Comics to Screen: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Beware of spoilers, as Marvel-maniac Matthew Turner takes another dive into comic-book lore, this time inspired by Marc Webb’s arachno-rebootquel. Like, no , really beware of spoilers, we’re not even kidding.

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I’ve written four previous Comics to Screen blog posts for MostlyFilm (on Thor, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers), so it seems only fair to give Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise the same treatment, with a focus on The Amazing Spider-Man 2,  for fairly obvious reasons. In this post, I’m going to look at which elements of ASM2 are taken directly from the comics and which elements are invented or tweaked for the film and whether that has an impact on the audience’s enjoyment of the film, particularly in one key (and very spoilery – seriously, don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film) plot development.

But first, I should put my comics credentials on the table. Spider-Man is the Marvel superhero I grew up with: when I stopped reading the likes of Buster and Whizzer and Chips, I skipped straight to the British weekly Spider-Man comics, which at that time also carried black and white reprints of other characters like The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man and so on, so I got a strong grounding in the Marvel universe early on. I devoured back issues, eventually graduating to the American comics, where again, I tracked down back issues and read reprints, to the point where I was fully up to date on Spider-Man’s first twenty-five years. I then read every Spider-Man title religiously (no easy task – at one point there were at least five of them, including flagship title The Amazing Spider-Man, which gives the new franchise its name) for the next decade, getting out just in time, before the horror that was The Clone Saga. I’ve never really gone back to Spider-Man, though I have a deep and abiding love for the 60s, 70s and 80s comics and still buy reprints. That said, I do really want to check out the current run of Superior Spider-Man, which has Doctor Octopus’s brain in Peter Parker’s body. Or something.

History

Spider-Man was created by writer-editor Stan Lee (his traditional cameo appears early in ASM2, as if to reassure fans that he’s still alive) and writer-artist Steve Ditko, making his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962 and gaining his own comic (the afore-mentioned The Amazing Spider-Man) in March 1963. Lee’s initial intention was for the character to be a high school student, who would have to deal with all the usual teenage angst as well as fighting crime dressed in red and blue spandex. The Amazing Spider-Man, Marc Webb’s 2012 reboot of the franchise kept Parker in high school (unlike Sam Raimi’s films, which include only a brief high school period) and it was assumed things would continue that way, but ASM2 pretty much opens with Parker (Andrew Garfield) graduating from high school, alongside fellow student and on-off girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

Of course, at this point, with the enormous success of Raimi’s trilogy, the newly rebooted Spider-Man franchise arguably has no real need to cater to comics fans in terms of recreating classic storylines, so it’s interesting that ASM2 arguably does that more than any previous Marvel movie so far. Similarly, Webb’s Spider-Man films also have Raimi’s films to draw on, with a strong awareness that there may be Spider-fans whose only knowledge of the character comes from Raimi’s movies (or perhaps from the various animated TV series, but let’s not go into that right now). To that end, it’s interesting to note the key departures from Raimi’s franchise.

Firstly, Webb re-instated Spidey’s mechanical web-shooters (Maguire’s Spider-Man could shoot webs from his wrist organically, Garfield’s Parker invents his web-shooters, which is more in line with him being the science whizz he is in the comics). Secondly, Webb manages to nail an important element that was key to the comics and missing from Raimi’s films, which is that, compared to nerdy, bookish Peter Parker, Spider-Man (in costume) is a wise-cracking extrovert and, frankly, something of a show-off. (In the comics, he explains his behaviour by saying that it’s a distraction to keep his opponents off guard and wound up, but psychology students could definitely make a case for Spider-Man being Peter Parker’s unfettered id, were they so inclined).

Specific Story-lines

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ASM1 also tweaked Spider-Man’s origin story, giving it a more personal angle by having the genetically altered  spider (a change from the comic’s radioactive creepy-crawly) that gives Parker his powers be a part of a project that was originated by Peter’s dead father, scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott). In the comics Peter’s parents were originally spies (SHIELD agents, in fact, framed by the Red Skull as traitors before being killed in a plane crash – their only real appearance is in a flashback story entitled The Parents of Peter Parker in 1968), though the Ultimate universe (which I don’t want to get into right now, but that’s what Wikipedia is for) has since rebranded them as scientists, which is an improvement with a lot of dramatic and thematic mileage. ASM1 established a mystery surrounding Parker’s parents and ASM2 pretty much solves that mystery, opening with an exciting sequence that leads to their deaths in a plane crash – it also has them being framed as traitors, all of which is directly lifted from that 1968 comic, though tying Richard Parker to Oscorp (the corporation owned by Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin) is a much stronger idea that’s original to the film.

