Not entirely omniscient
25 July 2014 17:53 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Everything new is old again: considering the Spider-Man reboot

  • Richard Poplak
  • Life, etc
C:\fakepath\poplak spiderman 2

The web-slinger is back on the big screen, a scant five years after we last saw him in Sam Raimi’s $2.4 billion-grossing franchise. Once again, Spidey’s origin story is ladled into our cerebrums by a blockbuster strewn with special effects. Is this creativity’s death knell? Or is it just how stories have always been told? By RICHARD POPLAK.

Once, I found myself in Tripoli, Libya, when the country was still under the thumb of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. I was, at the time, researching the effects of American pop culture on the Muslim world, and I sat with a highly regarded local poet, talking late into the night. The poet was not a fan of American culture; nor was he a fan of what he saw as the Colonel’s kowtowing to American sensibilities. We were discussing music, but it was understood that our conversation alluded to other popular art forms as well.

“We don’t care for new here,” said the poet, who was sounding like a mullah at full throttle. He was engaging in a debate that has long riven Arabic culture. Popular ditties are by no means a recent innovation in the region—they have existed for centuries in the form of the taqtuqah (light songs), sung by women, which stood in contrast to the meatier qasidah (classical poetry, often set to music) that formed the male repertoire. By the 1920s, the Arabic recording industry was centered in Cairo, and boasted a number of stars in vicious competition with each other. There was a fear by conservatives that the taqtuqah represented a loss of Arabic tradition, a sublimation to European musical styles. It was a conversation between al-qadim wa- al-jadid—the old and the new—grounded in an age-old cultural suspicion of bid’ah, or innovation. Had not the Prophet himself warned against the newfangled when he said, “Beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in hell”? 

In quoting this hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet), I knew that The Poet was playing fast and loose with his theological scholarship. But he was only just warming to his theme. “What is this new? We care here for genuine emotion. Let us call it the Big Gesture,” added The Poet. 

But the Big Gesture exists just as surely in America as it does in Tripoli, linked firmly as it is to the tradition of both opera and parlor music and the blockbuster, and encoded into pop’s DNA. The Poet was saying that Arabic popular art could bear an enormous amount of emotional weight, because much of the aesthetic enjoyment is derived from the use of the language itself

Sophistication is by no means a cultural constant, and in Arabic song or verse, innovative content is not as important as innovative use of Arabic. For an American star to be huge in the Middle East, his or her work must connect with the cultural trope of Bigness. It’s an accident of taste, as much as anything else, but most Arabic or Persian artists I’ve met consider realism or dialed-down subtlety an artistic aberration: Why go small when it’s an artist’s job to evoke big-canvas emotion? But this is where things get confusing: In going for Bigness, it helps to aim for the dopamine release cued by nostalgia. Arabic art’s primary objective is to conjure nostalgia. Nostalgia, in other words, becomes a genuine artistic imperative. 

That’s certainly one way to look at a culture’s battle with the New. So, it begs a question: would The Poet approve of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot of a film franchise that is only eleven years old, and a means of exhuming a brand name that has barely decomposed at all? Would The Poet not argue that this is the way we’re supposed to tell stories—infinite variations of the same tale, told over and over again, until they become part of our psyche, our blood, our collective heritage? 

First, let’s get some housekeeping out of the way. Spider-Man is a corporate product, and one that happens to churn out money at the rate of a Nigerian oil corporation. As deeply held as his story may be for eight year-old boys and their older, nerdy counterparts, the character has been hosed at the general public via Sony, who must continue making movies if they hope to keep the rights from reverting to Disney, who in turn own Marvel (and have banked almost $1.5 billion this year with The Avengers alone). These are highly lucrative properties, meant for a far broader audience than devoted fan boys. And comic book movies generate residuals—from toys to underpants to bed sheets—that keep cash registers pinging outside of the multiplex. 

