of making a movie or writing a book involves a lot that is NOT real! To keep this term unchallenged and lazily bandied about by critics who want to explain how it can be a superhero movie without Adam West in it is just wrong.

Basically, what I’m trying to argue for is a better application of our shared critical language when we try and describe and engage with culture. From Wuthering Heights to The Dark Knight Rises our cinema and literary life is full of big exciting and often complex things that surely deserve more than just having a simple, fix all term thrown at them. So if we’re going to do that we should at least understand what we’re saying.

At least, that’s what I think.



PS I am well aware that these thoughts on realism in the critical sense are hardly exhaustive and if there is something worth saying that I’ve missed then please join in, in the comments section.

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


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.



Marvel Month III: ‘Spider-man, Spider-man’, or, Why puberty sucked for Peter Parker


A while back I had an idea for a hero. A hero for our time. A hero for the little guy. A hero that me, as someone trapped in the gulag of teenage angst would be able to relate to. This hero was going to change comics for ever, and, make me very rich indeed. Ready? Here it is. THE MAN-SPIDER! A spider, bitten by a radioactive man develops the proportional speed, strength and agility of a man, and hiding a tortured past dons a secret identity to battle crime and injustice. His nemesis? A giant bath-tub and of course, the deadly glass trap!

Thankfully though, Stan Lee has been alive for a lot longer than me and before I could unleash this horror upon the world, he decided to put out Spider-Man in August of 1962. Following on from my column on Thor, (please see last weeks if you haven’t read it, you’ll entertain yourself and increase my views. We both win!) I decided that I needed to review something a little more grounded, something that everyone had heard of – something core to the Marvel brand, and they really don’t come anymore core than Peter Parker – Spider-man.

Do I really need to explain what Spider-man is about? I mean, really? Then OK, for the few readers who have recently emerged from vegetative states lasting the last 50 years; firstly, congratulations and secondly pay attention. Peter Parker is your average down on his luck, angst-ridden teenager; through a freak accident he is granted his powers and tragedy strikes to make him come to terms with the responsibilities and costs of power.

Now, as I said last week with Thor, (seriously, go read it…) the problem I had was trying to find the defining run on the comic; THE story that defines the character like nothing else. This is a little difficult when the character is nearly 50 years old. When it comes to Spider-Man, the problem is a little more pronounced. Here’s why, Peter Parker is, in comic terms, a huge deal. Seriously. Here’s a little list of just how many Spider-Man titles that have, at one point or another, been monthly ongoing since the early 1960’s…

– The Amazing Spider-Man

–  Marvel Team Up

– Web of Spider-Man

– The Spectacular Spider-Man

– Spider-Man

– Sensational Spider-Man

– Untold Tales of Spider-Man

– Spider-Man Unlimited

– Spider-Man 2099

– Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man

– Spider-Man’s Tangled Web

– Amazing Spider-Man Family

– Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man

And that isn’t even all of them. At one point Spider-Man had five monthly ongoing titles. That is, to use a touch of understatement, a hell of a lot of comics. So, in order not to get swallowed by a tsunami of titles, continuities and general geekiness that I just couldn’t cope with I decided upon focusing on a rarity in comics – the complete storyline, Ultimate Spider-Man – by Brian Michael Bendis. Now, if this isn’t the run you think I should  have chosen – please, let me assure you that this wasn’t a choice I took lightly, plus doing a little research I found that Ultimate Spider-man was a big influence on the look and style of the first of the Spider-Man movies.

From the horror of Spider-Man 3, (and don’t worry – I’m getting to it)  some of you may have forgotten just how good the first film was. Even when considered in strictly financial terms this was a blockbuster in the truest sense of the word, being 2002’s highest grossing movie and even today it is the 30th highest grossing movie of all time. EVER! In terms of plot, this is the Spider-Man story that everyone knows. Peter Parker, the nerd we can all relate to gets bitten by a radioactive Spider and fights evil and get the girl, kind of.

Whilst the film is really very good there are a few things that really start to stand out now I have re-watched it. the design of The Green Goblin is dreadful. The dialogue is clunky and as cheesy as a teenager’s socks in places and the CGI often leaves a lot to be desired; though at the time it was quite impressive. What made it such a success is, in my opinion, the performances. Especially the two male leads, Toby Maguire as Spider-Man and James Franco as his best friend Harry Osbourne. These two carry the film – Maguire especially as the teenager forced to deal with something vastly beyond what he’s used to. I’m not wild about the other cast members, though that being said Willem Defoe hams it up as the bad guy and Mary Jane and Parker’s aunt and uncle aren’t really as fleshed out as they should be. Regardless, it was a huge success so as night follows day, the franchise was soon upon us.

