Sunday, March 06, 2022

When I was first reading Spider-Man -- at about the age of seven or eight -- I took it very seriously....

If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to the Incarnation. - C.S Lewis

When I was first reading Spider-Man -- around the age of seven or eight -- I took it all very seriously. Spider-Man was better than all the other comics in the world because Peter Parker had realistic problems: but for his sake I wanted all those problems to go away. I could see that his problems were the results of his double life. I understood that if he told Aunt May that he was Spider-Man the shock would probably kill her. So I started to think of ways around the problem.

My plan was that Spider-Man could ask his friend Doctor Strange to throw up some kind of protective magical cordon around Aunt May's house, so that when Peter Parker revealed his true identity to the world, the information would somehow be filtered out. May wouldn't know who Spider-Man was, but everyone else would. 

If God can do anything, He could in principle arrange things so that whenever someone is about to hit someone else over the head with a bludgeon, the bludgeon turns into a piece of floppy spaghetti; and whenever anyone is going to insult someone, the words turn into something nice before they reach the victim's ears. I wonder if Doctor Strange can make two hills without a valley between them?

It is quite pleasing to know that the custodians of the Marvel Cinematic Universe think the way I did when I was in Miss Bugden's class. Jonah Jameson has revealed Peter Parker's true identity to the world and pretty much ruined his life. But Peter Parker has an appropriate deus ex machina on hand. He goes to Doctor Strange, and like the eight year old he is, says "Make that didn't happen."

Doctor Strange casts a spell: Peter messes it up: and lots of people from lots of parallel worlds start materialising in Peter's universe. But the "other universes" are not other universes of the "What If Flash Thompson had been bitten by the radio-active Spider?" variety. It is self-evident to us -- though it cannot possibly be so to Peter Parker (or, indeed, to Peter Parker or Peter Parker) -- that they are the mortal remains of different, failed attempts to tell the story of Spider-Man.

One thinks, almost, of Monty Python's Meaning of Life. "The Supporting Film Has Invaded the Main Feature!"

It was fun to see Willem Dafoe putting toothmarks in the scenery; and it was fun to see what fifteen years' improvement of CGI can do with The Arms of Doctor Octopus. We had all heard the rumours about Maguire and Garfield popping up in the new movie; but I had honestly not expected anything more than the tiniest slither of a cameo. When Andrew "Amazing" Garfield saunters onto the screen, this fan-boy is not ashamed to say that he had a bloody big grin on his face.

One Spider-Man good. Three Spider-Mans, three times as good. Infinite Spider-Mans, infinitely good. 

Er...can we think about this for a moment? 

It is nice to kind of draw a line under the previous movies. It is nice to be told, semi-officially that even though the movies were canned, the characters carried on. It is nice to think that Spider-Man and Spider-Man are continuing to exist, in their own worlds, not in the kind of a no-space that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in when Shakespeare forgets about them. We put up with some very bad Star Trek movies because it was comforting to think that Admiral Kirk (Retired) and Captain Spock (Retired) were still out in space somewhere exploring strange new worlds. Part of the animus against The Force Awakens was that it forbad us from imagining that a long time ago in some galaxy somewhere Han and Luke were still shouting "Yee-Hi!" on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon, and would be, forever and ever. 

Peter B Parker is a creatively different take on our Peter: what would happen if he became disillusioned and stopped being a hero. Peni Parker is someone's creative reinterpretation of the character: what would Spider-Man have been like if they'd been a character in a Japanese comic book.  "What if Spider-Man had been a character in a 2002 movie directed by Sam Ramai?" is not a very interesting question. "What if people had liked Spider-Man 3 more, and there had been a Spider-Man 4, 5 and 6" is unanswerable and unanswered.

So what we have is not so much a story but a piece of cinema criticism. The differences between the different versions of the character are flagged up; and there is a slightly half-hearted attempt to work out what, if anything, they have in common. Garfield and Holland affect to be surprised that Maguire can shoot his own web. (They, like the comic book character, shoot their web from a gadget.) They compare and contrast their villains. Spider-Maguire and Spider-Garfield have never heard of the Avengers and are surprised that Spider-Holland is a team player. 

