Upon Further Reflection, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Breaks My Heart

Here be Spoilers. And foul language. Fair Warning.

I know this is about a month out of date. I had to reflect on this for a while. By now, everyone who wanted to see ASM2 has seen it. These are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

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I hate this franchise. I fucking hate it.

But before I really get into this review, let me be clear about the exact nature of my hatred. Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man movie franchise inspires in me the kind of hatred that can only be inspired by something you love.

Have you ever been cheated on? The pain and the anger generated by that betrayal is only possible because you’ve been wounded by the very person you love the most. The very person you put your faith and trust in, is the one who stabs you in the back. So, if you’re with me, I am Elin Nordegren and Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man is my Tiger Woods. I want to chase it down the street with a fucking 9-iron. I want to smash its stupid, smirking face in.

This movie gets lots of things right, and then gets so many others so very, very wrong. And the things it gets wrong are stupid, stupid things.

Let’s start with the planes. Late in the film, Electro drains all the power out of New York City (which, right there, is stupid – just juvenile, uncreative, stupid action). The loss of power means that the airport loses contact with two passenger planes and they end up on a collision course with each other. Spider-Man then turns the power back on and the planes are saved. It occurred to me about halfway through the airplane episode that this was useless action filler. Stupid. Stupid. Fuck, stupid, fuck.

There were no recognizable characters on the planes. They were random collateral damage – a trumped up, unimaginative action movie catastrophe to which there is no emotional connection, no spectacular pay-off, no sigh of relief when the planes are saved, because, who the fuck cares about these stupid planes?! Spider-Man and Electro are fighting a climactic battle at a power plant (cliché and stupid, but whatever) and we keep cutting away to see these pointless planes.

Compare that scene to the ferryboat scene at the end of The Dark Knight. The Joker orchestrates a prisoner’s dilemma that has everything to do with the plot of the movie and its commentary on the darkness and resiliency of the human spirit. It’s an unforgettable piece of film. Amazing Spider-Man 2 answers that with two planes that maybe are going to crash, but don’t because Woosh! Woah! Cool!

There are so many interconnected webs of rage-inducing awfulness in this film that I just need to break it down by character.

Electro. Jamie Fox is fine, good even. Except that his Electro is the worst written super villain since Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze. He’s all special effects and no soul. The motivation for this character is all over the place – totally incomprehensible. He’s got a stalker crush on Spider-Man. He wants to be “seen” by people. That gets twisted, (Instantly!) into a desire to kill Spider-Man because Electro decides the wall-crawler is “selfish”. Also Oscorp stole his schematics for a power plant, so he wants revenge… I guess? And to make everyone “Live in a world without a Spider-Man.” Basically, Electro’s origin story is “Yadda, Yadda, Yadda… Hey look the Sinister Six!” Oh, and also Electro is Dr. Manhattan now.

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One other thing: if a soulless, cutthroat, exploitative company like Oscorp discovered one of its employees was smart enough to design a high-tech power plant that solved the world’s energy problems, probably they would exploit that person further, as opposed to completely ignoring him and treating him like a glorified maintenance man. Probably. Probably they would, you know, see if he had any other ideas that could make the company more money. They probably wouldn’t just let B. J. Novak treat him like a bitch. Fuck.

Okay, now Gwen. Emma Stone is a really great Gwen Stacy. She and Andrew Garfield have obvious chemistry on screen. For a good chunk of this movie I thought Webb was doing a good job setting up Gwen’s inevitable death.

Then the final 30 minutes of the movie happened. Maybe I was living in a cave, but I didn’t realize that this was going to be Gwen’s swan song. I thought she was sticking around for another film. I kept thinking that all the way through this film. Mostly because I thought there was no way that the Green Goblin – who looks ridiculous by the way – is going to kill Gwen Stacy five minutes after he first acquires his powers. But… yep that’s what happens, in a fucking clock tower! A clock tower! Symbolism!

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And how does Gwen end up in harm’s way? She follows Spider-Man to the super high-tech power plant. And why does she follow him? Because she’s SEEN THE SCHEMATICS and knows how to fix the damage Electro has done. SINGLE-HANDEDLY! She’s in high school! But y’know, she’s the valedictorian so she can pretty much fix a power plant by herself.

