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A World of Identity, Esteem, Choice and Spider-Man

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It is often the case that lowered expectations leads to a better than expected response. Such was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, due both to mediocre reviews and 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man being less than amazing. But I was pleasantly surprised and found the film to be an intriguing and emotional exploration of identity, esteem and choice. I was thrilled at several points, laughed and even cried. While Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man film felt somewhat underpowered against Sam Raimi’s trilogy, it did provide a solid foundation on which to build, most importantly the relationship between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Superhero dramas live and die on the tension between the super and everyday identities, and Peter’s attempts to reconcile his life as Spider-Man with his love for Gwen provides a consistent emotional throughline for the film. Nor is the angst of this throughline overplayed, as Peter and Gwen are a sparky and amusing couple (perhaps fuelled by the actors’ off-screen relationship), and Spider-Man slings as many jokes as he does webbing. Also, beautifully, Gwen is far from being a damsel in distress as, much as in The Amazing Spider-Man, she and Peter make a great team in combating the supervillains that New York throws at them.

With the romance taking centre stage, the villains could be left somewhat short-changed. The Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) only appears briefly, Harry Osborne (Dane Dahaan) spends more time being ill than goblin-ish and Max Dillon/Electro could be little more than an evil version of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. The different narrative threads often seem disconnected and the film could be accused of set-up syndrome – mainly existing to set up a sequel as well as the spin-off The Sinister Six. While it is easy for any filmgoer to suggest that they know how the film “should” have been put together, surely true appreciation is assessing whether the way it is put together actually works, and in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the disparate nature of the different narrative strands does work, because they are thematically resonant. The film is an exploration of identity, esteem and choice because these themes fuel the major characters, their development and the collisions between them. The film’s exploration of identity runs through the four major characters, each of whom make significant choices that relate to their own senses of self and how others view them.

Peter is not Spider-Man because he has to be but because he wants to be, he enjoys it, it provides meaning to his life, and so strong is this meaning that he is willing to give up Gwen for it, while the haunting presence of her father (Denis Leary) serves as a grim reminder of the great responsibility that comes with great power (if the writers won’t use the phrase, I will). Gwen makes a number of significant choices both relating to herself solely and to her relationship with Peter, which prove to have significant repercussions that are dramatically satisfying and emotionally powerful. Harry’s initial bitterness is replaced by desperation, whatever sense of identity he may have had replaced with a craving to live.

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Most interestingly of all, Max only wants to be noticed, recognised and appreciated. Rather than being power mad, Max expands a brief moment with Spider-Man into an obsession that is both pitiful and endearing, before his unfortunate accident grants him immense power. The first confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro highlights the film’s concern with esteem, as Electro (who has not yet adopted this monicker) is terrified of the police but fills with delight at seeing his face on all the screens of Times Square. He only turns EVIL when his face is replaced with that of Spider-Man, this moment of recognition and attention twisted into murderous rage by being so fleeting. Yet even after he is imprisoned and tortured in an extremely dubious institute for the criminally insane, Max, now Electro, remains desirous of other people’s attention to him – what persuades him to help Harry is the plea “I need you!” Electro does go on a rampage concerned only with power and revenge, but his desire for recognition remains pertinent throughout, best demonstrated when his face is reproduced in light on the side of a building. Previously, Max was replaced on billboard screens with Spider-Man – now he creates his own screen for his image.

The conceit of how we decide who we are is so prevalent in popular culture as to be almost a cliché. It is testament, therefore, to the continued creativity of storymakers that new and exciting explorations continue to be produced, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the recent Divergent. Combinations are key to this continued innovation, as we see the quest for self-identification tied in with how others view the central characters. Furthermore, the film understands that these questions are never really answered. There is doubt, loss, revelation, rejection and heartbreak, but none of these experiences provide final resolution. As the final sequence demonstrates, even when it looks to be over, it’s good to be home.

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Expanding and Continuing Part One

Catching Fire

 

The Hunger Games was a delight in 2012, merging elements of Winter’s Bone, Battle Royale, The Running Man, Blade Runner, Never Let Me Go and quite a few others to create a grim and compelling vision of the future. The only thing that bugged me about Gary Ross’ film was the excessive use of shaky cam, which distracted from the sense of oppression and fear intrinsic to the setting. Happily, the cinematography of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, as one satisfied viewer put it, as steady as the bow of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), allowing greater appreciation of the wide vistas of the various districts, as well as the malevolent jungle of the arena in which the Quarter Quell Games take place. A stark colour palate conveys the sombre situation of District Twelve, where Katniss along with fellow victors Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) prepare for their victory tour. Meanwhile, Katniss must balance her growing feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) with the need to protect her family, especially as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responds to the stirrings of rebellion.

In an early scene, Snow asks Katniss if she would like to be in a real war, indicating the wider ramifications of this instalment. We see more of Panem this time around, including the other districts and the oppression they suffer, as well as the decadence of the Capitol, where a far more garish mise-en-scene emphasises the excess and over-indulgence of the inhabitants who take purging agents to make themselves sick enabling them to eat more, while people in the districts are starving. This sociological dimension is one of the strongest elements of The Hunger Games franchise, as its dystopia is based upon class divisions held in place by an iron fist. As the seeds of rebellion begin, the ironically named Peacekeepers crack down on dissenters, whipping people in the streets and, at one point, threatening to shoot Katniss where she stands until Haymitch points out the negative publicity.

