I am a Spider-Man Heretic!


Reading reviews of the new Amazing Spider-Man movie I have come to the conclusion that a decade ago Sam Raimi created a perfect and holy scripture in the form of the first Spider-Man movie and Toby McGuire was the One True Parker.  And thus by extension the new Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Mark Webb (no really, not kidding!) and starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, is rank heresy, an unnecessary reboot aimed at getting more milk out the cash cow that is Spidey.  
Well if this is so, then I proudly declare myself as a heretic, for I believe in the superiority of this new version and that Andrew Garfield is Spider-Man’s true prophet! Let me tell you why.
For a start I think a lot of people are simply annoyed that there is a reboot at all and that is getting in the way of appreciating the new movie in its own right.  As the reboot is seen as unnecessary it can’t win.  But let’s be honest, the third movie was just awful and kinda killed the franchise.  And legal issues meant that to have a movie for Spidey’s 50th anniversary there had to be a reboot.  I believe the Wallcrawler deserved a movie for this occasion, so reboot it is.  
And I really think that this movie does a lot of things better than the Raimi movies.  Here’s just a few:
1 Andrew Garfield is a much better Peter Parker (and Spider-Man): Garfield just IS Peter Parker, combining the geekiness, charm, scientific brilliance, humour and sense of responsibility that define Peter Parker in a way that captures the essence of the character much better than MacGuire ever did.  Toby was great but he was a bit bland.  And as Spider-Man, the Raimi characterization lacked the humour and spark of the comics, while this version perfectly captures the classic Spidey banter - part cockiness, part false- bravado, part distraction to keep his foes off guard.  
2 Emma Stone is a better love interest as Gwen Stacy: Now I love Mary Jane as much as the next guy.  And I really like Kirsten Dunst.  But She wasn’t a great MJ. Like MacGuire she was a bit bland, which is a pity because MJ is supposed to be anything but bland.  Whereas Emma Stone’s portrayal of Gwen Stacy was wonderful, showing her to be smart, charming, witty, courageous and just adorable.  
3 The relationships are more believable: The central relationship between Peter and Gwen is significantly more believable and deep than that between Peter and MJ in the Raimi movies.  Webb’s track record as a director of indie romance movies (which I have not seen!) shows in a movie in which the central love story is as interesting and engaging as the superheroics.  And its not just the love story.  Some critics have noted that this movie moves a little slowly in telling the origin story as compared to the Raimi movie.  This is true, but not only does it do it well, but in doing so it allows for the characters to be better realized than in the previous version.  In particular Uncle Ben, played wonderfully by Martin Sheen, get a lot more screen time so you get more time to get to know him and care about him before his inevitable demise and you feel that loss much more.  
4 The villain is better: OK, so the lizard doesn’t look exactly like he does in the comics, but that’s probably a good thing.  And he looks a lot better than the Green Goblin in Spiderman 1, who frankly looked silly.  And while there are some similarities between the two villains - both are mentors to Peter, both have a split personalities and a dark side that gets the better of them - Rhyss Iffans ( and the movie script) portrays a more nuanced character than did Willem Defoe’s Green Goblin.  
5 Things that early reviewers criticized as loose ends have now been are clearly plot threads for the now confirmed trilogy. I am eager to find out about the fate of Peter’s parents and how it relates to his powers and to Norman Osborne, and probably lots of other things I won’t realize are connected until they are revealed in a later movie.  And I like the fact that they are taking their time with things.  We know Norman Osborne is an integral part of the story and will certainly appear as the ultimate villain in the third movie, but I’m happy they aren’t jumping right to him like the previous movies did.  I think I will appreciate his story line more as it unfolds rather than it being told in one movie. 
6 The superhero action is awesome and made my inner twelve year old giddy: The action in this version was no better and no worse than the previous version.  It was just as good and really hit all the classic Spidey beats I was hoping for.  And in some ways the “Spidey-ness” of the action was more accurate to the comics, bringing back the Peter Parker banter and,  due to Garfield’s more wiry frame, better replicating the comicbook “look” of Spider-Man than MacGuire’s stockier build.  
I will always love the Raimi movies, but I am a convert to the new religion of the Amazing Spider-Man.  But don’t worry, I have no plans to go door-to-door asking if people will accepted Webb as the Holy Director and Garfield as his True Prophet! 

The Hero Report - Superheroes

Check out my appearance on Ari Kohen and Matt Langdon's Hero Report podcast about the heroism of superheroes.

Hero Report Episode 18 Ilan Emanuel

The Deeper Meaning of the Avengers: The Podcast Edition

Check out the expanded version of my comments on the Avengers movie, now in podcast form!

