Even as a very small kid, I thought SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was boring. The character was a real snoozer any time a family member bought me one of his comics, assuming that because Erik loved superheroes (he did), then he must also love Superman (he did not); the movie certainly didn’t do him any favors. The prologue on Krypton felt like it went on forever, and by the time the hero was decked out in his costume and ready to battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it was just something-something involving Lex Luthor in an underground lair, shouting at his unfunny henchmen. Plus: that “Can You Read My Mind” shit was a tragedy then, and it’s a tragedy now.
If any part worked for me — and admittedly, it worked well — it was the brief section in which a young, and very ADR’d Clark Kent, is shown living the life of an alien forced to hide in plain sight. He’s different from his parents, and he’s different from his peers. He can do incredible things but can’t let it be known…until Destiny taps him on the shoulder, and sends him on a journey to the North Pole where his true heritage is revealed. It was mythic, and that sudden, unforgivable tonal shift that followed killed SUPERMAN for me in a way Doomsday couldn’t, and no amount of backwards Earth-spinning can undo.
It’s not surprising that, if we consider SUPERMAN, BATMAN, and SPIDER-MAN the films that truly set the standard for what we now consider the Modern Comic Book Movie, it’s this segment of the film that most informs Sam Raimi’s work on in the genre. The story of Peter Parker, wrestling eternally with guilt, power, and responsibility, is simply a feature-length version of Richard Donner’s Smallville segment, expanded and retold three times. Similarly, SUPERMAN II— a movie I cop to loving as a child, as it too worked for me in a way its predecessor did not — serves as an obvious influence, and SPIDER-MAN 2 follows a very similar storyline. Hero wants normal life with girl; hero gives up powers; hero wakes up next to girl and wonders what the hell he was thinking; hero gets powers back and crushes the super villain(s) he realizes he never ought to have neglected, and can never neglect again. That isn’t to say that SPIDER-MAN 2 is a direct lift, as this particular plot line is more or less a direct adaptation of AMAZING-SPIDER-MAN #50, (titled “Spider-Man No More,” which most of us agree is also the title the film should have also had).
But SUPERMAN II had another largely unacknowledged influence on the Comic Book Movie as a whole, and that’s the introduction of super-powered villains with a direct connection to the hero. Really, who cared about Lex Luthor and whether he shot those missiles, or whether he became the tyrannical lord of Australia? Zod, Ursa and Non were the hook. It wasn’t just that they were essentially Superman times three; they were on a mission to punish the son of Jor-El for the perceived injustice of Phantom Zone imprisonment. It was personal for them, and it became personal for Clark, who saw an affront to his family, his legacy, and the people of both worlds that had shaped him. In other words, it was good drama.
A hero is only as good as his villain, and Spider-Man has some of the best villains of the genre. It might surprise many non-comics readers whose sole understanding of the characters comes from the films, to learn that up until the Green Goblin unmasked himself in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #39, none of Spidey’s adversarial relationships crossed paths with Peter’s daily life except in peripheral ways. Yes, he was a photographer for The Daily Bugle, and J. Jonah Jameson was constantly getting himself involved in borderline criminal activities involving the Scorpion and Spider Slayers; as such, Peter always had a direct line to whatever costumed psychopath needed jailing. The Norman Osborn reveal changed things, and injected such immediate, intimate energy into the Spider-Goblin relationship, as well as tension involving Harry and The Secret That Might Get Out, that it became obvious for the writers to return to so deep a well. Once the Goblin was killed, Harry was in the outfit very soon after, with that same dynamic in effect. If this was a cop-out, it was an understandable one, considering the alternative storylines of the moment, which included The Grizzly and a completely redundant Spidermobile. Soon we didn’t just have Goblin II — we also had characters like The Jackal and his clones of both Dead Gwen Stacy and Peter himself, all designed to cause further chaos for Spidey, and it was torment that went beyond knuckle-busting. This sort of thing continues to this very day: to wit, anyone want to put down ten bucks on who this mysterious “Kindred” character is…? I’m in if you are!
