Live-Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: Introduction

(SPIDER-MAN 1, SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN 3,
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 1, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2,
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
RANKINGS)

December 2021 is going to be utterly dominated by Spider-Man: No Way Home. The trailers of the film, regardless of what it gives away or does not give away, is tying together the legacies of all the Live-Action Spider-Man films with the villains of the previous films directly crossing into the MCU version of Spider-Man. In light of that people across the internet have begun making their top lists of Live-Action Spider-Man across all three reboots. My contribution to this parlor game is to inaugurate a daily series – one post per day – where I look at all the Spider-Man live action films up to No Way Home. All the reviews will be up before the US release of No Way Home. For this Introduction, I am going to explain the criteria by which I explore all these movies. My hope is to use this to actually talk about comic superhero adaptations in broader terms than simple like/dislike, or faithful/unfaithful. Hopefully this might be useful to those who disagree with my judgments.

Superhero movies were still a novelty in the year 2002, when the first live-action Spider-Man movie released. The word novelty means “something new and unusual”. In 2021, when Spider-Man: No Way Home releases, superhero movies are no longer a novelty. There were two superhero movies released in 2002 (Blade II and Spider-Man 1) and one live-action superhero TV show on air (Smallville), whereas NWH will be the sixth theatrically released movie of the genre when it lands in 2021 (The Suicide Squad, Black Widow, Shang Chi, Eternals, Venom II), which is further amplified by works such as Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a four-hour cut released on HBO Max Streaming and at least five shows on Disney Plus Streaming.

The live-action superhero genre is now a known beast rather than some sideshow people didn’t know what to do with. Yet despite that, the live-action superhero genre in cinema has generally not been studied in-depth.

It’s either looked at as an extension of regular film studies (which studies it in relation to film genres of the past without engaging with the aesthetics of comics storytelling), or it’s looked at solely from the lenses of comic books, nerd fandom, merchandising, and corporate power. What’s missing is something that looks at the superhero genre as a distinct entity, as both comic books and as film at the same time. Such a subject is way too broad a topic of course. Ideally it’s worth a full book and publishing deal (should I get an agent?).

Of course, one can theoretically do this with any superheo movie franchise or any superhero IP, but for a variety of reasons I think Spider-Man makes the most sense.

WHY SPIDER-MAN LIVE ACTION MOVIES?

1992-2012: Three Decades of Groundbreaking Superhero movies. 2022 really has a tough act to follow or what?

When Sam Raimi released Spider-Man 1 in 2002, he was a decade behind Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and a decade ahead of The Avengers (2012).

From today’s perspective, Raimi’s movies have far more in common with Tim Burton’s movies than it does with The Avengers. That’s not true however for Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man movies. TASM-1 released in 2012, the same years as The Avengers and that film already shows the influence of the MCU with its post-credit sequence and wider-universe teases. With Captain America: Civil War (2016) Spider-Man was incorporated, in rather odd circumstances, into the MCU proper.

As such the Spider-Man Live-Action movies offers a good snapshot of the development of the genre. The fact that all these developments happened in the span of 20 years provides a good exploration of how rapidly audience expectations and presumptions of the genre have changed, for better and for worse, and for good and for bad.

In theory of course any superhero movie franchise can offer a similar curve. But not in such linearity and proximity to each other. After all, the proximity of these movies is the main reason why a film like Spider-Man: No Way Home can even exist to start with, whereas Christopher Reeve on account of age and personal tragedy can never really be part of a live-action movie crossover, nor are the actors that followed (Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill) regardless of their more vocal fans online of similar stature in terms of popularity and critical prestige. (On the other hand, Michael Keaton’s Batman is of course returning in an upcoming Flash film, but that’s not yet released as of this writing).

  • Superman for instance is a franchise that in live-action cinema has stuttered along since it’s first two films were followed by weak sequels, an interesting but confusing reboot/homage (Superman Returns) and a polarizing reboot by Zack Snyder over the last decade. It has lacked the relative consistency of the Spider-Man movies. Likewise the vision of the first Superman predominates over later versions to a greater degree than with other franchises. Even Zack Snyder for all his radical changes, still uses the same two bad guys (Luthor and Zod) popularized by the first two Donner movies.

