Previously on the Spiderman franchise, Emo Spidey. And like all emo kids turn into hipsters when they grow up, Emo Spidey is rebooted into hipster Spidey. I’ll explain later. But first, let me take you to a journey about my pre-conceptions about The Amazing Spiderman! The first preview clip looked like CGI crap! More preview clips showed that he’s funny! Then where were the blog entries about Spidey/Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) essence that were divisive. He’s a jerk! He’s Jewish! He’s a Jewish jerk, or for political correctness’ sake, a jerk who happens to be Jewish!
I can’t necessarily account for his relation to the biblical Jacob (or Rachel, to be more technical), but he’s probably not a jerk. I regretfully can’t remember how the Raimi Spiderman began, but director Marc Webb begins his with a sensitive portrayal of a boy who grows up too early. Cue a soundtrack that’s half Titanic and half Inception. Mad About You is playing in the background, so we must be in 1997. As much as young Peter wants to play hide and seek with his parents (his mother is played by fake British person Embeth Davidtz), they’re trying to scurry away and hiding him away from danger, leaving him with his Uncle Ben (Garfield’s fellow Sorkin alum Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). His father is one of the few paternal figures who will be unfortunately excised during the duration of this movie, helping Peter on his way from being an unlucky teenager into a morally centred young superhero. The high school scenes firmly sets the movie’s ambivalence towards labeling their characters as good or evil, because despite one bully, the schoolmates who piss Peter off inadvertently aren’t necessarily out to get him.
His transformation is rocky, even calling out the dated, if not troubled notions of being one. Let’s talk about the light stuff first. He clings to his hipster wardrobe until he gets inspiration from a lucha libre poster that came out of nowhere. He later notices that many athletes are wearing spandex and reluctantly embraces it. Spandex was never fashionable, and at one point I’m thinking that if new superheroes were being created today, none of them would be donning the skin-hugging material, despite the flexibility it can offer.
Now on to the heavier stuff. He first decides to become a superhero as a way to avenge Uncle Ben’s death caused by some stringy haired blonde dated version of a grunge villain. Mr. Stacy even calls him out on this personal vendetta, despite of how much Peter defends Spidey’s position as someone trying to help. If the original Spiderman movies were accounts on our collective adolescence fresh of the 9-11 era, this reboot is four our Tea Party/Occupy times, both movements quickly becoming relics of our time. Just like his real world counterparts, their status in the binary of good and evil are more shaded than he thinks, due to his early disregard for due process. The paternal figures, as ghost figures, run the risk of having their de facto descendant – Peter/Spidey – and his vigilante-ism running amok without and strategy. And despite of him being barely at home to be under May’s guidance, his father figures’ advice hopes to be impactful enough not to let him astray.
I was also wrong about the movie’s visual effects, because the movie is gorgeous, if not a little manicured. Every long shot is a nighttime version of a New York City postcard. Every dark room is a chance for dusty light to beautifully funnel itself in. Every visit to Oscorp, where his late father the latter’s very alive colleague, geneticist Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), is a neon trip that leads Peter to knowledge or danger or both. The CGI is CGI, often successful at taking a dip into the uncanny valley, but it’s not that distracting anymore as a technology. And that I was watching this with my laptop and was still floored by its compositions is a feat in itself. I can only imagine the 3D lessening its aesthetic impact.
Speaking of manicured, and I guess I should be used to this by now, but TAS’ version of New York City is a bit whitewashed. The private school in Gossip Girl is more diverse than what I assume is Peter’s public high school, where everyone’s dressed like an H&M model and goes home to places arranged gay interior decorators. Peter’s classmate Gwen Stacy (model Emma Stone) is wearing a cream coloured wool trench and woolen thigh highs God. And everybody knows each other. Gwen becomes Peter’s love interest and is the police chief’s daughter and Curt’s intern. Mr. Stacy’s New York Police Force is equally white. There are people of colour peppered around the movie’s fringes. The interns at Oscorp, with Asians to the front and a Hispanic guy struggling because of Peter’s temporary identity switch – thank God I’m not over-thinking that. Peter’s F train ride turned fight club to Coney Island (there is no way the F train is that clean, by the way). The crane workers who help Spiderman get to Oscorp (speaking of workers, Aunt May wears a Bridgeworkers shirt, a close enough reference to Field’s Norma Rae). It’s curious that Peter adapts into a more New York accent as he turns into Spiderman, but I like that he sees himself as one of the people, giving the story a bit of locality. And despite of my nitpicks, the movie’s central figure is compelling and authentic enough to anchor its fantastical plot, making both enjoyable.
My dad thinks he’s cool. He’d tell me about how his dad was too cheap to buy him the disco suits all the other teenagers wore so he had to settle with and rock the white T-shirt and jeans like Martin Sheen in the 1970’s. They showed a Martin Sheen movie on TV in the Philippines, the actor strutting down a back street, squinting his way into nonchalant cool. His working-class anti-fashion fitting his body properly like it only does with the young. I didn’t know back then that Dad was introducing me to one of the most revered auteurs of all time, tackling a subject I shouldn’t be watching. I’m not sure he knew neither. His hair’s as long and parts the same way like my dad too.
Matt Zoller Seitz, in a video essay about Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven, said that it was ‘like the greatest novel James M. Cain never wrote.’ Those words seem more fitting with his earlier film Badlands, with Kit as a good old boy who has his own set of ethics that makes sense even in its contradictions. Sheen, harking back to James Dean, presents a different, naturalistic version of old-school. He’s masculine in his rebellion while childlike in thinking over the rules and consequences of his crimes. He arbitrarily knows when to stop playing and doesn’t feel remorse about being caught.
If Kit, in his simplicity, is consistent, Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) is the opposite and constantly changes. Although she’s never convinced me as an infantile 15-year-old, she’ not so mature nor womanly neither. We’d think that by the time they run away, she’d ditch her Southern princess behaviour, but instead of a linear evolution, her outlook has different waves. Sometimes she’d be like his female counterpart or wear a bandanna on her head, looking like a 1950’s housewife. At other times she’s a stubborn doll, enacting her unrefined yet legitimate rebellion against Kit.
I didn’t realize that a Malick film was used as sartorial inspiration, but it’s genius. This is also his most narrative film so far. There’s the traditional landscape imagery, using more textures and colour palettes than his other, later films do. But nonetheless the two young rebels stand out within the backgrounds as well the exciting shoot-up scenes that most crime films would have. Badlands is showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at June 14 at 9:30 PM as part of the venue’s retrospective on the director.
- Opening Shots: Badlands (blogs.suntimes.com)