I wrote at length about Harry, so I won’t retread the same ground. Suffice it to say, the first two SPIDER-MAN entries more or less follow the Osborn legacy up to the point where the son claims his father’s legacy. From there, SPIDER-MAN 3 takes a sharp and sudden turn. Raimi wanted to make a film about forgiveness, wherein Peter must learn to give that which he is always seeking for himself, despite being now tested in a situation where it’s almost unfair to ask it of him. Goblin Jr. makes sense here. J.M. DeMatteis, the Marvel writer who always had the best grasp on Harry’s unresolved Daddy issues, allowed the character to go crazy in a way Norman never did; then, in a final act of self-sacrifice, he chooses to save Peter, and die a man rather than a costumed lunatic. The circumstances in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #200 are very different from what Raimi would choose for SPIDER-MAN 3’s climax, but the setup and follow-through are pretty damn close. In either case, Harry dies a hero, and friendship is restored, albeit too late.*
Harry was more a dark reflection of Peter than Venom ever was — he had power, but he also had limitless resources, enviable comfort, and an angry Ghost Dad yelling at him from a mirror. Most important, both Spidey and the Goblins had a very weird love triangle, and it wasn’t a fetishizing or reinterpretation of the source material. The strength that exists in these onscreen relationships is mined from decades and decades of stories written by many talented writers with their own unique takes; and these best ideas were then picked from, and combined into the best, cleanest narratives possible. The stories that most resonate are the ones involving real stakes, not simply for the White Hats, but for the Black Hats, as well. Where things get dicey is when interpersonal relationships are forced into the narrative in order to give the hero and the villain an emotional connection that the narrative, or the characters themselves, can’t support. After all, you can’t go from SPIDER-MAN’s story of fathers and sons into a sequel about a guy with robot arms who wants to build a big glowing ball of light that eats paperclips. Really, who cares?
That’s when you risk falling into the same cinematic trap as many comic book writers. Soon, every villain has to be a twisted reflection of the hero, or some sort pre-existing friend or rival. If I had a nickel for every villain who was at one time employed by The Daily Bugle, I’d have a fuckton of nickels. Every cackling creep turns out to be someone you went to school with, or someone your Mom used to date, or your ex-girlfriend’s current husband. A lot of people shrug and say, Well, that’s comics; and yeah, it is “comics,” but really, it’s Spider-Man. That Green Goblin thing really hit a nerve with readers. The difference, though, is that the books are published monthly, if not bi-weekly; over the course of the two years it takes to produce a new Spider-Man film, you’ve likely read numerous adventures featuring Bad Guys of all types. There’s time, room, and space for variation. When limited to films, and likely to get no more than three in a series, tops, you get what you get, and there’s the risk of tonal disharmony if the director veers off into strange new directions.
So that’s why we see an Otto Octavius who meets Peter Parker, likes the kid, and seems like a pretty sweet guy, himself. He’s married to a character played by Donna Murphy, who before that played a dance instructor in CENTER STAGE, so she dresses like a dance instructor in SPIDER-MAN 2 (presumably because she played a dance instructor in CENTER STAGE). Otto and his wife banter about poetry and intelligence being a gift to be used FOR THE BENEFIT OF MANKIND. Seems like a pretty stable guy; he even has a handy inhibitor chip built into his four-armed harness, so that if the A.I. tentacles ever decided they wanted to be in charge, Ock would have the free will to shut out the lights. What could possibly go wrong?
