The Amazing Spider-Man: Amazingly Ageist
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field. Directed by Marc Webb.
Many saw 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man as just a retread of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. But there are at least two very important distinctions, and these distinctions are the focus of this analysis.
First, The Amazing Spider-Man focuses on Peter Parker's high school days. This makes the film quite a rarity. Raimi's Spider-Man hurried to put Parker in college before letting him do anything heroic. (No, he doesn't heroically avenge the murder of his uncle Ben while still in high school. He simply stands there and watches as the killer kills himself by accident.) Most comic book movies, in fact, avoid giving us teenaged heroes. The Dark Knight Rises made Robin the Boy Wonder an adult. The X-Men movies have made the youngest mutants either damsels in distress or directionless angst-vessels easily led to evil. The TV show "Smallville" made Super Boy into something neither super nor heroic. In the current flood of comic book movies, we have yet to see one film about Spyboy, the Teen Titans, Young Justice, the Runaways, or any other teenaged heroes. So it is thrilling to find The Amazing Spider-Man take Spidy back to his roots as a high school student, and keep him there for the entire film.
Sadly, that is where the thrills end. The other big change from Raimi's Spider-Man: since this Spider-Man is still in high school, the filmmakers make him a non-threatening wimp, weaker than the average adult protagonist, let alone the average adult superhero.
Another Teenaged Wimp
Peter Parker here is as subservient as any fictional teenager. In early scenes we watch his Aunt May and Uncle Ben boss him around, and he submits. When his Aunt May orders him, "Take off that hood and look at me!" he actually does it. He doesn't tell her off. And he certainly doesn't, at any point, tell her how to dress or where to look. Even a super teenager, these filmmakers tell us, cannot be the equal of any adult.
Yes, Spidy, hang down your head
And relatives are not the only adults he meekly obeys. We are introduced to teenaged Peter with a montage of various things he does at school. In one scene, an adult tells him to get off his skateboard, and his only words are "Yes, sir." The scene does not advance any plot. The scene does not offer any thrills or laughs. The scene is there for one reason only: to assure us Peter is submissive to adults. And that teacher, by the way, is not the only adult Peter addresses as "Sir," though none of these adults address him so respectfully.
Even after he gains his super powers, he remains too weak to stand up to adults. One night Peter spends late hours talking to a scientist, eagerly pursuing a newly relevant education in science. As he arrives home, Ben (Martin Sheen) greets him, "You owe your Aunt an apology!" Why? We are not yet told. But Peter does not argue. He instead walks in the house and immediately apologizes to May (Sally Field). And then we learn why he is apologizing: he failed to follow their orders to pick up groceries for them, and poor Aunt May was forced to go to the store herself and buy her own groceries. No, May isn't handicapped or physically ill. She isn't even elderly. Neither is Ben. (We're never told why Ben didn't volunteer to get the groceries himself. Presumably he found it beneath his dignity.) But rather than tell these bigots to get their own damned groceries, super-powered Peter bows his head and apologizes for not doing their chores.
You might think fighting criminals would get Peter more in a habit of standing up for himself, but you would be wrong. In one of the few scenes where Spider-Man gets to be heroic, he catches a car thief and smart-mouths him before giving the same treatment to the cops who try to arrest Spidy. Finally! A teenager standing to up adults. But in the very next scene, Peter arrives home and May is once again bitching him out for not getting her groceries. Does he finally tell her off like he told off the cops? No. He offers to go buy her groceries now.
This might have been fine if the filmmakers were exploring how Peter can't shake his expectations of submission except when donning a mask that frees him to act as the smart-áss crime-fighter he yearns to be. Other films have used adult superheroes to explore the freedom of shaking your identity. Superman, for example, is very much about how Superman lives out what Clark Kent suppresses; Clark awkwardly carries a torch for the woman who is out of his league, but Superman sweeps her off her feet literally. Likewise, in the first Batman film, Michael Keaton gives us a timid Bruce Wayne who puts on a costume and a new identity to unleash his anger at criminals. And Daredevil gives us a hero who, as a lawyer, is unable to achieve justice, so the vigilante Daredevil does what law-abiding Matt Murdock cannot.
One might well expect to see a Spider-Man film where timid Peter Parker puts up with bullying from adults and peers, then dons his costume to get even with them. But that's not at all where this film is going. Spider-Man never avenges Peter.