Sci-Fi Rabbi Podcast Episode 1 - The Deeper Meaning of the Avengers

The Deeper Meaning of The Avengers: Or How a Movie With Lots of Explosions and People in Spandex can also Teach Us About Human Nature.

The Avengers movie was awesome! As the culmination of years of planning and teasing from Marvel starting with the post credit sequence in Iron Man and the introduction of the "Avenges Initiative" this was well worth the wait.  Helmed by the great Joss Whedon the film is not only fun, with all the "Wow" moments and comic book fan pleasing set pieces one might expect, but is also very smart and funny.  My personal favourite scene was when Loki, the Asgardian immortal and brother of Thor, rants before the Hulk that he is a god and is superior in everyday to these lowly humans and brutes like Hulk.  Hulk pauses, throws Loki around like a rag doll, and as he leaves Loki moaning and broken on the floor, Hulk merely comments "Puny god." It was funny, emotionally satisfying and a perfect comic book moment.

But what made the movie great was that it was more than merely fun and smart.  A friend (not a comic book fan) told me he had been taken to see the Avengers by his partner (a big comic book fan) and thought it was fun but rather silly. As a non-comic book fan I understand why he thought this - lots of explosions, big green monsters, aliens, super-spies, Norse gods and lots more. And of course, at base the Avengers and all such movies ARE in many ways gloriously silly escapism.  Part of the fun is to touch base with your inner 12 year old.  But I told him that while it might have seemed so on the surface it was a lot deeper than it looked.  Like all good sci-fi and comic books it also dealt with some deeper themes.  So this blog post is my attempt to explain those deeper themes that I think underpinned the Avengers.  

The first theme was about humanity's nature with respect to order and freedom.  Throughout the movie Loki, the main villain of the piece, claims that humanity are sheep who deserve, indeed who yearn, to be ruled by those superior to them.  In an unsubtle but moving scene Loki stands before a crowd in Germany and commands them to kneel before him and declaring that this to be humanity's natural state.  An older man literally stands up to Loki and, obviously thinking back to a childhood in Nazi Germany, tells him that he will not bow to a person imposing order on the basis of an assumed superiority with the clear implication of "Never Again."  Loki blasts him but he is saved by Captain America jumping in who also draws the obvious parallel with Nazi Germany, its suppression of individual freedom and the claims of Aryan superiority.  

This was a significant scene because it was also part of Captain America's character arc.  Captain America, famously a man out of his time, starts the movie brooding that the world has changed so much that he has no place in it.  Here we see him realizing that, sadly, the world hasn't changed enough.  There are still people who seek to impose their will on others by force, people who disdain and dehumanize others as inferior sheep, and there is still the need to champion the right of individuals to live in freedom and shake off the bonds of oppression.  I wish this could have been done in a context that more clearly drew the parallels with modern tyrannies like Syria or totalitarian states like China, but considering Captain America' story progression it makes perfect sense that this scene was in going back to the origin of his struggle in Germany.  

The other significant theme was part of the character progression of almost all the characters from selfish individuals to a cohesive team.  As is made very clear in the early part of the movie the superheroes are driven by various inner demons.  Captain America is plagued by doubts that he has a place in this century; Iron man is an egotistical, grandstanding jerk who was initially dismissed for the Avengers initiative because he "does not play well with others; Thor is torn by his duties to Asgard and loyalty to his villainous brother; Black Widow is seeking redemption or her past sins as an assassin; and the Hulk is obviously a man subject to uncontrolled rage (I really was hoping to hear "Don't get me angry; you wouldn't like it when I'm angry").  

For the first part of the movie the characters are at each others throats, unable to overcome their own petty concerns to deal with the greater problem at hand.  Only once they are able to deal with their own issues and realize that their petty squabbling is getting in the way of defeating an overwhelming do they become the heroes they are meant to be.  There is a straightforward message here that only by overcoming their own egos can they achieve a greater goal.  There may also be a political/philosophical message that as counterpoint to the anti-authoritarian statements against Loki, it is also true that humanity does not achieve its full potential by unbound individualism - a certain sublimation of our individual desires and concerns is necessary to achieve collective goals (healthcare anyone?).

But I think there is also a message about the nature of heroism.  The Rabbis of the Mishnah (Pirke Avot) ask "Who is strong?" and answer "The one who overcomes their inclinations." We think heroes are those who rush in where others fear to tread and hit bad guys.  And the heroes of this movie do that in spades.  But their real heroism comes in fighting their own inner demons and egos to become people who are willing to put their own needs aside for the betterment of others.