Look, I recognize that Webb wants to disrupt the whole damsel in distress narrative. He wants to make Gwen capable and heroic in her own right. Great. I’m down with that, but make her heroism plausible. No one can fix an exploded power plant by herself. Stupid. Have her invent some doo-hickey that short-circuits Electro’s powers or something. In comic books as in superhero movies, the willing suspension of disbelief only operates in particular zones. Can people come back from the dead? Yep. Do people get superpowers when struck by lightning? Totally believable. Can a really smart high school kid pilot a submarine because her grandfather was in the navy and told her all kinds of underwater seafaring stories? No.

Lastly, let me talk about the whole secret origin sub-plot. Webb has spent a lot of time on this. It’s an interesting question, whatever happened to Peter Parker’s parents? But the revelation that Peter’s dad was an Oscorp scientist adds absolutely nothing to the plot or the mythology of Spider-Man. It’s pointless.

Look, part of the reason this movie makes me so angry is because there are other moments where Webb absolutely nails it. Like, near the end of the film, after Spider-Man has gone into semi-retirement and that kid puts on his Spidey jammies and stands up to the Rhino… I nearly cried. That is everything Spider-Man is supposed to be. That’s what he was to me as a kid. Spider-Man never has it easy; he always does the hard thing because it’s the right thing.

There are little pockets of greatness here, but it just seems like the fingerprints of studio execs are all over this film.

If you want to turn your brain off for two hours, Amazing Spider-Man 2 will let you do that. But turn your brain off, because if you think about any of this stuff it will make you crazy.

Bring on the X-Men.

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Deadly Class and Teenage Mythology (and also Harbinger)

So there’s this kid and his life sucks. He’s a loner – no friends. But it’s not totally his fault. He has a tragic past; he’s a victim of circumstances. But see, he’s got this gift. There’s something about him that makes him special and if he just got his chance, if by some twist of fate and turn of good fortune his circumstances just changed, if he was in the right place surrounded by people who could foster his talents and help him cultivate his gift, then that thing that’s really special about him… it would shine through. Then he’d actually be somebody. Somebody important, maybe even like a hero.

That paragraph describes the basic premise of Deadly Class, one of this week’s hot new comics. The book stars a homeless teen named Marcus, who is super introspective and sensitive. He contemplates suicide and thinks about god. Also, due to some secret in his past he is deemed suitable to join a school of deadly assassins. He’s handpicked actually. From out of nowhere, his gifts are recognized! Circumstances changed! A life of significance awaits!

Here’s the thing: that first paragraph… it also describes the basic premise of Harry Potter. And The Matrix. Interestingly, it’s also the premise of the Fox teen drama The O.C. (Seriously, see for yourself). Also it describes Harbinger, but I’ll talk more about that in a second.

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Deadly Class has all kinds of buzz. On Wednesday, the manager of my local comic shop actually called out to me from across the store and complimented my taste when he saw me pick up a copy. I’ve already read a couple of rave reviews online. I’ve gotta admit the first issue kind of bugged me. Sure, Marcus gets invited to join an underground school for teenage assassins (literally underground!), which is kind of original, insofar as it isn’t a secret school for wizards or mutants. And Rick Remender has set the story in the late 80s. You can tell because a guy on the sidewalk mentions Phil Simms, and another character references Ronald Reagan. But really, as I was reading it, the whole thing felt kind of derivative.

Now, my point with that generic opening paragraph was to demonstrate that Remender is playing with an archetypal sort of story here. It’s a story that gets told over and over again. Not because everyone is actually copying from each other but rather because the story touches a cultural nerve. It speaks to some essential element of the human condition, namely teenage isolation.

I can’t speak for teenage girls, but every teenage boy I’ve ever known or read about feels inadequate, alienated, and lonely. Simultaneously every teenage boy has a desire to prove himself, to overcome adversity and get the girl (or guy). That is just the nature of teenagers. So, naturally we tell all sorts of stories that speak to this shared experience. Stories like Harry Potter and The Matrix convert this psychological experience into a larger-than-life, spectacular journey. They’re metaphors for the struggles every young person goes through. They’re also wish fulfillment fantasies, because the narratives are never about individuality. They’re always about inclusion. The kid who starts out on his own, isolated and picked on, ends up belonging to a movement, a team, an order. He joins the resistance. He leads a band of intrepid heroes. He answers the call of destiny, and his destiny – always – is to be loved and included and special. There’s nothing wrong with him, see. It’s just that he was in the wrong place, surrounded by people who didn’t recognize his greatness. Once he’s in the right place, supported by the right friends and mentors his innate talents and abilities will shine through. This is the logic behind every teenager’s desire to be in a rock band, by the way. Same fantasy.

