Thursday, May 17, 2007

Spider-Man 3 and the Limitations of Adaptations

So, I finally got to see the movie Spider-Man 3 (note the correct spelling, Spider-Man, not Spiderman). Before sharing my thoughts on the film, though, I guess I should confess that I've been reading comics since, well, since before I could actually read--in fact, my parents were quite relieved when I learned how to read well enough that they no longer had to read the comics to me.

Back then, reading comics was frowned upon (nowadays we're happy when kids read anything at all), and comic books themselves were not valued (I'm one of many of my generation whose mother threw out what would have been a fortune in comics back when I was a kid). But, I persisted, and insisted, on maintaining my relationship with these heroes of my youth, all in color for a dime as they used to say--actually, my earliest purchases were 12¢ a piece (although unscrupulous merchants started charging a non-existent 1¢ tax until the authorities put a stop to it).

And, I've always felt a special connection to Spider-Man in particular. He's a native New Yorker, from the Borough of Queens, in fact, he's from Forest Hills, and I grew up just over the border in the neighboring town of Kew Gardens--Forest Hills was my old stomping grounds (I took particular delight in seeing a brief glimpse of the Baskin & Robbins on the corner of Austin St. and Ascan Ave. in the first Spider-Man movie). I also connected to Spider-Man, and I think a lot of other boys in my situation did as well, because my father passed away when I was 9-years-old--Spider-Man, as part of his origin story, loses his father-figure, Uncle Ben (murdered by a criminal that he could have stopped from getting away at an earlier point, setting up a guilt-trip that motivated him to use his new powers to help others rather than trying to make money off of them, an alternative he seriously considered). Of course, being orphaned is a common motif in American popular culture, Batman lost his parents to crime, Superman lost his whole damn planet and then (in the original version) his elderly adopted parents passed away as well. The Lone Ranger was a symbolic orphan, as the last of the Texas Rangers, the only survivor of a trap in which all of his colleagues were murdered. Luke Skywalker starts out as an apparent orphan, loses his aunt and uncle, then surrogate father-figure Obiwan Kenobi, then surrogate-surrogate father-figure Yoda, and finally his real (dark) father, Darth Vader.

But what made Spider-Man a little different was that, while his parents were gone and he lost his uncle, he was still raised by his aunt, who was doting and overprotective. This, I could relate to, as could, I imagine, many others growing up in a single parent family. And there's also a sense in which Spider-Man was a very Jewish character, even though there never was the slightest overt suggestion that he was anything but a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant in the series. As has been acknowledged more and more of late, Jewish editors, writers and artists were intimately involved with the comic book industry from the beginning, so there is a sense in which the basic formulas and general conceptions of the superhero genre have a Jewish quality, although that aspect had been strongly masked by adherence to the stereotype of the WASP hero. But the mask was pulled down a bit for Spider-Man, who was Woody Allen in a costume, a nebish, insecure, full of hang-ups (there's a great old word from the sixties), neurotic even, but also full of wisecracks, always with the shtick, a regular comedian, at least when he was in costume. So, a Jewish personality merged with a WASP persona, easy to relate to for someone like me, the son of immigrants.

Oh, and Marvel Comics had Spider-Man graduating college the same year that I completed my undergraduate degree, 1978. Of course, time works very differently in the comics, so this was a brief moment that we were in sync, but college graduation is an important rite of passage, and it was great having Spider-Man share it with me.

Now, I don't want to give any false impressions here. I have not read every Spider-Man comic ever published, not by a long shot. But I have followed his stories off and on since the late sixties, and I'm pretty familiar with it all. So, in once sense, I'm in a good position to evaluate the film, but in another sense, I know too much to ever be entirely satisfied with an adaptation.

But I know enough about adaptations to know that you just cannot expect them to be faithful translations of the original (as if faithful translation is ever a possibility), and it's best to look at the original as raw material out of which something new is fashioned. Otherwise, you can't help but be disappointed when there's an adaptation of something you like, although by the same token you can find yourself pleasantly surprised by the adaptation of something you didn't care for.