Merry Timey Wimey Space Christmas!

Less than a decade ago, had anyone said that Doctor Who would not only be back on the telly but would be a staple of Christmas viewing for large swathes of average, non-geeky Brits, most saner people (myself included) would have laughed at them or looked upon them with the pitying look generally reserved for the delusional.   Then again, my 7 year old daughter is now an ardent Muppet fan after seeing their brand new movie, and I never would have seen that one coming either. 
So I just watched the latest Doctor Who Christmas special, the second for the team of Matt Smith and Stephen Moffat.  Whereas Russell T Davies, the previous showrunner, went for “event” TV at Christmas (and much of the rest of the time, to be honest), Moffat has taken a different, I think more interesting, approach.  To be sure nothing has yet surpassed the original Christmas special that functioned as a regeneration story introducing David Tennant, but Moffat isn’t trying to “top” the spectacle of the earlier stories.  Rather, he has focussed for the last two holiday seasons on smaller, more personal, stories.  And the stories have been linked to, if not strictly based on, classic Christmas tales – last year “A Christmas Carol” and this year “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (although thankfully lacking thinly veiled lion-shaped allusions to Jesus).  And they are all the more charming for it.  

The other pattern that seems to be forming is that, for Christmas at least, there are no real villains in the classic “evil monster” sense.  Last year the “villain” was a selfish, mean- spirited old man whose lack of compassion would have doomed a crashing spaceship.  This year the threat involves unthinking humans whose interplanetary foresting threatens a forest of sentient trees.  No really.

[Spoilers ahead.  You have been warned!]

But that really isn’t the main point of the story at all.  That is merely the threat that propels the much more significant human drama of a widowed mother and her children. The story starts before WWII when  Madge Arwell (Claire Skinner) then happily married with two children, Lily and Cyril, finds an astronaut fallen from the sky in a backwards spacesuit (to understand why you have to watch the opening sequence which is a glorious homage to the opening scenes of Star Wars).  She helps him out and gets him back to a Police Box.  This mysterious astronaut is, of course, the Doctor who decides to help Madge out a few years later, after her husband has been killed in the war.  Of course, being the Doctor, his plan to give her and her children the best Christmas ever, goes horribly wrong and leads them to a planet filled with sentient trees in the midst of deforestation by bumbling lackeys of an intergalactic corporation (a wonderful comedy trio played by the marvellous Bill Bailey, Arrebella Weir and some other guy I can’t be bothered to google).   

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with the CS Lewis book on which the title of the episode is based, the main connection is in the imagery of the era and the children entering an alien world through a portal in a large family house.  Beyond that it’s really its own story.  Does the story work?  Mostly.

The lack of true villain is both a blessing and a curse.  On the downside it leaves the viewer without the clear narrative focus a villain provides and the sentient trees are, pun intended, rather wooden and unsatisfying as protagonists.  On the other hand it allows the story to focus on the wonderful interplay of the Doctor, at his mostly childlike and enchanting, and the children and their mother.  And it is this relationship that is central to the story in every way.  The story is, at its core, about the love of a mother for her children and the strength that gives her.  At one point Madge points a gun at her human captors who do not believe she will shoot until she reveals to them that she is looking for her children, at which point they looked justifiably terrified of her.  And the resolution of the plot involves the idea that as a female and as a mother she is the strongest person there, stronger even than the Doctor.  My wife looked pleased at this point in the story so clearly the message hit home! Madge even “mothers” the Doctor at the end convincing him to do what he should have done at the end of last season – go to his friends and reveal to them that he is not dead as he had left them to believe at the end of the previous storyline.  Oh, and of course, due to some” timey wimey” plot turns, Madge is no longer a widow at the end of the story, so we get a happy ending on all fronts.  

So, all in all, a very satisfying slice of holiday cheer courtesy of our favourite madman in a blue box. 
8 out of 10

Best lines -

Lilly: Where are we?
Doctor: In a forest, in a box, in the sitting room.  Pay attention!

Doctor: This is one of the safest planets I know.  There’s never anything dangerous here. [Ominous thud] There are some sentences I should just keep away from.

Doctor: Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan.

The Doctor is Back!

Review - Doctor Who, Eleventh Hour

Firstly, thanks to my brother Yaniv for allowing me access to his UK itunes account so I can legally watch these episodes before their US airdate (BBC America 17th April).