Doctor Octopus is, hands down (all of them), the best-realized comic book super villain to appear on the big screen. Everything from the use of practical effects and puppeteering, to Alfred Molina’s hammy, melodramatic performance, is exceptional. But it isn’t Doctor Octopus, if we really want to get down to it. Comic Ock was (possibly?) an altruistic guy before his accident and the resulting brain damage, but he was also just a weirdo science guy. There wasn’t a hot wife, and he had zero interest in poetry. He was arrogant. He thought himself above Mankind, and had to use his brilliance to pull them up to his own level — hence the need for extra arms. Then he got fried, ended up with tentacles welded to his spine, and decided, in glorious mustache-twirling fashion, that he was going to RULE THE WORLD. There was no inhibitor chip — Ock was a dick because Ock was a dick. Remember FAMILY GUY’s first three seasons, back when Stewie was played as a mad scientist, and before it would be funnier to “make him all gay and stuff”? That’s Doctor Octopus, who, at one point, tried to con Aunt May into marrying him so he’d inherit a nuclear island Super Lair place. He was kind of a raving creep, and prone to dialogue such as You fools! and Witness now the genius and power of DOCTOR OCTOPUS!
Now, this isn’t saying that what Raimi gives us is bad by any stretch of the imagination. Otto’s connection to the main plot involving Peter’s internal struggle is fairly thin; Dock Ock services the Osborn arc more than the Parker one. Remember that 2004 was still a time in which that unspoken rule of Comic Book Movies — that the villain always die in the end — remained in effect. As such, Octavius is given a complete beginning, middle, and end. He is allowed to be a human being wrestling with both himself, and the control of his four-armed creation. If there’s a downside to this portrayal, it’s in giving Venom’s telepathic relationship with the symbiote to another character, as it makes a superficial villain even more superficial when you remove one of his few interesting traits.
There are fans who will grumble over any reinterpretation of the source material (and LORD OF THE RINGS fans are the worst, and I say that as one of them), but dramatic presentation has its own needs, its own requirements, and get out of the basement and play some baseball, you big baby. I fully recognize that Raimi’s Doctor Octopus is a slightly watered-down version of the creepy genius who would someday take over Peter’s body, become a “Superior” Spider-Man, and stare at MJ’s tits over dinner. Like that infamous decision to make Jack Napier the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, it makes sense if we are looking at each film as standing (relatively) alone, and there being no guarantee of a sequel. This MCU stuff is only just over a decade old, guys. But as with that Jack Napier twist, there’s such a thing as compromising your hero’s origin story by forcing a connection that doesn’t exist, or one that retroactively changes everything we thought we knew.
Yeah, I’m talking about Sandman. Remember Sandman? That tragic bank robber who was forced into a life of crime to support his daughter, who was sick with Inexplicable Movie Death Syndrome? Neither do I. According to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Flint Marko was a meathead who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was pseudo-scientifically granted the ability to fill a sandbox with himself. He didn’t have any real motivation other than to steal things; his narrative purpose was in causing Spider-Man all sorts of personal dilemmas, and forcing the industrious science whiz to find new ways to battle a guy you couldn’t punch, couldn’t grab, and couldn’t find a moral center to which to appeal. Turning him into some sort of soft-spoken, Noble Criminal, is a drastic rewriting of Marko, who would have been far better served (and in turn, would have far better served SPIDER-MAN 3) by appearing in a BOND-style opening battle. There’s really not much to Sandman, and in trying to develop a tragic story about his grief and personal battles, you just add more melodrama to a film series in danger of becoming camp by this point.
But it’s the retconning of Uncle Ben’s death that really pushes things over the edge, and forces that personal connection between Spidey and Sandman that has now strained any suspension of disbelief. Again, Raimi’s chosen theme for SPIDER-MAN 3 was forgiveness, so forcing a symbiote-fueled Peter to confront the man who, serious this time guys, actually murdered Ben Parker, makes that dramatic sense I keep talking about…but it doesn’t make logical sense. Aside from the fact that it’s cheap to return to that particular aspect of the origin story instead of coming up with something new and equally meaningful, it now removes Peter’s guilt over having allowed the other guy to run past, but now adds the guilt of having sort of indirectly murdering him when the guy didn’t even kill anyone.** It just confuses things, particularly when Peter decides that his own ability to forgive Marko justifies letting the criminal escape in the end — despite the many deaths and broken bodies left behind in the Sandman’s wake.