There’s nothing wrong with retelling this story as long as you’re going to do it well. Remender hasn’t done that here; doesn’t mean he won’t eventually. But he hasn’t done it yet. Sorry to kick the crap out of everybody’s favourite new book, but there it is.

This brings me to Harbinger. I’ve never read Harbinger before, but on Wednesday (because of this) I picked up the first three issues. Now, here I’m talking about comics that are two years old, but they’re new to me… so… just deal. Harbinger also starts out with the misunderstood, mismanaged angst-ridden teen with secret gifts, in this case telepathic and telekinetic powers. But the story is superior to Deadly Class, for a couple reasons, mostly because the main character, Peter Stanchek, is more fully developed.

Specifically Peter has a moral weight that Remender’s Marcus lacks. Peter has a schizophrenic friend that he travels with, but it’s unclear whether Peter is protecting his friend or if he’s just using him as some kind of crutch. Peter is being pursued by a shadowy organization that knows about his powers, and by bringing his friend along for the ride, he necessarily puts him in harm’s way. Later, Peter meets up with a girl he used to have a crush on. In fact, he stalks her. And when she calls him out for his creepiness, he uses his mind-control powers to make her fall in love with him. Then, while she is under his control. They have sex. So, he rapes her. Harbinger’s writer, Joshua Dysart thus turns the teenage fantasy of love and inclusion on its head. For Peter, that desire has become pathological and violent. And while, like Marcus (and Harry and Neo) Peter is quickly recruited to join a secret order of superheroes, the cost for joining is that he has to face the consequences of his actions and accept that he is guilty of abusing his “friends.”

You know what Marcus has to do in order to join the King’s Dominion School for the Deadly Arts? He’s got to give up being homeless. Assassin vs. Homeless Person. That’s the moral quandary with which our protagonist is presented.

One other thing: Marcus is (of course!) brought into the order by a beautiful and mysterious teenage girl who sees the potential in our hero, even when all of the other teenage assassins doubt his abilities. Marcus didn’t need to change anything about himself, you see. He just needed to wait for the right super-hot emo-ninja to come along and recognize how special he really is.

Speculation: Valiant #1’s

I’ve mentioned before that I love Archer & Armstrong, and I’ve just added Shadowman to my pull list. Valiant’s reboot, now two years old, is going pretty swimmingly, at least in terms of critical reception.

Sales have been respectable. A quick check with Comichron indicates that most of their titles sell in the neighbourhood of about 10K-12K copies a month. That puts them in Image territory, with titles like Chew and Rat Queens, and some of the D-list DC titles like StormWatch. They’re nowhere close to the top-tier books like Batman (120K issues) or Superior Spider-Man (90K issues), but they seem to have carved out a nice little niche for themselves.

My guess, however, is that Valiant’s ambitions lie elsewhere. Valiant was founded by Jim Shooter and Bob Layton back in 1988. In the mid-90s the company was sold to Acclaim Entertainment whose primary business was video games. Acclaim put out a few Marvel games, (including a terrific Maximum Carnage game for SNES!). They also made a number of games based on Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a Valiant property. Surely they planned to do more with their Valiant properties, but ultimately, Acclaim went belly-up in 2004, taking Valiant with them.

A few savvy investors were able to rescue Valiant’s characters from the wreckage five or six years ago. They’ve since received financial backing from people with deep pockets who have experience in both the comic book and movie industries.

Here’s the thing: comics are great, and a well-run comic publisher can, no doubt, be profitable, but everyone has seen what Marvel has done at the multiplex. Investors are looking at comic books and seeing movie and merchandising deals. They’re not looking for moderate profits, they’re looking for franchises and licensing deals with Hasbro. These guys saw a universe of superheroes that had fallen into disrepair and saw the potential for millions of dollars in profits.

In a New York Times article from July 2012, two of Valiant’s chief investors, Jason Kothari and Peter Cuneo, aren’t shy about discussing movie plans:

“Mr. Kothari said he expects Bloodshot to be the first Valliant character to make the leap into theaters. Sony is working on the property with the producer Neal H. Moritz, perhaps best known for the “Fast & Furious” film franchise. The director Brett Ratner, whose films include “X-Men: The Last Stand,” has committed to Harbinger.
The remaining three movie projects are tied to Archer & Armstrong and characters called Shadowman and Ninjak. “Movies are obviously important to us, but great comics are absolutely essential,” said Mr. Kothari, who holds an undergraduate business degree from Wharton and is Valiant’s chief executive. “Readers are very discerning, and they are not looking for a movie pitch in comic book form.”
When it comes to movies, Peter Cuneo said he is not worried that Valiant’s characters are not well known outside comic circles.
“The general public didn’t know Iron Man and look at him now,” he said of the Marvel character that has starred in two hit movies and anchored “The Avengers.” “What matters is the quality of the movie you make.”

