Spider-Man, Star Trek, and the Problems with Blockbuster Storytelling


Man, it’s always nice when revisiting an older movie goes well. And yes, Spider-man counts as an older movie… it had its tenth anniversary last year.

The past couple of years have been rough to the blockbuster movie scene. Paul’s displeasure with Star Trek Into Darkness was dealt with over the course of a couple articles earlier this summer. Last week I took out the knives to take apart the first movie in the current Hobbit trilogy.

So for a change of pace, let’s look at a movie that gets blockbuster storytelling so, so right.

I don’t know about you guys, but among my circle of friends it’s become somewhat fashionable to dismiss Raimi’s first Spider-man movie as a relic of the early days of the Superhero renaissance. But when I took some time out to show the movie to a certain seven-year old, I was struck anew by just how good a movie it actually is.

(A quick note: For clarity’s sake, I’ll be referring to the 2002 Spidey flick as “Raimi’s,” but I assume a roughly equal amount of the credit should go to screenwriter David Koepp.)


Spider-man is a perfect example of “a good story, well told.” And despite the fact that real, working professionals are still in charge of Hollywood storytelling, there’s been a noticeable shortage of well-told stories in our big-budget movies of late.

Online personality/writer extraordinaire Film Crit Hulk recently published a piece on “The Age of the Convoluted Blockbuster,” which was hung on Star Trek Into Darkness but easily applies to a good many other movies that have come out in the past few years. I’m gonna do my best to add to the conversation instead of merely parrot, but that article is well worth your while if you have the time.

I actually didn’t get around to Into Darkness until last weekend (accurate reviews like Paul’s put me off until then), but when I did I was fairly astonished at how ungainly the plot is. In a way, it’s remniscent of the way Spider-man’s own reboot handled things last year. Both movies are positively drenched in conspiracy storylines that go nowhere and only generate the vaguest bits of intrigue.


Honestly, you’d think Orci and Kurtzman had written Amazing Spider-man, too.*

But the point is this: After sitting through that screening of Star Trek Into Darkness, I was genuinely taken aback by how intelligible the story in Spider-man is.

Relationships feed into and are affected by each other. Scenes matter. The characters — even the smaller side ones — drive each beat of the narrative to the next. Each scene has to exist in the exact place it does, because each scene is a direct result of the one that came before it.

Peter Parker gets some more self-confidence after his powers, which emboldens him to talk to MJ. When Flash comes to pick her up in his new car, Peter decides to get one of his own. This leads him to the wrestling contest, which inspires the look of his suit. His key interaction with Uncle Ben happens when Ben takes the opportunity to drive Peter to the match. And so on and so forth. I could essentially recite the entire plot back right now from memory.

915556 - The Amazing Spider-Man

Incidentally, this barely happens in The Amazing Spider-man. That’s the one where Peter gets the idea for his suit after randomly falling through a ceiling into a wrestling ring that has a picture of it on the wall. (Even if you don’t think that scene is stupid, it’s hard to argue that it’s more dramatic than its Raimi counterpart.)

The Amazing Spider-man was a movie that held onto plot turns and twists until long after they’d outlived their usefulness, resulting in several subplots that went exactly nowhere. Peter’s parents? Uncle Ben’s killer? Dropped or disappointing. That ending in the jail? Intriguing, I suppose, but nowhere near cathartic enough to justify the movie’s wayward plot.

Star Trek Into Darkness** suffers from this even more, to the point where I honestly had trouble following what Khan’s motives were until Benedict Cumberbatch just sorta… said them all at once. Which almost cleared it up, admittedly.


“… Does anybody have a pen?”

Another thing I noticed was that Raimi’s Spider-man doesn’t have a single “twist” in its entire runtime. For the audience, there are no surprises, no last-minute revelations. Instead, the movie gets endless amounts of intrigue and suspense from simply juggling who knows what about which character. Osborn and Parker orbit each other throughout the movie, not knowing that when they aren’t forming a surrogate father/son relationship, they’re fighting to the death above New York City.

