The not-so-amazing Spider-man?

I don’t know any film critic who cares more about the history and character of Peter Parker/Spider-man than the comic-loving Steven D. Greydanus who reviews films for the National Catholic Register.

Greydanus also happens to be my favorite film critic. I love the way he writes and thinks.

So, since I missed the press screening for The Amazing Spider-man, the seemingly unnecessary reboot of an already engaging franchise, I’ve been eager to read his review.

And here it is.

The Amazing Spider-Man has some good ideas in this direction. In some ways, it improves on the previous trilogy. With caveats, I generally like Andrew Garfield’s darker, more ironic take on Peter; it isn’t especially my conception of the character, but it could reasonably be someone’s conception. The awkward flirtation between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is more emotionally fraught than the shallow romanticism with MJ in Raimi’s trilogy.

Martin Sheen is terrific as Uncle Ben (I like him at least as much as Cliff Robertson, though partly it’s a matter of writing), and Uncle Ben’s murder is cleverly restaged in a way that emphasizes Peter’s responsibility even more. Director Mark Webb (yes, Webb!) creates a few memorable images, some re-creations of comic-book art, others inspired by the hero’s arachnid iconography.

For all that, the new film bungles who Spider-Man is, where he’s coming from. This isn’t the only problem (there are notable issues around the plot and the interpretation of Spider-Man’s reptilian foe, the Lizard), but, for me, it’s the most intractable, because it undermines the hero’s moral center.

(Also frustrated, here’s Nick Shager at Slant.)

As I expressed in my review of The Avengers, which I wrote in a strange state of simultaneous exhilaration and exasperation, I’m suffering from severe superhero-movie burnout. So I won’t rush out to see this movie and subject you to another blast of disillusionment.

Yes, superhero stories can be a meaningful form of mythmaking. Yes, they can encourage us to reflect on power and responsibility. But they can also become an addicting sort of escapism that does more to distract us from our own gifts and responsibilities than it does to help us understand them. They are, if you will, a sort of dessert. And when dessert is mostly what we’re eating at the movies, well… I’ll surrender the metaphor there, but I think you can follow it to its logical conclusion.

And with ticket prices for event movies like this rising toward $20 (I paid $18 for my ticket to see Prometheus, something I hope I never have to do again), I can’t help but ask the tiresome question, “What else could I be doing with the money I’m pouring into the Summer Blockbuster bin?”

If you disagree with Greydanus and Shager, and think that this movie deserves my $20… please, feel free to make your case.

If you’re really hungry for a superhero film, and you haven’t seen Chronicle yet, check it out. It just arrived at Netflix, and it delivers something that superhero movies are finding it more and more difficult to deliver: Surprises. But even so, I found myself checking my watch during the last fifteen minutes, hoping that it would settle for one modest finale instead of the endurance test that has become the standard.

And wow… we still have The Dark Knight Rises ahead of us this summer.

Last month, Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite film of 2012 so far, showed us a place full of human beings, with human struggles, human triumphs, and a refreshing lack of superhuman showmanship. That place is called Summer’s End.

I want to go to there.

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  • I too felt like Chronicle was one of the better superhero movies to come out in decades, though I feel like it’s a misnomer to label Nolan’s Batman Trilogy as a superhero story. For one, Batman doesn’t have any powers, and for two what Nolan is writing is a far more human story than most of those kind of movies embrace. Anyways, good thoughts as always.

  • I’m going to have to disagree with you here. I feel it seems unfair to underwrite an entire genre (seems fair to call “superhero movies” its own genre at one point). I attended a screening of Spiderman last week and I enjoyed it just about as much as I enjoyed watching Darjeeling Limited. Both I think are fine movies, not necessarily the peak of their genre (Batman Begins and The Royal Tenenbaums being my favorites, respectively), but they were still thoughtful and well crafted.

    It seems a bit hasty to criticize the movie before you’ve even seen it as well. I think this all goes back to “judging a book by its cover.” While it is noted that you are citing critics to justify your reasoning, it’s really hard to let that dictate if the film is wholly good or not. I review music and film from time to time, but that does not mean what I write is inherently true or not. Similarly, I have critics who I follow and whose opinions I really respect – typically because they share a common taste with me. But even then, sometimes I’ll see a movie they recommend and I hate it or vice versa.

    Superhero movies aren’t going to go away soon and there is a lot more that can be done with them. They need to be treated less as childish spectacle and more as modern mythology. This goes for directors and for audiences. You get what you put into a movie, just as you do with any art. If someone goes in with the mindset that superhero movies are overdone and meaningless, that is likely what they’ll think when they leave the theatre. An open mind can make a huge difference.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      You’re right, Dusty, that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But a film review from a discerning critic is not a book cover.

      And I’m sorry that I sounded like I was “judging” this movie. I’m not; I haven’t seen the movie. I meant only to offer some other reviewers’ thoughts for consideration.

      While I know they’re not the final word on anything, I value the reviews of trusted friends and colleagues. If I showed you the testimonies of reasonable, trustworthy surgery patients who condemned the work of a sloppy surgeon, would you say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” and encourage me to let that surgeon operate on me anyway? An extreme comparison, I know, but I think you see my point.

      If I had “underwritten an entire genre,” to use your words, we would indeed have a problem. If I had “the mindset that superhero movies are overdone and meaningless,” we would have an even bigger problem. But in this short post I said that superhero moves “can be a meaningful form of mythmaking … can encourage us to reflect on power and responsibility.” I expressed exhaustion because what used to be an occasional event has become the Major Superhero Movie of the Week. I love a great burger, but if I’m eating mediocre burgers every week, I’m going to suffer from Burger Burnout. That is not a decision that all burgers should be condemned.

      There’s a reason that I gave this post a question-marked title: The thoughtful opinion of a Peter Parker expert, an expert who happens to be the critic I trust most, inclines me to ask… Should I rush out and spend $20 on a movie that looks likely to be mediocre? With that same amount of cash, I could actually purchase two movies that would be worth seeing over and over again.

      Superhero movies can be “modern mythology,” yes. They can also be derivative and gratuitous. I’m so sick of the latter that I have learned to turn to discerning critics in search of the best. (And remember, I had a blast watching The Avengers.)

      Again, I never even implied that this movie was “meaningless.” I said that moviegoers I trust have said it is a disappointment and a betrayal of its source material. That’s all.

      You bring up the importance of “an open mind,” which gives me an excuse to share my favorite G.K. Chesterton quote: “The point of an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.”

  • craigdetweiler

    Like you Jeffrey, I have yet to see Spider-Man 4 (or is it 1.2)? But I do find it incredibly cynical and depressing that Sony and Marvel are rebooting franchises that are ten years old. Not a sustainable (re) cycle for Hollywood. Chronicle felt quite fresh–a creative effort to inject new ideas into the superhero genre. And also like you, I found Moonrise Kingdom quite enchanting.

  • The Pachyderminator

    It’s things like this me that make me glad I’m not a professional film critic. The reason I’m not suffering from superhero movie burnout is simply that I’ve seen only a small minority of the last decade’s superhero movies. This means that when I do occasionally see one (such as The Avengers, or The Dark Knight Rises, which I’m eager for), I can feel free to enjoy it.