A more recent piece over at Super Hero Hype suggests that plans may have changed slightly. It seems J. Michael Straczynski started work on a Shadowman script a little over a year ago.

Straczynski confirmed that the first draft of the script will be turned in by the end of spring and they’re hoping to start production in the first part of next year for a fall 2014 release date. He also confirmed there likely won’t be any other Valiant Comics cameos in the Shadowman film, but that down the road it’s a possibility.

All of this is to say that any number of Valiant characters could be headed for the big screen at any time. Obviously this isn’t a done deal, but it seems more likely than, say, a Grifter movie, or a Silver Sable TV show. If these characters do make it to the box office, there’s a fair chance that the first issues of Valiant’s reboot could go up in value. More than that, the first appearances of these characters in the 90s are likely to go up in value too. I’ve picked up a couple of NM Valiant #1s from the 90’s (Quantum & Woody, Archer & Armstrong) for $1.00 each in the past year. You might want to see what you can find in the sea of discarded 90’s dreck at your local back issue depository.

And, in the meantime, pick up some of Valiant’s rebooted books. Maybe they’ll be worth something someday, but, if not, you’re still getting your money’s worth. Some great stories being told over there.

Review: Shadowman #13

So I read my first Shadowman comic this week, and I really enjoyed it. Valiant has been marketing the hell out of this issue, trying to convince new readers to jump on with the new creative team. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve really enjoyed Archer & Armstrong, so I thought I’d give another Valiant title a try. I wasn’t disappointed. Other than Manifest Destiny, this might have been my favourite title this week.

This comic had a great feel to it. It reminded me a bit of 90s Spawn comics – dark, moody, just cool. Robert De La Torre’s art is spectacular.

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It’s always a little disorienting to jump into a series in the middle of things. I still don’t quite understand the relationship between Shadowman and Boniface. (What’s a “loa”?) But the comic did a decent job of establishing the characters and the basic plot. The premise here is that Boniface is trying to sever himself from his Shadowman alter-ego with the help of a voodoo priestess. Things don’t quite go as planned, but it’s a fun ride. I’ll be adding Shadowman to my pull list. If you can still get your hands on a copy, I’d recommend checking it out.

Ret-Con Anxiety

So I’ve read a bit about “All New Marvel Now,” and some good-natured snark about Marvel doing a reboot of their reboot. Some think it’s a money grab; others think these constant reboots aren’t conducive to character development. DC’s New 52 initiative seems to have angered a lot of people too, just like Zero Hour did, just like Crisis on Infinite Earths did.

There’s a lot of anxiety about retroactive continuity and reboots among comic book readers. I understand it. I’ve just never really felt it.

Part of the anxiety, I guess, is that people become attached to certain incarnations of characters, and then when they’re ret-conned out of existence or their histories are reinvented, it feels like a betrayal. We register the loss. Back in the late 90s people went nuts over Spider-Man’s clone saga. Some went crazy when Superman turned into Blue Lightning. I know some readers are similarly upset about the ghost of Doc Ock inhabiting Peter Parker’s body in the current Spider-Man continuity. But does anybody really believe that Peter Parker is gone forever? Did anyone really think Superman was going to keep that stupid-looking mullet after he came back from the dead? Did anybody think Azrael was going to replace Batman for good? How many times has Jean Grey died? 

I really think we need to calm down about supposedly “major” changes to the mythology of our favourite characters. Everything that has ever been done in a comic book has also been undone. Characters die and come back to life – sometimes regularly. “Temporal anomalies” and “alternate realities” can always be used to put things back the way they were.

I guess I’ve always just thought this was the nature of the comic book medium. Superheroes are mythic figures. Their stories exist in lots of different places, across different media and genres. Each retelling of the  story is a little different. What matters is the core of the character – the lesson, or the idea, that makes the character “true.” It doesn’t matter if Batman dies, because he’ll come back. If you hate the current Robin, don’t worry. He’ll be killed and then he’ll cease to have ever existed, and then he’ll come back, and then he’ll be gone again. That’s just the nature of superhero stories.

