Saturday, July 19, 2014

The ol' Superhero Two-Step: Hancock and The Amazing Spider-Man

Hancock - 2008, d. Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights)
The Amazing Spider-Man - 2012, d. Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer)

There was a time, not too long ago in fact, when it was mandatory for us comic book geeks to see any film that was based on a comic book or had a superhero theme.  We didn't have a choice.  So rare, and for so long, were the comic book and superhero-related movies that if we didn't support them, then it jeopardized the making of any more in future.  We had to sit through shit like Steel (starring Shaquille O'Neal) or Batman and Robin even though we knew they weren't going to be any good, we could tell, just as the general public could, that these were stinkers.  For the most part up until the mid-aughts, studios were still very sceptical when it came to these comic book properties, and they didn't invest well in them financially, nor did they hire creative teams that understood the characters or the stories they worked in.

Then came Bryan Singer's X-Men, and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, superheroes taken seriously and done right.  Geeks and nerds love them, but so too did the public, and we've been in the superhero-cinema renaissance ever since.  Not to say that every film is perfect, or even good, but to say that the properties are being treated with more respect than ever because of the money they command, and studios want to bank on that as often as possible.  There's so much superhero and comic book-based material out there -- good stuff too -- that us geeks don't feel the need to support everything, because for every one failure, at least right now, there's two or three successes that follow.

I was never a big Spider-Man fan.  I enjoyed the Raimi films enough (well, not the third one, which I outright loathed) but they weren't hero films I went back to like Nolan's Batman or Ang Lee's Hulk.  When it was announced that Sony was rebooting the series, it was at a time where there were enough superhero films in the works that I didn't really need to care all that much.  I wasn't so much upset about a reboot happening so quickly as apathetic towards Spider-Man in general.  When it finally came out, I had no yearning or desire to see it (okay, maybe a little interested in watching Emma Stone prance around for two hours... [now that I think of it she'd make a great Spider-Woman] but I digress) and avoided the picture with little sensation of feeling left out.  This was the year, after all, that the Avengers and Dark Knight Rises came out, I was not in want of superhero action.

Having just arrived on Netflix Canada, I caught up with The Amazing Spider-Man, and, well... there it was.

It's Peter Parker's origin retold, not all that dissimilar from what we've seen in the first Raimi film, only now there's a mystery surrounding Peter's parents, and the fact that everything, and I mean everything, seems to tie back to Oscorp.  The focus is on Peter dealing with his great power and learning to accept his great responsibility.  If we've seen this story before it's because we've literally seen this story before.  It's different actors, and a different suit, and some different story components, but it's not fresh, or original, or all that exciting.

It has to be compared to what Raimi did before, there's no way about it.  Marc Webb's direction doesn't feel nearly as confident, and the uneven tonality of the film is evidence thereof.  While Webb eliminates the theatricality of Raimi's picture, it's waffling between self-seriousness and romantic comedy never allows it to settle.  The script for The Amazing Spider-Man is intended to set up a franchise, and that's probably it's biggest challenge, since it never feels like it actually has any direction.  The injection of the Lizard as adversary, who in reality is Peter and Gwen Stacy's science mentor (played by Rhys Ifans), feels like it's interrupting Peter's story at every turn.

Were this a 40-million dollar supeheroic romantic comedy starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone it would have been golden, as Webb excels at directing the scenes that highlight the pair's chemistry (although believing them to be teenagers is consistently a massive suspension of disbelief for the audience).  Garfield and Stone certainly have it over Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in that regard, and Garfield's Spider-Man feels more comfortable as the quippy comic book Spider-Man than Maguire ever did.  The scenes where Peter tests his new web shooters and explores his powers are also fairly well done, but overall Spider-Man as a character gets the short shift.  Without a Daily Bugle to put the mask into context, like in Raimi's films, it always feels like an odd thing for Peter to be doing. The climax is another special effects mess that big summer genre films always seem compelled to put on and doesn't service the story very well.  All the details that wind up linking Peter to Oscorp and other characters feels forced and inorganic, and unfortunately serves as the through-line for the series.