Some forms or media make for an easier adaptation into a feature film (and therefore seem to be more faithful to the original) than others. The theater is the closest form to the movie, so plays are the easiest to rework into film form, which is not to discount the fact that it takes some effort. Short stories seem to provide just the right amount of material for a standard length film (somewhere between 90 minutes and 3 hours), and adaptations of novels are common enough, but the longer they are, the harder it is to reduce them down to the level of the motion picture. There have been increasingly more adaptations of television programs lately, capitalizing on the fact that there is no need to start from scratch in generating awareness among the potential audience, and in fact there may be a ready-made fan base, and certainly an easy appeal to nostalgia. Filmmakers adapting a television series have the advantage of working with material that has already have been thought out visually. But it's not so easy to distill a cinematic narrative out of numerous episodes produced over several years of a series, and the majority of these movies have been at best mediocre.

Comic books have many of the same advantages for adaptation, including consumer awareness, existing fan-base, and nostalgia-appeal, and they also have been thought out visually to an extent--filmmakers often make storyboards prior to actually shooting the film, and storyboards are comics by another name, and for another purpose. At the same time, comics art has borrowed heavily from film over the past century, mimicking the various shots and scenes, and transitions used by filmmakers, so they already are a storyboard of sorts, albeit one that will almost certainly be significantly changed.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in bringing comic book characters to life on the screen has been the problem of technical limitations. In the low resolution, cool medium (as McLuhan puts it) of comics, it is possible to portray fantasy in ways that the photographic medium of film just cannot. allowing the imagination to fill in the details. But as Computer Generated Images took over from more traditional means of generating special effects (and it has been pointed out that all of film is a special effect, after all), fantasy could become, not a reality, but realistic. The first Spider-Man movie demonstrated this to a degree unprecedented, and Spider-Man 3 moves the process further along with its stunning depictions of aerial combat, 3-dimensional not in the special glasses sense, but in the incredible movement through the x, y, and z-axis in several of the fight sequences. This type of movement is unique to Spider-Man, as he does not soar up in the sky, where a sense of depth and distance is lost, but instead moves through the city streets and roof tops, swings between buildings, crawls up and down the sides of skyscrapers, jumps and falls, etc. CGI is also very well suited to depicting Spider-Man's longtime foe, the Sandman, as it is second nature for digital media to break images down into pixels much like the grains of sand that join together to form the Sandman's body or come apart as he moves and morphs. It is, relatively speaking, an easy task, but still a pleasure to see it done well.

The alien creature that became Spider-Man's black suit (which was missing the white design elements that were used in the comic, but then again the new costume was not used on an extended basis as it was in the comic) looked OK, as did the suit itself. The character of Venom, the suit transferred from Spider-Man to Eddie Brock, looked all right as well, not too over the top thankfully--despite his popularity, Venom is not one of my favorites from the Spider-Man comics, and I was satisfied that his screen time was very limited, although I imagine he will probably be back in a sequel, especially since it seems that the Green Goblin won't be.

One difference between comics and film that became quite apparent for me was the relationship between heroic persona and secret identity. In comics, the secret identity is secondary, and the emphasis is on the hero in costume. In film adaptations, this relationship is reversed, as was painfully apparent in Ang Lee's disappointing adaptation of the Hulk comic book character. There are a number of reasons for this, one being simply the desire to appeal to a mass audience, to give the audience a point of identification, and to balance the fantasy with more realism (which requires the human identity to take time away from the superhuman). So, what we get in all of the Spider-Man movies is the story of Peter Parker, a regular, nerdy guy who gains superpowers, and sometimes becomes Spider-Man, rather than the story of Spider-Man, a superhero whose secret identity is Peter Parker. This is no small difference.

Along the same lines, in comics the origin story is typically uninteresting, the idea being to get past it quickly in order to get into the action, or to begin in medias res (into the middle of things) and fill in the origin later (sometimes its a combination of the two, often the origin story is modified or fleshed out later, after the character is sufficiently established and explored). In movies, the origin story is often emphasized, as it shifts the focus to Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, et al, that is, to the regular person behind the mask.

