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July 10, 2012

How “The Amazing Spider-Man” Rocks Subtext

The Amazing Spider-Man movie poster with text added: "Subtext and" [The Amazing Spider-Man]

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

  • Acting

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.

  • Antagonists

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.

  • Theme

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 Credit

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29 Comments on "How “The Amazing Spider-Man” Rocks Subtext"

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Vampy
Vampy

This is amazing (ohlookapun!). Your article mentions all the things I loved about this movie. I didn’t consciously file it under ‘subtext’ and ‘character-driven movie’, of course, but I think these points are exactly what made me love this Spiderman so much: Garfield’s dorky, adorably confused Peter, the not-so-distressed Gwen, the ordinary heros, and, yes, the lack of big, obvious statements.

Come to think of it, there is a scene when Peter tries to ask Gwen out and they don’t actually ‘say’ anything at all- gestures and implications do all the work!

Taurean Watkins
I didn’t see the movie, but I do get what you’re saying about subtext. But sometimes as a writer I wonder if ANYONE but me sees the subtext in what I write? That said, I have to speak to what you said here- “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.” Jami, this is where much of my PAIN regarding getting my writing critiqued comes from. Not ego, denial, or delusions of grandeur, but from battling the “personal, yet universal” issues. Here’s the thing, just because a love story doesn’t end happily, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real or worth exploring, even if it’s not the standard issue for romance. Didn’t Micheal Connolly’s first book about “The Poet” (A mystery/thriller, if I’m remembering right) end with him getting away? I haven’t read it, but I know from interviews he’s given regarding a book where the villain essentially gets away, since in real life, cases do go unsolved, or at least cold for a long time, so while part of the appeal of certain genre trappings keep people reading, I do think we READERS need to be open in the same ways writers are lectured to, and appreciate that deviations from “The Rules” aren’t the end of the world. Many of the books in my niche are about animals against humans, or LOTR style creature vs. creature wars,… Read more »
Taurean Watkins

Well, before you go that far, maybe you should read a version of my last book’s query letter-

http://www.talkinganimaladdicts.com/2012/06/query-blog-hop.html

I don’t see it being “Mainstream” either, and I’m not sure literary makes more sense, since they often end sad, at least the ones I’ve read, and mine doesn’t.

As much as you tell me not to stress, I can’t ignore it either, unless you can find me a volunteer publiscist (Kidding!) I have to figure this out, or my query letters will NEVER get better. You of all people should what I’m getting at.

Taurean Watkins

Sorry I came off mean, Jami, you’re only giving your opinion, I just wish I didn’t feel so lost. This isn’t a problem I just found yesterday, I battle this all the time. If we could just skip it, we might be less hard on ourselves, don’t you think?

But seriously, it’s not like I can write a query letter saying-

“I don’t know the genre, you figure it out.”

I wouldn’t send a letter like that, nor have I, I’m just making a point. I have to call it something. I just don’t think Commercial or Mainstream make sense, especially since this wasn’t a project I “Wrote to the market” which those titles do imply, either that, or you’re already established, of which I’m neither, so how does it make sense?

Feel free to elaborate.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Jami, before I comment, I want to say that your reply to Taurean was brilliant. Very well explained.

Yes, I saw ASM last week in NY. I went to visit relatives and exactly 15 of us, my husband and 19 yr old son included, took up an entire row in the theatre.
All of us really liked it, but I believe I was the only one who disected the film during and after watching. It’s the writer in me. I can’t help it.
I saw and appreciated the subtext as much as you did.
One of my favorite lines in the whole movie was at the end. When Peter walks into class late and his teacher scolds him. He says something to Gwen, something only she can hear. Gwen smiles and we, the audience, know what he’s referring to without having it spelled out for us.
I smiled too. I understood the subtext and loved it.
I agree, ASM wasn’t the best super hero movie I’ve seen, but its many layers helped make it something special none-the-less.
FANTASTIC post, Jami.
I think of myself as an experienced author, but everytime I read your blog I learn something knew.
Thank you for your wisdom, and have a wonderful evening.
Tamara

Andrew Mocete

I’m a big fan of Spider-Man and love the Sam Raimi movies (even the third one, despite it’s numerous flaws). That being said, I think I like this new version even better because I’m such a sucker for character driven ANYTHING.

I gushed about the movie on my own blog and you and I were thinking the same thing about subtext. There was so much.

One of my favorite parts *Spoiler Alert!* was when Peter saved the little boy from the bridge. Once he’s reunited with his father, you could see Peter’s transformation from kid with superpowers to HERO. You actually see him get what that means without any words. That’s quality right there.

Serena
Serena

Oh, I was really glad you analyzed The Amazing Spiderman because I loved that movie!

I especially liked your points about how Peter Parker says things through his actions, rather than words; and how the construction worker leader had a reason set up beforehand for why he would help Spiderman.

By the way, I really, really felt sorry for the villain.

About subtext though….I really do think it depends on what kind of reader you are writing for.

Some readers like things left unsaid so they can work things out themselves.

Some other readers though, like myself, actually like it when authors “tell” explicitly what’s happening, or what’s important. That’s why I like some really “telling” books like Jane Austen. For some reason, the author stating that character X is A, confirms and strengthens the sense that he/ she is indeed A.

This telling especially pleases me if I didn’t realize that he/she is A—so this is helpful for less sensitive readers, or for less obvious character traits. And thus that’s why books with a generous amount of telling are very satisfying to me.

So, it’s quite difficult for us that there are so many different readers with so many different and often opposite preferences, eh?

Steph
First, I’m a sucker for superhero movies. I ‘like’ them all, even Green Lantern; meaning, I’ll watch it again and again. Does that mean I think they’re all well-written or well-filmed? No. It just means that I love the underlying premise or theme and will watch anything that brings that to life for me. In case it’s not clear, I’m a comic book nerd. So, to me, Amazing Spider-Man was rightfully titled amazing. Yeah, I liked the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy (yes, all three, see first paragraph). But this was one was so much better to me. On the surface, I say it’s better because it’s more like the comics. Garfield’s portrayal of Peter Parker is spot-on in my opinion and the transformation … well, I could have been reading the words/seeing the action without words in a frame-by-frame. That dedication to the source material is enough to make me an instant fan. Not so much on the surface is my tendency to analyze movies as well. It’s the writer in me (guess we can’t help it). 😉 And I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the movie being character-driven and a bit outside the mold of the genre of a comic-book MOVIE. See, the best comics themselves are character-driven. Each issue (or sometimes arcs) may have the latest plot, villain, evil of the week, but the real story is the superhero character and how he interacts with the world around him. Like the teacher says at the end of… Read more »
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[…] Writing Stuff I’ve mentioned before that I love subtext. I’ve analyzed the Spiderman reboot for subtext. I’ve written about how to revise for subtext, how to use subtext in emotional scenes, and […]

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[…] I’ve analyzed the subtext of The Amazing Spider-Man movie, and stories don’t get more genre than a comic-book movie. The recent movie Pacific Rim had mediocre dialogue—and beautiful, deep subtext. […]

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