SPIDER-MAN 2 (****)

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” How many times have we superhero fans heard this line, let alone understand its implications? Do we really take to heart how much sacrifice such heroism involves, or comprehend what would be at stake?

Superhero films tend to glorify ability over altruism. That is after all the main reason why we flock to the genre, to see amazing sights never seen before. But one film is special in how it focuses on the gravity of selflessness in spite of such might. And it does so not by showcasing its hero’s greatness, but his ordinariness. It’s Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

The film chronicles the continuing burdens amassed by Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as he struggles with the responsibilities of his alter-ego. He has problems with income, is behind on his studies, and has to deal with the secrecy and guilt of the deaths he feels accountable for within his close-knit circle. Worst of all, he has to stay away from Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) the love of his life, for the sake of her safety. And all of this just on his birthday.

This accumulation of personal crises then brings his body’s betrayal, as he experiences frequent disruptions in his superhuman abilities. He begins to doubt himself and his cause, which is when the film introduces its Last Temptation of Christ moment of abandoning righteousness.

But after watching what Peter Parker puts himself through, who wouldn’t want to give up the cross of being a hero? He isn’t faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive. He doesn’t have the machiavellian strategy of Bruce Wayne or the know-how of Tony Stark. He has his whole life ahead of him, so why should he risk martyring himself for others?

Surprisingly, he gets his answer from his future nemesis. When Peter Parker meets Dr. Otto Octavius, he is put to task for being perceived to be brilliant but lazy. He is inspired not only by his elder’s steely resolve, but also his warm sensitivity. This is no one-note mad scientist with lofty goals of domination. Both men share the noblest of intentions.

This good-heartedness only makes Otto’s fall even more compelling, as we watch him lose his lifelong dreams in ways that make Parker’s dilemma seem enviable. Dr. Octavius’s tentacled instruments which were once under his mental control enslave him, leaving him with nothing but the mocking nickname of Doc Ock. And through Alfred Molina, he becomes one of the best and yet most underrated of movie monsters, a tragic figure helpless against forces beyond his control. His Doctor Octopus is the best “super villain” not played by Heath Ledger.

The film espouses these two polar forces, who share the common curse of having lost their dreams that both have sacrificed so much for. The protagonist has merely handled such bad luck better than the antagonist. Their battles feel titanic, not because of their super powers, but because we have become fully aware of their hardships behind their causes. Neither one really gains an edge, nor gives an inch.

With their conflict set in New York City, it is impossible to ignore how the film’s setting and battleground evokes memories of September 11, which was merely a few years prior to the release of the film. Many may have forgotten, but heroism was not a word taken lightly in the period’s aftermath. If The Dark Knight touched on the very grim fears of a post-9/11 zeitgeist, Spider-Man 2 somehow glanced upon its hopes and wishes.

One can see this in Peter Parker’s epic rescue of a runaway train filled with passengers. Rarely has a comic book character’s heroic deed felt this thrilling, powerful, and touching before or since. It highlights what makes Spider-Man so special. When most superheroes fill the big screen as demigods, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker always arrives as an everyman. Call it messianic. Call it empathic. But when the train’s passengers lift him into safety, with one remarking how Spidey is, “Just a kid. No older than my son,” it’s a moment that ennobles everyone involved. Perhaps even us. It’s a credit to how effortless Maguire embodies both naiveté and quiet strength.

Its contemporaries would do well to understand that not every superhero film needs to thrill us with a great champion or premise. Spider-Man 2 is indeed amazing. A “Holy Trinity” member amongst superhero films. Not because of what its hero can do, but because it reminds us in a marvelously entertaining way how very special heroism and sacrifice really is.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (*½)

Some films cannot escape comparisons, especially when they are reboots made so soon after the originals. So when Sony Pictures decided to film its do-over less than a decade after Spider-Man and its classic sequel Spider-Man 2, many comic book fans such as myself were perplexed. We could understand a need for sequels, but why mess with the success of a franchise that launched the golden age of superhero films? The Amazing Spider-Man won’t answer that question any time soon.

