So, I’ve decided to start taking advantage of the deal that my local DVD store runs more often, and so yesterday I rented two movies: “The Amazing Spider-man” and “Black Swan”. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in both, and so would like to spend some time
ranting discussing them a bit. I warn you now: there will be spoilers that are not going to be put in a spoiler tag. Stop reading now if you don’t want either of these movies kinda spoiled.
First up, “The Amazing Spider-man”, which was not the first movie I watched. This is important because I watched them throughout my entire evening, and so I watched it right before I went to sleep. Which means that I fell asleep during it. This isn’t exactly odd for me, but my dreaming insertions into the plot is. At any rate, this does mean that I missed a fair bit of the plot and so might have to give it another chance, but I can talk a bit about it, starting with the idea that the Sam Raimi version is a far, far better movie.
The big issue with the remake is that it does seem to be a remake, and tries to update the mythos to modern day far more than the previous movie did. So, Peter Parker’s personality changes a bit, and the movie strikes me as trying to make all the people cool. Parker’s more of a semi-slacker than the nerdy sort that he was in the previous movie and in the original comic. His defining characteristic is more his photography than anything academic, and even at the end it’s pointed out that he tends to be late to classes, which was not how you’d see either of the previous Parkers. This personality shift will come into play a bit later when he starts getting into being Spider-man, as because his whole persona smacks of someone awkward but who would be a bit of a snarker if given a chance his wisecracks in battle seem like part of his personality as opposed to wisecracks fired off to hide the fact that he’s really just a scared kid and to give him a confidence boost so that he can carry on, which was an important part of the character. Spider-man is not supposed to be quite that annoying, in my opinion.
The movie also ratchets up the drama quite a bit. In both the comics and in the previous movies, the Parkers were simple, plain, ordinary folk. Peter’s parents were lost in a tragic accident — and everyone knew about the accident — and so his uncle and aunt raised him the best they could. Here, we start with a dramatic scene where his parents have to run away and leave him with his aunt and uncle. They never return, but Peter doesn’t really seem to know why, as when he finds something his father left behind and starts searching for information that they died in a car crash is displayed as if it’s a surprise, and later Peter answers Ben back about why his parents didn’t keep their responsibility to him as if he didn’t really know that they had died. But it is clear that his father, at least, was involved in something big and something extraordinary, and that Ben and May knew a bit about what it was. This leads Peter to try to find out about his father by sneaking into Curt Connors’ lab, and it is during that that he gets his spider bite. The problem with this is that one of the keys to Spider-man is that he is just an ordinary though incredibly bright kid who gains extraordinary powers, and learns that having extraordinary powers gives him extraordinary responsibilities. This ratcheting up of the drama cuts that out and doesn’t really work in and of itself, especially when they try to mix it up with comedy (like Gwen Stacy catching him sneaking in under the name of another intern). No, it would have worked better to have had Peter be interested in the internship, but be curious enough about the experiments to sneak off and take a look. Then pretty much everything else could have proceeded as it did. We really didn’t need to have the thread of his parents and their involvement brought up here, and none of the other versions did that either.
What all of the movies have screwed up, in my opinion, is the moment where Peter Parker doesn’t stop the man who will eventually kill his Uncle Ben. In the original comic — I got a reprint in the special edition DVD of the Raimi version — Peter had relatively unselfish reasons for trying to get the money, but very selfish reasons for not stopping the thief, as he really just didn’t want to get involved. Both movie versions make it so that the person who gets robbed is someone who is basically a jerk, and a jerk to Peter specifically, giving him a reason to decide that the person can be left on his own, or deserves to be robbed. I like it better when Peter has no reason not to stop the thief, but just doesn’t see it as something that he has to do, as it sets up the second part of that better.
But that I can go either way on. The new movie, however, messes up the really critical part: how Peter Parker deals with the person who killed his uncle and discovers that he could have stopped him before he had done that … but decided not to. In both the comics and the previous movie, Peter chases down the person who killed his uncle but doesn’t know who it is, and then when he stops him has a completely shocking moment where he comes to that realization. But in the new movie, Peter discovers it on the same night, and then becomes Spider-man to hunt down that person … and goes through a number of people to get there. It seems a lot like a quest for revenge, and the realization that he has the responsibility to stop criminals like this because they might hurt other innocent people doesn’t seem to come then, but maybe later. But this is the defining moment for Spider-man, and what makes him what he is, and the hero we all love. The death of Uncle Ben is the driving force behind Spider-man, and is what keeps him stopping street crime even where a lot of other superheroes won’t (you don’t see Thor or the Fantastic Four or Iron Man stopping muggers, for example). And that’s all gone in the new movie. It’s fantastically disappointing to me.
