Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”


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Seriously, folks, this whole contrarian role I seem to have either stumbled or , if you want to be grandiose about things,  been thrust into? Its actually getting pretty old.  Sure, I can’t do much about how my brain works, but once in awhile, maybe just for a day or so to see what it would be like, I’d love to at least like the same stuff everybody else does, and dislike all the same stuff that the rest of you do, too, just to relieve the tedium of seeing things in a fundamentally different way than everyone else. Mind you, I’n only talking about changing things up as far as my taste in films and other ostensibly “entertaining” media go here, these other perfectly mainstream ideas like “corporations are our friends and we shouldn’t tax them too high,” and “problems like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are all in this past” — you can keep those, I’m happy to still keep tilting at windmills and telling Mr. and Ms. Middle America that they’re hopelessly deluded if they really believe the Hallmark Card pseudo-reality being sold to them while their pockets are being picked clean by the same rich assholes who then have the nerve to tell them that the real “moochers” are poor folks, or people of color, or single mothers, or any other group still that’s still easy to scapegoat and demonize.

At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with reviewing the just-released (“just,” in this case, meaning last week) The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and I can’t say I blame you, so here’s what I’m getting at : received “wisdom” has it that this is just some bog-standard, average-at-best super-hero flick. And the same received “wisdom” has it that the reason this is no great shakes (and you can bet the exact same argument will be trotted out in a couple of weeks in regards to the new X-Men movie) is because it’s not a Marvel Studios product but is, in fact, a Sony/Columbia release under license from Marvel. And I’m sorry, but I smell a serious rat with that fallacious line of “reasoning.”

Let me tell you why : Marvel, and their bosses at Disney,  desperately want the Spider-Man property back “in house” (same goes for X-Men) and have a vested interest in promoting the myth that only they can do it “right.” To that end, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that they’re the ultimate source of this goofy idea that somehow Sony’s Spider-Man lacks the “magic” that they’d bring to the property (and that’s really what Spidey is at this point — a “property” — as opposed to an actual character) and I’d even go so far as to speculate that they’ve contacted their bought-and-paid for media mouthpieces and had off-the-record conversations with them designed to subtly kick up an orchestrated “whisper campaign” against this film.

Shit, as science has proven, always runs downhill, and soon the folks who make their living telling other people what to think have affected the opinions of the legions of unpaid armchair critics (like myself) who in turn affect the opinions of fans and more casual movie-goers, and before you know it, the meme that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 just ain’t all that great has taken firm hold in the public consciousness. Sure, it all looks spontaneous enough, and most of the people playing along with the scheme have no idea that they’re doing, essentially, pro bono work for one monolithic studio conglomerate in their covert “war” against another monolithic studio conglomerate, but there you have it.

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What’s especially despicable about this, though, is how rancid and idiotic “homer”-ism in the “fan” community is so easily manipulated to shady ends, yet seldom if ever turned in a genuinely positive direction. The same “fans” who are actively and openly rooting for Marvel to “get back their baby,” for instance, don’t seem to care too much about the situation of Spidey’s actual creator, Steve Ditko, who is 86 years old and has never seen a dime from any of the flicks his legendary creation appears in — hell, when Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie came out, Ditko was living under, to put it politely, reduced circumstances in a rented apartment above a New York City thrift store. If even a tiny fraction of the amount of energy fans put into campaigning for Marvel Studios were put into campaigning for the dozens, if not hundreds, of creators that Marvel has screwed over, who knows? Maybe the cause of creators’ rights would finally be getting somewhere. Let me be as blunt as possible here : if you care more about Marvel getting back the cinematic rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four than you do about folks like Steve Ditko, Gary Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, or the heirs of Jack Kirby, then you’re either a complete asshole, being played for a sucker, or both. These actual people deserve your support — not the corporate suits who continue to profit off the fruits of others’ imaginations.

To that end, I don’t have any real personal stake in whether or not The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is “not as good as it could/would be with Marvel Studios in charge,” because I could care less about the bottom-line corporate balance sheets of either DisMar or Sony/Columbia. They’re all faceless, greedy bastards in my book. But after watching the film, the rat I smelled grew even more pungent, so I decided to put my little “homer” theory to the test via the modern “miracle” of social networking.

Don’t worry, I didn’t waste too much time on this off-the-cuff experiment, only about 30 minutes or so, but the results were telling. I went onto twitter, looked for the first dozen comments of the “this would be so much better if Marvel did it” variety (they weren’t had to find), and asked the folks making such statements why they thought that. Of the 12 folks I asked, seven never responded, three said variations of the exact same thing (“because it’s theirs and they’d know how to do it right”) and two said they flat-out didn’t know why, “it just would be.”

Not done making a nuisance of myself, I then asked all 12 people again “What’s so ‘wrong’ with this movie in the first place in comparison with Marvel Studios product?” and received only two answers, one of which was “it just is,” and the other being “you can tell just by watching that they don’t get it.”

