ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Thor

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

Right,

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.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month II, or, ‘Why I love Kenneth Branagh’

Right,

Marvel month kicks off properly here, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who, when thinking about the Marvel Comics films, immediately jumps to a middle-aged Irish-man with a burning desire to be Lawrence Olivier. Ah, Kenneth Branagh – good old Kenny; big Kenny B, a man who has been nominated for an Oscar in five different categories, a man who was married to the wonderful Emma Thompson and decided to have an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter as well as playing the title role in five different films/TV shows. In short, this man is the ultimate classically trained and RADA educated LAD. (not in the misogynistic, horrific rape culture endorsing way, mind you – that wouldn’t be cool..)

Yes, I know that he has got his fair share of dross on his CV but you know something, I don’t care. I think Kenneth Branagh is simply flawless, and yes, that does include his version of Hamlet which is about five days long and earned him the honour of being one of three people who make a punchline in Blackadder. (A shiny penny to the first person to get the other two and no using Wikipedia! That’s cheating!)

So Branagh, (*swoon*) was the man brought onto the juggernaut that is the Avengers franchise to direct Thor. I will admit, however, that at the news I wasn’t delighted. I was distinctly sceptical. Branagh seemed too cerebral a choice, someone reliant on dialogue and character to really handle, what I assumed would be a big noisy blockbuster. Now this attitude, I freely admit, was based on a shocking lack of knowledge about Thor’s comics and a little snobbishness about the kind of work I thought was beneath King Kenny.

Thankfully the film soared over my expectations. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year so I won’t waste too much time re-hashing plot, but suffice to say it involves the Gods of Asgard and the war with the Frost Giants, a sibling rivalry between Thor and his brother Loki worthy of the greatest tragedies and, of course, scientists.  In keeping with all Marvel movies there is the inevitable build up towards the Avengers nerd-gasm coming this year but even considered as a separate entity rather than a 120 minute trailer for another film, this is a very solid movie. To a large extent the strength of the movie comes, in my opinion, from Branagh’s direction and the cast. The gods of Asgard are old school in the theatrical sense of the word – these are Gods of wrath, violence and all the worst traits of humanity with the power to destroy the entire world. The relationship between Thor, Odin and Loki has more than an echo of King Lear to it; helped considerably by the thespian legend Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing through the CGI scenery as the Allfather and the hulking presence of Chris Hemsworth as the adolescent and powerful Thor.  Tom Hiddlestone deserves all the credit one can heap on him as Loki and I am delighted beyond words he’s returning as the villain for the Avengers. Idris Elba adds another touch of gravitas as Heimdall, as well as stirring up some cheap publicity by having the gall to be a black actor in an action film!

As the previous paragraph may have given away, I think the films strongest scenes are the ones that focus on the realm of Asgard and the power dynamics of the Gods. Also of note is the sequences where Thor rashly plunges into a fight with the Frost Giants and his final confrontation with Loki really adds to the grand, Shakespearean themes the film is trying to aim for. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the scenes here on Earth, as to keep the films running time down, it feels rushed, (especially the love interest with Natalie Portman) and personally I never get the impression that Thor’s exile on earth is a real struggle to overcome. That being said, the film succeeds for the most part in marrying grand themes of betrayal, power and jealousy with an action packed story.

So, a good movie. But a good adaptation? Well, this is where the whole thing becomes a little more complicated…

As I said in the last column Thor has been around since the early 1960’s in comic form, and his legends have been around for literally thousands years. This is, not just a literary story – Thor is a cultural juggernaut, it surely isn’t possible to fuse Nordic legend into a comic form without being not just crass, but hugely insensitive.

Or so I thought. And then I started reading what I consider to be one of the finest comic runs I have ever read – The Mighty Thor Volume 1 337-382. Written and drawn by Walt Simonsen and lettered by John Workman it is an incredible piece of work. The look of the comic is like nothing else, thanks to Simonsen’s wonderful art style and the sense of scale and grandeur is done so well thanks to the jaw-dropping lettering from Workman. The dialogue too,  is just as good as the film’s and in some respects, much better. This Thor feels even more Shakespearean than the film thanks to the sometimes archaic syntax and tendency of the characters to think or say what is actually happening mid scene! What I love  about this run is the sense of cosmic scale that the creative team has achieved; whilst there are times where the dialogue feels clunky everything is given the time and the space to breathe, all of the action feels like it has a sense of great importance and the characters are given the page space to be given depth and characterised to an astonishing degree. Loki, especially, is shown to be an incredible villain, one who will happily destroy someone’s entire life just for the fun of it.

The problem is, of course, that the film adaptation has to be something unique to the Marvel comic as opposed to a slice of cultural appropriation in the obligatory cape and big hammer get up. To an extent I wouldn’t say this is what the film is; it certainly encouraged me to actually pick up the comics and see what Marvel writers wanted to do and the stories they wanted to tell. In a way, Thor’s problem is one I feel could be repeated by the rest of these films in Marvel Month. Thor is so well-known that, in a way, the adaptation is always going to fall short. We all know the name of Thor and many of us are familiar with the legends and mythologies of Nordic culture – the Norse gods have even named the days of the week.

Many people might think that there are so many different stories that could be told with  these characters and just as with Batman and Superman there will be people who demand different tales be told. The problem is, of course, that it simply isn’t possible to adapt what is a continuing narrative, you can’t adapt Thor in the traditional sense of the word, as the source material is still being generated. However…what you can do it take the original concepts, and they clearly are the original concepts from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and add to the ongoing narrative that is being told. Strictly speaking, this is a transposition of the original mythos, world and characters into a new medium. And it’s done well. Really well. It makes the world of Thor accessible to a huge new market.

The more I think about this, the more exciting I think comic movies are – it adds to the story and the characters in a way that traditional narrative couldn’t. Roll on next week, as Marvel Month continues!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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