How “The Amazing Spider-Man” Rocks Subtext
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
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!
Yes, I loved that scene with Peter and Gwen! (I wanted to talk about it, but man, was this post already long. 🙂 )
In any other movie or with any other actor, that scene probably would have been cringe-worthy. Instead, it was…adorkable. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Hi Taurean, “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.” I don’t disagree. But there is a difference between love stories–which can have a tragic ending–and the genre of romance. The genre of romance must have a Happily Ever After (HEA) or a Happily For Now (HFN) ending. That’s the definition. That does not mean that no other love stories can be told. But by definition, would they would not fall under the Romance Genre (capitalized to show that it is a specific genre with rules beyond the simple subject matter of “love”). Any story can be told, but genres have expectations, and it would not be in the best interest of the author to call their story a member of X genre when it doesn’t follow the rules. Many readers would hate the story and pan it in reviews because it didn’t meet their expectations of what makes a good X genre story. That says nothing about it being a bad story, but it wouldn’t be a good X genre story. For example, Nicholas Sparks writes very popular stories about love. Many of his books have been turned into movies. He does not call his books romance–for a good reason. Virtually all of his stories end with one member of the couple dying from a horrible disease or something. 🙂 He calls his books “love stories” and they are typically shelved under… — Read More »
Well, before you go that far, maybe you should read a version of my last book’s query letter-
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.
Hi Taurean, Ah-ha! Yes, you’re right–in more ways than you know. 🙂 In your queries, you say that your story is Middle Grade/Young Adult. That is your genre. Yes, it’s a bit odd that MG and YA are all lumped into a single genre, no matter the content, but that’s the way it is. Adult books are categorized by content and non-adult books are categorized by age. Some publishers/authors are starting to separate their work with labels like “paranormal YA” or something, but stores/libraries don’t have separate sections for those, so those labels are more about letting readers know than anything official. In other words, your queries are doing it right. I wouldn’t try to define the story beyond that point because the whole animal nature is obvious by the query itself (you’re showing the subgenre instead of telling it, which I think is great). The first one, especially, reads like a Ben and Me type story, which is a favorite of those I know in the age group. So make sure you’re focusing your queries on MG agents, and you have as much of a chance as anyone. 🙂 To sum up, not knowing the genre isn’t holding you back–because you do know it–and now you and I can team up on luck. *hugs* Thanks for the comment! ***Edited to add: However, I do wonder if your original comment about subtext and how no one picks up on it plays into the issue. As I mentioned in the post,… — Read More »
Well, that sure makes me feel a lot better. Thanks Jami. Especially for seeing the angst really is about the problem, not anyone in particular.
No worries, Taurean! 🙂
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.
Don’t worry. You didn’t come off mean at all, just frustrated. And believe me, when it comes to queries, I totally understand. 🙂
But look at my reply above and see if that answers your questions. You and I might need more work on our queries, but the genre issue isn’t one of the problems. Yay! You eliminated one possibility. 🙂 *Hugs* and thanks for the comment!
Well, I don’t think of MG or YA, in and of themselves as a “Genre” but simply age demographic. So I don’t agree with you on this point- “In your queries, you say that your story is Middle Grade/Young Adult. That is your genre. Yes, it’s a bit odd that MG and YA are all lumped into a single genre, no matter the content, but that’s the way it is.” Also, just because something’s “the way it is”* doesn’t mean it’s right in every situation, and regardless of what libraries and retailers do, they’re not the ones who dictate certain aspects of this process, and it doesn’t change that I need to have a decent handle on who my audience is before they ever get my book, so feel free to elaborate further. Unlike Tamara, I need more clarification, since I seem to be reading you wrong, or not accurately enough. I know when I entered the Query Blog Hop last month, Heather (who started and judged the contest) suggested I compared my book to others, and frankly couldn’t come up with anything, and that might’ve held me back from winning. I don’t like comparing myself, because it just looks catty or plain gives the wrong impression. No matter how much your blog preaches about “putting yourself in an editor’s shoes” I just can’t do that, and I can’t help it. It just feels like a big, fat contradiction to something else agents and editors say all the time too-… — Read More »
Hi Taurean, Hoo boy, are we getting off topic here, but I want to help, so here goes… 🙂 “I don’t think of MG or YA, in and of themselves as a “Genre” but simply age demographic. So I don’t agree with you on this point.” Sorry for hitting your “Hulk trigger” phrase. 🙂 What I meant by “that’s the way it is” is that no matter what we think of various words (romance, genre, etc.), within the publishing industry, those words/phrases have specific meanings. So you’re absolutely right that Middle Grade is an age demographic. However, in the publishing industry, that phrase is also a genre. The industry’s definition of “genre” not anything mystical but rather “where would it be shelved?” (which comes from stores’ and libraries’ wish to shelve things in a way to help readers find books they want). That’s their “Publishing Industry Definition,” and when we write query letters, we need to speak their language. If we visited the country of Higgledy-Piggledy, we’d have to speak their language no matter how silly we thought it was if we wanted them to understand us. It’s the same concept here. Would your books be shelved in the Middle Grade section? Yes? Then they are Middle Grade under the publishing industry’s definition of genre. So when I say “that’s the way it is,” that’s me trying to tell you not to over-think this. 🙂 (Hey, you don’t have to come up with another genre beyond that, count yourself lucky!)… — Read More »