Excuse me, but — what’s not to get? It’s not like I’m going to try to convince you here that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is necessarily all that great, but for what it is, frankly, it’s just fine, and in fact it’s a damn sight better than the last two Marvel Studios releases, the thoroughly uninspired Captain America : The Winter Soldier and the downright risible Thor : The Dark World, both of which were essentially big-budget TV movies-of-the-week (and overseen by television directors, no less). I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite a bit more enjoyable than Marvel’s most-ballyhooed cinematic endeavors, the incredibly over-rated The Avengers and the obviously-constructed-by-the-numbers Iron Man films.

It’s far from a terrific super-hero movie, mind you, like Christopher Nolan’s  Batman Begins or Richard Donner’s original Superman, but it definitely fits comfortably into the “above average, at any rate” group populated by flicks like The Dark Knight (which is nowhere near as good as  many seem to think, but is still fairly solid) and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. So I guess my main argument isn’t even necessarily that this is all that much  better than at least the top-tier Marvel Studios flicks, like the first Thor and Captain America : The First Avenger, but that it’s in no way appreciably worse. Given that, then, and taking into consideration how positively homogenized and formulaic Marvel’s “in-house” product has become in the absence of genuinely talented directors like Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston, there’s absolutely no reason to believe they’d “do a better job of things” if the web-slinger’s rights suddenly fell back into their lap.

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Frankly, some of the criticism being leveled at this flick is just plain absurd on its face, and amazingly hypocritical. I’ve seen folks who gushed over The Avengers claim, with a straight face, that the problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that it “relies too heavily on CGI battle scenes.” And Whedon’s movie didn’t? I’ve seen many self-styled “opinion makers”  who gushed over the the “human”  characterization in Nolan’s Bat-films say that this movie “has too much Peter Parker, not enough Spider-Man.” I’ve seen people who applauded the revisionist origin story given Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel grouse about how director Marc Webb and his committee of screenwriters are “playing too fast and loose” with Spidey’s backstory here. And,  while I’ll grant you that Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon/Electro character is flat-out absurd in both its human and super-human iterations, and that getting shocked by a big cable and falling into a vat of electric eels is a pretty lame way for a villain to get his powers, it’s worth noting that many of the people poking fun at this have no problem with the idea of a chemically-enhanced “super soldier” being frozen in a block of ice and waking up, without having aged a day, in the Captain America movies, or of the Norse Gods being a real race of inter-dimensional super-beings in the Thor films, and are even willing to swallow the single-most laughable notion in all comic-book flicks, that of a spoiled billionaire rich kid who inherits his daddy’s company and still actually works for a living, as Tony Stark does in the Iron Man series.

There are plenty of folks out there telling you what Webb and company get wrong in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — from the aforementioned Electro stuff to Andrew Garfield’s take on Peter Parker being “unlikable” (news flash — he’s been a self-pitying, self-aborbed, flat-out selfish little prick in the comics from day one) to Sally Field’s Aunt May being “too young” (whatever ,  she does a really nice job)  to Paul Giamatti’s wasted and pointless cameo as the villainous Rhino at the end —let me take just a few minutes to tell you what this movie gets right.

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Dane DeHann is positively creepy as Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin and his origin/descent into villainy is portrayed in a way that actually makes sense. Likewise, even though his screen time is limited, Chris Cooper knocks it out of the park as his vicious, megalomaniacal father, Norman. There’s real chemistry between Garfield’s Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, and the film does a nice job of updating/translating the legendary penultimate Spidey/Gwen story for the silver screen. The CGI effects work is solid and a represents a big step up from the lackluster graphics of Webb’s first Spider-film. The characters are allowed to age at least semi-normally, as evidenced by the fact that Peter, Gwen, and their classmates are  shown graduating high school at the start of the film (and a good thing too, since both actors are, what? Pushing 30?). Webb directs the action sequences that he’s being maligned for with far more aplomb than his more-praised counterparts like Jon Favreau or Joss Whedon, who just show one building after another being smashed to rubble in between those fucking interminable shots of Robert Downey Jr.’s face inside of his Iron Man helmet. And at least this movie gives us warts-and-all human beings at its core with plausible psychological motivations for doing what they do rather than mythological gods, science-whiz playboys, sexy Russian super-spies with no accents, or one-dimensional do-gooders fresh out of suspended animation.

It’s not enough to make The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a truly great super-hero movie, and a forced and tacked-on ending epilogue-ish ending doesn’t help (even if there’s plenty of reason for fans to “ooh”and “aah” when we get a sneak peek at the character designs for the members of the sure-to-pop-up-in-the-next-flick Sinister Six, and hey, isn’t that the Black Cat we get to meet — briefly and in her civilian identity — earlier on, too? Where’s the fan-gasming for that?), but it makes it a heck of a lot more involving than much-more-highly-praised (even if it’s dull and repetitious) fare that just so happens to carry the Marvel Studios logo above its title. And you know what? That’s all it would take for fans to love this one, and is the single, solitary reason why many of them don’t. You might call that loyalty, but I call it bullshit.