Ever have that dream where you show up to school in your Underoos?
Indeed this film seems unusually eager to erase any idea that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are separate identities at all. There are several scenes where we see our protagonist wearing his Spider-Man costume without the mask, continually reminding us Peter and Spider-Man are the same person. Several people in the film uncover Spider-Man's "secret" identity, and the filmmakers don't expect us to care. One of the main fight scenes begins with Peter in his civilian clothes, displaying all his powers, and then changing into his Spider-Man outfit mid-fight for no apparent reason. Again and again these filmmakers impress on us that Spider-Man is not a separate identity that Peter slips into; Spider-Man is simply a suit of clothes Peter prefers to wear when fighting.
The one and only time Peter uses his powers to get back at a tormentor, he doesn't even bother to put on the costume. And the tormentor he goes after is, of course, a classmate, not an adult.
When he goes after adult criminals, the filmmakers keep him non-threatening by impressing upon us that Peter/Spider-Man is only doing it in honor of an adult, not for himself. Following the usual Spider-Man origin story, a criminal kills Uncle Ben, and Peter/Spider-Man wants revenge. But this film, much more than Raimi's Spider-Man and much more than the comic books, underscores how this vengeance is only to honor an adult and not to honor himself or any other teenager.
The criminal who kills Peter's bossy uncle never does anything unkind to Peter. Just the opposite. We meet the criminal in a scene where a store treats Peter obnoxiously and refuses to sell him a bottle of milk because Peter is short two cents. The robber then robs the store and, like an urban Robin Hood, gives Peter the milk. That is the only direct interaction Peter has with this robber.
Then, when Ben meddles and tries to take the robber's gun, the robber shoots him in the struggle, and Peter spends the first half of the film hunting down this robber who was kind to him but not to his uncle. The filmmakers apparently thought a teenager getting revenge against adults who hurt him might be too threatening to adults in the audience who have hurt some youth. So these filmmakers emphasize that this hero's only ambition is to be a tool of the adults who hurt him, not an avenger for himself or other youth.
Have we ever once had an adult hero who goes after a criminal who was nice to him but who hurt a teenager? It's hard to find even one example. But a teenaged hero putting aside all self-interest and fighting only to avenge an adult? Yeah, we've seen that before. Hell, Young Guns actually changed historical facts to fit that ageist pattern.
Not only does Spider-Man never stand up for Peter, Peter never learns to stand up for himself. Even late in the film, after taking out plenty of criminals in his quest to avenge Ben, Peter remains the submissive wimp. In one scene his girlfriend's father, a police captain played by insult comic Denis Leary, tells us what a horrible menace Spider-Man is. Peter briefly raises the possibility that Spider-Man might be trying to help the police, and Leary yells insults at him. Eventually this scene ends with an apology. You guessed it. It's Peter who apologizes to Denis Leary, "I'm sorry I insulted you [by respectfully presenting an alternate opinion]. It wasn't my intention."
A Spider-Man as Weak as Peter
But at least when Peter puts on the costume, he's kicking áss, right? Spider-Man stands up to adult criminals and misguided cops, right?
Not so much.
After that one scene where Spider-Man apprehends the car-thief and tells off the cops, the filmmakers apparently felt they had pushed their luck far enough. For the rest of the film, they make Spider-Man an amazingly weak superhero.
In one scene, Denis Leary puts a gun on Spider-Man and orders his surrender. In the car-thief scene, we already learned Spider-Man is fast enough to dodge bullets. So does he now tell Denis Leary to píss off? No. He surrenders and meekly begs permission to go after the main villain.
When fighting that main villain (the Lizard), Spider-Man proves surprisingly incompetent. He goes to hunt the Lizard in the sewers, but it is the Lizard who finds him, and Spider-Man immediately flees.
In the next fight scene, the Lizard hunts Peter in his high school. This time, Spider-Man gets cornered and has to be rescued by, yes, a dues ex machina, specifically his girlfriend coming to whack the Lizard in the head with a trophy. I guess we should at least be grateful it was a teenager coming to rescue him and not an adult. A teenaged superhero who needs an everyman adult to bail him out of trouble would really be ageist. At least the film isn't stooping to that. Right?