  • Batman started out strong with the two excellent Burton films, decent (Batman Forever) to bad (Batman and Robin) immediate followups by Joel Schumacher. It was shelved for seven years and then revived by Christopher Nolan into a critically acclaimed rigorously pared down trilogy (2005-2008-2012) that was so self-contained as to deliver a fully realized serialized story. Then it was immediately jury-rigged by Zack Snyder into a failed attempt at a shared DC Universe, followed by yet another Nolan-esque revision called The Batman arriving in 2022. Batman has certainly seen a greater variety of styles and a deeper bench strength of villains on-screen but it’s also a franchise that, in its solo movies, eschews engagement with other superhero movies and trends in the wider genre and has had greater consistency with one particular vision (the “Grim Dark Batman” who is self-contained and standalone without sidekicks and other heroes) than with any other version, as compared to Spider-Man.

  • The X-Men films are arguably closest to Spider-Man in that each of the films, before the Fox buyout, come from different periods of the superhero movie genre in a way that can’t be traced step by step by other franchises and it had much internal change of style. Yet, because the X-Men cover a wide range of characters than Spider-Man it doesn’t offer a clean table of comparison, likewise its nebulous continuity (for instance Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender are intended, originally, to be the same character at different ages but that’s less clear in the later films).

With Spider-Man you have consistency and success over different incarnations (absent from Superman), engagement with trends in the industry and changes in audience (unlike Batman), and a small set of regular characters — Peter, May, MJ, Gwen Stacy, Jonah, Harry Osborn — who have made multiple appearances with multiple incarnations, with different interpretations across the franchise that is missing from the X-Men films. As for the wider MCU, it’s filled with characters who generally hadn’t been adapted to live-action film before, or otherwise had unsuccessful adaptations.

WHY LIVE-ACTION? WHERE’S INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE?

https://www.sonypictures.com/sites/default/files/styles/max_560x840/public/title-key-art/spiderman_verse_rating_0.jpg?itok=N_U_lGHQ

Throughout this I have specified Live-Action and the reason for that is quite simply Spider-Man:Into the Spider-Verse. Which is widely beloved and universally praised as a great film (deservedly so) and ranked among the best superhero movies, and for some the best. ITSV thoroughly proved that animation could deliver a superhero story with style, wit, innovation that exceeds many live-action films.

Before ITSV, when one said “superhero movie” one automatically assumed live-action even if there was superhero animation at the movies before (the Fleischer Superman cartoons, Batman:Mask of the Phantasm to name two).

After it, when one does retrospective Spider-Man franchise retrospectives, one has to expect ITSV to be included. If one has to exclude it, one must specify and restrict the category to avoid making oneself look ignorant.

I don’t exclude ITSV from this list because I think animation is lesser than live-action or it doesn’t count. Far from it.

Animation however is different from live-action.

Even present day live-action which has a great deal of CGI, Green Screen, and in the case of the upcoming No Way Home movie, de-aging for some of the actors, and are technically speaking, semi-animated. It’s an entirely different technique and craft for making films and the aesthetic issues of live-action films (casting, lighting, direction, staging, stylistic references, props) are not the same in animation. The live-action Spider-Man movies make perfect sense on that criteria in a way animation doesn’t.

Besides, No Way Home is grappling with the legacy of all the live-action Spider-Man movies, and not with ITSV (going by promotions at least). ITSV ought to be considered in the lead-up to the sequel – Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Part One announced for Fall 2022 especially given the interesting and beautiful trailer released the previous week.

WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR?

Like all reviews, my opinions are entirely subjective, based on preference, interest, and taste. At the same time, I am interested in why I value and like some things more than others, what I find interesting and engaging. The reasons for your values, tastes, preferences can be grounded in something tangible, and exterior to yourselves, and it’s worth identifying those parameters.

So I intend to judge the Spider-Man live-action films based on the following criteria. Bear in mind I am using this criteria as “guidelines more than rules”. It’s possible in theory for a movie to get all this criteria wrong and I might still like it:

  • ADAPTATION CHOICES
    Direct Faithfulness: How much it directly translates and recreates storylines, characters, designs, and actions from the comics to live-action.
    Composite Faithfulness: Even if it does not adapt stories directly, whether the overall choices and decisions made by the filmmakers retains the spirit of the source material.