Its failings come right off the bat, setting up a supposed intrigue with Peter Parker’s past which is never fully exploited. We briefly meet Peter’s parents, Robert and Mary Parker, played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz. You’d think that with such terrific actors you’d get meatier context, but the first moment we see them is also the last. There is no heft that plays out of their short appearances. They feel more like gimmicks than true characters.

Besides, Spidey’s fans know that the crux of Peter’s family life lies with his beloved Aunt May and Uncle Ben. And yet despite being played by greats Sally Field and Martin Sheen, their scenes and relationships are sorely lacking compared to their predecessors. They being Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson, who embodied their roles completely in our minds to an almost mythical degree.

Then there is Peter’s love interest, this time in Gwen Stacy whose tragic importance to him is well known in comic book circles. But even this promising avenue is botched with meet cutes and contrived romantic situations, which is mind-boggling for such a canonical character. Emma Stone is a cinematic gift, and her misuse here is depressing. There is no comparison worth making to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

There’s also the villain, played by Rhys Ifans, who is given no theatrical room for machiavellian menace the way his predecessors Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina were. And even if he was granted such leeway, those two are a tough act to follow anyway. Nonetheless, his CGI alger-ego the Lizard is effective as can be. But I would have much rather preferred seeing Irrfan Kahn, clearly with more gravitas, as the main baddie.

And lastly, there’s Peter Parker himself, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, taking on a role in that Tobey Maguire made his own, much in the same way Christopher Reeve made Superman his. Maguire’s Spider-Man may have lacked the smart-aleck-ness of the comic books, but he possessed an effortless transformation of naiveté into quiet strength and dignity that once seemed impossible to achieve in our jaded times. Garfield’s Spider-Man attempts to take on a vulnerable wisecracking edge, and succeeds all too well, turning our beloved web-head into Woody Allen. I believed him as an insecure teenager, but not as a centered youth capable of heroism. For me, this was a great miscalculation.

I could go on about how each perfunctory scene set up another one. Or how utterly dreadful the film’s soundtrack was, seemingly telegraphing each emotion, masking the film’s feeble storytelling. But it isn’t worth it. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with this movie. It’s unnecessary in almost every way.

If the film has any saving grace, it is in its action sequences, which among Spider-Man films are probably the richest in detail and the most convincing in terms of physical movement (at least from what I could tell). But everything else has been told better and felt truer elsewhere. I couldn’t help but shake my head through its entirety. The Amazing Spider-Man is a well-made agony.

BRAVE (****)

I always wanted a girl.

Before I had my darling Cate, I vividly remember a father wading through a swimming pool with his daughter riding piggy back with her arms wrapped around his neck. She screamed in delight, “Daddeee!”

I had always seen other fathers wrapped around their little girls’ fingers. My dad included. I didn’t mind. I thought it would have been the greatest deal in the world, having that kind of bond. And I still do. But I was also aware of how especially daunting it is to raise a woman in this world. Many of us don’t like to admit it, but men are acutely aware of how harsh the world is towards women. That’s probably why fathers become doubly compelled to be overly protective of our “precious and fragile” little girls. I’m proud to say that I’ve been guarding against this impulse as much as I can. So far all she longs for are super powers and rocket ships.

These thoughts echoed within me while watching Brenda Chapman’s Brave which I fell in love with just a few hours ago. It’s of a young woman’s coming of age story, but though Disney has had similar female protagonists in the past, whether of noble deeds (e.g. Mulan, Pocahontas) or royal blood (e.g. countless princesses), none are quite as headstrong or independent as Princess Merida (played with unceasing charm by Kelly Macdonald). She doesn’t belt out a tune in her moments of joy and isn’t supplied a young man to fall head over heels with. Her prowess rivals that of any white knight or fair prince. Even her hair is in defiance of stereotypes. No shampoo commercial straightened locks, just a fabulous firestorm of a coif. She isn’t even presented with a villain to defeat. but a choice whether to determine her fate. It may sound corny, but ask any woman whether that choice is taken lightly.