For those who do not know about Doctor Who (for shame!) the show was a long running British sc-fi show that originally ran from 1963-1989. The show told of the many adventures of the Doctor (no other name known), an alien Time Lord who travels in a time and space machine with the outward appearance of a 1960’s Police Telephone Box and that was bigger on the inside than on the outside as a result of advanced alien trans-dimensional technology. Oh and because the lead character was a mysterious alien he could regenerate his appearance when he was close to death, allowing the doctor to be played by different actors over the years. By 1989 when the series was cancelled there had been 7 Doctors on TV and Peter Cushing had also played him in a couple of movies. In 2005 the show returned to our TV screens with a vengeance (after a failed pilot and an 8th Doctor for a new series in 1996) with a 9th Doctor in the form of Christopher Eccelston. He was soon replaced by David Tennant who became “THE” Doctor for a whole new generation. And now the show and the Doctor has regenerated again with a new Doctor (Matt Smith) a new companion (Karen Gillan) and a new production team.

Got it?

So, how is the new Doctor and the new season opening story? Bloody marvelous! Or, in the words of the 9th Doctor “Fantastic!” Let me break this down.

[Attention for Spoilerfobics. Spoilers Ahead!]

The New Doctor – Matt Smith, the youngest actor to take the role just nails it. He brings such a marvelous eccentricity to the role, which is so often the key to making the Doctor so charming and mysterious. In particular he seems to be channeling aspects of the second Doctor, the late Patrick Troughton, but there are elements of all the past Doctors in his portrayal. He truly succeeds in portraying an old man (900 years old) in a young man’s body making you forget that Smith is, in fact, a mere lad of 27. He is also like the 4th Doctor, Tom Baker, sufficiently weird and off-the-wall to portray the essential alienness of the character. And he is young enough that he could convincingly play this role for quite a few years to come.

The New Companion – Karen Gillan brings a wonderful charm to the character of Amy Pond, a young woman who meets the Doctor when she is a little girl and waits 14 years to finally travel with him. Gillan, quite apart from being stunning, brings a mix of wild-eyed wonder and hard-nosed practicality while at the same time being just a little bonkers due to people continually telling her as she grew up that the Doctor she had met as a child was a mere figment of her imagination. In a particularly nice touch all her friends and neighbors have heard of the Doctor and recognize him as Amy’s “imaginary” friend who turns out to be real after all.

The New Story – As is so often the case for a story introducing a new Doctor, the story for the Eleventh Hour is quite slight. The Doctor lands on Earth and meets a young girl who is unfazed by a strange man falling out of the sky in a blue box, but is terrified of a mysterious crack in her wall. The Doctor closes the crack, which turns out to be a crack in the fabric of the universe, with an intergalactic jail on the other side from which a prisoner has escaped. Before the Doctor can do anything about it he hears the cloister bells of his time machine (the TARDIS) warning that his ship is in trouble. Planning to go forward in time 5 minutes to solve the problem he ends up traveling 12 years into the future and meeting the same little girl as a grown woman. The escaped prisoner is still around, having hidden in the house for all those years and his jailers (the Atraxi) now want to destroy the entire planet unless Prisoner Zero is handed over. Of course the Doctor tracks down the prisoner and scares off the Atraxi. He then jumps in the TARDIS for another quick jump and this time skips 2 years, returning, unbeknownst to him, on the night before Amy’s wedding (to whom we do not yet know).

New Style – Not only did the doctor and the companion change but so did the production team, including most importantly the producer and head writer. Russell T Davies (RTD) the producer and head writer from the start of the new series in 2005. RTD was brilliant in so many ways but by the end it was clear that, while he could write wonderful scripts, he was far more interested in great “moments” than clear plotting. By the time he left many felt that his scripts were hampered by being triumphs of “style over substance.” Admittedly, that style was full of spectacle and an emotional rush but even RTD’s most ardent fans admitted that it was probably time for a change. And so enters Steven Moffat, the writer of some of the most loved episodes of the past few years to take the reigns. So has the style changed completely? Yes and no. Moffat has kept quite a few elements that annoyed RTD’s critics but seems to be more restrained in his presentation and more concerned with ensuring that the great moments don’t override solid plotting. And, as there were many wonderful elements introduced by RTD that he just carried a little to far at times, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

New Story Arc – One of the elements RTD brought in was the season story arc. At first this seemed like a nice idea and indeed it was. But he seemed to think that each season’s arc and season ender had to top the previous one and this meant that each subsequent season finale was more extravagant and spectacular than the next, and by the end it was simply an overblown mess – although one with “really great moments!” So some fans are already a little worried that Moffat has clearly embraced the idea of the story arc. The crack in the wall that is really a crack in the fabric of the universe is obviously going to be a significant arc element (the same shape appears on a view screen in the TARDIS at the end of the episode) and Prisoner Zero declares with the subtlety of sledgehammer that “The pandorica will open… Silence will fall.” I have no idea what that means but I know a story arc when its hitting me over the head with great force. That said, the idea of an arc is perfectly fine as long as Moffat does not fall into the same trap of feeling he has to ramp up the stakes every season.

