The Summer of 2012 Movies - When No Choice is the Wrong Choice
by Brandon Lee Tenney
July 2, 2012
I saw Marc Webb's reboot of Sony/Columbia Picture's Spider-Man franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, last week. This isn't a review (though, at some point, I'll probably tell you what I thought—I'm... conflicted). I just want to set the stage a bit and lay a few pieces on the table before I attempt to weave this web before you. I will be discussing character and plot and theme details from that movie, which, for my fingers' sake, I'll refer to subsequently as ASM. There will also be a few spoilers for Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman—which I really did not care for—as well as a brief mention of the dead horse heretofore known as Prometheus—which I cared for even less. So, there's that. That's your primer. Let's get on with it.
Here's the thing—I'm frustrated. The summer movie season—thus far, fine—has been a big disappointment. Sure, Joss Whedon's The Avengers was awesome. Not without its problems. (That first act is a bore.) But it's a quintessential summer blockbuster. I even got some mileage out of Peter Berg's Battleship. (Now that's how you do a first act! And then, well, totally sink yourself over the next couple...) But after seeing the new Spider-Man last week and feeling that familiar, nagging feeling of betrayal—disillusionment?—with these blockbusters, I lit some incense (I didn't—allergies—just go with it) and a few candles and decided to get to the bottom of that feeling.
It all boils down to choices. Rather, the choice. A choice. More specifically, what has left me so dismayed as the credits roll this summer is the lack of clear, distinct choices made by these films' writers and directors. You know how when you were playing city-league basketball because your dad really, really wanted you to get off the computer and play a sport already and you didn't score a single basket mainly because you failed to play a single minute away from the lacquered pine of the bench, but you still got that trophy anyway? The one that said, "You participated! Well, you were at least present in the vicinity of the people who participated!" That's what these movies feel like this summer. They're shooting down the center. They're not making choices. They're doing their damnedest not to offend anyone.
But, you know, we probably shouldn't have been given that trophy. We didn't earn it. And these movies aren't earning theirs either. So when the film ends, it feels directionless, without identity, and a bit pointless because, well, it's expecting us to reward it for just being there. We're meant to bring the direction and impart the identity ourselves. Fuck that.
I'm paying and excited to see your film because I want a complete story. A beginning, middle, and end. I want to feel like you gave a damn. And not just about how your film will track across quadrants and demographics and on the back of airplane seats. I want to feel like you imbued your characters with agency and purpose and that your film is headed somewhere because it's the only way it logically could because that's what you wanted, and I'm on for the ride. I want to be thinking about the suspense of what's next not the disappointment of what could have been if you'd just allowed your film to follow a path, even if it's one I or many others might disagree with.
Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman is an egregious offender from a character perspective. It's a summer movie made to please everyone by not committing to anything while, instead, attempting to give its audience everything. Snow White, herself, is positioned as a heroine who can handle herself. She's not the wide-eyed, innocent little girl on the run, trapped in the forest, saved by men (of all sizes) that she once was. But, actually, she, uh, totally is. She might be wearing chain mail, but she's just as helpless as her animated counterpart. Men constantly save her, even when she could have, should have, saved herself. And it's her ignorant fairest-of-them-all spirit that serves her best throughout the film. Why not commit to making her an active leading woman with agency? Or just choose to be faithful to the source and make her a damsel in distress. You're not fooling anybody—or, at least, not me—by dressing her in the trappings of a strong, feminine force, but having her act its complete opposite.
Same goes for Finn, Evil Queen Charlize Theron's creepy, albino brother. He's set up as the conniving villain of intellect who pulls the strings behind the scenes of his figurehead sister, but, then, because keeping him that way would be committing to a specific choice, he's later a physical force to be reckoned with and shows no signs of his previous sniveling. Sure, why not? Because then your characters will have no identity and they're simply pawns to move the story along, acting not from the will of the character, but from the necessity of the writer. The story is no longer happening around them, with them, it's happening to them. I can see the goddamn wizard behind the curtain and he looks a lot like a guy who stares at spreadsheets and demographic flowcharts all day rather than a storyteller.
Speaking of characters who shift with whatever the story requires of them at a given moment despite how they might actually react if they were human beings with brains—Prometheus just... what can I really say that hasn't been said? This film literally prevents a character from making a choice to run left or right so that she can be killed because, I don't know, a thing and stuff or whatever. The movie asks its biologist character to be afraid of the very thing he's there to study—alien biology (that's dead and poses no threat, mind you)—only to then require him to be so fucking beguiled by an obviously threatening, very-much-alive alien creature that it kills him. There's an archaeologist who, being an archaeologist, should be pretty goddamned used to studying things that are long dead (being that he's an archaeologist), that becomes a manic-depressive because there aren't any aliens alive.
Here's one alternate possibility: make him an anthropologist. Make him the Jane Goodall of the Alien franchise who wants nothing more than to be with things that are alive. Our main character already fills his archaeologist role, anyway.