ASM1 also lifted another key storyline from the classic comics – the death of Gwen Stacy’s father, police captain George Stacy (Denis Leary). Granted, it was caused by the Lizard rather than Doctor Octopus (well, a falling piece of scaffolding, but a falling piece of scaffolding dislodged by Doctor Octopus), but the film differs from the comics in that Pa Stacy warns Peter/Spider-Man to stay away from Gwen because his costumed crime-fighting will eventually put her in danger (in the comics, he merely tells Peter to look after her, thereby revealing that he knew Spider-Man’s secret identity all along). This is an element that’s important to ASM2, although they opt for some rather clumsy ‘Peter imagining a scowling Denis Leary’ scenes to indicate his guilt at continuing the relationship (and breaking his promise to a dying man) rather than opt for a straight-up flashback.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died

All of which brings us to what is arguably Spider-Man’s most famous comics storyline, The Night Gwen Stacy Died. There had been speculation that the filmmakers might be prepared to kill off Gwen Stacy in the new film, speculation that had been fuelled by images of Emma Stone wearing the exact outfit that she’s killed in in the classic storyline (compare this and this). There had subsequently been rumours (fuelled by the cutting of Shailene Woodley’s appearance as Mary Jane) that they had bottled it and rewritten the ending, fearing that fans of the previous film wouldn’t accept the death of that character, particularly given the legitimately smoking hot chemistry between the two leads. So it’s something of a shock (and if you’re still reading this and you haven’t seen the film, you only have yourself to blame) that ASM2 does indeed kill off Gwen Stacy, in a manner that is strongly reminiscent of her death in the comics, right down to Spider-Man trying and failing to save her by shooting his webbing after her (this article on FilmDivider examines the detail of that sequence much more closely). This is a fascinating twist, because on the one hand, it gives die-hard comics fans something they never thought they’d see, but on the other hand, it risks seriously alienating newer, younger fans of the franchise (social media reactions have been shocked, to say the least). And let’s not forget, those fans of the classic comics are basically in their 40s and 50s now, hardly the acknowledged target demographic for the film.

That said, the rumours surrounding the film do allow for a wonderful fake-out sequence that has die-hard comics fans on the edge of their seats, although the experience will be diluted for those unfamiliar with the comics. Famously, Gwen dies in the comics after being knocked off the top of the Brooklyn Bridge (well, it’s named as the George Washington Bridge, but drawn as the Brooklyn Bridge – let’s not get into that right now) by the Green Goblin, so when Spider-Man takes Gwen to that exact same location in the film, just as the Green Goblin (Dane De Haan) finally takes to the air and comes looking for Spider-Man in a parallel sequence, there will be sharp intakes of breath amongst the comics fans in the audience. Those same comics fans presumably then breathe a sigh of relief (or express disappointment) when the characters subsequently leave the bridge before the Goblin shows up, only for Gwen’s death to later occur during a climactic battle in a clock tower, with the Goblin explicitly causing her to fall and Spider-Man failing to save her in time (kudos to the sound department for the rather shocking sound effect that leaves you in no doubt as to whether or not she’ll be getting up again). Frankly, it’s still hard to believe that they actually went through with it (even the comics eventually brought the character back via the medium – or tedium! – of clones).

Classic Villains: Electro, the Green Goblin and the Rhino

Electro

The use of classic Spider-Man villains (arguably some of Marvel’s most interesting characters) has long been a staple of the movie universe, which has so far included appearances from the original Green Goblin (Norman Osborn), Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, Venom and the Lizard. ASM2 continues that tradition with Electro, the second Green Goblin (Harry Osborn) and the Rhino. However, there are certain tweaks in each case.

In the comics, Electro is strictly a heist man – all his electricity-generating schemes are essentially geared towards robbing banks or similar. Here, in a manner that recalls Raimi’s treatment of Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, Electro begins as a nice guy (Jamie Foxx as lowly Oscorp employee Max Dillon) who is driven mad by his acquisition of super-powers, rather than being an out-and-out bastard from the start. To be fair, you too would d be pretty mad if you fell into a tank of electric eels while holding a live electricity cable. Sadly, the film opts to redesign Electro’s costume rather than opting for his original get-up (pictured above), though there is a lovely nod to it in a scene that features subtle yellow and green icing on a cake, complete with lightning motif. It’s also worth noting that Electro’s costume in the film does bear a certain resemblance to revamped versions of the character, from both the Ultimate universe and the later animated series. However, the backstory for the character is original to the film.

In the case of Green Goblin, a number of interesting tweaks have been made. In the comics, Harry Osborn goes mad after discovering that his father, Norman (believed killed by Spider-Man) was the original Green Goblin and he eventually finds his father’s costumes and weaponry and adopts the identity himself, with his knowledge of Peter’s secret identity making him especially dangerous (conveniently, Harry forgets everything once the madness subsides). In ASM2, we never actually see Norman as the Green Goblin, but the weaponry (the Goblin glider and pumpkin bombs) exists at Oscorp nonetheless. Here, the genius touch is to have both Norman and Harry suffer from a degenerative disease, which manages to both give a goblin-like appearance (thereby solving the tricky costume issues that plagued Raimi’s first film) and gives Harry a strong reason to hate Spider-Man, since Spider-Man refuses to help save his life by donating some of his spider-blood to cure the disease. (In the event, he experiments with rejected spider venom from Richard Parker’s experiments, which is what gives him his powers and tips him over the edge into madness). As for discovering Spider-Man’s secret identity, Harry simply works it out for himself, after having seen both Peter and Spider-Man with Gwen.