Visually, given the lack of detail possible in the low resolution medium, it is difficult to communicate very much via facial expression, posture and proxemics are used instead, and the hero's costume and mask are the central icons of the narrative. In film, there is much greater reliance on the face as a medium of communication, and on its aesthetic value, movie actors typically being good-looking and expressive, not to mention familiar--why pay a fortune for a movie star only to have his face hidden behind a mask all the time? So, there is a constant unmasking that seems strange from a comics-based point of view. For example, just before Spider-Man makes his big entrance to the celebration in his honor, we see him watching from up on a skyscraper, in costume but sans mask, seemingly confident in his solitude despite the fact that he is exposed in public--cameras do have telephoto lenses (as he should well know as a photographer himself), people can look out of the windows of other buildings, helicopters and some planes do fly by and over Manhattan, etc. And, towards the end, when the Green Goblin comes to the rescue, Harry Osborn removes his mask for no apparent reason other than to say hello. Further, in fight scenes, the mask frequently gets ripped up, exposing more and more of that shayna punim (pretty face) for the audience (and presumably by-standers) to see.

This is a minor problem, admittedly, but it reflects the difficulty of going from relatively simple drawings to real actors. Casting is always an issue as well, Michael Keaton as Batman being the decision that raised the most eyebrows, although it turned out satisfactory for the most part. Tobey Maguire seemed like a decent choice to play Spidey at first, but I must confess that I am getting tired of him, and in retrospect he lacks the angst that was so central to the comics character--in contrast, Tom Welling's pre-Superman teenage Clark Kent on Smallville introduced an element of angst that had never been associated with the character, to great effect (although the series has become a little tired since high school graduation). He's too white-bread, too gentle, too happy and optimistic! Spider-Man is the type of character who knows that even when things are going well, maybe especially when things are going well, something will always goes wrong--he needs that touch of cynicism.

Kirsten Dunst makes for a lovely Mary Jane Watson, but she's too gentle as well, not lively enough. Mary Jane requires an outgoing, powerful personality, someone who takes over a room, and in the context of New York, more of an assertive ethnic personality, whether it's Jewish, Italian, or Irish. Dunst would probably have been better as Gwen Stacy, but that's another story. Another casting decision that leaves me cold is James Cromwell as Capt. Stacy. Cromwell is well-suited to playing villains such as Jack Bauer's father on 24, or otherwise abrasive and unsympathetic characters (Six Feet Under comes to mind), but in the comics Capt. Stacy was a father-figure for Spider-Man (of course, he then was killed), and even if the filmmakers have no plans to use him to that extent in the movie, they should still respect the character (and after 24, Cromwell is just too over-exposed to work as a character in this context). Of course, compared to the Fantastic Four film, Spider-Man 3 casting is brilliant, and I will say that the cameos by Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell were great fun.

But adapting comics characters is not the big challenge for filmmakers, it's adapting the narrative. Of course, when you have a self-contained graphic novel, such as 300, it's not a problem. But an ongoing comic book series is episodic, like a television series, and individual episodes are not enough to serve as a basis of the movie, while the series as a whole is too much to boil down into a feature film. Even when you can pull out a storyline, the general thrust of the comic book series is to keep things open, keep the reader coming back, create a never-ending story.

The motion picture, on the other hand, favors closure, a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, albeit not so closed as to preclude a sequel. The comic book narrative works on a cumulative basis, villains are defeated, go away as new villains surface, and return again in cyclic fashion, returning from defeat and apparent death time and time again. Story lines are repeated as well, each time gaining new resonance, e.g., hero gives up and abandons heroic identity, hero goes bad (through some outside agency), hero must set aside love interest to save others, hero's loved one is in danger, etc.

The open episodic narrative of the comic book series is therefore more like real life in certain ways than the closed narrative of the film or novel, where the impetus is to tie up loose ends. For example, there is no problem with the fact that the criminal who murdered Uncle Ben in the comic book is a nameless, insignificant thief. But in Spider-Man 3, they shift the blame to Flint Marko, the criminal who becomes the Sandman, to tie the origin story into the current narrative and tie up those darn loose ends--the same thing occurs in the first Batman movie, where the murderer is no longer an everyday, run-of-the-mill thug, but instead the man who becomes the Joker. This gives the story more mythic significance, but loses the connection to ordinary crime, replaced by a sense of interdependence between hero and villain that reduces the basic heroism of the hero.

