Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Insufferable Spider-Man Ta-Nehisi Coates on how we got from an era of forgettable mediocre Spidey stories to an era of memorably awful ones

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a short piece called, aptly enough "The Insufferable Spider-Man".  Don't get me wrong, I actually love Spider-Man.  Have all the issues from the start to about 140.  But Coates is on the same page Wenatchee is about the foolishness of resurrecting Norman Osborn. 

So far there's never been a "complete" realization of Spider-man on film.  Tobey Maguire made for a memorable Peter Parker but in terms of writing and acting his Spider-man was lacking in arachnoid trash-talk.  If you're going to err on the side of what story to tell Parker's story is the way to go, however, and Willem Dafoe may have chewed scenery as Norman Osborn but he was wonderfully cast, as was Alfred Molina.  Raimi's films were corny and maudlin but he showed that he understood the conflicts Peter had were with the people close to him.  The Marc Webb reboot gave us the gloriously wasted Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and the perhaps even more criminally wasted Dennis Leary as Captain Stacy.  Garfield was fun as Spider-man but in scripting and acting he didn't pull off the Peter Parker part.  That might seem like the kind of pedantic point a comics/superhero fan would make, because it is, but Kevin Conroy's take as both Bruce Wayne and as Batman in Batman: the animated series has lasted for good cause. The same can be said for Adam West, really.  The actors who managed to find a persuasive voice for both facets land job security.

If Marvel aims to reboot/rejuvenate Spider-man then things will have to change.  One of the worst things they could do is go with what Coates called the Lex-Luthor-lite Osborn.  The Green Goblin was a C-lister gimmick villain whose plans were farcical and he didn't get interesting until he was unmasked as Norman Osborn.  Then he became interesting not because the Green Goblin was actually interesting in himself but because Norman Osborn was interesting.  He was so conspicuously modeled at a visual level after Richard Nixon he may have had some unfair advantages.  Osborn was fascinating up until his self-inflicted death and after he got brought back, well, never mind.

The trouble is comics fans have operated under this delusion that the Green Goblin was interesting because he had one really memorable and interesting story.  Go back through the death of Gwen Stacy tale and you'll see that neck snap thing wasn't even the only place where she could have died.  Forget the shock of the fall, try for the hit by the Goblin glider in flight.  That'd cause enough head trauma she could have died from internal bleeding.  Goblin could have poisoned her before Parker even caught up to him. The real point of that story was there was absolutely nothing Parker could have done to have stopped her from dying.

And it was also a sales-garnering stunt.  Thanks to decades of myth-making the story is made out to be more profoundly affecting than the story itself actually is.  It's not as poignant as the death of Captain Stacy penned by Stan Lee, because that death mattered.  It mattered because just as Parker's failure to act was a cause in Uncle Ben's death, paradoxically Spider-man's involvement didn't keep Captain Stacy from dying from the collateral damage caused by Doctor Octopus.  Parker's not interesting because he "has trouble with girls", Steven Grant pointed out how many gorgeous lady friends Parker's always had, Parker is interesting because he's broke all the time and getting in over his head.  As Film Crit Hulk said of Raimi's Spider-man films, Parker gets in trouble for simply trying to do the right thing. 

And a reboot will be the same old, same old if Marvel doesn't grasp that there's more to Spider-man than the big ticket villains. Part of Peter Parker's predicament has never been successfully conveyed in the films but has been conveyed in early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Cordelia Chase.  There's been no Flash Thompson of note and without Flash Thompson we lack one of the defining traits of Peter Parker's world, a world full of idiot bullies who still have enough of a moral compass to recognize Spider-man helps people and yet are people against whom Peter knows he can't legitimately use his powers.  This may get back to a point I've made in other settings about how the problem with Superman stories is they try to give Superman a physical challenge or "hurt him emotionally" when the real source for drama would be raising questions about Superman's (and by extension our own) moral compass.  You don't need Kryptonite, you need something like Justice League Unlimited's clever Cadmus arc.

The catharsis of Spider-man getting to battle the Lizard or Doctor Octopus isn't just beating the bad guys, it's that most of the real evil is too small and petty for a kid like Parker to react to because he knows, deep down, the kind of power he has would be more immoral to use against a Flash Thompson than it would be to just grin and bear it when Flash is a jerk. Parker's not the kind of kid who lets his full power and capacity for aggression out when it's only his comfort and reputation on the line.  Somebody else has to be in jeopardy. 

Wenatchee The Hatchet is selective about superheroes.  I enjoy Batman and Spiderman as characters and I enjoy only some of their collected stories.  I tend toward Gary Groth's view on Spider-man, the first hundred issues really are fun and arguably the pinnacle of the superhero genre as a unified work told from an identifiable point of view.  Where we might differ is I simply don't buy the idea that the power fantasies of adults are ultimately in any way more elevated or meaningful than the power fantasies of children.  No one who reads political diatribes from any side could long be convinced that the grown-up level of discourse on politics is necessarily more "grown up" than schoolyard arguments featuring "bull" and "bullcorn".  bullhonkydudesquash.

And in the case of the Spider-man, we're talking about someone spurred into action out of a sense of guilt that because he didn't act at the right time someone he loved died.  The idea that that's somehow just kid stuff seems juvenile in itself.  Objecting to unjust wars would be in the same moral category but who considers that kid stuff? 

Still, Coates has raised a fun if terrible point, thanks to Marvel editorial decisions and writing we've seen some of the most terrible stories in the genre penned for Spider-man in the last thirty years.  It's reason enough to have some doubt whether Marvel should be trusted to "get Spider-man right".

No comments: