“Who are we? We are no one. Our mission is to monitor extraterrestrial activity on Earth,” says Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K in the trailer for the latest installment in the “Men in Black” franchise.
Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on sequels. There are certain sequels that far surpass the originals — “Back to the Future Part II,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.” But these are generally the exceptions rather than the norms. For the most part, we don’t like it when studios rehash the same tried formulas just to make some easy cash on a franchise they know will sell. We like “Iron Man.” They give us a sequel. We like “Captain America” and “Thor” and “The Incredible Hulk.” They give us the upcoming “The Avengers.” Could it be entertaining? Possibly. Is it also possible it will be a catastrophic mess along the lines of “Spider-Man 3”? Without a doubt.
So, I was understandably more than a little hesitant when I first heard they were making yet another “Men in Black” movie. And then I looked over the bigger films scheduled to hit theaters in the summer of 2012: There’s the new James Bond movie; Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, aptly titled “Man of Steel”; and, of course, the return of everyone’s favorite web crawler, “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
In some ways, it’s the summers of my teenage years all over again. Six years ago I watched “Superman Returns” and five years ago my friends and I saw “Spider-Man 3.” Neither of the aforementioned movies were any good, which compels the question: Will the same problems hold true for these summer sequels that belong to the same chain of films?
I submit that they will not, that they will instead hold their own as singular specimens of cinema.
Even though I plan on watching Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive spider and develop the ability to scale walls just like I did 11 years ago, I believe this version will be bigger than the story from which it stems. Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network”) — currently lighting up the Broadway stage with his turn as Biff Loman in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” — will be donning the red and blue. And based on his speech at the 2011 Comic-Con, Garfield’s approach to the material is a combination of recognizing Spider-Man as an iconic role while simultaneously making it completely his own.
Then again, what makes Peter Parker so different from Biff Loman in Miller’s drama? Both characters are young men coming of age in a household where they’re called upon to rise to a new level of maturity before they’re ready. And both men must deal with the loss of their fathers. Yes, one story is a stage drama, while the other features supernatural villains. But if Garfield’s riveting performance in “Salesman” is any indication, his Parker will have some serious pathos, which is appropriate.
Even if a movie is a sequel, what matters is how it broaches the classic subject matter. If they’re only in it to make a buck, that will show through. But if they’re doing it because they see something in the storyline and, more importantly, treat the movie as if it’s the first time the story has ever been told, then we will respond accordingly: glued to our seats as we were when Heath Ledger cackled and heckled Christian Bale in one of the more riveting scenes of the past 10 years, sequel or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s the telling or retelling of a story, what matters is the process writers have used for centuries, whether that person be director Marc Webb, Stan Lee or Shakespeare himself.
Superhero movies might just be the closest thing we have to Shakespeare nowadays: stories that are so well-known in the cultural landscape that the job for filmmakers is not one of creating novelty. It’s a job of tapping into the universal sentiment within characters we know and love, from Hamlet to Peter Parker.
If the Bard were alive today, would he have made summer blockbusters in the vein of “The Amazing Spider-Man”? It’s possible. He did write his own batch of sequels (e.g. “Henry IV Part I,” “Henry IV Part II”). After all, there have been countless films made of Shakespeare’s plays. Some stand out. Others do not. Certain actors and filmmakers can rise above the material, making themselves bigger than the label of “Shakespeare.” There are moments in Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” when he transcends the stigma of crazed Prince of Denmark; he becomes a troubled young man, dealing with the death of his father. And this is something wholly human, a sentiment we encounter in our own lives.