‘The Amazing Spiderman’ and The Problems of High-School Dramas.

165743-marvel-marvel-comics-friendly-neighborhood-spider-man-4The amazing Spiderman (2012), directed by Marc Webb, has garnered a lot of attention; from fans loyal to the comics, from critics, and from the general public. While at times too gritty and too try-hard, I thought the Amazing Spiderman was a moniker Andrew Garfield truly deserves.

I have always been a fan of drama. Of course I love comedy and action too, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t beat the character development, the ethos, of drama. I am always much more vested in the characters, their journey and the dynamic relationships, than I am in any particular storyline itself. Consequently, a story in which the characters are unbelievable (in a negative way) and poorly developed, just doesn’t come together. For instance, Seth MacFarlan’s Ted came out this past year and received tremendous support from fans and critics for being ‘witty and refreshing’. I watched the movie a little late, and after reading and hearing dozens of positive reviews. Sitting down to that movie with those opinions in mind, I found myself really let down. I thought the movie came and went far too quickly. By the end of it I was left wondering what I had just seen.

If you’ve ever seen a teen drama (which you probably have), then you most likely share my frustration with how unbelievable the characters are. I understand that the success of a film or of a television show depends greatly upon the skill and the marketability of the actors and actresses who play the roles. And so logistically it seems improbable that you would be able to find age-appropriate actors to fill every role – as if there is this infinite bank of incredibly talented and diverse child-actors. I also understand the need to market and promote a movie, and that a slightly older and more attractive cast is likely more appealing than average, realistic looking actors. Everyone, at one point or another, wants to be the centre of attention – part of the reason why the film and T.V. industry is so successful. Movies and T.V. shows help us to temporarily buttress what for most of us is a fiction ( that we’re popular, smart, important and incredibly and undeniably attractive… oh, and don’t forget mature). However, within those shared projections lies an insidious functional flaw – we are almost always wrong about ourselves.

In high-school I can’t tell you how ‘cool’ and ‘chic’ it was to be mature. An ineffable quality possessed only by the very odd and the very beautiful. At the time I found it both an unconvincing, and an impossibly difficult and abstract standard to live up to. Girls all made fun of boys who were immature. It was immature to make fart jokes, or to run around. It was immature to laugh a lot and to struggle with age-appropriate problems like fighting with your siblings, or parents. Basically, it was immature to be a teenager. That was the basic theme of high-school: pretend like you’re not in high-school, and that you’re so much cooler than everyone else for doing so (everyone after high-school quickly realized the fantasy that consumed them for so long was a lie ).

Growing up, my generation was spoon fed this fantasy. T.V shows like the O.C., whose characters had amazingly complex lives, never told a poop or far joke,  never ran anywhere, were awkward, were angsty, yelled or screamed. They all woke early, drank black coffee, were very rich and were always involved in overly complex plots and plans. One tree hill: same thing. Vampire Diaries… enough said. These shows associate certain specific behaviours with generally ideal outcomes; cool and mature = great life of wealth and happiness. We all want wealth, comfort and happiness; it’s an ideal most people aspire to. When we watch these programs we get to escape into that fantasy, and when we leave, some things stick with us.

In the case of the storylines, there usually isn’t a direct causal link written in between wealth and maturity. Our minds are very symbolic, and we constantly seek for patterns amidst this endless entropy. When I watch the O.C., I see this ideal which I don’t have (extreme wealth, comfort and happiness), and I am instantly drawn to that. I see people in my age group who are far better looking than me, and far better looking than most of my peers, and I am drawn to that. Then as I watch them as they navigate through things I experience, I see that they behave differently than me. The way they behave seems normative for their lifestyles – a lifestyle I want. We end up spending a tremendous amount of time trying to maintain this standard of cool, and we never really end up doing anything for ourselves.

It’s this ironic paradox; we ‘see’ hints hidden within these T.V. shows, we follow what we think are rules of success, constantly seeking positive affirmations, leading us to spend more time watching more T.V., or spend more time hanging out with friends. We never end up doing anything truly constructive or beneficial for ourselves. After a few years we graduate and we end up precisely where we started, and that’s incredibly frustrating. These shows aren’t great stories, they don’t teach us any complex moral system, the characters aren’t pushed to make moral sacrifices; we aren’t told anything valuable about life, or about humanity at all. So why do we continue to watch?

They are immediately satisfying and enjoyable; like a drug. There’s no effort taken to enjoy them, like reading a book, or doing well on a test, or even understanding the rules of a table top game. It’s immediately gratifying and requires only that we sit back and open our eyes. They are damaging and pointless.  The reason The Amazing Spiderman is so amazing is because Andrew Garfield plays a high-school student precisely how a high-school student should be played – as high-school students are. When we watch we see something so similar to ourselves that we can’t help but concentrate on the story. He does a great justice to his craft and to his character, and I find it incredibly comforting that that character is one whose own personal life is so intricately tied to concepts like justice and responsibility.

The Amazing Spiderman is about a high-school student who becomes a superhero. The story is there already, full of ethical and moral dilemma’s, personal tragedy and triumph, hard-work, passion and love. In his origin story, Peter Parker is a nerdy, kinda socially awkward kid, and that’s exactly what Andrew Garfield gives us. He has lived through tremendous tragedy. His gift is his intellect, and that’s something he has had to work very hard for. He runs around, skateboards, looks at his feet when he’s talking to people (especially girls). He’s kinetic and studies on the roof of his house. When his uncle stares up at him in disbelief, he shrugs it off in the way only a kid who isn’t constrained by social norms does. Andrew doesn’t take that tendency to play the character as an ideal just because the story is an ideal story, which leaves much more room for the story itself – and it’s a damn good story.

When you’re writing, directing, or acting in a drama, you have to write to, direct for, and act as a character. The story informs the character, but without the character you don’t have a story. In order for the characters to be believable, they have  to be relatable. It’s not enough that they are a projection of what the ideal is, they have to remind us of ourselves, and of our own stories, or else we will spend more time watching the characters in their behaviour, and less time really watching the characters in the story.

There are other, better, ways to entwine in the story projections of the ideal anything; ways which don’t sacrifice the credibility of the characters, and the actors who play them.

We can live with 30 somethings playing teenagers, and we can live with incredibly attractive people playing incredibly fortunate, ideal, and lucky people. What we can’t live with is 17 year olds who look and act like they have grand-children. If you’re playing a kid, be a kid. Andrew Garfield did, and that’s why he’s our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. 

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