That’s a dramatically loaded setup, and the movie makes the most of it. There’s not a single plot twist in The Amazing Spider-man that’s as effective as the simple look from Willem Dafoe when he realizes Peter Parker is Spider-man. No exposition needed. Because when we know where everybody is coming from and what the stakes are, that one look speaks volumes.

It’s an oft-quoted bit of storytelling wisdom, but Hitchcock’s explanation of suspense bears mentioning here. To poorly paraphrase, surprise is having a bomb go off during a conversation between two people at a diner, but suspense is knowing the bomb is there all along. One gets you fifteen seconds, the other gives you fifteen minutes. The suspense gives the scene, and by extension the story, purpose.

“The conclusion is whenever possible the public should be informed.”


I can’t help but think that most filmmakers today would just blow up the diner completely instead of fooling around with all that suspense stuff.

Anyway, the ending of Spider-man was interesting, too, because it’s honestly not much of a fight scene. And yet because we’re so invested in Spider-man’s characters, the story doesn’t need a humongous, city-shaking fight scene to generate a catharsis. It’s almost comical to compare the climactic showdown in Spider-man to the finales of Amazing Spider-man, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, or any number of recent blockbusters. In Raimi’s flick, there can’t be more than a dozen people in harm’s way at the end, and exactly zero of them die.

And yet, it’s a great climax because it’s story-driven. When we’re invested in the characters onscreen, it’s not necessary to put a bunch of faceless civilians in the line of fire to raise the stakes. Spider-man facing an impossible choice — and triumphing — is enough.

It’s kind of like that Nolan movie that everybody keeps talking about where the story’s climax comes from three middle-aged guys standing in a circle and talking.


That’s the one.

This is actually part of what made the first Abrams Star Trek work so well. Sure, that movie has more than its fair share of character violation and just plain dumb decisions, but it’s undeniably more involving and successful than Into Darkness was. Why? Because its story grows out of character decisions and interactions.

So that’s what I’ve learned while taking a break from the summer of 2013 to visit the summer of 2002. The modern superhero movement was built on a strong foundation in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man.*** Characters drive the story, not the other way around. Scenes build on each other. It moves us, not through high spectacle or narrative trickery, but through personal stakes.

Basically, it’s a good story well told. More of those, please.



*Have these guys ever actually written a good screenplay?

**I could easily start citing a number of other things here, but I’m trying to keep it local. It’s a trend, though, despite enough exceptions to the rule to still find good movies from time to time.

***And yeah, I know, Blade and X-Men. Bear with me here. Those movies have good characters, too, by the way.

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  1. You make interesting points, David. I think the decline in appreciation for Raimi’s rendition comes from the Nolan-effect – audiences expecting their superheroes to have a dark past that haunts them causing drastic voice changes and barely visible low-lighted scenes. I think what many forget is that Spider-Man was never a depressing character, despite the fact he had traumatic events in his life – he was an average, if a little geeky, teenager. I haven’t seen Webb’s treatment yet, but I’ll still enjoy Raimi’s films – heck my kid took the 3rd one with him to grandma’s this morning. They’re still good flicks with good characters.

  2. Now I need to go rewatch this. It’s too easy to let me opinion and memories of Spiderman 1 and 2 (not to mention X-Men 1 and 2) be tainted by the steaming dung heap of a third movie.

  3. While I agree that the story of Spiderman 1 by Raimi might be a better story, I’m not sure it’s a better movie…

    For me, the Amazing Spiderman had everything to make it a better movie … the casting is tremendously better, the effects are better, the origin story is better (as far as how he gets his powers), the relationship with Gwen Stacy is much more powerful and convincing than it ever was with MJ (that might be more due to the actual chemistry of the 2 actors), and the intrigue of what happened with Peter’s parents and how there is a lot more going on behind the scenes with Oscorp is something great to play out in the films to come…

    Oh and Peter goes after his uncle’s killer for quite a bit in the movie … hunting down the guy with the tattoo on his wrist. The important lesson that is learned later on is that he needs to focus on what affects everyone else around him, and not focus on “his needs” (aka – finding the killer) so he turns his attention to the Lizard. What will be interesting is if we touch on uncle ben’s killer later on in the next film.

