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Five Things they Got Wrong in Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 WTFSpider-Man 3 seems like a shoo-in to join Spider-Man 1 and 2 in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time, but reviews have been mixed. Right now it's running about 60% positive at Metacritic and 61% positive at Rotten Tomatoes. So is it any good? I thought so, but this isn't a movie review. As an internationally-recognized expert in Spidey Studies, I thought it would be important to point out where Spider-Man 3 gets it right, and where it get things wrong. I'll start with the bad news first, with the good news to follow in the next day or two. Please note: this is not a series of gripes over deviations from the "cannon" of the original Amazing Spider-Man comic books or anything like that. Spider-Man, like many of his his comic book and other literary brethren, has been written by many different people over the years in many different media. Instead, I hope to point out where Sam Raimi deviated from the crux of the characters or missed opportunities that presented themselves.

1. Spider-Man is never that popular.

As the film opens Spider-man has been embraced by New York as one of their own. After a dramatic rescue of the police chief's daughter, he gets even more kudos. The problem is that Spider-man never gets that much praise. Oh, he might occasionally save a falling construction worker and get cheered by a crowd, but he's invariably doubted and dogged by naysayers. And not just the muckrakers at the Daily Bugle. He certainly doesn't get the key to the city and a marching band. This is one of the reasons he's such a great character. I understand that the plot required some overconfidence on Pete's part so he would miss how troubled Mary Jane had become, but it shouldn't take much to make Pete feel appreciated, given all the negative press he's used to. Near the start of the movie Peter Parker notices his alter-ego on a jumbotron TV screen and is soon joined by a gaggle of cheering children. When the clip ends, the kids run off, not nearly interested enough to wait for it to start over. This is a perfect example of how Spider-Man's popularity has been treated in the comics for virtually his entire career - kids and the occasional falling construction worker might love him, but the powers-that-be (and the many people just opposed to vigilantism) are generally sour on Spider-Man no matter what he does.

2. Eddie Brock is too shallow a character to be interesting

Venom has seen some pretty dodgy writing over the years (i.e. "I want to eat your brains"), but as a general rule, villains are much more interesting when they have a little character development behind them. Lots of little hints about motivation were dropped, but we spent so little time with Edward Brock, Jr. that it was hard to see anything more than "I'm shallow paparazzi guy, hate me." Brock did not have to be a sympathetic antagonist, like the Sandman, but with a little more development we could have gotten a better idea of how he could hate Peter so much and see himself as the victim.

3. Unexplained psuedo-scientific super powers good, ridiculous coincidences bad.

Action movies almost always require a little suspension of belief, and comic book movies draw from that well often. That's fine. I'm more than willing to buy into a genetically-engineered spider bite causing super-strength, a completely unexplained physics experiment turning a man into living sand, and a malevolent alien goo bonding to a human host. But when the alien goo just happens to arrive on earth via a meteorite that just happens to land in New York City just 10 feet from the one-and-only Spider-Man, I call foul. There are plenty of perfectly reasonable ways for Pete to come into contact with the symbiote - maybe it was discovered and brought to the science lab at his college, or maybe it moved from person to person before finding Spider-Man and becoming attracted by his potential for violence. Whatever. The point is that the introduction of the symbiote seemed like a last-minute addition, "oops we forgot to mention where the thing came from, just have it land in his pocket." How does this violate the spirit of Spider-Man? One of the interesting things about Spidey is despite having several titles devoted to him, he is almost never shown as the center of the world. Super Man might have supporting characters like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, but ultimately everything happens in his life and he always saves the world/universe. Spider-Man's supporting characters have always been more independently interesting than that, and very often he's just a bit player in stories (and world-devouring menaces) much bigger than himself. Pointless coincidences undermine that.

4. Harry Osborn needs to grow a pair

The rather abrupt flipping from enemy to amnesia-addled best friend to enemy and back to friend of Harry Osborn actually fits the treatment of his character in the comics fairly well. Green Goblins are constantly forgetting who they are and whether or not they hate Peter Parker due to bumps on the head, effects of the goblin serum, or even just continuity hiccups. When Peter asks Harry for his help saving MJ, though, the film goes down the wrong route. Instead of facing his conflicted feelings for MJ, Peter, and his father, struggling to face his father's influence, and deciding to act, his butler just tells him "your dad killed himself so forget all the emo crap and go fight the bad guys."

5. Spider-Man 3 should have been two movies

Like Batman before him, Spider-Man has caught a case of multiple-villain disease. The cause is pretty easy to understand - characters that have been in print for over 40 years build up a backlog of rouges and story arcs, while most movie franchises end at three or four films. It can be tempting to try to cram more in, but it's a mistake. The end result is that we don't have enough time to adequately explore Harry / Green Goblin, the Flint Marko / Sandman, or Eddie Brock / Venom. The fight sequences in Spider-Man three are all amazing, thrilling, a joy to watch, but with so many fights to get in they don't necessarily lead up to a climax. Here's how it should have worked: Spider-Man 3 - The first one starts on a high note, with Spider-Man getting a bit of positive press for the first time and MJ starring on Broadway. With Harry's memory gone, Pete even has his best friend back. But MJ is fired, Pete finds out that Marko is the real killer, and try as he might Spider-Man can't defeat the Sandman. To add insult to injury he loses a staff job to Brock. Despite his misgivings, Pete uses the strange black substance to augment his powers and take on Sandman. With the black costume, Spider-Man is able to seemingly kill Marko, a hollow victory since he has compromised his principles along the way. The movie ends with MJ breaking up with him and Harry regaining his memory and putting his plans back in motion. Spider-Man 4 - To start the second movie, Pete lashes out as his troubles by exposing Brock and humiliating (and striking) MJ. Shocked at himself, Pete tears off the suit, leading to creation of Venom. Pete returns to red and blue costume, apologizes to MJ. In the mean time, Brock goes through something similar to Pete in Spider-Man 1, discovering his powers, but he doesn't have the basic human decency and attitude about power and responsibility that Pete does. He goes after Spider-Man, and Pete can't seem to beat Venom. Venom lets him go, making it clear he's toying with Spidey and can attck again at any time. Harry continues to drive a wedge between Pete and MJ and makes sure Venom is mistaken by police for Spidey. Finally, Brock kidnaps MJ. Pete starts to figure out how to fight Venom and is just getting an edge over him when the Sandman appears. Harry has a crisis - he does care for MJ, is he just his father's puppet? He comes to realize that he should be his own person and flies in to help. Then everyone cries. The end. The advantage of breaking it into two parts is pretty clear - you can devote an arc to a single main villain in each movie, with large arcs for Pete, MJ, and Harry. In addition there's the change to end the first part on a low note, like Star Wars did in Empire Strikes Back or Lord of the Rings in The Two Towers. So enough complains. Coming soon: five things they got right in Spider-Man 3.