Thanks again, Jami. I better follow you. I know I was getting out of topic, but sometimes I see through lines that either aren’t there, or not as strong as I thought, sorry about that. Also, I just needed more clarification of what you replied yesterday. Finally, when I mention query dissecting, I meant sharing my own query, explain why I (re)wrote it the way I did, and while you may struggle being objective with your own query letters, doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion of what doesn’t work for you, and since confusion is the biggest hangup for me, you would be helpful there. I can say this with some light authority because it’s what I’ve done more of in the months when my own writing has stalled for whatever reason. I know this because my writer friends have said it helped their revisions, but that’s mostly for drafts of the actual story, not what we slave over to sell said story. It’s something you talk about on your blog all the time. So, why not do a dissection of one of my query letters? Maybe they don’t sell me like I wish they did, but I think it’s way to bring about discussion, which is sometimes the only motivation booster you need. It has changed some since the contest I entered, and just to clarify, you could enter up to two queries in that contest, but submit the best version of one, and Query #1 was what… — Read More »
Also, Jami, I get what you mean about odds. But I personally try not to think about that. because we can’t necessarily “Make our luck” despite many people’s points to the contrary. I also don’t think the language barrier argument is entirely fair, because unlike the publishing world, writers on an indiviual level, aren’t bound by that kind of posturing, even I learned French to understand someone who knew little English, if they were a close friend, they’d still learn at least enough English so we can meet in the middle of our secondary languages, and you’re dealing with someone as an equal, that’s different than what you’re saying with that particular analogy. Still. you make a fair point. I just feel things are more equal among fellow writers, simply because there’s not the “Money-Whore” syndrome business, by definition, involves, and it’s easier to meet halfway when strict conditions aren’t forced on you. That’s all I was speaking to, so I’m sorry if that registered as something else. How we communicate on your blog is the best immediate example. Even though you see things about the process in a very (Valid) pragmatic, analytic way, and I don’t, doesn’t mean your insights aren’t right, or that my emotion-driven approach makes no sense at all. Though, it certainly is hard for others to follow me, you are far from the only one, Jami. If I really “Over-think” things, it’s only because I’m trying to focus on what I can control, and for… — Read More »
Hi Taurean, Yes, I knew what you meant by query dissecting and I wasn’t clear in my response (mostly because I’m trying to keep this tangent from taking over everything 🙂 ). While the dissection I could do for your query would certainly be helpful to you, I’m not sure I could translate that dissection into an overall analysis that could help other blog readers. One thing I will say is that the version I saw from your query hop link was very good! (And yes, I’m talking about Query #1, which was the stronger of the two.) I saw two grammatical things: a missing word (the majority *of* his fellow rats) and there shouldn’t be a comma between “friend” and “is” in the last line. Also in your last line, I think “but” would be stronger than “and” (*but* maybe, he can save…). Those are all very minor things. The story in the query itself is well-told and clear. (I even asked two MG readers to check it over, and they thought it sounded good!) In other words, I’m not sure “my query is holding me back” is an accurate assessment. 🙂 You might want to add a line about “This story will appeal to readers who enjoyed X or Y,” but I’m not sure that’s necessary. Other than that, I really think it might come down to luck. And I know that’s hard to hear because you want to have more control over the situation, but it’s also… — Read More »
Thanks Jami. I’m really done now. I’ll be saving all your comments in a word file for later study.
No problem, Taurean. 🙂
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.
Yes, I dissect movies all the time–but more often when it doesn’t meet my expectations, because then I want to analyze why and how it fell short or exceeded them. 🙂
Ooo, great example! I loved that last line too, and you’re right, that’s more subtext at work. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, that scene was a huge turning point, and you could see the realization of power=responsibility in his face. Amazing acting. I’m going to pop over your blog now. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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?
Hi Serena, Yes, I can understand why you’d feel sorry for the villain. I did too, as he was a victim of his attempt to help. Great point about needing to “tell” things sometime. Author/bestselling ghostwriter Roz Morris had an interesting article about that just a couple of weeks ago. She called it the “Let’s get this straight” scene. And once we think about it, we know we’ve seen this scene a bunch of times–the recap, the “wait, you mean the bad guy is going to do X, and if we don’t stop him, Y is going to happen?” scene. So there’s absolutely a call for reiterating what’s happening plot-wise or what the stakes are. In other words, just because we like subtext, that doesn’t mean everything has to relayed by subtext all the time. As with most things in writing, there’s a balance between subtext and clarity. The point of Roz’s article was how to insert such an obvious exposition scene with style. 🙂 How we could give it another reason for being there so it doesn’t feel like a straight information dump. The other thing to keep in mind about subtext is that character observations about others are always less “on the nose” than observations about themselves. Let’s circle back to Spider-Man for an example. After the bridge scene, we suspect Peter has matured. Other fights happen, and he shows up injured at Gwen’s place. Subtext tells us there’s a reason Peter is chasing the villain, but that… — Read More »
Ooh, thanks for that tip about other characters making observations so that I can secretly sneak in my own observations! Lol.
No problem! Yes, we can be sneaky that way. 🙂
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 »
I agree! I like them all. 🙂 I enjoyed Green Lantern despite its problems too. (I might not watch them again and again though. 😉 )
Great observation about how the source material often has to be more character-driven because of the ongoing nature of comic books. When I think about all the changes we see in characters in well done episodic TV shows like Buffy, I often think the same thing. That each individual episode might be plot-driven, but when we look at the big picture of the season or series, we see huge changes.
I wonder if some of it comes down to how much the director is a fan of the character-side of stories in the comic books? Like maybe if that helps them want to bring out the best in the characters on the screen? Interesting thoughts–thanks for sharing and for the comment!
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