Some things are just wrong. Like the Spider-Man movie reboot of 2012…
Among other things, Robert McKee is also a gifted writer. Among other things. Robert McKee is primarily known as the developer of the Story Seminar, a system for structuring the various elements of storytelling. Story, the handbook culled from his 100s of hours of workshopping, is often referred to as the “bible” for screenwriters. The awards achieved by his students are simply astonishing—19 Writers’ Guild awards, 16 Directors’ Guild awards, 164 Emmys and 36 Oscars to date.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Chris Zylka
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 3 Jul 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 3 Jul 2012 (General release); 2012)
What makes Story so special is a unique kind of courage that McKee evidences. He doesn’t simply outline the technical aspects of screenwriting. Story isn’t just dedicated to mapping out ways of dealing with dialog and plot. The courage McKee evidences lies in his tackling the seemingly impossible—narrative. How do you tell a story, how do you engage your audience emotionally? When do you push them back? When hold them near?
The usual cry has always been that this kind of thing cannot be rarefied, cannot be taught. That this is the purview of the individual writer, of individual creativity and individual genius. And yet, holding Story in your hands, you get the sense that this failure to teach narrative is more an incapacity of the teacher than any kind of plea for individual genius. What’s at stake is what’s always been at stake—the idea of teaching creative writing, and whether or not we can, rather than whether or not we should.
One narrative technique McKee offers is the idea of the Gap. Drama builds when there’s a gap between action and consequence. The action is innocent, the consequence is unintended and often unimaginable. A janitor who’s also a math geek innocently solves a problem on an MIT chalkboard, but unexpectedly becomes hounded by a math professor from the same institute. In drama, the consequences are always far worse than we expect.
Spider-Man, the original Spider-Man that appeared fully-formed from the minds of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the Spider-Man that first appeared in Amazing magazine, has always been the high drama coming out of exactly this kind of tragedy, the tragedy of unexpected consequences. He got his superpowers by accident. But rather than become the hero we know he will become, he went into amateur wrestling. It was an easy way to make money, a way to play to the crowds. His uncle dying in his arms, is what it took to put him on the road to becoming that hero. But not even really, it’s the fact that he could have intervened to prevent a robbery, but allowing the perp to get away resulted in the murder of Uncle Ben.
Spider-Man is Spider-Man because of an act of self-violation. It’s the nerd realizing he need no longer be pushed around, simply by having these incredible powers. So why shouldn’t he showboat? Why shouldn’t he live the high life? Why not play to the crowds as an amateur wrestler? Why not have his time in the limelight?
And if the dirtbag promoter running the wrestling gets robbed, the same dirtbag who just swindled Peter Parker… well why should Peter intervene to prevent that robbery? Why should Peter care? And of course Peter doesn’t. It’s a split-second decision, and the very worst one of his life. And the very best. Because Peter doesn’t, Uncle Ben is murdered. Murdered by exactly the stick-up guy who robbed the wrestling arena. It’s the worst kind of decision in that it forfeits a family structure that Peter clings to in the absence of his real family. And the best, because out of this immense tragedy a true hero is born. Not a superhero, but a hero. Someone who will throw themselves headlong into danger.
Sam Raimi’s vision for Spider-Man is a near-exact rendering of Stan Lee’s vision. The idea that tragedy can shape us into being better. The idea that hubris always comes at too high a price. The idea that instead of cringing in pain and self-recrimination, we can swing clear of disaster by saving others.
It’s that hubris in the beginning. That showboating that comes with the semi-professional wrestling Spidey became a part of. The idea that Spidey himself believed he had it figured out. And the dramatic irony of our knowing that he’s been the subject of seduction. The allure changes with each retelling. Sometimes it’s fame, sometimes it’s the high life, sometimes it’s the cold hard cash in his hands. That hubris in the beginning is always what makes Spidey’s journey into superhero-hood all the more poignant.
And make no mistake, it is hubris. As much as anything, Spidey before he’s Spidey is in that ring as much to overthrow the bullying he experiences at high school as anything. That arena, that crowd, is as much as anything about standing up to Eugene “Flash” Thompson, about outdoing the idea of Flash Thompson on a scale Flash himself couldn’t even imagine. The hubris itself lies in not only standing up to the bullying at the point of impact, but in standing up to bullying at a grand scale, in front of crowds baying for blood.
Of course, the pernicious thing about this kind of hubris of confrontation is the seedy nature of the wrestling circuit he’s involved in. The real tragedy of the Spider-Man story, the lurking tragedy that was invisible but always at hand, isn’t that Uncle Ben dies because of something Peter does, or fails to do. The real, lurking tragedy is that Uncle Ben’s life is forfeit because of something Peter becomes. It’s a negative evolution that costs Uncle Ben his life, and consequently a positive evolution that saves everyone else’s when Spidey becomes that hero.
Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man offers the wrestling to a very different affect, a kind of glimpse at the necessity behind concealing his identity. It’s the simple promo poster of a luchador’s mask that triggers an idea in the vengeful Peter’s mind. But Webb’s reimagining of Peter’s encounter with wrestling reads more like a deletion of a vital, working part of the Spidey mythos.