Director/writer Sam Raimi also tries to tie it all together with a theme of redemption and forgiveness, the black costume yielding to shades of gray, but this dissolves the distinction between Spider-Man as someone who struggles to do the right thing and is fundamentally good and decent (his "bad" behavior being caused by an outside agency, the alien symbiote/black uniform), as opposed to Flint Marko who makes a conscious decision that the end justifies the means in stealing to pay for his sick daughter's treatment (bearing the guilt for the accidental manslaughter of Uncle Ben), and Harry Osborn/the new Green Goblin, who is motivated by hate, jealousy, and revenge, perhaps a bit misguided and maybe a little mad as well, but still basically responsible for his actions, notwithstanding his decision to help Spider-Man in the end and sacrifice his life in the fight to save Mary Jane. Moral equivalence? Not the stuff that heroes are made from.

Another problem with the adaptation involves the appearance of Gwen Stacy, a major character in the comic book narrative. Gwen was Peter Parker's first, great love, a love made all the more difficult by the fact that she blamed Spider-Man (wrongfully) for the death of her father, Captain Stacy (the afore-mentioned father-figure, who approved of Peter's relationship with his daughter, and actually had figured out his secret identity before he died)--that motif of having a loved one hate his costumed identity was first used with Peter's Aunt May who, in the film, instead seems to like Spider-Man. That's another mistaken turn towards the optimistic, as there is much more angst involved in having his aunt disapprove (unknowingly) of her nephew's activities, and it is much truer to teenage experience of identity formation and rebellion.

Anyway, Peter loves Gwen more than anything, the original Green Goblin discovers Peter's identity, and tries to kill Gwen, and in a moment of supreme tragedy, Spider-Man snags her with a web line, thinking he's saved her, but it turns out that there was too much force applied, her neck is broken, and she's dead. And so he lives with this tragedy, which haunts him for the rest of his life, as his relationship with Mary Jane slowly develops into a mature love leading to marriage.

This is the kind of story that develops over an extended period of time. Adapting it for film (and even reworking the Spider-Man story in streamlined from for the Marvel Ultimate series or for animation), the tendency is to cut out Gwen Stacy altogether, and rewrite it so that he loves only Mary Jane, and always loved her (or maybe inserting Gwen as a minor character). What we lose is the complexity, depth, and tragic sensibility of the comic book series. I find this unfortunate, as a long-time reader, but understandable given the limitations of adaptation. But, then, why introduce Gwen Stacy, and Captain Stacy, in the first place, and make Gwen the subject of superficial flirtation and jealousy? Maybe a hedge in case Dunst doesn't want to reprise her role for Spider-Man 4? But it's already been established that Mary Jane is Peter's one true love, so there really is no way to do the Gwen Stacy story any justice. Better to leave her out altogether, I would say.

The bottom line is that, in this genre, the third installment is usually a let-down, and this is no exception. It does seem like there was an attempt to recreate the complexity of the comic book series with interlaced plot lines, including an extension of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn story, revisiting the origin story/murder of Uncle Ben now linked to the appearance of the villain Sandman, the introduction of the alien symbiote in the form of a new costume storyline giving rise to a "bad" Spider-Man through outside influence, the origin of the villain Venom following Spider-Man's rejection of the symbiote, along with plots about Spider-Man being a celebrity (another unnecessary departure from the comics story where he is more typically rejected by the mainstream media and public), Mary Jane failing as an actress, and Peter's aborted attempt to propose to Mary Jane. The problem is that this is all too much, you can't make a good movie by trying to recreate the complexity of an entire series, a feature film needs a closed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end (in this, Spiderman 2 worked exceptionally well). It would have been sufficient to just concentrate on the Sandman, or Spider-Man wearing the symbiote suit, or Venom for that matter.

Also, there were too many silly crowd scenes, the kind that were often used in the Superman movies. Seeing a crowd of people gather to watch a battle up above them, and stand there while debris rains down on them, makes me feel uncomfortable, as a New Yorker who remembers 9/11.

Despite being weaker than its two predecessors, and manifesting more of the problems associated with the process of adaptation, Spider-Man 3 was still good fun, and I'm sure the inevitable Spider-Man 4 will be as well. But it will never take the place of the comics.