    You mention that it held on to a lot of plot twists/turns – but I don’t really see any more than what Raimi’s verison had … ?

    I think a lot of what made Spiderman by Raimi special was that we hadn’t seen a big blockbuster comic movie like this done in such a fantastic way or at least not to this “scale” … not only that but no one will argue that Willem Dafoe is such a great sinister villain it’s hard to hold a candle to his line deliveries and scolding stares. The Amazing Spiderman had a lot to compete with as far as starting the entire franchise over again, and making it it’s own universe and stand alone series. I think it did it successfully and will go on to do more movies after the 1st one and end up being the better story overall over the first franchise.

    Just my opinion of course.

  4. The comparissons with Into Darkness, of all movies, feel odd and pointless. Other than being blockbusters they have nothing in common. Focusing on The Amazing Spider-man, Man of Steel, Iron Man and even Nolan’s Batman would’ve made for more interesting points.

    But I agree that Raimi nailed the Spidey story and the movie itself. It sounds crazy now, but he was a very weird choice for the reboot, and I for one thought it was a huge mistake. Out of his previous five or six movies, four had sunk. Yes, he had made “Evil Dead” and “A Simple Plan”, but the closest he had gone to a story like Spider-Man was in the ugly and hammy “Darkman”, which by 2002 had already aged horribly. In “The Quick and the Dead”, he had failed to make us care about our almost-superheroine, and gave us every stereotype in the book, but without the satire. Everyone knew he could handle the camera, but it was a surprise how well he handled the tone, the humour and the delivery in Spider-Man, the first modern superhero movie.

  5. Excellent article. You made great observations, particularly the note on the difference in the use of suspense in storytelling.

    I’ve been having very similar reactions to many major “blockbuster” movies. Man of Steel started strong, but was crushed under the weight of its own grandeur – which took the air out of the final moments with Zod. I also echoed your sentiments with Star Trek Into Darkness. I walked out with an odd sensation, it looked good, was well acted, but felt empty. A feeling I had with Prometheus. The story was just lacking.

    This is also my biggest gripe with the Marvel Avengers Initiative. Captain America was an excellent movie, until it went into a sprint to get to The Avengers. Current blockbusters feel like a massaged version of the Star Wars Prequel fiasco. The big set pieces, the costumes, designs, are created and prepared before a story is set. Modern writers like Orci and Kurtzman seem to be aware of this issue, but only do enough to make not quite as transparent, or they have interesting ideas, but lack the skill to bring them fully to fruition.

    Finally, there’s just too much money involved for these films to be anything more than they are. Raimi’s Spider-Man and Nolan’s Batman films are stronger because no one really knew what the reaction was going to be when these movies went into production, especially Spider-Man.

    It’s getting to the point when these movies will start to fall into self-parody. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon, but it will (Batman and Robin). Only this time, I don’t think it will be just a character, but the whole superhero genre. Hopefully this will lead to more original, more interesting stories.

  6. Amazing Spiderman and Into Darkness were both surprisingly good movies.

    Not every movie has to be a scholarly work with every loose end tied up in a nice little ribbon. Little threads and plots go nowhere, that’s life.

    Does hiding Kahn’s name make sense from a audience member directly, no not really, but it does make sense historically for the world of Star Trek, b/c Kahn is a big historical figure in their history (which is not the same as ours, btw).

    As for Kahn’s master plan… maybe he just made shit up on the fly, with a few educated guesses as to how people would react to situations and taking advantage of those predictions.

    And for Amazing Spiderman, his not catching the crook that killed Ben right away… that’s just a different origin story version, one where the crook comes back up later, but his part in the story that Amazing told was completed.

    But the real thing about Into Darkness and Amazing, they’re fun movies, not every movie has to be attempt towards citizen kane.

