Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Spider-Fan, Spider-Fan

Spider-Man fans. They are very cross about the last film and the film before that. Not sufficiently close to the source material. 

They are kind of right. Far From Home is kind of not a Spider-Man movie. It is more interested in its position in the Marvel Cinematic Canon than in faithfully reflecting the core of the Spider-Man myth. 

VOICE OVER—EITHER TOM WATTS OR THE GHOST OF STAN LEE: "Sod you, Core of the Spider-Man Mythos. We set out to make a movie."

This is where we are with Star Wars as well. We can all agree that Last Jedi was a very different take on Star Wars: almost a subversion and deconstruction of Star Wars. We can disagree about whether Star Wars is the kind of thing we want to see subverted and deconstructed. But not if it make us want to cut the heads off dolls.

I think that Far From Home is a decent film, not as good as Homecoming but better than Amazing Spider-Man II. The Toby Maguire series still feel like the serious important definitive attempt to make Spider-Man Ther Motion Picture. The Andrew Garfield duology and the five Marvel Universe appearances feel more like some new Spider-Man cartoon episodes.

Nothing wrong with Spider-Man cartoon episodes.

Christopher Reeve still feels like Superman: Henry Cavill feels like some actor playing the part of Superman. I don't think any of the three actors we have had so far have claimed the role of Spider-Man as their own. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale and Ben Affleck are definitely pretending to be Batman. The one and only true and real Batman is still Adam West, and I say that as one who doesn't particularly like the Adam West version of Batman.

Different kinds of apples have different kinds of cores and there is more than one way to skin an onion. It is certainly true that Spider-Man: Homecoming was much more of a Kid Iron Man story than it was a Spider-Man story. It wasn't about a radioactive spider; it was about a young kid who has blagged a very powerful suit of techno-armour that he really can't operate. It reminded me quite a lot of the Rocketeer, a movie I could never bring myself to hate. 

The Original Comic Book Spider-Man is definitely not Kid Iron Man; but then, Marvel Comics were never particularly interested in how their characters interacted with the Greater Marvel Comic Universe (TM). Not for the first 25 years, at any rate. If the point of Spider-Man is that he is very young, very well meaning, and really not terribly good at being a superhero then it makes a certain amount of sense for him to be Tony Stark's protege. The newbie kid learning the superhero trade from the veteran. Spider-Man the hero who can never live up to his heroic role-models, or fears he can't. If this isn't the Core of the Spider-Man Myth I don't know what is.
In any event it would have been a shame to have missed out on Tony Stark saying "if you are nothing without the suit you don't deserve to have it."

I am not automatically right just because I am older than you. I have a great deal of sympathy for who-ever-it-was who said that the only people capable of judging a pop song are teenage girls. That's who they are written for. The true version of Spider-Man is the version of Spider-Man which appeals to eleven year old boys, not the version which appeals to thirty-five year old collectors.

But still, my memory goes back a further than yours. I am one of the last living examples of Great Western Fan. I remember the days when there were no superhero movies at all: when a showing of The Adventures of Captain Marvel or King of the Rocket Men on BBC2 could garner considerable excitement. (Grown ups! In superhero costumes! In black and white! With questionable flying effects!) I remember the days when American comics were obscure, rare, non-sequential objects and literally no-one knew who Spider-Man even was. I remember Nicholas Hammond. I remember a live-action TV series which had no point of connection to the comic book apart from an actor looking deeply uncomfortable in a poorly designed Spider-suit, with mirror lenses on his mask and web-shooters outside his gloves and a ballet dancer's bulge in his tights. No Uncle Ben, no Gwen, a perfunctory Aunt May, no swinging, no super-villains of any kind. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of seeing a man in a Spider-Man suit, sorry, a REAL LIFE Spider-Man. Hell, I remember how excited I was by the first or second issue of FOOM magazine which contained a couple of black and white stills from an unofficial film-school Spider-Man movie which never got released: because they were PHOTOGRAPHS of SPIDER-MAN.

The early issues of the British comic offered a PHOTOGRAPH of Spider-Man as a promotional item. I have managed to find a reproduction of it. It would have disillusioned my eight-year-old self for life.

