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Spiderman – in how many dimensions?

“The Amazing Spider-Man” is pretty good. Just not quite amazing, at least my wife and I both thought so, and it’s hard to say why. I loved the action, and the cast were very watchable, but a great film is all about the story and characters. 

The story’s not so different from the 2002 Tobey Maguire version. It’s the old frustrated boy meets mutant spider routine with the girl, family and supervillain thrown in. The rest is SPOILERS so stop reading if you’re determined to avoid them…

 

 

 

(interval)

 

 

 

(let’s all go to the lobby!)

 

 

 

(popcorn and drinks are HOW MUCH?!)

 

 

 

(have I got time to get to Tesco Metro?)

 

 

 

(…and we’re back)

 

 

 

Quite a lot of The Amazing Spider-Man is really good. The big character development at the start of a Spidey reboot is obviously going to be Peter Parker, clumsy loner teen, transforming into your friendly neighbourhood hero. “How is that going to work?” is the big question.

Like every fantasy film, the answer has to swing (in this case, literally) between being believable and entertaining-enough-to-suspend-our-disbelief. The 3D effects, the excitement of the chases (physical and emotional) and the zippy dialogue all help on the entertainment front. But a gravity-defying stunt is only gripping if we also believe gravity is still at work. What enables Spiderman to swing most entertainingly is the web which attaches to something solid. In other words, something in the world has to be believable for the character swinging against it to look amazing.

Physics and science will always get stretched beyond belief in a superhero story, so the solid believability – and the attachment to us and why we should care – have to come from emotional connections. Yes it’s Marvel, and everything is larger than life, but believable life has to come into it somewhere, most importantly for the central characters you want to care about.

One way to measure the emotional potential of a character in a story is to look at how many dimensions it has. Directions are often given vaguely to actors about adding dimensions to their character or avoiding a “flat” performance, but the person who I think has best defined “dimensions” in character is screenwriting guru Robert McKee. In “Story” he writes, “Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterisation and deep character (a charming thief)… Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behaviour rivet the audience’s concentration.”

Spiderman’s central character, Peter Parker, has the most contradictions or character dimensions, and exhibits lots of things we can relate to from adolescence:

  • he’s physically awkward around others but slick when he applies himself
  • he wants to avoid trouble but is also driven to change the world
  • he is secretive but also craves emotional openness
  • his life is shaped by the pain of lost love (parents, uncle), but he deeply wants to love

Each of these contradictions is like a muscle holding the character in tension. Spiderman is a great story when it works and develops these muscles, making Peter Parker come to life by giving him believable, relatable and seemingly impossible situations to resolve. As each dimension of his character is stimulated and strengthened by story situations and other characters, Peter Parker grows and becomes a more believable and emotionally compelling hero:

  • Flash brings out Peter Parker’s awkwardness, but also motivates him to change and apply himself
  • Aunt May brings Peter up to be sensible, but also sets his ambition and self-belief high, enabling him to believe he can change the world and grow personally
  • Gwen Stacy is someone Peter can’t express his feelings for, but draws them out and motivates Peter to change and grow
  • Uncle Ben’s life is a steadying influence on Peter, but his death and Peter’s guilt over appearing to cause it trigger the biggest character transformation in Peter (yes, the spider does something too, but the spider has no character attributes other than being an annoying spider…)

When all of these situations are played out believably and entertainingly, Peter can grow into a strong character. But then what do you do with him? What’s going to make this a film?

Most Hollywood stories have a simple, crowd pleasing structure. A central character has their world knocked out of balance by a problem, and they transform and grow as they make various increasingly costly efforts to resolve that problem. Eventually, at the ultimate risk of everything they have and everything they are, they restore balance, becoming someone we want to identify with, overcoming the problems we’ve related to and carrying us with them into a better life.

The big problem with Spiderman, like any hero destined for multiple adventures, is that we need each film (or comic) to resolve but the story to continue. So Peter Parker can’t fix all his problems in two hours. That’s fine, and believable, but he has to have something which can be resolved, something challenging but which he can overcome with enough certainty for us to leave the cinema after two hours with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Enter the supervillain. This turns the hero into a superhero, not just capable but indispensible, because only they can overcome the supervillain, and only at great risk and cost.

Now here’s the thing. Comics get through LOTS of supervillains, because they need to publish new editions at least every month, and that means some supervillains are better than others. What’s better? The bad ones are simply annoyances. We don’t care about them, we just want them to go away. The good ones we enjoy, but we know need to be defeated. The great ones, the very best, have to create contradictions in us – we really want to see more of them, but we also want them to get busted. And then hopefully come back, somehow.

And this is the big test for a superhero film. How good is the supervillain? How much do we care about them? Or to put it another way, how many dimensions of character do they have?

This is the biggest difference between “Spiderman” (2002) and “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012).

2002 supervillain: The Green Goblin

  • loving family man, but also attracted by and addicted to work
  • clever scientist, but also stupidly reckless when his funding is threatened
  • inventive and creative, but also highly secretive (lots of government work + has ultimate fantasy “don’t go in there” closet at home)
  • wants to do the right thing, but is overcome by the conflicting desires of his darker self (and there’s some green serum stuff but, like the spider, that’s just a trigger, not a character)
  • OVERALL, he’s a mirror and a counterpart to Peter Parker, the dark side kids fear in a father, just as relatable as Peter with as many character dimensions. I remember watching and thinking “noooo!!!” as his character took shape. And then there’s the genius touch of his son being Peter’s best friend and the pivotal character to take the story forwards.

2012 supervillain: The Lizard

  • some semi-nice guy who works in a lab but turns nasty (there’s a serum which brings out stuff which hadn’t been there at all in his character before)
  • sort of has some half developed, half believable relationships which I didn’t really care about him losing
  • err…
  • file under “annoying, go away”
  • OVERALL, meh. I don’t care. And that is a big problem for a film when the resolution is beating a stupid mutant lizard I don’t give a stuff about.

Now Gwen Stacy’s dad, Captain George, was a genius touch and a much stronger character. The dinner scene is one of the best in the story as it rips open the whole rich vein of “is Spiderman good or bad?”/”is a teenager going out with your daughter at all acceptable?” The Captain even got a line about the stupidity of a Lizard man running around town as if this was Godzilla. But then he found out Spiderman’s identity, and we knew he had to die. It was a shame, partly because we lost someone we were starting to care about (good story), but mainly because this downer was bigger than the up from defeating the why-should-we-care Lizard guy.

So what’s up? If your incidental characters have more or better developed dimensions than your main characters, that’s a story problem (sort of – actually, it just makes the better developed characters feel more “main”). But if the resolution of the plot hinges around an incidental or weak main character we don’t care about, because they have fewer or less well developed dimensions than supporting characters, that’s a HUGE story problem.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lot to like about “The Amazing Spider-Man”, especially how it all looks. But the weakness of a key character and the slow pace of development of others made it plod in some places where it should have been swinging. However, I’ve got high hopes for the sequel, because it could be the start of the real action. The basics are laid down, and we’ve yet to meet the mysterious owner of OsCorp, which means some green goblinness might await. Plus there’s the overhanging mystery of Peter’s parents and what dad was really up to.

How good that turns out will depend on whether the next set of characters has at least as many dimensions as the special effects.

PS – if you watched the trailers you might also have been wondering where some of the film went. Looks like there were LOTS of late cuts. Here’s a summary. It looks to me like Peter and pre-Lizard Dr Connors were originally going to have a stronger relationship, and much stronger reasons for Peter to care about him. That explains a lot, although if the studio felt that the edits were an improvement, there must have been something wrong with the original…

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