  7. The Amazing Spiderman was a horrible movie. There were so many problems with it I could not possibly list all of them… but I can try.

    – Oscorp must not understand the basics of security since nobody ever asked Peter for ID when he lied to get included in the tour. Even when the real person appeared, no one questioned anything.

    – Peter constantly does things that are stupid simply because the plot needs something happen (During the tour when Gwen explicitly states to not separate from the group… seconds later he separates from the group). This irked me the most as it happened SO often.

    – The simple fact that almost everything Peter touches must already be on the verge of breaking (bending field goal uprights with thrown football). I get that he doesn’t know his own strength, but many of those gags make little to no sense.

    – Why did Peter need help getting to the climax location using all the cities cranes. Has he ever had a problem web slinging around town before this point?

  8. Sorry, but Spidey 1 & 2 bored the sh#t out of me, and 3 was just awful. I couldn’t stand the whining character, and I found him incredibly indecisive. Nice article, though.

  9. @hallamq-

    A lot of it simply has to do with the fact that they’re the two blockbusters I’ve seen recently, and one does things far more gracefully than the other. I get what you mean about the comparison, but in my view I’m simply comparing two narratives with common goals (“mass entertainment”). I did also briefly mention that the FIRST Star Trek movie survives on some of the same virtues that its sequel does not.

    And yeah, Raimi was a bit of a surprise, but it paid off in spades. To me, the two things he personally brings to the table are a clear ability to make the movie’s tone shifts work and a knack for playing what could be tired genre cliches with absolute conviction. I’m a bit sad you don’t seem to like The Quick and the Dead, though…


    Who’s talking about scholarly pieces and Citizen Kane? Read the article again and notice that the movie I keep referencing is Spider-man. And Citizen Kane is a very entertaining movie, but that’s neither here nor there.

    If I want something that’s just fun, I’ll go to a water park or watch fireworks. I go to movies primarily to see stories, themes, and characters. I go to *blockbuster* movies to see these things drawn in bold strokes, backed up by imagination and yes, spectacle. I don’t see any reason I have to be content with bad or flat-out lazy storytelling.

  10. @ David- The Quick and the Dead has its charm and guilty pleasure potential, but it was the performances that sunk it. Sharon Stone was game but ineffectual and both Hackman and Russell Crowe phoned it in. I think Raimi confused everyone about what he was going for.

  11. @Lucas: Good casting. Amazing Spider-man. Pick one.

    Raimi’s Spider-man was bordering on perfect (The Goblin Suit needed work), but remembering the details of the origin story isn’t really the feat it accomplished. Everybody knew Spidey’s origin going in.

    Nice juxtaposition of two mostly unrelated films. You won’t get too many articles like this on the web.

  12. @ Scott: I don’t think those of us that find this round of blockbusters disappointing are asking for Citizen Kane or some deep discourse on the human condition set to the tones of Philip Glass. We want Die Hard. Like modern summer flicks, that movie is 150 minutes, filled with great action set pieces and contains a twist or two. It also features characters that are quickly involving and move in an agreeable forward progression with plenty of momentum. It’s nearly an air-tight film and that’s what we want are explosions-and-fight movies to be like.

  13. RE: Older movies

    Rather than watch Spider-Man for the 15th time, I’ve taken to watching older movies I’ve never seen. Caught one early this morning. Westworld (1974). A bit dated but still excellent.

    Catch something you’ve never seen! It saddens me that many 20somethings haven’t seen ONE John Wayne movie.

  14. I really enjoyed Into Darkness. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch’s deliverance was almost perfect, easily as good as Willem Dafoe’s, but whereas Dafoe was bordering on insane all the time, Cumberbatch was like a shark being held in check by a spring, ready to explode into action and violence at a moment’s notice, but not until he was ready for it.
    He was also the rare combination of a sympathetic villain, when you empathised with his motives, but still had to acknowledge that he was the villain and that he should lose. Definitely the most engaging character in the film.
    All the films have their good parts and their bad parts, I just prefer ones with a darker and more serious tone.

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