I can even remember when I first saw the cartoon: not Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends but the original Spider-Man-Spider-Man does whatever a Spider-Can version. The mere existence of Betty Brant and J.J.J on the small screen was thrilling and validating.

So moan moan moan because the big screen blockbuster that everyone is talking about is not quite faithful enough to the Original Comic Book Spider-Man. You have no idea how lucky my twelve year old self thinks you are.

And anyway. There is no Original Comic Book Spider-Man. There are a number of different versions. Ditko's Spider-Man is not Romita's Spider-Man; Romita's is not Todd MacFarlane's. MacFarlane's Spider-Man was quite different from...er...whoever it is who is drawing him at the moment. Everyone knows which version I like best. Hardly anyone agrees with me. That's okay. That's how these characters work.

I had quite a lot of time for Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate Spider-Man was a reboot. Ultimate Spider-Man tried to strip away everything which had been added to Spider-Man between 1963 and 2001 and present the refreshed essence of the character. The New Spider-Man was so much like the Old Spider-Man that old-time-fans like me could have just wept. But then stuff happens and the character moves away from his origins. He doesn't become Tony Stark's protege, but he does get recruited by Nick Fury. 

Ultimate Spider-Man is already a very old comic book: hell, it's nearly a decade since that version of Peter Parker handed the webs over to Miles Morales. You polish off all the dust that has accumulated on Spider-Man; you wind him up and set him in motion; and a whole lot more dust accumulates; and you can no longer see the character you know and love. So you either clean him up again, or else you learn to love dust.

This is not a criticism. This is what happens to fictional characters. Roll with it and accept it. There is no one true Spider-Man. There is no pure Batman. There is no right way of doing Superman. In fact, there is no Superman: there are only 60 years worth of Supermen...

I am in the minority about Sherlock Holmes. I think that Sherlock Holmes means foggy London streets and bobbies in funny hats threatening to administer clips-round-the-ear to street urchins. I think that Sherlock Holmes means deerstalkers and curly-pipes and horse-drawn taxis and the Baker Street address. However clever Benedict Cumberbatch may be, and he may be very clever indeed, I don't think that having a companion called Watson makes you Sherlock Holmes. If it doesn't have Tower Bridge and a hanging judge and people who call rooms "diggings" then it isn't Sherlock. 

Not that things which aren't Sherlock can't be interesting.

I shouldn't blame the Spider-Man-Twitterati for taking it too seriously. I take it too seriously. I shouldn't blame them for over-thinking it. I over-think it. But they act as if it really, really matters. And I don't think it matters. They behave as if they think Far From Home was a personal insult. Their identity is somehow bound up with Spider-Man.

As a matter of textual fact, Uncle Ben was not a very important part of the Spider-Myth in the inaugural Ditko era: Spider-Man was more likely to be kept on the straight-and-narrow by Aunt May's Gumption or Johnny Storm's Pep Talks than by his deceased step-father. Ben became increasingly important as Stan Lee reconfigured Ditko's objectivist anti-hero into a more mainstream superhero character; but when Ben was mentioned, it was still less as a moral influence and more as a plot excuse. Why would a young man dress up as a spider and fight crime? Because Uncle Ben. Why wouldn't Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man if he is obviously no good at it? Because Uncle Ben. Why not become a scientist rather than a guy who catches jewelry thieves just like flies? Because Uncle Ben. 

Uncle Ben was omitted from the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man for clear and logical reasons. The Toby Maguire movies showed how Peter Parker was bitten by a magic spider and how he vowed to use his new found powers to fight crime. The Andrew Garfield movies showed how he was bitten by a magic spider and vowed to use his new found power to fight crime. Both the Toby and Andrew's versions showed the murder of Uncle Ben. The auteurs of the Marvel Cinematic thingummybob made a very sound judgement-call that we didn't need to see the same origin myth three times in fifteen years. Why not introduce us to Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man as a going concern? Why not take the power and responsibility thing for granted?

I'd like to have seen more of Peter Parker in a silly home-made costume doing his best to catch small time crooks on his home turf.

"But removing Uncle Ben changes the character." 