Later Spider-Man films will continue this trend. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN goes back with the promise of an “untold story” involving Ben and Mary Parker; while neither it nor the sequel actually bother to tell it, they fold Curt Connors (The Lizard) and Norman Osborn into the story, and even manage to tie Electro into the world of the Parkers, tangentially. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING appears to side-step this developing trope right up until the climax, though its Third Act plot twist is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with a theatrical audience, all of whom collectively gasped. It just goes to show how much more effective such relationships can be when they aren’t expected.
Blame the SPIDER-MAN movies: everything’s like this now. Comic Book Movies are filled with characters fighting their fathers, nephews, teammates, and co-workers. A lot of this is due to how comics are written, but it starts with Spidey on the page, just like it starts with Spidey on the screen. He’s the Jessica Fletcher of superheroes: everywhere they go, someone recognizes them; everywhere they go, someone dies. This is his gift. This is his curse.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, there somewhere exists a version of SPIDER-MAN 3 made by a Sam Raimi who rolled with the studio demands, and then nicely asked Yours Truly to go through the screenplay with a red pencil. I’d have told him to make Sandman that fun, visually incredible opening set piece I mentioned earlier, and to leave him there where he belonged. Then I’d caution him to remove any ties to Uncle Ben’s story, and to focus on Peter finding the alien costume in a believable way; then properly tell the story of his increasing darkness through a growing addiction to the new suit’s enhanced properties. Meanwhile, I’d say: make a proper Green Goblin II — or a Hobgoblin, for that matter — and have him do something cruel and terrible to someone Peter cares for; something that would push a sane man over the edge, to say nothing of a guy with an angry symbiote egging him on. Have Peter hurt Harry. Have him do something so irrevocable that he rejects the alien, so that it finds solace and shared hatred in Eddie Brock. Let Peter and Harry remember they’re brothers before it’s too late, and then work together to stop Venom. Allow Harry to die with dignity. See? It’s still about forgiveness, and it makes all that Venom stuff part of the narrative. Plus, everyone already knows one another, including that “Eddie” guy mentioned all the way back in the first SPIDER-MAN. And for God’s sake, Sam, I know he’s Bill Paxton’s father, but write out that fucking butler — if Harry is originally coerced by the reflection of his dead father, then Harry needs to make the decision to stand by Peter’s side by rejecting the same vision.
Remember what a shocker it was when Darth Vader told Luke that he was, in fact, the young Jedi’s father? Take a guess what George Lucas used to read, and so many things fall into place. Somewhere in Hell, Norman Osborn and Anakin Skywalker are sharing a round of drinks, and wondering who let in all these other characters they’ve never met, and whose shoehorned relationships in either franchise are the only things things that actually connect any of them.
*The most interesting and unexplained aspect of SPIDER-MAN 3 is Raimi’s decision to rebrand the Green Goblin II as something referred to in promotional materials as “New Goblin,” despite consisting only of Harry wearing a protective face mask, and flying around on a floating snowboard. It’s safe to say that Harry certainly comes off as more of an X Games type than a guy who’d be into unfortunate Power Rangers gear, but the sight of a white-gold monster mask in his lair — teasing us with The Hobgoblin — seems almost cruel when compared to what we got.
**One of my favorite moments in SPIDER-MAN 3 is when MJ references a conversation she and Peter have clearly had offscreen, and one that indicates Peter’s sense of self-torture over whether or not he is in part responsible for the death of his Uncle’s killer. The fact that Raimi and David Koepp chose to pitch the guy out a window — a departure from AMAZING FANTASY #15, and likely designed to give Peter an escape hatch from the dramatically-correct decision to unmask for the accused — is never mentioned again up to this point, and always caused me to feel it was something of a plot hole, or missed opportunity. If Sandman has any particular purpose here, it’s resurrecting this issue, and addressing it.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)