New Theme Tune Arrangement and Title Sequence – At first I wasn’t sure what to make of these but they’re growing on me.

Best Line -
Amy - "I started to think that maybe you were just a madman with a box"
The Doctor - "Amy Pond, there is something you better understand about me, and one day it may save your life...I am definitely a madman with a box!"

Final Verdict – All in all, a superb episode. A few minor quibbles but it’s a great start to the new era of a great show. Bring on the next episode “The Beast Below.”

Score -  5/5

To be human, or not to be human, is that a question?

Being Human Season 2

Last year, in an “I’m missing Doctor Who and need some British genre TV in the meantime” moment, I discovered a wonderful little show called Being Human. Thanks to my brother Yaniv who lives in the U.K., and lets me download (legally) from his British itunes account, I was able to watch the second season of the show in advance of its showing in America.

The premise for the show sounds like the beginning of a joke: A werewolf, a vampire and a ghost share a house. And in many ways it was the beginning of a joke. The show was incredibly funny. But, like some other supernaturally themed TV shows such as Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it mixed humor with serious drama and genuine scares. Sometimes, also like those other shows, that mix was jarring, but mostly the combination worked wonderfully. But the focus in Being Human is flipped. In Supernatural and Buffy, the heroes hunt the supernatural creatures living among us to protect humanity. In Being Human, the heroes ARE those supernatural creatures who are, at least as the show begins, just trying to live normal human lives and stay out of trouble. That doesn’t work out so well and over the course of the first season they find themselves dragged into the machinations of the local vampires. By the end their collected powers have destroyed the vampire leader and left the vampires’ plans for power in disarray.

Season 2, perhaps predictably, involves human enemies rather than supernatural ones. A group of religiously inspired humans are trying to solve the “supernatural problem” through science. The two main characters from this organization provide an interesting look into the interplay of science and religion. Kemp, an ex-pastor, is driven by religious zealotry. He understandably hates the supernatural after vampires killed his wife and daughter many years ago and wants to use science to destroy them and all their ilk. Lucy Jagget, on the other hand, is a religious scientist who wants to “cure” evil through science. While there are times when their portrayal veers into the stereotypical “religious-zealot-who-hates-what-is-different” territory both characters are complex and multi-faceted.

In lesser hands this could have devolved into the hackneyed theme of “Who is the real monster – Human or Supernatural?” And that question is certainly asked, but the answers aren’t as simple as might have been expected. Certainly, the human antagonists are shown to have a very dark side but so do the supernaturals. Both George (the werewolf) and Mitchell (the vampire) try to be human and spectacularly fail. Both lose control of the “monster within” in a way that highlights that, while the humans that hunt them may have issues of their own, they’re not wrong to fear the vampire and the werewolf next door. George goes on a rage filled rampage after failing to keep a lid on his inner wolf and Mitchell goes on a killing spree after the human antagonists kill all his fellow vampires.

There were some problems with the season. Firstly, and I realize that I may the only person who would care, I was disappointed that they never mentioned that George was Jewish. In the first season this was something of a running joke, especially as George was able to repel vampires with his little Star of David pendant. In this season they seem to have completely forgotten about his religious background. While I realize that George was never portrayed as a particularly religious Jew, the nature of this season’s antagonists makes this a missed opportunity. The antagonists were clearly religious and Christian. It would seem only natural when dealing with them for George to have mentioned his own background and to perhaps explore some different understandings of human nature and evil from a Jewish perspective.

The other problem was that, for most of the season, Annie (the Ghost) was horribly underused. To some extent that was inevitable. The vampire and the werewolf in this series are metaphors for inner demons and the major narrative thrust of the season clearly focuses on their struggles and the counterpoint with the humans who hunt them. Annie’s metaphor is entirely different. She represents the person who feels invisible, disconnected from the world and unable to affect it. But that theme leaves her ill served by the season’s major themes. And so, for most of the season, Annie’s story is in fact rather disconnected. It is unaffected by the main story arc and has little effect on it in return.

This series is NOT for families. It deals with adult themes, in adult ways and with adult language and nudity. But for adults, it is a great show. I am looking forward to watching it again when it gets to BBC America late this summer.