Would Spider-Maguire have done such a good job at being a Jesus figure in a universe where there were dozens and dozens of other super-people? How would Spider-Holland have fared if the most wonderful thing about superheroes was that he was the only one? No Cap from Brooklyn, no Steven Strange, no snazzy Iron Man armour? The Avengers/Justice League cross-over had Captain America being surprised at how shiny the DC Universe was, and Batman being surprised at how grim the Marvel Universe was, but those kinds of questions don't get addressed here.  

It is vaguely poignant to hear Garfield referring to Gwen as "my Em-Jay" because we know that the different Spider-Men have extracted different elements from different comic books. To me, that highlights a weird diminution of the character. Superman is "Superman and Lois and Jimmy and Perry". Holmes is "Holmes and Watson and Mrs Hudson". Spider-Man is "Spidey and Flash and Gwen May and M-J and Jonah"; the suggestion that he has mixed bag of lovers and friends and you can pick any three and still have the same character feels somehow indecent. Perhaps the Three could have some how found themselves in a static, 2D universe drawn by Steve Ditko and discovered that the comic book version is the real version of which they are all Platonic shadows. When the Fantastic Four went to the afterlife and met God, the deity bore a striking resemblance to Jack Kirby. Of course he did. 

It all makes the Marvel Universe feel more contingent and arbitrary; it makes M.C.U.P.P feel less like a character, more like a conjecture. Here is our current guess as to who Spider-Man is, but don't worry, if you don't like him, there will be an infinite number of alternative possibilities along in a minute. It is now  pretty much impossible to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr playing Tony Stark; Chris's Evans and Hemsworth embody the patriotic one and the Viking one so perfectly that the comic book characters have largely fallen in line with the movies. If we are not careful, Tom Holland will become merely one link in an infinite chain of not quite successful Spider-Men. 

Lex Barker succeeded Johnny Wiesmuller and Roger Moore succeeded Sean Connery and we pretended not to notice the difference. I think I liked it better like that.

We were asked to believe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had all-out Box Three made-up history secondary reality. It achieved that by saying that these movies; these -- oh god, is it really? -- 27 movies and no others form one single text. Now the text has no boundaries. If Doctor Octopus can hop over from another universe there is no particular reason why Doctor Who or Frankenstien or Conan the Barbarian shouldn't as well.

The first five episodes of the Disney What If... series deal in counterfactual hypotheticals. The final two treat the MultiVerse as a thing; make the Watcher a protagonist, and drag the alternate world versions of Thor, Sharon Carter, Black Panther and the buddies out of their continuities into a massively OTT fight with a Thanos-Ultron composite. It is quite fun, in its own way. 

When Disney bought Marvel, there was some mild sniggering about whether Goofy was going to have to join the X-Men. One feels that we are now only one stroke of the pen away from Luke Skywalker vs Thanos. And that really would feel like fan fiction. I read a piece of fan fic once entitled "What if Darth Vader were Herald of Galactus". It wasn't very good. 

Uncle Ben is not reinstated: but -- MAJOR SPOILER -- Aunt May dies, and the dead Aunt May tells Peter that with great power... I expect you know what she tells him that great power comes with. The backstory can be different and the costume can be different and the web-shooters can be different and the dead lover can be different but the thing that has to be the same across all universes is power and responsibility. Which is a valid take: Captain America is the Patriotic Hero and Daredevil is the Blind Justice Hero and Reed Richards is the Science Hero but Spider-Man is the Responsibility Hero.

With great power comes great responsibility is, not coincidentally, the part of the story which most clearly has Stan Lee's (as opposed to Steve Ditko's) finger prints on it.