And yet, one of the stranger phenomena of the comic book movie age—which can be properly said to kick off with Raimi’s first Spider-Man, in 2002—has been a sense of fealty to the origin stories. The movies do what they can to honour hardcore fans, and much time and money is spent on viral marketing campaigns and slow rollouts designed to ensure that they aren’t alienated. This deep fear of the nerd legions, who are at best a small minority of a blockbuster film’s audience, is based on much trial and error—the rise of the internet has meant the constant exercising of the geek bill of rights. Bad buzz from the 0.1% of fans who are familiar with the ins and outs of Spidey’s lengthy arc can translate into shoddy overall numbers, and a tanking of Sony’s share price. Like the Libyan poet, the geeks are the faithful, the unbending conservatives who demand fealty to the source material. They are the keepers of the gate of innovation. 

As with every aspect of social life since the dawn of time, the rabid minority will always hold sway. But in the context of The Amazing Spider-Man, what does it signify? Comic books have long futzed with storylines, offering alternatives to the alternatives in order to revive dormant characters and sell more books. The recent Ultimate Spider-Man, written by Brian Michael Bendis, rebooted Peter Parker’s story arc, eventually killing him off, and introducing half-black, half-Latino Michael Morales as a stand-in. Ultimate is credited with reigniting the popularity of the character in the comic book realm, and its innovations were (mostly) subsumed by a devotion to the source material. In all things, an update. A reboot. 

“Honor, yes,” The Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb recently told Movieline. “I mean, Marvel has certain hard and fast rules, like about the spider bite — you have to have Peter get bitten by a radioactive spider, and Uncle Ben’s death has to transform Peter Parker into Spider-Man, you know what I mean? He has to learn a lesson by that. But I’m trying to find new inflections and new context so that the story feels new. Because I do think the character is different; you want to honor the iconic elements of Spider-Man but you also want to reinvent the world around him so that it feels interesting and new, and that’s a tricky line to walk.”

Tricky it might be. But it’s by no means a new line. The Homeric classics Ulysses and The Odyssey were never meant to be literature. They were epic poems, recited thousands of times by hundreds of different men, the stories entirely familiar, but the inflections and context altered every time. Stories have been a vital part of the human experience, but literary culture—a culture in which storytelling possibilities expanded because there is no longer a need for mnemonics—has ushered in the age of the New. The adage that there is only a handful of stories is only partly true—daring film and experimental literature has exploded the notion of narrative limitations. But in the mainstream experience, we are told the same story over and over again, the formula’s beats stimulating endorphins at the proper intervals, leaving us satisfied, if not edified, when the credits roll.

For all its imperfections, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was inspired. For all its competence, Mark Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man is uninspired. That’s a key distinction. The story might be boring in the telling, but the tale will never get old: Peter Parker is one of our stable of Homeric heroes, ala Ulysses, whose plight—errant parents, murdered uncle, run-in with bad science, great power and great responsibility—seem as fresh as they did when Stan Lee dreamed him up in the sixties. 

At issue here is not the viability of Spider-Man’s story, but the realm in which it is now told. Arab singing and the reciting of epic poetry imposed severe artistic restraints, but neither form had corporate masters, activist shareholders and terrified studio execs breathing all over the final product. The super-burnished perfection of The Avengers feels less like great filmmaking—which it indubitably is—and more like the final mastering of an industrial process. For those who believe in film’s limitless possibilities, that’s sad. For those who want superhero stories told well—and believe in their power and longevity—it’s a triumph. 

The Libyan poet misread American culture. The techniques may be new, but the stories and the formulas are as old as storytelling. Most Westerners misread American culture. In baying for the New, they forget the importance of timelessness. Tragically, Sony and Disney and Marvel understand global culture perfectly. Provide just enough of the familiar, with the right level of competence, and the money rolls in.

But these are the same old stories, told in the same way stories have always been told. Don’t let 70s Hollywood and David Foster-Wallace confuse you: innovation in storytelling is a rarity. The Poet would, and should, feel right at home at The Amazing Spider-Man. DM

  • Richard Poplak
  • Life, etc


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