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.
Well what do you want a blockbuster or a good film? Go see moonrise kingdom... your not gonna get the best of both worlds til tdkr comes out, i thought this was obvious, this summer has been just like every summer
Hazedmind on Jul 2, 2012
The best of both worlds has existed multiple times already. This point of comparison is the very reason for my disillusionment. Look to Jaws and The Dark Knight, the Bourne films, Aliens, Toy Story 3, Star Trek, E.T., T-freakin'-2, Independence Day, and, even if they aren't liked, they are certainly not without a clear, director's vision with distinct, committed choices—all of Michael Bay's work. I don't expect to like everything. I just want to be given reasons why I don't like it other than... well, that was mediocre and lacked commitment. I don't like Transformers 2. But it's not because of what it isn't or what it could have been, it's because of what it is. It made its choices. At least it has that going for it.
Brandon Lee Tenney on Jul 2, 2012
This is one of those articles I love because, even if I disagree with what you said here or there, your points were so well backed-up and your ideas so interesting that it was a pleasure to read! Delicious food for thought.
Daniel Magid on Jul 2, 2012
Thanks, Daniel. That's all I ever hope for!
Brandon Lee Tenney on Jul 2, 2012
Excellent article. I agree. Commitment-phobic blockbusters are becoming a problem. As much as I personally enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman, it's obvious there was a far more substantial movie waiting in the wings, one that could have packed a real punch instead of being content with "distantly pretty and poetic". It's definitely a symptom of trying the please the widest audience possible. "Inoffensive" is a good word choice. I've noticed it happen to a lot of TV shows I love, too, as the fanbase grows so large and vocal it starts to intimidate the writers. The characters begin vacillating and losing their identity as the show tries to cater to all ends of the spectrum. So frustrating.
Ali Miller on Jul 2, 2012
Commitment-phobic blockbusters. Damn, that's excellent. As is this comment. And I couldn't agree more.
Brandon Lee Tenney on Jul 2, 2012
hopefully Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises won't disappoint!!
icycleragon on Jul 2, 2012
I feel your frustration. I went into this year thinking it was going to be an epic year for movies. The last few years have been pathetic to say the least and I thought 2012 was going to get the ball rolling again. Prometheus could have been great - instead we got Lost (in space). At least the characters of Lost were written intelligently. I guess we have Cuse to thank for that in hindsight. The Avengers was just another mindless comic book movie. Whedon did what he could with it and it was enjoyable, but how many of these stupid comic book movies do I really want to endure? They are essentially all the same and I am already passed sick of the formula. I could care less about another Batman movie (I know, I'm the only one). The Hunger Games was a huge disappointment for me. Someone needs to make a law banning $hitty shaky cam action scenes that are blurry and incomprehensible. It really ruined the movie IMO. Critics were raving about The Grey. I don't get it. Terrible computer generated killer wolves didn't provide any tension. Chronicle was alright, but could have been a lot more interesting I thought. I had hopes for Lockout but it got such bad reviews I didn't bother seeing it. Men in Black III, Battleship, Dark Shadows = junk. Even Pixar has lost their magic slowly but surely. I'm just hoping that my expectations have now dropped so low for the rest of the year that something will jump out and pleasantly surprise me.
racquetman on Jul 2, 2012
well this lowered my expectations back down to spiderman *maybe a good thing?* and i see how this year has suddenly gone from being the most exciting to almost disappointing *I'M LOOKING AT YOU RIDLEY* now im not saying i disliked any of the movies i have seen *except Battleship...that shit is nasty* but i am saying that i was let down with how well they were made to look for viewers by showing what we dreamed of...then not giving it to us, well snow white showed me exactly what i was in there to see...a few jokes to play off about Kristen Stewards acting....
Jericho on Jul 2, 2012
Actually, while Kristen Stewart wasn't amazing in Snow White, she did emote in the movie for the first time in history. I think Rupert Sanders should get the Oscar for Best Director for that alone. Baby steps.
Groov on Jul 2, 2012
Haters are gonna hate... While Prometheus, The Hunger Games, and Battleship (which the latter was really bad considering the cast for starters) did not deliver a film is a film. I understand people hating on these movies, quite frankly I do so myself, but I can't believe anyone could think The Amazing Spider-Man did not deliver. Come on guys, it's the beloved super hero that has captivated comic readers, Television watchers, and movie goers' minds for the last have of the last century and for the first decade of the present century. That plus an incredible cast and a director that sees the story and characters and actually understands it, I can't see how this movie can not satisfy the needs of some people. It is really difficult and stressing to make a film of such high budget and big expectations. Just enjoy the film for God's sake.
Faceman on Jul 2, 2012
Dude, you completely missed the point and internal logic of Snow White and the Huntsman....the best blockbuster this summer.
corysims on Jul 2, 2012
If any of you Americans could afford it, why not see all of them.
ynot? on Jul 2, 2012
John on Jul 12, 2012
A very thought out, well written article that I couldn't agree with more. Studios are so concerned with making money that true story telling is instead replaced with 3D, special effects, elaborate explosions, because most people believe that's what makes good story telling. I've grown more and more disappointed with Hollywood pictures as years have gone on, although every once in a while a gem will come along that gives me some faith...but not much. Honestly, I find watching foreign films to be much more engaging and true to quality cinema that most Hollywood pictures.
