Subtext? In a comic book movie? Really, Jami? Yes, really.
Now, I’m not calling The Amazing Spider-Man groundbreakingly genius or anything, but it’s an, er, amazingly good movie character-wise compared to… Oh, say, the Green Lantern.
If you remember from my Green Lantern posts about how how not to write plot or characters, I freely admit I’m a genre-loving geek girl with a soft spot for turn-brain-off movies. But where the Green Lantern felt like a formulaic comic book movie—with all the negative impressions and backhanded compliments that implies—The Amazing Spider-Man rises above the formula.
That’s not to say it succeeds in every way. And not perfectly. But enough for me to come away feeling that it was a much better movie than I expected.
I was one of those who reacted with “Another Spider-Man movie? Why?” when I first heard the news about the reboot. It hadn’t been that long since the last go-around with the franchise, and other than the third movie (which I never even bothered to see), those movies weren’t bad. They certainly weren’t crying out for taking a mulligan and starting over.
Now, after seeing this version, I still don’t think this movie was necessary, but we can look at it on its own merits and recognize that it is good. Book blogger AnimeJune posted about the two outings, comparing San Raimi’s Spider-Man to this The Amazing Spider-Man version. She sums it up well with this quote:
“To me, SM is an external, plot-driven movie and ASM is an internal, character-driven movie.”
Ooo, character-driven. Yes, that means we see a lot more character development here than in the typical formulaic movie, and that made for a great change of pace. Let’s take a look at how character development and subtext worked together to add a bit of freshness to this oft-told tale.
(I’ll try to keep this post spoiler-free for those who haven’t seen the movie yet.)
What Is Subtext?
First, let’s make sure we all know what we mean by subtext. Subtext is all the stuff that happens between the lines. Subtext is what’s not said.
Sometimes we get feedback that our writing is too “on the nose.” That means our writing is too direct. Characters say what they mean. There’s no spin, no nuance, no layers.
In many ways, subtext is related to my previous post about how in writing, less can be more. Subtext leaves room for readers (or movie watchers) to get involved with the story rather than spelling every thing out them. Reading or watching a story where everything is spoon-fed to us can feel insulting, like the author/director assumed we couldn’t figure it out on our own.
Direct writing is good for some genres—Children’s and Middle Grade books often need to be more direct, simply because of the comprehension level of the readers. However, most of the time, we’d want our writing to contain subtext. Possibly lots of it.
How The Amazing Spider-Man Used Subtext
All around the actors did a good job with their parts. I found Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben to be the weakest of the lot, and much of that was due to the writing of his dialogue, which lost power with its wordiness and directness (the opposite of subtext).
Much deserved kudos have been going to the best of the actors, Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. And it’s by looking at his acting that we see subtext at work. He plays Peter with a great mixture of bravado and adorkable-ness (dorkily adorable).
We see him struggling with events even though he never says what he’s thinking. Instead of saying he’s in pain, he smiles at the cute girl. Instead of saying his secret, we see him acting on it. Instead of apologizing to his aunt, he gives her something. That is, we see subtext.
The big, bad villain starts out with lots of subtext. He’s not a bad guy and we see him struggle with an ethical dilemma. He becomes more of a cartoony bad guy further into the movie because his character loses the subtext. All he needs is a mustache to twirl to go along with his underground lair and ridiculous evil plan.
But I can ignore that because his actions at the end of the movie bring subtext back. He says one word at the resolution of the story that makes us wish we could forgive him. That one word isn’t direct or on the nose, but we understand what he’s getting at when he says it, and all of a sudden we see him as more than just a cartoon. The fact that he says that word shows he feels guilty.
Anyone who’s seen the trailer knows the police captain is another antagonist. His character never loses the subtext, and he remains a relatable character the whole time, even when he’s antagonizing Spider-Man. We see and understand his reasons for what he does, and even though we’re rooting for Spidey, we never hate the captain for his actions.
- The Love Interest
This is another area where this version really shines for me. We’re never told how awesome Gwen Stacy is and we don’t need to be. We see it, from her bantering with Peter over their school standing to her never being demoted to the “damsel in distress.” And she takes on as active a role in helping Peter as she can while not being stupid about it. Her character is a breath of fresh air and not formulaic at all.
Spider-Man stories have always had the theme of “With great power comes great responsibility.” That line is never said in this version. (I was a bit disappointed by that, actually, because the replacement is one of those too direct, clunky dialogue bits.)
However, we see Peter learn that lesson a different way. In this version, we see Peter take responsibility, and we see him feeling good when he uses his power to help an innocent. That moment is a turning point in his maturity, and we sense that he’s learned the meaning behind the theme.
- Ordinary Heroes
This version added another layer to the theme of the story, which I really appreciated as well. Just before the climax of the movie, we see Spider-Man in trouble in a “he can’t get there from here” type of way. Some citizens of New York City ignore the evacuation order to help him out. They have no superpowers. They’re nothing special. They’re just normal people who see a way they can help and they do.
In a different movie, say Green Lantern, this scene would have been a cop-out, creating a convenient coincidence. In this movie, yes, their actions help Spider-Man, but he’d already paid a harsh price and he was going to have to pay more. In addition, an earlier scene had laid the groundwork for the motivation of the leader of these Ordinary Joes.
We see this theme reinforced just a few minutes later, when another non-superpowered hero takes a stand and tells Spider-Man to go do his thing with, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
This layer, where we see the interdependence between superheroes and ordinary citizens, isn’t often explored in superhero stories to the degree it was here. And the subtext of this layer along with some of the chastising dialogue of the police captain earlier add a lot more nuance to the story.
All together, these subtext-filled elements help to create layers, add character development, and elevate this movie above a formulaic story. That isn’t to say this movie was perfect. Far from it. It still had its cheesy moments, its slower paced moments, and its “why did that happen” moments. But from a subtext perspective, it was more than I expected.
That also isn’t to say that formula is bad. After all, we need genres to play by the rules. A romance without a happy ending isn’t much of a romance. A murder mystery without solving the whodunit isn’t much of a murder mystery.
But there’s a way to tick off all the “must have” checkboxes for the genre and still be a deeper story. The Amazing Spider-Man filled all the requirements of a superhero origin story—showing the Ordinary World before, how the change happens, how he reacts to the changes, and fighting a villain—but it also had something more.
We can aim to do the same and use subtext to add those layers. We can follow the needs of our genre and give a little “plus some” to our stories.
Have you seen The Amazing Spider-Man yet? What did you think of it? Did you notice these subtextual layers? Can you think of any other examples (that you can keep somewhat spoiler-free)? How would you compare it for subtext to other comic book movies?
P.S. Entries for my Blogiversary Contest close at midnight tonight, Tuesday, July 10th, 2012. We’ve already collected enough entries to award 3 winners on Thursday, and we’re halfway to awarding 4 winners. Don’t forget to enter!
Untouched version of The Amazing Spider-Man movie poster: Photo CreditPin It