We know that the movie rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four have reverted to Marvel. The question "How would these characters fit into the now-established mythos?" is very interesting to me. The F.F were Marvel's First Family: they were the first comic book of Stan Lee's Marvel Age; and the Marvel Universe's pre-eminent good-guys. Neither of these things would be true if they were Johnny-and-Ben-come latelies who sprang up in a world where Captain America makes educational videos and there is an Avengers musical on broadway. And anyway, there is a certain old-fashioned-ness about them. The stuffy scientist;  his beautiful wife, her hot-headed kid brother and his bruiser of a best mate. It smacks of Flash Gordon. Could these characters be reimagined in the way Nick Fury was reimagined -- to the extent that we forget that any other version ever existed? Or should we just leave them out of the Grand Narrative and have one more go at making a stand-alone film which doesn't suck?

I think the best thing would be to go retro. To set Fantastic Four Mark III in a 1950s version of the MCU; after the freezing of Captain America but before the paging of Captain Marvel. They get to fight aliens, help with the space race and defeat the commies without Nick Fury interfering, and if Reed is a bit patronising, he's just reflecting the social attitudes of his time. 

But there is a real fear that while Doctor Strange is flitting about his magical multiverse of madness he will stumble on a world where Chris Evans is, confusingly, a young lad who keeps bursting into flame as opposed to a steroid pumped super-solider; and bring him back to the main universe for a visit. Presumably an octogenarian Prof X can be wheeled on once he's done filming series three of Picard. 

Or, worse, perhaps the whole Multiverse will fragment, and it will turn out that Cap and Iron Man and Thor and the Eternals and the Black and Moon Knights are all stuck in their own continuities and don't interact with any of the others. Which would very much get us right back where we started. 

I am not against worlds where Flash Thompson became Spider-Man and Odin never adopted Loki. I am not against worlds where Rome never fell, Hitler won the war, and there is a different shaped gear-stick on the mini-metro. I am not against universes where Captain Kirk is a fascist, although I admit that I lost track of the damn Mirror Universe midway through Deep Space Nine. But once we start talking about the Peter Cushing Doctor Who having a one-night-only team up with Bat-Mite and the Brady Bunch, I think I may make my excuses and leave.

I guess I like world building, and I know that some people think that world building is a dirty word. I guess I think meta-stories are fun. I admit that I want to know how Baby Yoda escaped from Anakin's massacre of the younglings. I like talking about space ships and aliens as if I were talking about Prime Ministers and battleships. Everyone tells me that Brian Herbert's Dune novels are barely worth the paper they are written on, but I have a hankering to have a look at one of them because I want more of that universe. I spend so much time reading good books and listening to folk music and writing drivel like this is that I don't watch as much TV as I would like to: but the big question in my life is whether the next universe to immerse myself in should be the Expanse or Foundation. Discovery and Picard I take for granted. 

A story in which Galactus came to Nick Fury and Peter Parker's earth in the 1950s and Reed Richard fended him off (and how the history of that has been suppressed) would be terrific fun. A portal which allows Buzz Lightyear to meet up with Captain America and the Human Torch, not so much.

If every film ever made is part of the Marvel Universe then the Marvel Universe is not a Universe but just a some movies. If you move everything from Box Four to Box Three, then Box Three becomes indistinguishable from Box Four. Cerebus didn't really meet Dave Sim: Dave Sim just drew a picture of himself, meeting Cerebus, on a piece of paper. And then he drew a picture of himself drawing a picture of himself. Reality remained intact. If everything is real, then everything is fictional. If all stories are true, then everything is a story. This is an imaginary story, but aren't they all.

That's all I have to say about the multiverse.

The metaverse, so far as I can tell, is a big zoom meeting with VR goggles.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Yes, but what did you think of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Cross-overs are fun until the point that they become overwhelming and stuff starts breaking down. To me, it seems the Marvel Universe has reached that point of saturation long ago, but what do I know.

Treating every bit of fiction as a piece of one vast structure can be a rewarding game: Wilkie's Moonstone once belonged to Nemo's grandfather. There's a series of Roland statues in German towns. Their appearance is androgynous, which makes sense if Roland is also Orlando. (Of course, this is the same kind of androgyny that leads Dan Brown to identify John as Mary Magdalene.) But not every bit of fiction is a good fit for every other bit.