Spider-Man 2 was in the world two years later, and let’s be honest, the warning signs were already there. Yes, Maguire and Franco are as good as ever, and it was fun to see them show the struggles Peter Parker has trying to balance his normal life and his life as Spider-Man. Even the CGI had taken leaps and bounds forward. And yet…The whole film suffered from some major problems of tone – whilst Spider-Man as a character has always been slightly more light-hearted than others this film failed to pull it off. Poor Alfred Molina as Doc Ock suffers here, as he looses his wife in one scene then starts building a GIANT DEATH MACHINE in the next. The film feels crowded and emotionally cramped as they desperately try to squeeze enough cameo’s and pointless ‘zany’ scenes in to keep cinema go-ers and fanboys alike happy. But it made even more money than the first and then…along it came; Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man 3…Now, to be honest I was really excited about the idea of the third film. The trailer looked amazing and I was really excited to see Venom on the big screen. And it all went so, SO wrong. If the second film was crowded then the third is standing room only. The goofy fun moments started to stack up and the whole thing felt almost schizophrenic. Yes, that’s right – I’m talking about “EVIL PETER!” There have been plenty of criticisms of this whole thing which have been made already, but I will just say this. Milk, cookies and jazz dancing in the club is not a subtle or dramatically consistent way to articulate the tortures of the hero. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT!

So, how does this compare to the comics? Well, actually, the place I think it all went wrong is when the films stopped being influenced by the comic books. The first film, for its slightly corny moments is a really solid hero movie. It’s fun when it needs to be, but it also takes the time to keep a tone that is…well, good. As a medium, the novel is a slightly slower paced one than the film and I think this holds true even for comics. The comics are action packed and do keep things consistent by not over doing it. Whilst it’s true that even now some of Bendis’s dialogue isn’t quite as hip or zany as it might have been when it first came out the writing is generally of a very high standard, and the influences to the first film can clearly be seen. Regardless of the criticism I said previously I really do like this run and I struggle to come up with any real substantive problems with it. The art is bright, dynamic and very clean and the stories the creative team come up with made me remember why Spider-Man can be so much fun to read. What I really enjoy about the comics is that it manages to balance the tone between fun, light-hearted banter and some kick ass action scenes. I think that maybe one of the most enjoyable scenes in the run is Spider-Man’s first battle with the Kingpin, who beats Spider-Man, tears off his mask and throws him out of window. Spider-Man’s comeback? A stream of fat jokes. It’s funny, it’s active and it just works.

Maybe I’m being harsh or unfair but I think that if this run had carried on influencing the screen writers then maybe the second and third films would have been better. Maybe the power and success of the franchise went to Sam Rami’s head and he wanted to see how much he could get away with. But again, the question has to be, as a franchise just how good an adaptation are these movies. The more I’ve thought about the more difficult I’ve found it to honestly answer, so there comes the best thought I could really muster…Ready…?

The three films, considered as a whole seem to come off as the product of someone who read the comics, but didn’t really pay that much attention to things like structure, or tone. Or emotional consistency. Or how to write dialogue. Or how to design a villain costume. Whilst I think, solely as films, these films are good fun entertainment, as an adaptation I really don’t feel like they do Peter Parker justice. Well, they almost do, they come so close to pulling off the tricky combination of Spider-Man as the everyman and the avenging superhero. I like the films, I do, but I don’t love them as the closer something gets towards being really good, the more disappointing it is when it falls short.

Look, maybe if I read a different run, (and believe me, I will be) I would have come to a different conclusion. Reading Ultimate Spider-Man has made me want to check out the classic runs from Stan Lee and Jeff Loeb and Gerry Conway and Dan Slott. Maybe these films have taken elements of other parts of the Spider-Man canon and maybe, if I read some more comics I’ll get the films.

This trilogy could have been great. It’s good but massively flawed and as an adaptation it takes some elements of this great run but somehow doesn’t quite come off. So, an ambiguous ending to this week’s column and I know it sounds like I haven’t quite managed to get to grips with the entire thing. But honestly, when I had this much source material to deal with, I’m just impressed I managed to get this column out within three years!

It’s never easy when dealing with a character as big and as omnipresent in comics as Peter Parker and if you think that I’ve missed something important, then please let me know and enlighten me as to what you think.



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