Well: no, demonstrably, it doesn't. Tom Holland does a far better job at playing the comic book Spider-person than any of the previous actors. The most important thing about Spider-Man is not "has a dead uncle". The most important thing about Spider-Man is "snarky banter." 

"But that character could not have come into being without first committing avuncularcide by omission". 

Again, pretty much, no: there are good people in the Marvel Universe, and indeed the Universe, who are not trying to atone for a past transgression. People can acquire a sense of responsibility from school, literature, from Church or Synagogue. I doubt if a single person watching the film said : "But this makes no sense. Why would Spider-Man try to do the right thing if he hasn't got a murdered parental figure somewhere in the background?"

Yes; Batman's Dad was murdered. Yes; Superman's whole planet blew up. Yes; Stan Lee wanted to make Peter Parker more like the Big Two. No; that isn't the only thing about Spider-Man.

But most bizarrely of all; they speak as if Spider-Man and Uncle Ben were real people. They speak as if Ben Parker the man has somehow been slighted by being omitted from the film; they talk about hairbrushing people out of history; they affect to be offended on his behalf.

I think that they are some of the same people who are Personally Offended by the new Star Wars movies, because they Denied Them their God-Given Right to see Old Man Mark and Old Man Harrison zipping around the universe having adventures together.

I think that the sheer intensity of the Spider-myth; the sheer potency of what Steve and Stan created is such that some people cannot be trusted to consume it. It maketh them mad.

The best version of Spider-Man, and indeed the best Super-hero movie is of course Into The Spider-Verse. It engages with and embraces the Core Myth of Spider-Man while at the same time being Fun. It turns Spider-Man into an anthropomorphic pig and still seems to take the character seriously.  The blonde cartoon Spider-Man who Miles encounters in the first act feels so much realer and solider than anything so far played by actors. 

It even has Uncle Ben in it, kind of.

They are making a film of New Gods. I hope fandom can keep its collective head attached. 



I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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7 comments:

  1. I had no idea that there were people who hated the new films.

    I suddenly feel quite glad to be otherwise distracted.

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  2. We have a saying in our house 'it was disrespectful to Sherlock Holmes!' to be used when the person one is speaking to is sliding from genuine critique of a piece of media to the kind of "I'm very angry that I did not enjoy this, and also that the passage of time exists, and also about a lot of other things in my life that are, it turns out, tied up with e.g. The Muppet Show in a way that I will not examine!". Coined when an adult man of our acquaintance angrily refused to listen to a brief summary of the Michael Caine comedy Without A Clue using those words. Still, around 20 years later, one of the most inadvertently funny things I've ever heard.
    It gets used a lot, because we're nerds and hypocrites. I'm glad that there are essays like this articulating the problem with that mindset in a kinder way.

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  3. Thank you, and I am going to be using the phrase "It was disrespectful to Sherlock Holmes" in the future.

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  4. Like Andrew Ducker, I was previously happily oblivious to this fan reaction. Like always, they’re treating a few bits of furniture as heraldic objects while missing the bigger point. As the saying goes, with great nerdosity comes a great lack of perspective. To me the great thing about ‘Far From Home’ is precisely how much of the spirit of Spider-Man it captures, in particular the Ditko High School years. It doesn’t use the ‘school-soap’ elements as a jumping-off point, something for the action to break in on, but a parallel plotline which it treats equally seriously. We get as involved in Peter wanting to sit next to MJ as we do him battling a pan-dimensional-villain.

    Everyone… just everyone tells me ’Into the Spideyverse’ is the best Spider-Man film of all. Guess which one I ended up missing.

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  5. My family enjoyed it and none of us are Spider-Man fans. (My wife and I both disliked the first Spider-Man film with Tobey Maguire and never saw another one until that one. Neither of us has any idea how true to the comics either film was. I watched a couple of episodes of the "does whatever a spider can" show when I was a kid and that's about it.) Into the Spider-verse was good fun.

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  6. I never thought I'd meet anyone who didn't like the first Tobey Maguire film. I mean, it's not great art or anything, but it's fun and exhilarating and generally everything I would have wanted a Spider-Man movie to be.

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