As a rule, I’m not against the idea of remaking or rebooting movies, be they standalone titles or franchises; I think remakes are largely unnecessary, and frequently epitomize an absence of vision or creativity, but bad films can benefit from a good remake– and it’s not like people haven’t remade movies in the past. But no matter the picture (even the awful, close-to-irredeemable ones), I firmly believe that any mimetic cinematic endeavor must be carried out with a respect and passion for the original movie and an understanding of its place in and impact on film history. Without that base laid down, how can any director be expected to successfully translate a film of the past into something with a modern palatability?
That’s a question I’d like to aim at Marc Webb, the greenish director of the upcoming Spider-Man reboot and the man behind the sublimely derivative and unapologetically average (500) Days of Summer. The most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly honed in on Webb’s coming-in-2012 reboot of Sam Raimi’s popular and excellent (well, two thirds excellent anyhow) Spider-Man films from the mid-2000s, and specifically included a couple of choice quotes from the cast and the director himself about the intent behind the update– some of which made me raise an eyebrow in frustrated disbelief. Notably, straight from Webb’s own mouth, comes this particular gem:
“Ultimately what this movie is about is a kid who grows up looking for his father and finds himself. And that’s a Spider-Man story we haven’t seen before.”– Marc Webb
The article also includes unattributed quotations indicating the the new film intends to be “more contemporary”, “more gritty”, and “more character-driven”. (Take a stab at figuring out which of these bothers me the most, and read on to see if you got it right.)
Taken at face value there’s nothing inherently wrong with a director putting their own spin on source material they’re adapting or remaking for the screen. In fact, that should be encouraged heartily by audiences. Artistic vision should be supported and celebrated, and filmmakers should be willing to try to filter stories that have been told before through their own perspective in order to make that story feel “new” to modern audiences. I like to think that I have the capacity to be reasonable, soon behalf of that there’s a part of me that wants to take Webb at his word and refuses to read into his words more than strictly necessary. “Sure!”, that half says, “Make your own Spider-Man movie and put Parker on a journey to find his parents! Have at it!”
But then there’s that other half of me that’s jaded and cynical and isn’t feeling positive vibes from the EW article’s quotes whatsoever. Admittedly, I can understand the thought behind making the film grittier and darker even if tonally such an approach is completely incongruous with the spirit of the source material and the character– we all know that Nolan’s Dark Knight made several kajillion dollars across the span of the universe, and I’ve touched on the power of its influence on future comic book movies before (however briefly). Nolan wheeled out the bandwagon, and people are going to hop on board to either adapt to or cash in on the genre expectations his film set; it’s the nature of the beast, and since Webb surely won’t be the last person to do so I’m not really willing to hold that against him no matter how much a dour and grim Spider-Man film sounds “off” on paper.
I could throw that in the production’s face, mind– I’m of the opinion that adaptations should always, always, always respect the essence of their source material, and a brooding, emo Peter Parker (who looks like Andrew Garfield) doesn’t really jibe with the attitude of the beloved superhero. But in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, I’d argue that it’s just as important (if not more so) to show the very same deference to Raimi’s original films, something which Webb’s comments in EW lack.
Again, I get it. There’s a natural need to highlight what sets Webb’s take on the character apart from Raimi’s, so Webb’s really just acting logically by describing the intent behind his film. Be that as it may, reading his spiel on the rebooted franchise raises a few red flags and kind of makes me wonder whether he’s actually seen Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Here I liken Webb to Rod Lurie, who’s directing the Straw Dogs remake and doesn’t understand the film that he’s re-imagining; Webb thinks he’s telling a whole new Spider-Man story when really, he’s just telling the same story sans the subtext. Peter Parker seeks out father figures in the first two parts of Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy*, finding surrogates in the form of Norman Osbourne and Otto Octavius, and that search constitutes a substantial part of his arc in both films. Ostensibly, what makes The Amazing Spider-Man different is that Parker’s actually looking for his real parents in this installment, but the end goal remains the same between the two different treatments.
The other major warning sign lies in the talk of making a Spider-Man film that’s character-driven, or more character-driven. At this point my understanding falters and Webb, to me, comes off as passive aggressive. Whatever your opinion on Raimi’s Spider-Man movies may be– and you’re more than welcome to express dislike for them!– anyone mounting the argument that the famed and revered B-movie maestro didn’t put his characters first in those pictures faces a Herculean task. “Character” represents the focal point of Spider-Man 1 and 2 and drives every major aspect of both films, from the relationships between the leads (Maguire, Dunst, and Franco), down to the sweeping and acrobatic action sequences. What do you call the climactic showdown between Peter and Octavius at the end of the second film, if not character-driven? Raimi took great care to ensure that his films came down to character above all else, and his approach to the material elevated his pictures to the status they enjoy today, so Webb’s comments come across as disrespectful at best regardless of his intentions.
At the end of the day I’m willing to step back and realize I’m both criticizing a director whose film won’t appear in theaters for another year and also wringing my hands in consternation over a comic book movie; if The Amazing Spider-Man does turn out to be the “Spider-Man for the Twilight set” production I anticipate it to be, the world will continue turning and Raimi’s films will still be available for viewing through Netflix and such. But even accepting the reality here, Webb’s comments frustrate me, and maybe they do so not just on their own merits but in a broader context. It’s a given that re-interpretations and cash-ins– in the form of prequels, remakes, and reboots– are popular and have been for a long, long time** in cinema, and at this point I hardly think it’s worth shaking our fists in anger over how many projects fall into either of the three aforementioned categories “these days”. That does not mean we shouldn’t demand a modicum of respect for the movies that do become subject to remaking. When a filmmaker tries their hand at envisioning beloved, iconic, or classic films of the past, there’s no room in the new version for disrespect toward the original.
*Because we here at A Constant Visual Feast treat the third film as something of a flukish abomination epitomizing the effect of studio interference on quality franchises.
**When Fellini’s I Vitelloni proved to be a hit, studio suits wanted him to make a spin-off about (I believe) Moraldo Rubini, one of the little lambs of the title, to capitalize on the film’s commercial success. Really.