Webb’s Spider-Man is less Spider-Man than it is Batman. There’s no seduction here, no allure of using these magnificent powers for purely selfish ends. Instead what we encounter is a young Peter Parker, elevated by these powers, and simultaneously struggling with overcoming the impulse to revenge. And worse, this vision of Spider-Man isn’t even a good Batman. It’s the paucity of Batman. Rather than coming into his powers by working and struggle and unending discipline, this “Batman” is gifted his powers by simply being bitten by a spider.
In Webb’s Spider-Man you’ll look for McKee’s Gap, but you won’t see it. I suspect because it isn’t there. But there’s something else you won’t see at first, something in the original Spidey origin story. You’ll never see it, but Spidey’s origin story is the real start of the Silver Age of comics. Because it is the inversion of the noir genre of crime fiction.
Spidey appears at a crucial moment in the American psyche. And it answers a kind of half-whispered sentiment that was carried in hearts and minds just post the Second World War. Perhaps it’s Sam Levene who formulates that sentiment best, in one of the more poignant moments of the Edward Dmytryk-directed Crossfire. “After all this hating we did to get into the War”, Levene’s character Samuels offers, “Maybe now that the War’s over we can maybe get back to liking things again.”
Spidey’s origin story answers exactly that call. But it would take a writer of Brian Azzarello’s genius to illustrate how Spidey gets us back to liking things. Spidey comes at us after the Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and the consequent self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority. It’s a sufficiently long enough time after, that both the Hearings and the Code seem non-negotiable. And a sufficiently long enough time that the cynicism and the paranoia so pervasive in the noir genre (a genre which predominates during the prewar- and wartime-years) seems at a safe distance.
But Stan Lee evidences a unique kind of courage. He plunges us right back into that noir world of underhandedness and double-dealing. He positions us in that seedy world of amateur wrestling. And then he works us free from it by building Spidey into a hero.
Perhaps the most poignant Spidey story you’ll ever read, a story which animates exactly this working-free-from-noir, is Brian Azzarello’s “The Last Shoot”. It appears as a kind of throwaway story in an otherwise forgettable issue of Tangled Web of Spider-Man, sometime around 2001/02/03. Spidey doesn’t appear at all. And Peter Parker doesn’t appear until the very last panel. Instead, “The Last Shoot” is the story of Crusher Hogan, the “shooter” (a wrestler who wrestles for real), who Peter defeats to enter into the world of amateur wrestling.
Hogan, as the story goes, fails to work himself free from the paucity and the parochial nature of the world he finds himself in. He’s wife’s ill, he takes out a loan from a loan shark to make ends meet. He bets the money and loses. Then he comes up with a plan. Another loan and this time his life’s on the line. But this time, Hogan’s learned. This time he won’t rely on things he can’t control. This time he’ll rely on wrestling. This time he’ll offer the money as a reward for anyone who can beat him in the ring. All he has to do to sell the idea is make himself into a villain. As long as the crowd hates him, they’ll always want to fight him. And that means ticket sales.
“Because if they hate me enough,” Hogan thinks to himself in the very last panels of the story, “the guy who beats will be a hero.” Just then a scrawny kid in nothing but slacks and a pullover and a red bandana styled into a luchador’s mask jumps into the ring. It’s a beautiful story. And for a single shining moment, you can see down the line how Peter will become Spidey and eventually overthrow even this seedy world of noir that he’s just now about to launch himself into. And see a little closer down the line how the seduction of this seedy world threatens to engulf Peter where he may not even become Spidey.
If anything, Spider-Man should be that, because it always was that. A moving story about a boy who grows into manhood, about a man who becomes a hero, in a world where his actions bring him blame, when there was no fault. I don’t want the wrestling, I want the hubris. Can the story be told without the wrestling? Certainly. David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky’s Spider-Man: Noir and its follow-up Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without a Face stand as a singular masterpiece in this regard. Hine and Sapolsky’s portrait of a Peter Parker who needs to work himself free of not only the endemic crime of the Goblin, but of the corrupt influence of “crusading” reporter Ben Urich who’s secretly on the take, answers every point of Stan Lee’s original vision. And in ways, even surpasses Lee’s original vision in that Spider-Man: Noir and its follow-up evolve free from the angst-ridden noir world at a time when the noir genre is at its height.
So where’s that leave us, you and me, other than on the cusp of a Gap of our very own? If you’re anything like me you’d already have seen Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man numerous times. You’d already have wrestled with it, trying to decode it. You’d already have measured if the Lizard is a worthy adversary on a conceptual level. You’d already have struggled with the idea that Peter in the OsCorp lab, missing Uncle Ben’s call, might actually be enough story architecture for that very necessary hubris.
But it’s not. Some things are just wrong. Spidey without the wrestling and without the newspapers and the pictures and stories that supplant Bugle Editor J. Jonah Jameson with Captain Stacey, are just purely inventive and a joy to behold. But a Spidey origin story without that hubris, that’s just plain wrong.