Yes, she is supplied with a somewhat overbearing mother in Queen Linora (Emma Thompson), but even this trope doesn’t follow the usual lines. Many animated parents merely exist to be proven wrong by their children, but in a virtuoso scene, Brave shows both sides in a heartfelt conversation between mother and daughter that never truly takes place; a sequence that highlights empathy and the hesitance to bridge the gap. And how about the refreshing King Fergus (the irresistible Billy Connolly) as Merida’s dad? When was the last time you saw an animated king not care about how his royal daughter should behave or be treated?

There were many other aspects that I adored about the film. Some more than others. Merida’s three baby brothers never speak, but their antics supply some terrific comic relief, especially with the use of shadow puppetry. I liked the Miyazaki-esque elements and influences. The witch (Julie Waters) who provides Merida’s turning point seems inspired by the old sage Oh-Baba of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The will-o’-the-wisps feel like they might come from the same family of the Kodomas in Princess Mononoke. Even sub-themes such as man’s relationship to nature and myth, as well as the lack of a true antagonist ring a bell. Like all Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the only true villain in Brave is the lack of understanding.

The film also pulsates with unbridled love for all things Scotland. The caricatures and digs at accents are there. But just like Scottish humor, it is done in fondness and without malice. And never have the Scottish highlands been more mythical in film, as the movie evokes vast misty forest-filled mountainsides with both dread and dreamy romance.

But what strikes me most is its strong voice for womanhood. Feminism is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days, connoting politics or agendas. But the term isn’t devoid of emotion or care. The film resonates especially in a time when women’s rights have come to the forefront of global consciousness and where fantastical film heroines haven’t been this prominent in ages. Dejah Thoris, Elizabeth Shaw, and Katniss Everdeen are Merida’s kindred spirits. Who would have thought that archery would become the weapon of choice for girl power?

Brenda Chapman directed The Prince of Egypt, a tremendously underrated animated spectacle that deftly handled its grand tale and emotions. She displays that same skill and purpose in Brave but with greater focus and conviction. Though she is listed as one of the film’s co-directors, watching the movie only reinforces the notion that it is her baby. It was inspired by her relationship with her daughter, and achieves more irony knowing that Pixar let her go from its production before its completion. A lady filmmaker getting only part of the credit for her story of female independence? One can only wonder.

No matter. Brave is a princess story that readily sheds all the fat from such folk or fairy tales, told with great skill and even greater spirit. And with Merida as its heroine, it gives us the embodiment of a strong-willed and free spirited lass, free to make her own fate. We can only wish the same for all our daughters.

What do we want Superhero Films to be?

With the unparalleled success of The Avengers at the box office, superheroes are back in the spotlight. Most comic book aficionados are delighted with the recognition. But believe it or not, there are those such as myself who are dismayed at how superhero films, though more popular than ever, seem to be losing their luster.

When I was in grade school, nothing seemed more interesting than comic books, with their amazing feats, super powers, hyper masculine (sexist) images and monumental battles. Their visual flair and storytelling style proved more vivid and effective than any textbook. But they also engrossed me in their attempts to personify concepts both political and abstract. I learned about discrimination from the X-Men, about eternity and death from the Secret Wars, about the trauma of war from Sgt. Rock. If anything, comic book heroes complemented my school education more than I could have imagined.

When I had finished the Secret Wars II series, there was nothing I wanted more than to see it as a film. I first imagined it in animation with Jim Lee (my favorite illustrator at the time) illustrating it to the minutest detail. Later I would envision it in live action, with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Colossus, Jack Nicholson playing Wolverine, and Jean-Claude Van Damme playing Gambit.