Then in the climax, Spider-Man is swinging across to the city and misaims his web-shooter. He's plunging to his death until he is rescued by a crane-operating adult.
Who will save the day?
Then Spider-Man gets cornered again by the Lizard and has to be rescued by Police Captain Leary.
Then a few minutes later, Spider-Man is about to fall to his death and he gets rescued by (I kid you not) the Lizard!
By the time the credits roll, Spider-Man has been rescued more times than Lois Lane was rescued over the course of five films, and Lois was not the heroine, she was the damsel in distress. I guess we can call the teenaged Spider-Man this film's "dude in distress." (Man in mucho danger? Hunk in hot water? Penis-owner in a pickle?) It's much harder to call him the film's hero.
Who Does His Thinking?
Every screenwriter knows that character is revealed through choices. It is when a character makes a choice, especially a difficult choice, that we see who that person really is.
In this film, the only choice Peter ever seems to make is to do whatever adults tell him to.
Raimi's Spider-Man ended with college-aged Peter deciding to keep a distance from his love-interest to keep her safe. The Amazing Spider-Man decided to copy that ending. But with the hero this time being a high schooler, they did not allow him to make the decision himself. Instead, this film ends with Peter pushing away his girlfriend because her dad told him to.
Because her dad wanted her to be safe.
Not because of anything Peter might want, or anything the girlfriend might want. Only because of what her dad wants.
Then at the very end, another adult, Aunt May, tells Peter he should not push away his girlfriend, and suddenly Peter is toying with going back to her. With two adults telling him to do different things, he doesn't know what to do. Thinking for himself is out of the question, it seems. And he never asks his girlfriend what she wants. After all, she's a teenager, too, so her wishes don't matter, the film suggests.
How original is this stuff? When the dying police captain had something to tell Peter, I was already yelling at the DVD, "No, no, no. No. Don't tell me his dying wish is Stay away from my daughter. No. Don't go there. Please. Don't stoop to - Aw, Fuçk!! NO!! Please! Tell her dad to go to hell! Come on! Grow some balls, Spider-Man! It's the end of the movie!"
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man sacrificed his love because he was strong enough to choose the right thing. This Spider-Man sacrifices his love because an adult told him to, and he's too weak to say no.
Oh! And that Other Crappy Scene!
With Spider-Man getting rescued all the time, does he ever get to do the rescuing?
Yes. And it's a scene that adds yet another layer of ageism to The Amazing Spider-Man.
When a character rescues another character, there's an implication that the rescuer is in some way superior to the one being rescued. That is why movies often show men rescuing women and rarely show women rescuing men. It is why we often see adults rescuing children and rarely see children rescuing adults. So when the "hero" of the movie is a teenager, whom does he rescue?
We get a scene where a child is trapped in a car dangling off a bridge. Finally, it's Spider-Man to the rescue for once.
The child clinging to his car seat fearfully refuses to take Spider-Man's arm and be carried to safety. So what does Spider-Man do? He takes off his mask and tells the child to wear it. "The mask will make you strong," he tells the child.
Did the filmmakers put this in here to explore some theme about the power of an assumed identity? No! I told you already, these filmmakers weren't interested in that theme! Weren't you paying attention?
Pants on Fire
Instead, they have Spider-Man telling the child a lie to manipulate the child into doing what is best for the child.
A lot of parents think it's cool to lie to their children to manipulate them, rationalizing it as being for the child's own good. "Obey me, or Santa Clause will shun you." "Stay where I tell you, or the Boogie Man will kill you."
The Amazing Spider-Man is wholeheartedly endorsing that dishonesty.
Can you name a film where the hero heroically lies to an adult to manipulate the adult for the adult's own good? Hard to do. (The Dark Knight ended with Gordon lying to a whole city for the city's own good, but then The Dark Knight Rises suggested that lie caused more harm than good, with both Gordon and the city paying a price for that lie.) Lying to adults is usually portrayed as a harmful act against the adult. But lying to a child is portrayed as just fine or even as heroic.
This is a message that is attractive to harmful adults. "Children lying to you gives you the right to be angry at them. You lying to children makes you a good person."
The Amazing Spider-Man would have been bad enough without this scene. But The Amazing Spider-Man went the extra mile to insult young moviegoers. Amazing.