The media presence of the Hunger Games victors, and indeed the media as a tool in Panem, is for me the other key elements of the franchise, explored in greater detail on screen than on the page. I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games after seeing the first film, and am reading Catching Fire at the moment (I’m funny with books). Being a first person, present tense narrative, Collins’ prose never wavers from Katniss’ perspective, and while a lot of detail can be included in Katniss’ internal monologue, the films take a wider perspective and show events beyond her experience. In particular, scenes of the control room and interactions between Snow and his advisors, especially the new head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), demonstrate the mechanics and predictions of propaganda, such as Plutarch’s chilling line: ‘I agree that she should die but in the right way’ – i.e. on television. While The Hunger Games emphasises the malevolent ideology of having children fight to the death, Catching Fire demonstrates the power of the media to both the state and the populace, a power that is all too apparent in contemporary society.

Catching Fire, therefore, builds upon the premise of its predecessor, doing what all good sequels do – expand the world, give us what is familiar but also what is different. The legacy of the first film appears as trauma, as Katniss wakes from a nightmare and, when it is announced that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be drawn from the pool of winners, makes a desperate, futile flee into the woods, the scene palpably expressing her panic and horror. To have been through hell and then be informed that you’ll be doing it all over again (she is, after all, the only living female victor in District 12) would be horrendous, and the film conveys the fear and dread of such an ultimatum, with the added understanding that this is an act of political oppression conceived by Snow and Plutarch. Here is the greater scope of Catching Fire, the development of the initial premise to allow a fuller understanding of the fictional world.

Some interesting features, that were not evident in The Hunger Games, become apparent in Catching Fire. In the first film’s reaping scene, a video is shown that recounts the historical Uprising, including footage of nuclear blasts. When I saw this, I took it to be stock footage or simply special effects put into the propaganda film by the Capitol’s producers. But when Snow threatens Katniss, he reminds her of District 13, which was reduced to a radioactive ruin during the Uprising, and remains a potent symbol of the Capitol’s power. Furthermore, once the Games begin, Catching Fire does not simply repeat the survival drama of the first film, with Katniss battling the various perils and other tributes as they come at her. Catching Fire has plenty of action set pieces during the Games, including ferocious baboons (much like the ghastly After Earth), poisonous mist, forcefields and gigantic waves, but also an element of mystery as the other tributes assist her and each other to a surprising extent. Having not read the book, the final revelation and its resultant cliff-hanger came as a genuine shock, opening the tale even wider. Fans of the books report that Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy, but I eagerly anticipate where the story will go from here.

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Divergent

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From the opening voiceover of protagonist Beatrice/Tris (Shailene Woodley), Divergent emphasises the parallels between personal and societal identity, and maintains this central conceit throughout its running time. Tris’ early complaint that everyone fits in apart from her may sound like specifically teenage anxiety, but to its credit, Neil Burger’s adaptation of Veronia Roth’s novel does not labour this point but keeps it as an undercurrent throughout. Furthermore, the film succeeds in making these concerns universal as, at all ages, we must not only make our own choices but live with their consequences. Tris’ journey not only expresses this concept but also provides an engaging presentation of Divergent’s world, a dystopia that, like so many others, uses its science fiction setting to explore contemporary tensions. Comparisons with The Hunger Games are inevitable, but Suzanne Collins’ series as well as their film adaptations emphasise extreme class oppression with some personal drama. While Divergent suffers from an overstuffed third act and a clunky treatment of sexual awakening, the personal drama is effectively foregrounded while the wider events are both powerful metaphors for personal fears and compelling narrative developments. Pleasantly, the film resolves its own story while still leaving potential for development in subsequent instalments, making this a worthy addition to the science fiction young adult sub-genre.

Noah

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Noah is a powerful mythological film that echoes The Lord of the Rings more than Ben-Hur. Its world is fantastical yet gritty and, in places, bloody, but it is never reverential, as co-writer and director Darren Aronofsky delivers a tale that need not have any direct biblical reference. The story of Noah is biblical, but it is also universal, as cultures from around the world feature myths of water and flood. Noah succeeds because it emphasises the universality of its premise and delivers a thoroughly human story, as families and communities face extraordinary conditions and respond in different ways. In doing so, the film raises interesting questions about faith, especially the forms it takes and its impact. In his best performance in years, Russell Crowe shines in a role that veers from brooding to jovial, psychotic to endearing, while Aronofsky delivers both epic scale and intimate detail, ensuring that the viewer is thoroughly engulfed in his cinematic deluge.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Captain America is easy to dismiss as a super-powered boy scout, tiresomely attached to outdated notions of honour, duty and that old contemptible, patriotism. Captain America: The First Avenger avoided that problem by emphasising the absurdity of the character, the very identity of Captain America a tool for propaganda within the film’s narrative. Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes a virtue of its protagonist’s datedness by inserting him into a conspiracy narrative, where he does not know what is going on anymore than the audience do. This blend of 1970s-inflected conspiracy with the requisite action of the superhero genre is the strongest element of Joe and Anthony Russo’s film. Unexpected combinations are a recurring feature, as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must decide his allegiances with faces new and old, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), and adapt to digital warfare and new social expectations. These combinations sometimes lead to a lack of emotional impact, as certain twists and revelations do not come as a surprise and the intimate is overwhelmed by the operatic. At other times, though, the film is genuinely surprising and manages to disrupt the Marvel universe in daring and unexpected ways. Much as Iron Man Three engaged with post-traumatic-stress-disorder, CA:TWS has a more serious tone that its predecessor, concerned with issues of surveillance and a Big Brother society, and this does not always sit well with the bombastic action. For the most part, it’s a solid superhero adventure, but smoother integration between its different elements would make  it more satisfying.