The last decade or so was a phenomenal time for the superhero movie genre, both thematically and financially. It wasn’t uncommon to have four such films a year, grossing over a billion dollars annually. This period saw some of the most profitable film franchises of all time, as well as a few of the most ambitious and creative takes on our most memorable costumed crime fighters.

But as the decade came to a close, the genre started to have less lofty goals. Since 2008, when the great pairing of Iron Man and The Dark Knight bookended that year’s Summer Blockbuster season, there hasn’t been a single worthy successor mentioned in the same breath. Some might argue that Watchmen fits that bill, but depending on who you speak to, no superhero movie has captured the same kind of critical and commercial acceptance comic book fans have been searching for (that includes The Avengers, which I’ll get to in a minute).

This sentiment was encapsulated by A.O. Scott in his essay “How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Tire a Genre?” In it, Scott surmised that 2008 may have been the peak of the genre’s powers, noting the rules by which its films have to live by.

“The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply. The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised — it’s not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos — precisely to authorize a more intense level of violence.”

It’s these predictable conventions in Scott’s claims that ultimately restrict the genre. The over-reliance on elaborate special effects. The insistence on spelling things out.

The problem I see is not so much in the genre’s conventions, as they harken back to youthful and more innocent notions in all of us. My issue lies, especially with most superhero films of the last few years, in the lack of resonance and ambition. This ultimately leads to a question we fans have to ask ourselves: what do we want superhero films to be?

The Birth of the Genre

Such films entered the collective consciousness, as Saturday Movie Serials in the 1940s. Some of their earliest protagonists were Captain Marvel, Batman, The Phantom, Captain America, and Superman. Find these films on YouTube and you’ll discover how the heroes look anything but super in retrospect. Yet in their time, these movies provided an escape for millions of children during World War 2. They served their purpose well.

Politics, in the form of the Comics Code Authority, momentarily torpedoed the comic book industry, and with it went the serials that were inspired by them. Superheroes were only to be found on TV, most notably in Adam West’s Batman, which remained securely in the corners of camp comedy and children’s entertainment. But by the 70s, the children watching these shows had all grown up, and so did special effects. Richard Donner surely must have seen what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did with summer blockbusters in Jaws and Star Wars. Thus arrived the Godfather of all superhero films, Superman.

What made Superman so great, aside from casting Christopher Reeve and utilizing John Williams’s immortal score, was that it evoked the almost mythological reverie young fans hold for their heroes. The first shot of a young hand turning a comic book page, while a child’s voice narrates the exploits of the Daily Planet, is passionate and perfect. The film’s ambitions were so grand that they couldn’t be contained, eventually spilling over to its equally majestic sequel (Richard Donner’s version).

It was also a product of great creativity, utilizing shots and techniques that maximized the capabilities of special effects despite the limitations of their time. So much so that no other contemporary of its genre in the following decade came close to it. That is until Tim Burton revolutionized the feel of the superhero film with his gothic vision of Batman (1989). Until then, superheroes had to live up to Kal-El’s sunlit glory. But Burton upended this notion with his dedication to darkness and shadow, reveling in the caped crusader’s menacing intimidation.

Both of these heroes set the bar well into the 80s and 90s, becoming the genre’s Yin and Yang, determining the stylistic paths their heirs would take. Superman’s children would be CondormanSupergirlCaptain America (1990) and The Phantom. Batman’s would be The PunisherDarkmanThe CrowThe ShadowSpawn, and Blade.

Post 9/11: The Cinematic Golden Age

Just as World War 2 ushered in the age of the comic book superhero, 9/11 ushered in the genre’s cinematic golden age. From then on, it wasn’t enough to herald a great champion or premise. The conflicts had to involve soul-searching. The stakes had to be grave.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) revealed the true nature of Batman’s dark notion of justice, digging deep behind Bruce Wayne’s trauma and patiently building the legend. Miraculously, The Dark Knight (2008) raised the stakes by presenting an equally determined anarchist who embodied our all-too grounded anxiety of complete chaos.

