Friday, July 13, 2012
With Great Power Comes Great... oh, you know this already...
By Russel D McLean
Those of you know me, know that I’m a bit of a geek. So you can guess that this week (The Literary Critic passed on this one, surprisingly) I was off to see The Amazing Spiderman.
There’s a lot to like in the movie (and a couple of bits – yes, corny and inexplicably coincidental crane operators, I’m looking at you – that’s maybe not worth liking so much) and Garfield gets Peter Parker in a way that Tobey Maguire never really did. And for all that his motivation was paper-thin, I kinda dug Rhys Ifans as The Lizard, and really liked the way they shied away from some of the really obvious stuff (like immediately adding major villains or throwing in J Jonah Jamieson before he was really needed).
But here’s the thing – rebooting the series or not, did we really need another origin?
We all know the story of how Spiderman became Spiderman. And a lot of critics of the movie are asking why we needed to go through the whole thing again, even with some tiny twists to make things a bit different this time out (such as Pete’s dad running away due to the Very Bad People wanting to use his scientific discoveries, or Spidey not doing his wrestling schtick before Uncle Ben died).
It’s a fair question – why do we need another origin? Don’t we get it already? Couldn’t we just start with Peter all Spideyed out?
Well, we could have. After all, Tim Burton successfully managed to avoid an “origin” in his Batman movie. But then the more I thought about it the more I realised why, when reintroducing a new take on a popular character, origin stories may be necessary as much for the “reimagineers” as for anyone else.
You see Origin stories – especially superhero origin stories – provide a great template for conflict, rising action and all that good stuff that actors, directors and, yes, writers, love getting their teeth into. We get to see a protagonist go through a period of intense change. And we, as the audience, get to root for that change. We want to see Peter overcome his own nerdiness and indecision to become the hero we know and love. We want to see him come through the grief over his uncle’s death and become the guy in the red and blue suit who’s always on hand with some webbing and a quip. We want to see how he grows into his powers. And we want to be wowed when he finally realises his potential.
Of course, the story after all of that is still interesting. But its more difficult to paint in dramatic terms. When a guy’s already a hero, you have to start creating bigger and more absurd obstacles for him to face. When this happens, you quickly find yourself in a Batman and Robin or a Spiderman 3, where suddenly nothing matters anymore except the spectacle and the cheap straw men lined up against your hero. When you root for the hero only because you know he’s the hero, its more difficult to wring drama out of the situation. Especially when you’re not writing a weekly or monthly serial and you only have the audience’s attention for two hours every three or four years.
After all there comes a point where character development gets tricky. The last go on the Spiderman franchise resulted in two somewhat interesting films about a man trying to find who he was and a third film that jumped through hoops to try and give us something our hero couldn’t handle, ending up unbelievable and more than a little daft.
My point is that I’m as irked as anyone that they just went straight back to retelling the story of Spiderman from the beginning, but from a dramatic standpoint, I understand why they did. Just look at any long-running character and you’ll realise that their most interesting moments were in the early days, when they were developing and changing. Fiction has to be about change. But there comes a point when your character cannot continue to move forward and cannot be subject to the same kind of rapid and interesting conflict that he came across in the early days.
And when that happens you have three choices:
You either keep going and let the character go a little stale knowing that you’ve already bought the audience loyalty.
You end the series.
Or you reboot.
Sometimes in subtle ways – the comics, after all, are always tinkering with origins or changing the rules through some insane narrative devices.
And sometimes, as with The Amazing Spiderman, in ways that are utterly unsubtle but perhaps, for the creative team to feel comfortable, entirely necessary.