Shane on Jul 2, 2012
I believe some of the problem lies in the fact that all of us are way to invested in these "big" movies. Just visiting this website proves that we are much more than casual viewers. Damn, we hear about these projects years before they ever hit the screen. We dissect, analyze, and argue them to death with each and every snippet that comes our way. What movie CAN live up to our expectations after all of that? Very few. Crap is crap, and I'm not giving that kind of film a free pass, but when is the last time any of us has walked into a major summer blockbuster not knowing a thing about it? Of course, we're disappointed most of the time. Nothing can compete with what we have conjured up in our own imagination long before the first scene.
97point6 on Jul 2, 2012
One of my issues with all these summer/spring movies so far is that they are hard to HATE, but you also don't LOVE them enough. The Avengers was a lot of fun, and I walked out feeling good about it, thankful that it didn't crash and burn. But a day after seeing it, I mostly forgot everything about it. It just washed away like a sandcastle when the tide comes in. Same goes for every 'blockbuster' movie that's come out in the past two years. Ultimately they feel so watered down in an effort to appeal to 1) the younger audience, 2) overseas box office 3) the fan boys 4) the older folks who never would have gone to see a superhero movie ten years ago. They are trying to please everyone, and what you get is something that's lacking identity. Could this be caused by the bloated budgets? What does a blockbuster movie like Spider-man cost these days? Over two hundred million? The only way that script gets green-lit is if it takes no chances, alienates no one, is in 3D, and almost guarantees that it's going to be marketable. So on one hand I'm so excited that I get to see my childhood heroes on the big screen, another part of me is starting to lose interest in them. If this trend continues, in a few years I might not even be motivated to go to the cinema even once during the summer. Ticket prices are too high. I'm not interested in 3D. Everything is starting to feel the same, even when it's different.
germss on Jul 2, 2012
Dr. Connors was never a complex man nor villain through out the comics he was just a 1 dimensional character with no depth. As a man he focused on his scientific work to better man kind as a lizard his intentions was to transform man kind to what he is because the lizard viewed them as inferior. There really isn't much to run on with a character like that and as for spider-man back in his high school years I don't really see the point in seeing that again they could of just used those moments as flashbacks because that is what Peter does in the comics always reflecting and using those moments of reflection to take the higher road or make better decisions. Sony from the beginning did try with Raimi's vision of thinking outside the box and straying away from the comics in making a love story involving a super hero which wasn't effective due to crappy script and sappy love scenes. With the reboot they learned from their mistakes and decided to stick with the origins of the hero with a darker tone to please the fans but I guess that wasn't effective for some people that wanted more depth out of the script. You can't really blame Sony for trying and if they could erase those mistakes with Raimi's vision I'm pretty sure they would and this would of been the movie people were anticipating to see from 2002. I think this is just the start of something good and I'm pretty sure they won't disappoint with the sequel. thumbs up Sony for giving Raimi the boot. I don't really hate Raimi but he was really killing the spider-man franchise just like Joel Schumacher did with Batman.
BinaryChaos on Jul 2, 2012
One can never please everybody. And when one tries to, one won't please Brandon Lee Tenney
DoomCanoe on Jul 2, 2012
I don't know, I was a big fan of Cabin in the Woods and Moonrise Kingdom.
Zero on Jul 2, 2012
I was with you until you started suggesting changing Spidey's origins. Didn't they already fucking do that in this movie by making it a big mystery why Peter's parents vanished and didn't they already change the Uncle Ben thing? You don't make Batman fresh and new by, "this time let's have his parents still alive". You make it fresh and new by honouring the archetype of the character and choosing a different story to tell. You could have made ASM fresh and new by simply not choosing to retell the origin story. Simple. "This time Romeo and Juliet live". No. But give them low riders and .45's and I'm in. s
superchopper on Jul 2, 2012
Brandon, I salute your passion. From one aspiring screenwriter to another, this was a refreshing read, for real.
Big Boss on Jul 2, 2012
That was a good read! What you describe here totally goes for JOHN CARTER as well. I found lots of stuff to enjoy in JC, ASM... hell, even PROMETHEUS. But it cannot be denied that this is the summer of truly baffling script (no-)choices.
Jan Hamm on Jul 3, 2012
Have to say that JOHN CARTER is the only film I saw this year that did it right. It told a complete tale - beginning, middle and end. I'm just sad that so many people in the US listened to critics and it didn't get the promotion it deserved. If you take the time to see it with unbiased eyes, I think you'd agree. If you're a fan of old-fashioned adventure films with a lot of heart. Would a sequel be amazing? Is it hinted at in the end? Heck yeah - but in the best way, not the worst way. The rest of the film didn't suffer for it. I want to go back to Mars. It's begging for a sequel like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future were. What happens next? Not - how much will they spend next or who's the next big villain. It had characters (real and CGI) that I cared about and I want to see in a sequel. Best time I've had at the movies all summer and for quite sometime. I loved The Avengers, it was some explosive fun with its ending, but it just didn't quite gel for me. Even though I love the comics and characters (on the page) to death, something was missing. Seemed more like an appetizer - if a fattening one - than a complete meal.
JC Fan 4 Life on Jul 3, 2012
Damon Lindelof thinks unconnected dots are the most interesting thing in the world. Thanks for this article.
Luke on Jul 3, 2012
I am a fan of you writings, but did you jump up the next morning, thinking, "oh my god, did I really write that? As movie fans and those who follow articles like this, you are preaching to the choir. I mean, come on, you took the time and effort to write a witty article about what we have all known for years, decades now. Movies are no longer about entertainment, but about the bottom line, the budget, the sequels and above all else what big movie is this going to lead to?
A73Phoenix on Jul 4, 2012
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