Back in the GM’s guide posts I wrote about how theme is critically important to a story, and trying to make a theme work in an RPG is both very important because it’s important to all stories, but also very hard because it’s an improv, collaborative narrative with no revision process. As a sort-of demonstration of this, I’m going to look at how the failures of the 2012 Amazing Spider-Man pretty much exclusively come down to failures of theme. The plot, setting, and characters all fundamentally worked, but the thematic connection between them all was a disjointed mess and it torpedoed the entire film.
So let’s start with setting because it’s easy to get out of the way. The setting of Amazing Spider-Man is Marvel New York. It’s unexceptional but also hard to get wrong. Like most superhero movies, the setting was always going to be the weak point because it’s basically just Earth, and not even an unusual part of Earth or a perspective on a familiar location that we don’t usually see, it’s just one of the most well-represented locations in English media presented through the perspective of one of the most well-represented segments of the population. High floor, low ceiling, mediocrity guaranteed.
The characters leaned on their portrayal a lot, but they had absolutely killer casting with great chemistry pretty much across the board. Peter’s character arc had some weird pacing, but to the extent that it was a problem, it was mainly because it couldn’t settle on a theme, which we’l get into later. His actual actions are perfectly plausible, it’s always clear what everyone’s motivations are, and those motivations drive the plot forward. None of the major characters are just along for the ride and no one acts bizarrely out of character to advance the plot. Relationships between characters, especially Peter/Gwen, are believable and backed up by the aforementioned great acting.
The plot, in addition to being good and character-driven at all the places it overlaps with character above, was well-structured and well-paced. While it didn’t have anything stand-out or amazing, it was perfectly competent in its basic structure and its pacing. It doesn’t have any serious problems with “and then” and thus sidesteps most of the major plot problems films see, all events flow logically from one scene to the next, and individual scenes are almost entirely well filmed, well written, and well acted.
So what the Hell went wrong? Why is this movie bad? Because it is bad. How bad depends on how much good acting can save a crummy film, but anyone with decent taste and no ulterior motive is going to admit that it’s not a good film. The best this film can aspire to is to capture the hearts of fans who will like anything with Spider-Man in it, or who really love Andrew Garfield, or whatever. How did this film’s whole end up so much less than the sum of its parts?
It has no thematic direction. Early on in the movie it’s going for your standard “power and responsibility” arc, where Peter Parker has to learn to fight crime for the good of New York rather than to satisfy a personal desire to avenge Uncle Ben. That’s all well and good, it’s a Spider-Man story and even if we’re all sick of hearing the specific words, the basic power and responsibility arc still works fine. The problem is, that theme is resolved halfway through the movie and the villain has nothing to do with it. Sure, they talk about how Spidey has to stop the Lizard because he helped create him, but that’s lip service that doesn’t get the job done. Spidey didn’t create the Lizard by acting recklessly or selfishly, but through a totally unforeseeable act of God that he happened to facilitate. The actual culmination of the thematic arc is when Spider-Man saves the people on the bridge instead of chasing the Lizard, and that’s at around the movie’s halfway point. For the entire rest of the film, the old theme is dead and buried and an entirely new theme of…I dunno, the dangers of reckless transhumanism? The Lizard’s pretty slim pickings, thematically. Whatever it is, a new theme takes over.
You know why the Green Goblin is such a great villain for Spider-Man? Because the Green Goblin is someone who is given great power and uses it to become a sociopathic monster. You can really lean a power and responsibility arc on that, it practically writes itself. You’ll have more work to do, but you can make most other villains work, too, the guys who gained super powers through some freak accident and used them to try and personally enrich themselves, even if they aren’t total monsters. In fact, as much as their film depictions were awful, Venom and Sandman are both great for this, because they both have very relatable, human impulses, just like Spider-Man, so the primary difference is that they’re both shirking the great responsibility their great power gives them. The Lizard? You need a whole other approach to make the Lizard work. You can’t just append him to a power and responsibility arc, because he has such a narrow focus. You can use Spider-Man’s science skills and science-y origin to do some kind of science-themed story (Spider-Man 2 did a spectacular job with this angle using Doctor Octopus), but they didn’t really do that in Amazing. Comic book science was used as an origin, but didn’t inform the conflict except in that it was a weapon in the villain’s arsenal. It’s not like reckless gun proliferation is a theme of every story with a fire fight.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a movie that was good at everything but its themes, and that makes it the perfect example of why themes are important, because that movie struggled to reach a C- (and dear God, let’s not even get into the sequel).