 

A Glorious Fantasy: The Magitek Revolution


Once again I return to this ongoing series, in which I attempt to play through every game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I can get my hands on, from FF1 through Lightning Returns, and a variety of the spinoffs and other titles not included in the ‘main series’. This list continues to undergo revision, and I seriously considered removing Final Fantasy 9 from it for personal reasons. In addition, no MMO titles will be played. Sorry, folks?

I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research. Let’s move on!

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This is a bittersweet entry for me. Final Fantasy 6 has always been my favourite Final Fantasy. It is the first one that I played to completion, and I still think of it as the absolute pinnacle of the JRPG form. There are things about later games that I like, individually, better than certain aspects of Final Fantasy VI. But unless I really undergo a transformation moving forward in the series (or if Lightning Returns is somehow the greatest game ever released… and I doubt it) … this is the high point. This is the pinnacle. For me, this is the definitive FF experience, and the game I would recommend throughout this entire odyssey without hesitation to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Version Played: GBA Remake

Version Notes: Having played the original SNES version 90282834 times (all numbers approximate) and the GBA version 0 times, this was kind of fun for me. The primary feature of the GBA version is a new, upgraded translation over the Ted Woolsey original. Obvious upgrades include the names of characters no longer being in all caps for whatever reason, and the expansion of several characters. I never thought that the original translation of FFVI was particularly egregious, but I will freely admit to liking the GBA translation better. The GBA version also fixes a number of rather infamous bugs from the original game, including the Evade bug. I would highly recommend this version to both new players and returning ones alike.

So… where to begin, really, with Final Fantasy VI? At the risk of exposing my knowledge of future games, I can certainly say that FFVI’s style paved the way for the characters and combat systems of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII. It also represents the only real departure (let’s not count FFI and FFIII where you have only ‘generic’ characters) in the entire Final Fantasy series from the idea of a single protagonist, with supporting characters around her. In this case, while Terra Branford is an obvious protagonist type, and does start the story as its central character, she remains such only until the first major split in the party, when Terra leads a group trying to escort the rebel leader Banon to safety on the Lete River… meanwhile, Locke Cole attempts to delay the impending invasion of the Gestahlian Empire from overrunning the peaceful realm of Figaro… and Sabin Figaro is lost on the Lete, and must make form new alliances to get back home.

Let the idea of that sink in, just a little. It’s a truly novel concept, and one that is not really used in any other RPG-style game that I can recall to mind. The ensemble cast of FFVI is not held together by the glue of Terra Branford, nor by any other single character. Certainly, the game has a few characters much more ‘major’ than others (Terra, Celes, and Locke receive a large amount of development over their fellow cast members), particularly if you don’t indulge in some of the sidequests that the game offers once you reach its second half.

If any single character provides focus to the narrative, then, it has to be the bad guy. Actually, in this case, as is often the case, there are a couple of them. The villains provide us with a single thread to follow through the complex characterizations and variety of locales that the party will explore. Ultimately, this game is about stopping the mighty Kefka from literally grinding the people of the world into dust, until nothing at all remains. While this has basically been the goal of every antagonist we’ve faced thus far (spoiler alert: probably most of the upcoming ones have the same plan in mind), Kefka begins to realize his goals in a visceral way which is, again, unusual for this game series.

Final Fantasy VI is also the first game to depart in a major way from several of the core story themes that we’ve seen before in every other installment. Gone are the crystals (Earth, Wind, Air, and Fire). Gone are prophecies of any kind – the people of Final Fantasy VI’s world are more worried about repeating the mistakes of the past through a cataclysmic conflict called the War of the Magi, which destroyed the world and erased magic, but also gave rise to the steam engine, and modern technology. It’s this technology, and this complete departure from the series’ roots that gives this game it’s unique flavour, and also very much sets the stage for the succeeding games.

Here, too, is another innovation, which in some ways builds on the stylings of Final Fantasy IV, but not entirely – each character here possesses a unique skill, such as ‘Steal’ for Locke, or ‘Morph’ for Terra (Cecil, for example, had ‘Darkness’, and Kain ‘Jump’). However, beyond that unique skill and their individual equipment lists, the characters have many interchangeable features. Their ability gain at level up is determined entirely by the Esper system, which also teaches characters magic. It is possible (albeit, pointlessly difficult and unrewarding) to turn even the most magically inept character like Edgar into a spellcasting powerhouse with the Ultima ability by the game’s end. While this was previously a function of jobs, the character ‘jobs’ in FFVI are immutable, though you have many characters to choose from by the end, unlike in Final Fantasy IV.

Final_Fantasy_VI_OperaNone of this is why the game is so effective, however, or why its memory has lingered with me far beyond any other game in the series. The truth is, all of that has to be attributed by incredible moments, like the Opera House sequence, which elevate this game from a story perspective far beyond any previous offering. Its combat system may not be quite as fun to play with as FFV’s deep and immersive job system… but the characters will draw you in in a way that perhaps no other game in the series will.

After so many years, there’s not too much more to add here. Just know that if you have never experienced Final Fantasy VI, you are missing one of the great games of all time. That would be a shame.