Ang Lee’s introspective Hulk (2003) contemplated immeasurable power as more of a curse than a blessing. It is also the most daring and artistic interpretation of any superhero adaptation, choosing very human conflicts (Bruce and Betty with their unreliable fathers) at the heart of the story, as well as depicting the green goliath not simply as a monstrous beast, but as a child.

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) never felt as grave as others from this era, yet it presented itself as a lighthearted ode to the fading ideal of the nuclear family. It was also the best “Superhero Team” movie ever made, with the ultimate team: mommy, daddy, brother and sister. The real fantastic four.

The X-Men films have always focused on discrimination, with their demigod cast-outs; Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s First Class (2011) also juxtapose the political and historical (respectively) more intimately than any other in the genre.

Many saw Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) as a showcase of Robert Downey Jr.’s immense gifts, but it was also (unintentionally or not) a surprising and satisfying ode to America’s wish to finally use its unmatched corporate, technological and military might to do actual good.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) was amazing in its portrayal of a demon’s touching desire to do well by man. Of all the superheroes in film, this horned red-hided monstrosity is the most fun, relatable and humane. He wisecracks without malice, and has a soft spot for kittens. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) continued this sentiment, and added to it by ruminating on man’s distancing from myth, in a manner reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s films.

Of all superhero films, Spider-Man 2 (2004) is the genre’s conscience. Though Peter Parker wasn’t ordinary, his not so extraordinary abilities made him a more empathetic character compared to someone who can fly. Sam Raimi used a hero who wasn’t super-intelligent, wealthy or powerful to somehow convey the awesome responsibility and sacrifice of doing the right thing.

The Throwaways Return

As with any celebrated era, there is always an inevitable decline. Just as in the 90s, throwaways are coming back. Let’s face it, would anyone consider the personal dilemmas of The Green Hornet (spoiled brat), Thor (big dumb alcoholic blonde) and Green Lantern (a pilot afraid of admitting fear) worthy of heroism? Captain America (2011) might have brought back fuzzy nostalgia for the good ole’ days, but did it have to be fuzzy in hindsight, overlooking something like racism? Not only were these examples devoid of aspiration, they were also utterly predictable.

The same can be said about The Avengers, whose main claim to satisfaction is catering to known comic book lore. There is nothing interesting about Cap’s boring nobility, Thor’s one-dimensionality, or Loki’s whining theatricality. The film wants to meet our expectations, but not surpass them. It hits its targets, but aims low.

Yes, superheroes by their very nature are fantasies, originally conceived to make us feel good and have us suspend logic for the short time we have with them. But even we fanboys want our genre to be taken seriously too, don’t we? At what point do we stop sacrificing the aesthetics of interpretation, storytelling and characterization, at the altar of our often inflexible passion for youthful folklore? If fairy tales can be re-imagined, why not comic book characters?

And for those of us seeking that Superman or Batman moment, of seeing an awesome sight for the first time, those moments are going the way of the dodo. CGI has made the incredible familiar. The time has come for the genre to tantalize us not just with outlandish imagery, but new ideas.

Fertile ground is there for the taking. Look where James Bond went in Casino Royale (2006) exploring how he came to be and the roots behind his sexism. Take a look at Chronicle, which explored how teenagers deal with superhuman abilities with all their angst and insecurity. Recent Westerns grew out of their predictability, as they were able, “to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms,” as A.O. Scott noted.

Superhero films have grown and must continue to grow rather than simply being about simple themes or fanciful images. It wouldn’t hurt if they actually had something to say. In Superman Returns (2006), Kal-El flies into the highest reaches of the stratosphere, listening in on how to help mankind. It’s an inspiring scene followed by madness. Does he help resolve Middle Eastern conflicts? Help stop ethnic cleansing in Sudan? Rid North Korea of nukes? No. He stops a bank robbery.

Do we want the familiar? Or the new?