Marvel is motivated by money. They’re rebooting their reboots in order to get new readers to “jump on” every 12-24 months. That said, I think they might also have cracked something about comics. Why pretend these stories are ongoing? They aren’t. Every new arc, and every new creative team, let alone every new series signals a re-imagining, a retelling, a reinvigoration of the franchise. It’s as if Marvel has just said “F**k it, the core of the character is permanent, but all the other stuff is ephemeral. Let’s just run with that.”

Speculation: The Flash

I mentioned recently that DC has a lot riding on the Flash. Because of the recent failures of Green Lantern and Wonder Woman franchises, they’ve really gotta get the Flash right.

If I’m right about that, there’s potential for a popular Flash TV show or film to propel the character to the forefront of the popular consciousness. And that’s the stuff that drives the comic market.

Now, problematically, unlike, say, Preacher or Sandman, the Flash is a gold and silver age character. Like Superman or Batman his first appearances are likely out of reach for the average collector, as are the first appearances of Flash’s major nemeses: Reverse Flash, Gorilla Grodd, Captain Cold, etc. Those back issues are going to cost you some coin.

But there may be other key Flash comics worth acquiring.

For instance, after the 1985 DC cross-over, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wally West took over for Barry Allen and the Flash was rebooted. Flash Vol. 2 #1 was published in 1987.

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Wally is yet to appear in the New 52 universe (to the best of my knowledge), but he – not Barry – was the Flash for a generation of comic readers. You can bet DC will eventually find a way to bring him into the fold.

While we’re on the subject, the death of Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, might be worth picking up too. You can find one of these on eBay for anywhere from about $5-$13. NM might cost you a little more.

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I would suggest that the first appearance of Impulse is also a smart pickup.

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This ties into my theory of long-games and low-demand comics. There’s not a lot of buzz about Impulse at the moment. He’s not a hot commodity. That’s when you want to pick up his first appearance – not when CW announces that Bart Allen will be a major character in Season 3 of the Flash television series, or when DC announces that he’ll have his own series in 2015 drawn by Greg Capullo and written by Grant Morrison. (How’s that for speculation!?)

I’m a collector as well as a wannabe speculator, so this strategy appeals a bit more to me than buying five copies of whatever the latest hot comic is supposed to be, and ransoming them on eBay. I’ve begun acquiring key issues. These are a few I’ll be targeting in the near future.

Can DC Find Its Iron Man?

iron_man_3DC has been playing catch-up to Marvel in the movie game for over a decade. While DC was releasing Halle Berry’s Catwoman and a false-start of a Superman reboot, Marvel was raking in fat stacks of cash and critical acclaim with X-Men and Spider-Man franchises. Thanks to Christopher Nowlan and company, DC was able to string together a stellar Batman trilogy, but in the meantime, Marvel has been building an entire universe on the big screen and making money hand over fist.

Iron Man was really the cornerstone of this whole enterprise. And what Marvel accomplished there was nothing short of astonishing. I’ve always been fond of Iron Man, but let’s be honest: he’s B-list. 10 years ago your mom didn’t know who Iron Man was. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, sure. Iron Man? He was just some random robot. With a good script and brilliant casting, Marvel was able to move Iron Man into the big leagues. This was a big deal; by scoring a home run with Iron Man Marvel built up a lot of good faith in the movie-going public. People who wouldn’t normally have gone to see a Thor movie were willing to take a chance on Marvel. The more consistently good films Marvel put out the more the company strengthened its brand. (Marvel is about to put the audience’s faith to the test with upcoming Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy films.)

The rest is history, of course: Thor, Captain America, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, billions of dollars.

DC clearly wanted to mimic this model. They tried hard with Green Lantern and ultimately failed. The question now is where do they go from here? Clearly with the announcement of the Batman / Superman movie they’ve signalled their intention to start expanding the DC universe at the multiplex. But some fans wonder if they’re jumping the gun. Marvel spent five years methodically putting pieces in place for Avengers. At times it seems DC wants to compete with Marvel without laying the groundwork.

They’ve had some success with Arrow; now they’re planning a Flash television show.

For my money, Flash is DC’s next, best shot at expanding their universe beyond the big two. Whatever they choose to do with the character, they should exercise caution. Green Lantern failed. Wonder Woman got canned almost instantly. DC’s benches are only so deep.

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You’re not going to draw moviegoers to the theatres with Zatanna and Booster Gold.

Perhaps Batman / Superman is going to be the first in a series of fantastic and profitable World’s Finest cross-overs, and DC will just sit on a possible Justice League movie for a decade or so until they can reboot their whole universe again.

But if they have any hope of copying the Marvel model in the near future, a lot is riding on the Flash.