I’m with Lido

Lee A. Iacocca's recent book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, has received a good amount of press this past week, all centered around one specific passage:
Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, "Stay the course." Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I'll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out! You might think I'm getting senile, that I've gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don't need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That's not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I've had enough. How about you? I'll go a step further. You can't call yourself a patriot if you're not outraged. This is a fight I'm ready and willing to have.
Makes me want to read the book. Though, of course, all the blogs I've read covering said passage have just left it at that. They might make some sort of comment about Iacocca's personality, or what he said about the current crop of domestic auto executives, but they don't really go in and dissect what he said. (I'll disclaim right here that I, like the zillion other blogs that have commented on the book so far, have not actually yet read the book, so if the passage - and my comments hereforth - were taken out of context, Mr. Iacocca, I apologize.) To start with, there is a sense of outrage among Americans. Perhaps more of a sense of outrage now than I've ever seen in my lifetime. It's there if you look for it - on the Internet, on college campuses, in demonstrations across the globe, in Keith Olbermann's words, in Jon Stewart's words. Many of us are not happy at all about the course of the nation. Where you're not seeing the outrage is in your daily newspaper, on your nightly mainstream news program, in comfortable suburban homes. I'm glad Mr. Iacocca, once and former business leader himself, has taken a stand against the modern business and corporate climate. If there's anything more sinister than the incompetence of the Bush administration, it's the measures that corporations have taken to ensure and enhance their profit margins. Take, for instance, the bankruptcy law revisions implemented within the last few years. Probably the most severe of those revisions now forces people who declare bankruptcy to continue repaying their debts rather than wipe the debts clean off the board. Granted, some people abused this in the past, racking up debt and then eliminating it via bankruptcy with no reprisal. But for the people for whom bankruptcy was designed - those facing serious hardships who simply need a break - these revisions make their situations worse, not better. In fact, I've yet to see any single benefit to the consumer - the people - and all the benefit to the corporation. What sense does it make to enact laws that give more power to the corporation than to the people? I know what you're thinking: The credit card companies and their Congressmen are in league. That may be the case, but I have no proof of that (blame a complicit media more concerned about Anna Nicole's babydaddy), and besides, shouldn't those Congressmen be on the side of the people they were elected to represent? Another example. The same bankruptcy revisions (or laws passed at about the same time) permitted credit card companies to increase their minimum payment calculations. If credit card debt - and debt in general - was not one of the major problems plaguing this country today, forcing Americans to carry the lowest amount of savings ever, then I'd say fine, such a measure will help Americans clean up their debt. But the end result is an increase in debt as Americans struggle to meet these higher minimum payments and turn to additional means to borrow money. Another example. Most, if not all, states now have mandatory car insurance. Of course, car insurance is a good idea (except when insurance companies cancel your policy after they're actually forced to pay out a claim - but that's another column) and you really don't want some uninsured jerk hitting your car and sticking you with the bill. But in reality, uninsured jerks will remain uninsured jerks. Or underinsured jerks. Making insurance mandatory will not make life any easier for you when one of those uninsured jerks whacks your car - it'll just provide more incentive for him to hit and run. What it will do is create a larger marketplace for insurance companies. Ever wonder why GM and Ford can't seem to muster the ad dollars for many time slots and programs that Geico and Progressive can? Even beyond those examples, businesses and branding have invaded our lives so much over recent years that we've become complacent to the attack. Do me a favor. Look up from your computer screen and without leaving the room count how many brand names you can see. When you next go shopping, examine the size of the brand name on the plastic bag they give you to tote your purchase around the mall. Did Best Buy or American Eagle pay you for the right to advertise on your belongings? No, you paid them and most people gladly pay them. One of the things I despise about modern hip-hop music - even more so than all the negatives being mentioned in the Imus scandal - is the glorification of brands. Are you paying to hear Fiddy rap about shooting gangstas and slappin' his hos, or are you paying for an hour-long Cadillac, Bentley and Rolls-Royce commercial? And to bring it all back to Mr. Iacocca, there is no outrage. Hell, one of the most stinging critiques that Mike Judge delivers in Idiocracy is that of the rampant branding and corporacracy - their clothes are plastered with brand names, a Cabinet member is paid to mention a certain brand in his everyday conversation and everybody has been brainwashed by advertising to believe that a sports drink is superior in every way to water. But most reviews attribute this to the idiocy of that civilization rather than the aggressive marketing practices of those corporations. So, Mr. Iacocca, what should we do about this? Just express our outrage on blogs and on message boards, get a bunch of people who already agree with us to agree yet again with us? The Internet is a great enabler of outrage. In fact, it's one of those things that only the Internet can really excel at. We can't all write books and enjoy the same sort of publicity as the man who introduced the Mustang to the world. We can vote. We can hold our elected representatives accountable. We can cast off the branding that we've allowed to work its way into our lives. We can buy local. We can buy independent. And we can make the same suggestions time after time and watch as people express their outrage, then take the easy way out and ignore all those suggestions. I really hope that Mr. Iacocca expresses some sort of solution in his book and does his best to implement that solution, because I'm sure as heck out of good ideas. UPDATE: Okay, I thought about it. There's at least one thing we all can do. Stop watching television. Seriously, how much TV do you think Mr. Iacocca watches? How much do you think Kurt Vonnegut watched? How much does Stephen Hawking watch? They have better things to do with their time, as do we all. The reason we haven't built a successful hybrid car, as Mr. Iacocca asked, is because that one engineer who has the talent to spearhead such a project and push it through is right now at home watching Dr. Who or CSI. The reason Wal-Mart reigned for so long atop Fortune 500's list isn't necessarily because of their low prices, it's because some whistling dancing smiley face on TV is goading them into shopping there. The reason you take your family to Olive Garden isn't necessarily because the food is good, it's because you saw the ad on TV right before it was time to make a decision about dinner for that evening. So I'll suggest now to not buy that new HDTV set you've got your eye on and when 2009 (or whenever the deadline is) rolls around and all television stations have to switch over to HDTV (do I smell another squeeze-the-consumer plannned obsolescence scheme behind this?), let your TV set go blank. Go outside. Lose some weight. Build that hybrid car. Write a book. Do all the things you can't do while staring at a TV set.