  • WRITING
    – How is the film structured in storytelling, plotting, characterization?
    – How is the quality of dialogue in terms of character voice, style, and quality?

  • VISUAL STYLE
    – Does the film have a cohesive and comprehensive visual style that is sustained all the way through?
    – Is the visual style backed by props, set design, costumes, lighting, effects?

  • CASTING AND PERFORMANCES
    – Do the actors cast to play the characters resemble their counterparts in either personality, looks, bearing, physical descriptions and other parameters?
    – Assessing the performances based on the roles they are cast for, and the material they are given: What do actors bring to the role and character based on the scene and moment at hand?

  • SERIALIZATION
    – How do the films measure as standalone films?
    – How do they compare in terms of the overall franchise narrative?

  • COMMITMENT TO ITS FICTION
    – Is the individual film, and by extension the franchise cohesive as a whole in terms of worldbuilding, internal logic, and stylistic unity?

WHAT THIS AIN’T GONNA BE

While this comes down to personal preferences and likes/dislikes. I want to make three things clear:

NONE OF THE LIVE-ACTION SPIDER-MAN MOVIES ARE ENTIRELY FAITHFUL TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL.

ALL OF THEM MAKE CHANGES AND BORROW FROM A SWATHE OF MATERIAL ACROSS THE PUBLICATION HISTORY.

NONE OF THE ACTORS ARE EXACT 1:1 REPRESENTATIONS OF THE VERSIONS OF PETER PARKER THEY ARE CHOSEN TO PLAY.

Which is to say that this Retrospective Review isn’t a mobilization in favor of one version more than another based on how closely it matches the source, like some asinine form of gatekeeping. Like all fans of Spider-Man comics I have a certain Platonic idea of what the perfect adaptation should be, and so far none of the live-action films despite their strengths are remotely close to that idea. So simple faithfulness is not going to be the main deciding factor in judging the material. What counts above all, is the final effect of the film, the end result of all the choices and micro-decisions that goes into making a film, whether all that adds up to a good film? A superhero film faithful to its comics source can still be a pretty bad film after all.

My series is more interested in observing and evaluating how the movies make use of the sources. What are its chosen means, what are its chosen ends, what are the trade-offs. What is added and subtracted in the process.

I will also be looking at these films as films. Which is to say that I am going to look at what the movies do as standalone entities based entirely on what we see and hear on-screen. Today a good part of the internet discourse of a movie-franchise is taken up with continuity decisions and various other callbacks. This has its place but it also tends to follow the logical fallacy described by Dan Olson, of Foldable Human fame, as “The Thermian Argument” [1]. That is to say any on-screen inconsistency and problematic issue can be explained by in-universe rationale or citation from some arcane wiki or special writer’s interview and so on. Facts and research should ideally bolster and improve one’s interpretation but it can never substitute for it nor explain it away or make the issue not an issue anymore.

Which is also to say that my series will be looking at the films through close-watching or close-reading. While I will cite some behind the scenes facts here and there, I am mostly going to be watching the films closely and base myself off that rather than go in a rabbit hole of research. The other reason is that for the most part there aren’t any substantial behind-the-scenes books independent of marketing and publicity released on the live-action Spider-Man movies as of present.

That should at least provide a useful lens to talk about the live-action Spider-Man movies and its adaptive choices.

And with that, let’s get started. Watch this space for tomorrow, when the first review drops. We start in 2002 (sorry Nicholas Hammond fans, not sorry).

 

SOURCES

Dan Olson. “Minisode – The Thermian Argument”. Foldable Human. Sep 17, 2015
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxV8gAGmbtk

2 thoughts on “Live-Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: Introduction

    1. Nope. The 1978 Amazing Spider-Man was a TV-Show, that made its debut and aired on CBS. It never debuted and played in theaters.

      It’s live-action for sure, the only live-action Spider-Man TV Show in existence but it’s not a feature film

      Like

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