Also, the actors don’t strike me as being as good as the previous ones. Emma Stone pulls off a credible Gwen Stacy, and Andrew Garfield is okay for the Peter Parker that they’re trying to make him out to be, but I don’t like that Peter Parker so that hurts him. But particularly noticeable are Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Rosemary Harris played a far more Aunt May like Aunt May while still keeping a fire that Sally Field never seems to pull off, and Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben is a bit meh. Considering how important these characters should be to the mythos, it’s a little disappointing.
That being said, it gets one compliment. Someone once defended the awkward romantic lines in the Star Wars prequels by arguing that normal teenage interactions sound just that awkward. In this movie, there’s a lovely awkward romantic interaction between Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker that makes it clear that that was done intentionally to reflect that, demonstrating why that’s not a credible excuse for the Star Wars movies.
So, that’s it for “The Amazing Spider-man”. Now to “Black Swan”. All I really knew about this movie was that it had rave reviews for both the movie and the actresses, and yes that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had a make-out scene. I sat down to watch it, and it was okay, but what really struck me about it is this: although there are a number of possible interpretations, the most obvious one is a disappointing one, which is that Mina is someone who had a pre-existing mental problem and snapped under the high pressure of being the lead in a ballet. This is brought out because, well, the movie tells us that she had issues with scratching herself before this and so we know that she had some problems. Additionally, while what Lily and Thomas were doing was tough, it’s pretty much expected for such a competitive field. So what we don’t get is an impression that this was someone just like everyone else who was driven to this by those around her, but someone who was fragile who broke. It’s still a tragedy, of course, but because we cannot think “There but for the grace of God go us” it’s not as much of a one.
And the issue with the multiple interpretations is that they aren’t all that credible. The problem is that if you want to do multiple interpretations, it seems to me that the best way to do it is to film or create scenes that can in and of themselves be taken in different ways. “Black Swan” doesn’t do that, but instead seems to try to mix and match scenes that imply different things. This is bad enough, but when you add in that for a good portion of the movie Mina is hallucinating we aren’t even really sure if those scenes are real. For example, you can think that Mina’s mother was domineering and driving her to have a ballet career that her mother had to give up when she had her … except that there’s only one real scene where her mother acts strongly controlling, and that was after Mina had started slipping again. Is Thomas someone who decides on the interests of the company primarily through his pants? Is he pushing her to break her, or to make the ballet a success? For the most part, we don’t really know, but not because of any real ambiguity, but because it seems that the movie itself can’t present a clear view of the characters. Add in that the presentation of the characters is fairly shallow, and we don’t really get a clear idea of what’s going on or who the characters are, even Mina herself. And that’s part of the problem with presenting different impressions by using different scenes; in those cases, it’s too easy to claim that the ambiguity is due to a failure in the script and not due to a deliberate insertion.
Perhaps the movie is meant to mirror the plot of “Swan Lake”. There are certainly enough indications of that in the movie. But not being a big fan of ballet, I don’t know the details of the plot, but only what the movie tells me. And from what the movie tells me, it doesn’t fit. Where is Mina’s prince? It doesn’t seem to be Thomas; she doesn’t seem that interested in him (and does seem more interested in Lily). Sure, it might be her breaking out of herself and breaking her curse in death, but that’s a bit more of a stretch than I’d like to make in a movie. And if we take this interpretation, then is her death a tragedy or a blessing? She seems to think that she had a perfect performance, which she mentions that she wanted. And part of the issue with the movie is that at the end we have a couple of threads that are introduced when there can’t be a reaction to them (that one and the “Little Princess” line) that harken back nicely to things that happened previously but go unremarked. So based on what the movie tells me, I don’t buy it.
So, a bit disappointing, but then again I’m probably not the intended audience for that movie. That being said, I did love the line after Mina tells Lily about their “lovemaking” and Lily’s last line is “Was I good?”. You have to see that in context to see why I liked it so much.
I don’t really regret watching either of these movies, but I likely won’t want to buy either, and certainly would have enjoyed watching episodes of Star Trek:TOS more.