Then there's Prometheus' inability to just chose, thematically, what it's even about. It "leaves it up to us." I'm not paying $19 (for 3D) to see-saw back and forth because what I'm really doing is searching for a needle in an ocean of black goo that might not even be a needle and I might not even be searching in the right ocean of fucking goo. You want to stimulate conversation without bile? Look to Inception. Look to Verhoeven's Total Recall. Look to Blade Runner. Those films work in spite of there is it this/is it that binary. And that lingering question of is it a dream/is it not a dream, was it an implanted memory/did it actually happen, is he a Replicant/or isn't he only bolsters the already engaging experience. A film has to be more than a question. Especially if that question is rhetorical.
Which brings me to Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man. Spidey's my favorite superhero. He and I have been through a lot together. I didn't like Raimi's take on the web-slinger. And I was excited for this reboot because of that. I'm a bought and paid-for shill for this movie, and, yet, I'm here writing about how disappointed I am. And, again, it's because I didn't have to be! I can see the great film in there. But the film, ultimately, just doesn't deliver.
The movie feels like it exists in two separate timelines simultaneously. There's the timeline where the writers and director chose to make what the film is being peddled as: the "untold story" of Peter Parker. And then there's the other timeline where it's just a reboot of that Spider-Man movie we all saw ten years ago. Guess what happens when you lay both of those timelines on top of one another? The choices disappear because the film collapses in on itself at its center. When Uncle Ben goes out of his way to not say, "With great power, comes great responsibility," it's a choice. When Peter is given the task to pick up Aunt May, which he, of course, forgets about, placing her in obvious dramatic peril, it's a choice. Both choices are swiftly negated when the film returns to the mean by playing out Uncle Ben's death exactly as we've seen it before. Commit to your identity, ASM!
Why not have Aunt May be the one who's injured this time? Uncle Ben is furious and Peter feels just as bad. Aunt May's in a coma in the hospital clinging to life throughout the film. And it's your fault, Peter. I haven't seen that. It would anger some purists. But it'd be a choice. One that I can easily see pulled off. But no, the slavishness to the Spider-Man mythos detracts from the film with every instance.
But doesn't Uncle Ben's death need to be in there? No. Peter Parker feeling responsible for his own abandonment does. And, guess what? It already is in this new version. Because, to differentiate itself—we're back in that first timeline—ASM has added Peter Parker's parents. And they abandon him. He's been living with it his whole life already. The impetus for Spider-Man is already in there—inside Peter and inside the movie. But, again, that other timeline. Better not offend the people who want that same thing they've already seen. Why flesh out Peter's lack of a relationship with his mother and father and punctuate with the possible loss of his Aunt and Uncle when we can have him lose both! Because when you have both then neither matters as much.
Of course, there're the small character no-choices: Dr. Curt Connors is noble, but then totally isn't all of a sudden, but then totally is again. Peter Parker is a geek, but cool, but an outcast, but a hero. (But that's kind of always who he is, isn't it?) Really, the only character who feels like a real, complicated human in the movie is Peter's bully Flash. It's a stunning bit of writing, really. Because, well, they made a distinct choice: he's a bully because he's experienced what Peter's now experiencing. And through watching Peter experience it, and subsequently become Spider-Man, he grows out of it. Because the writers allow him to choose to.
ASM lacks identity because it is at war with itself the entire time. Is it a character drama? Those threads are so deftly directed by Webb that it probably should have been. Even Spider-Man's best moments aren't Spidey's, they're Peter's, because his mask is off. When the characters are just allowed to be together—or, in the film's most energetic action scene, when Peter is able to just be with himself and his new powers—the film is something special. But it's not just a character drama. It's an action film whose action is tepid and inert and lacks support from a listless villain in a story whose individuality is spread so thin one can see right through the page, up at the battle behind the scenes of whether they're telling a new story or one we've seen before.
Finally, the last real lack of decision-making that's on full display this summer—of which both Prometheus and Spider-Man are guilty—is the refusal to provide an ending. It's the crutch of the sequel. Or, as the studios would rather frame it, the promise of the sequel. It's become such a necessity to dangle the carrot in front of us that it's not even our jockey that's holding the carrot anymore—it's the jockey on the horse in front of us. A mile away. We're told it's there, but we can no longer see it for ourselves.
Tell a complete story. And if it's good, I'll want another complete story. You know what happens when you don't tie off the last thread in a tapestry, because you totally are going to make another tapestry and they're going to be connected anyway, so you might as well leave this one undone? The first tapestry unravels. And when you come back to sell me that second one, all I'll see of the first is a pile of loose ends and shoddy craftsmanship. Not a real confidence builder.
One can never please everybody. And when one tries to, one won't please anybody. There's a fable about this very thing. Some girl wanders into a house and just can't get comfortable because this or that is too big or too small or too hot or too cold and then when she finally finds the thing that's just right, a bear eats her. ‘Cause it wasn't made for her in the first place. I think that's how the story goes. At least, that's how I'm going to choose to tell it.