Finally, the Rhino, which, in the event, given the build-up the character had in some of the trailers, is likely to be something of a disappointment to Rhino fans (and, indeed, Paul Giamatti fans), since his character merely book-ends the film, only appearing in costume at the end. Appearing as a machine-gun-happy psycho in the opening sequence, the Rhino is subsequently recruited by the mysterious, black-suited Mr Fiers (an apparent cohort of Norman Osborn’s, who appeared in ASM1) and given a giant, robo-enhanced rhino costume in order to take on Spider-Man. This is different from the comics, in which Rhino gets his powers by volunteering to participate in an experiment that bonds a super strong polymer to his skin, although later versions of the comics character (that Ultimate universe again) have made the suit more robotic. It’s worth pointing out that the newer Marvel films are actually taking several elements from the Ultimate universe, whereas the earlier fims (Raimi’s Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor etc) stayed well away from them, aside from the Ultimate version of Nick Fury. It’ll be interesting to see if that trend continues.

Other Characters

There are a number of other characters who make appearances in ASM2, the most intriguing is Felicity Jones’ “Felicia” (blink and you might miss her). Although we never hear her surname, you can’t give a character in a Spider-Man movie a name like Felicia without fans naturally assuming that she’s Felicia Hardy, a character who will later become the Black Cat, who is essentially the Marvel version of Catwoman and a potential future love interest for Spider-Man. (In an interview, Jones told me that she was playing “the Green Goblin’s girlfriend”, but that’s not really reflected in the film, so one assumes she had several other scenes that got cut). The Raimi movies had a tendency to introduce characters that might be IMPORTANT FOR LATER (see Dylan Baker’s multiple appearances as Doc Connors, without any sign of him ever becoming the Lizard) and ASM2 has done that too, with the casting of The Office’s BJ Novak in a brief appearance as Alistair Smythe. He has next to nothing to do in the film, but in the comics he’s the son of the first Doctor Smythe, who invented the Spider-Slayer robots for Daily Bugle publisher and Spider-Man hater J. Jonah Jameson. Incidentally, while we still don’t get an appearance from JJJ (and, after all, who could replace J.K. Simmons?), ASM2 does at least have a nice nod in his direction that I won’t spoil here. The only other notable appearances are by Doctor Kafka (a woman in the comics, a man in ASM2, rather over-played by Marton Csokas), who’s the head of unethical asylum the Ravenscroft Institute (which also plays a part here); and the afore-mentioned Mr Fiers (aka Gustav Fiers aka The Gentleman), who was invented by Adam-Troy Castro for a trilogy of Spider-Man spin-off novels, but has not made a comics appearance to date.

The Sinister Six

Finally, even though they don’t quite get there in the movie, it would be a mistake to end this blog post without mentioning the Sinister Six. In the comics, the Sinister Six was a famous early team-up  (first appearance January 1964, but not recurring for almost 30 years after that) of classic Ditko era Spidey villains that included Doctor Octopus (the ring-leader), Electro, the Sandman, Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter and the Vulture. Marvel (or rather, Spider-franchise owners Sony) have recently announced plans for a Sinister Six spin-off movie, so ASM 2 lays some of the groundwork for that, including glimpses of Doctor Octopus’ tentacles and the Vulture’s wings (both visible in one of the trailers). The set-up here seems to be that Mr Fiers (whose spin-off novels did indeed revolve around the Sinister Six) and Norman (apparently dead, though don’t bet on it) / Harry Osborn will create up to four more supervillains to go after Spider-Man alongside Rhino and Electro. The exact order of the sequels has yet to be announced, but it seems logical to assume that The Amazing Spider-Man 3 will develop Felicia’s character and add at least some of the remaining members of the Sinister Six, setting up the spin-off movie. The prevailing rumour is that Felicia will be the de facto star of the Sinister Six movie (which will involve her starting off bad and turning good), though it’s hard to see a Spider-Man spin-off surviving without Spider-Man (what’s the point in Spider-Man villains if they’re not fighting Spider-Man?), so I’d expect that idea to undergo some revamping before it becomes a reality. Either way, it’s clear that Sony have huge plans for the franchise and it’ll be fascinating to see if they can pull off the Spider-Man/Black Cat relationship that worked so well in the comics.

This post would not have been possible without invaluable assistance from Kim Newman and James Moar.

 

 

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About Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is a freelance film journalist. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.

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