In the world of comics, these days at least, the origin story is the part creators want to get past the fastest.  How someone acquires their powers and comes to accept their role in the world by using their powers is just a stepping stone to getting to real storytelling. It's the most boring part, the starting point.  Superhero movies have long been fascinated with the origin story, and have felt the need to make every film an origin story.  X-Men 2 was basically Wolverine's origin story, Spider-Man 2 was Doctor Octopus' origin story, Batman Returns was the Penguin's and Catwoman's... even The Avengers is basically the origin of the Avengers.  But we're starting to get away from that.  The Dark Knight managed to introduce a villian without an origin story, while Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past all managed to all tell stories without asking of their heroes or adversaries "how did they get to here".

Hancock, I skipped over back in 2008 because we already had The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Wanted, Hellboy II... all these good-to-great comic book properties being transitioned into good-to-great films.  Hancock wasn't a recognizable superhero, he had no known supervillains to fight, it was just a Will Smith ego picture, and I didn't have time for that.  I was kind of dismissive of it, despite liking Peter Berg's underrated action piece, The Rundown.  I used to be a big Will Smith fan too, back when he was the Fresh Prince, but it just felt like his ego was out of control and he had to be his own superhero.

Hancock begins with the titular hero parked out in the midday sun on a bus stop bench in Los Angeles, drunk and belligerent to a 10-year-old kid trying to rouse him.  There's a high speed firefight between bank robbers and the police on a freeway, and, perhaps, Hancock could help.  Turns out Hancock's helping is not so helpful, with injuries and millions in property and infrastructure damage.  When he saves Jason Bateman's life (causing a train wreck and damage to multiple cars in the process), instead of the usual grief, Bateman's ace Public Relations expert, Ray, thanks him, and offers him a home-cooked dinner.  It's evident Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn't want him there, but his son Aaron is obviously into a superhero hanging around.  Ray offers to help Hancock reform his public image, which includes his surrendering himself to the police and staying in prison, learning to be polite and treat police officers with respect.

The first act establishes Hancock as, well, an asshole (repeated a number of times, first from the lips of a 10 -year-old).  He's a man with abilities (flight, super-strength, invulnerability) thrust into doing things expected of him and a deep-seeded resentment for it.  He's also quite lonely, and angry, or possibly lonely because he's so angry, and he drinks to keep himself numb.  The second act dives into his reformation, getting sober and attending group counselling for his addiction, while actually trying to adjust his manners and follow Ray's plan for a better relationship with the public.  It works out, and a tense bank heist gives him the chance to showcase his new attitude.

The third act takes a rather wild turn, (SPOILERS FOR A 6-YEAR-OLD MOVIE) where Hancock's origins are explored more in depth (though truly not the same as an origin story).  Turns out he, and Ray's wife Mary, are the last two people remaining of an...experiment? Alien race?  Early society?  It's never quite clear, but their people were granted great powers, but as they paired off, the longer these seemingly immortal people spent together, the more human they became, their powers ebbing away.  Hancock and Mary were married in those early days, and as they would lose their powers their relationship would grow tenser and more complicated.  They would separate but inevitably be drawn together, only to have the cycle of anger and tension repeat itself, as it does here.  It's a definite shift in the film's direction, but it actually works quite well, and is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie.  The added conflict of the prison breakout was unnecessary except to have ratcheted up tension in the final act, where had it ended in more of a character drama it would have been far more interesting.

Creating original superheroes hasn't worked out well for the big screen: Condorman, Blankman, Meteor Man, The Puma Man...all utterly forgettable.  I had wondered what would make Hancock stand out as a superhero, and not just "Will Smith with superpowers"? It turns out, not much.  It's still pretty much "Will Smith with superpowers" but I like Hancock's story, his character progression from alcoholic to earnest superhero, and I especially liked his origin, which manages to be fresh and inventive within a genre that has explored most angles.

The film itself feels somewhat dated already.  The effects haven't aged well and are easily the weakest part of the film, considering also that so many other films have surpassed what it did, some even before it (Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded).  There's a good character story underneath, and it doesn't rely too heavily on the effects, but it does stage a few too many scenes around them unnecessarily.  Equally, there's an itch to be more of a comedy that it never quite scratches right.  It has some possibly amusing concepts, and others (like Hancock literally shoving one prisoner's head up another's ass) which don't seem to fit within the story they're telling.  There's a better drama in the material than a comedy.  Overall, I was more impressed than I thought I would be with it, but at the same time it suffers from its tonal inconsistencies.  I'm still game for a sequel (and given that it made some rather incredible bank in 2008, there's no reason a sequel couldn't happen, except if Smith wasn't interested).