We have More Important Things to Worry About than Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, died a few days ago on April 11th. You may or may not have heard by now. The New York Times wrote a nice piece on his life and a large number of blogs and forums have filled with discussions of his books, essays, and politics. If you haven't heard by now, I guess I'm not too surprised. Ablogistan took a look and found that there were more twice as many mentions of Anna Nicole Smith in the news than Vonnegut. That fact is both depressing and fascinating at the same time. One of the tried and true methods of social science research is content analysis, where researchers pour over the raw text produced by a culture and measure things like word use. Content analysis is nice because it gives you quantitative data in areas otherwise relegated to qualitative research, but it can be a real chore. If you wanted to study McCarthyism, for example, you would need to poor over thousands of pages of microfiche counting word occurrences and judging usage. The chart comparing Anna Nicole Smith and Kurt Vonnegut is fascinating because it points out how the rise of the Internet has helped lessen a lot of the tediousness of content analysis. So let's take a look. What else is more important than Kurt Vonnegut? (Unfortunately the Internet has not made the difficult stuff like conceptualization and research design any easier, so the findings below are not exactly academic journal material). Google News search for Kurt Vonnegut (past week): 1,317 articles. Google News search for Anna Nicole Smith (past week): 10,232 articles. Google News search for Don Imus (past week): 9,534 articles. There you have it. Anna Nicole Smith, notable for going from being poor and attractive to being rich and less attractive, then rich and somewhat attractive again, is almost 8 times more important than Kurt Vonnegut. Don Imus, who hasn't even died yet, is about 7 times more important than Vonnegut for calling some basketball players "nappy headed hos." Google News tends to include more traditional news outlets (newspapers, television, etc.). So what about the unprofessional world of commentary and discussion found in blogs? Blog posts about Kurt Vonnegut Blog posts about Anna Nicole Smith Blog posts about Don Imus Congratulations, bloggers! You talked about as much about Kurt Vonnegut as you did Anna Nicole on the day the news of their deaths came out. And so far Don Imus has yet to have half as many mentions. Blogpulse shows an even clearer trend: Trend So there you have it: Officially speaking, Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote for half a century, producing some of the best novels of all time, is less important than a woman who was famous mostly for being famous. We have empirical proof. And once again, the bloggers have shown that they just don't measure up to professional news media.

Teaching Science and Math with Real World Examples

I ran across a great post at Technocrat titled If We Taught English the Way We Teach Mathematics.
"Suppose that those classes, from elementary school right through to high school, amounted to nothing more than reading dictionaries, getting drilled in spelling and formal grammatical construction, and memorizing vast vocabulary lists -- you never read a novel, nor a poem; never had contact with anything beyond the pedantic complexity of English spelling and formal grammar, and precise definitions for an endless array of words. You would probably hate the subject."
This is a great point, and the post goes on to talk about why it's not just a lack of "real world" examples that makes math and science such boring, intimidating subjects.  Here's the perfect example of how a real world example definitely did not help one student with physics: [youtube]cIIwwCi2zwk[/youtube] So if memorizing facts and formulas is no use, and contrived, often bizarre examples are no help, how should we teach math and science? I'm not sure I have any great insights, but I can give you three examples of what has worked for me. First, I think it helps to have (or to project to your students) an attitude that allows for the real value and usefulness of science and math.  This does not mean that great teachers and students have to be died-in-the-wool atheists or materialists.  But I do think there are some basic ideas without which science and math will never be meaningful or interesting: 1.  The world is more complicated than it might seem; 2.  We can figure out the way it works; 3.  We can put the knowledge to use. As Richard Feynman explained:
"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Doing some googling to uncover the source of the quote leads me to a post on Edward Tufte's homepage, Grand truths about human behavior.  There you'll find a collection of quotes that express this notion better than I can. Second, you cannot study physics, geometry, biology, or any similar subject in isolation.  When I was in high school a lot of the stuff we went over in math class junior year didn't make sense until I took physics senior year.  In college I took calculus I and II as a computer science student and did fairly well, but I forgot everything I had read the day after each final exam.  When I took discrete math, though, the class was so much more interesting because I could see how it applied to CS. Physics od SuperherosFinally, one great way to teach science is through storytelling.  This is a case where extensive Bible study might be perfect preparation for giving a science lecture - Jesus knew 2000 years ago that parables were much more effective teaching tools than lists of facts and figures (or commandments). The facts of the story are not nearly as important as the lesson and the exercise in creative thinking.  One great example of this is The Physics of Superheros by James Kakalios.  This is a great book - the author talks about the origin stories and powers of various super heroes and uses these very fictional examples to illustrate real physics.  He does not do so by brutally criticizing Stan Lee and insulting Superman.  Instead he uses the "miracle exception" to the laws of physics represented by each super power to tell a story about how the world really works. Thanks to The Adventures of the Accordion Guy for pointing out the post on teaching math like English.

Some little quizzes to take on superheros and science fiction novels

Hiya, I know how much you enjoy taking quizzes and you all know how much I enjoy writing quizzes, so here are two really quick quizzes I made over at Take them! Which is the best super hero movie series? Which is the best science fiction series of all time?