Little Epics

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“Epic” is a term that has bizarrely dropped into common vernacular in recent years. The original meaning is to do with poetry (YES I’M A ONE TRICK PONY, DEAL WITH IT) epikos from the Greek epos meaning ‘word’ or ‘song’. Epic Poems were long, sprawling tales of mythology, legendary figures and mighty deeds. It was then commonly used as an allusion to such tales if the thing being described could be seen as similar, i.e. something long, big, with lots of characters, set over many years and concerning major events, wars or countries. Today this has been filtered down to simply mean something impressive. My first exposure to the word I remember was a quote on the back of “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques which simply said “Epic” in quotes. Looking at it now I realise it was simply The Da**y Ma*l being lazy critics but I do remember asking my Mum why it just said that to which her reply was “That’s all you need to say really isn’t it?” As if this was the highest praise.

Epic Poems and their like were life works by the authors or accumulated tales of an oral tradition from centuries handed down. Grand and sacred, stately and revered Epics told to us great truths about people, politics, love and the soul. I recently saw The Amazing Spiderman 2 described as Epic in its saturating marketing campaign. It was at that point I somewhat lost faith in its weight as an adjective.

Blockbusters must be Epic now. Name one of the big (usually superhero based) blockbusters of the last 10 years and they are all longer than two hours, most have a large ensemble cast, are laden with massive explosions, destruction of property, high body counts and utterly unconvincing stunts. This to me is an idiots appraisal of what something “Epic” is. Something grandiose but with none of the detail or the subtleties. Someone was shown Cleopatra or Ben Hur or Spartacus and was told “That’s an Epic” and took that on face value. Interestingly it seems little used as a descriptor in the world of literature.

I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 last night and actually enjoyed it. Its still not that good but it fares better than its predecessor. Its biggest problem, as with the one before it, is that it does not need to exist. Sam Raimi’s exemplary Spiderman 1 and 2 were barely out of short trousers when the last one came out. Sadly this franchise boils down to licensing not creative necessity. Sony still own the rights to Spiderman unlike a lot of Marvel’s other intellectual properties which they (see Disney) have bought back and are frankly paddling the shit out of every entertainment industry with at the moment. Seeing the success of the  “Marvel Universe” Sony clearly did not wish to relinquish a much desired property and decided to strike while the iron was hot. The Amazing Spiderman was painfully obviously a designed-by-committee cash cow that had been rushed out to meet demand. It was confused, had a solitary and not well known villain, clumsily strong armed in a conspiracy plot from one of the murkier arcs of the spiderman comics to make it an obvious series, it was poorly paced, the CG was clearly hastily cobbled together and the script was a bloated, unwieldy mess. AND YET. Garfield and Stone were amazingly good and almost single handedly saved it, along with Sally Field and Martin Sheen. Parker also was written a bit more like the cocky nerd he was in the comics not the shy, bumbling, awkward teen Maguire portrayed. In this respect I actually prefer Garfield’s Spidey. SHOCK HORROR.

Its sequel fairs better but still suffers from problems of the first. It was comissioned not dreamed up. You can practically smell the gunpowder from the gun at the cast and crew’s heads. You can feel the jet black cold hand of Sony’s Creative Board in every shot: “It needs more peril” “We need more beautiful people in this shot” “Put a piece of pop music under this scene” “Our market research shows this is popular, put this in frame”. To say nothing of the overbearing and nauseating product placement by Sony itself in nearly every shot as well as many others. Sony obviously focus grouped THE SHIT out of the poor success/critical pasting of the last film and heard that the villain was crummy, therefore they over compensate by shoving in three this time. At every turn I wanted to shout “CALM DOWN” at the screen. But despite all of this it comes out okay. Just. The reason for this is the Pun-Ready named director Marc Webb.

Webb directed the delightful 500 Days of Summer and strangely enough this is where both his Spiderman films come into their own. Garfield and Stone’s obvious chemistry as Parker and Stacey is milked wonderfully and just like the last film this is where it comes to life and where Webb feels most comfortable and interestingly this is how the film actually succeeds in being Epic.

I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over the Easter Bank Holiday and tweeted along to it with many nerdy observations. What it brought home to me is how little the film is to do with saving the Holy Grail and by extension the World and how much it is to do with characters. I’ve always known a story will stand or fall on the characters as if you don’t care what happens to them then the story doesn’t matter, you can have the most complex and intricate, wonderful plot but it counts for crap if you could give a shit whether Johnny Everyman lives or dies. Indy doesn’t give two craps about the Grail for most of the film he wants his Dad back. In this way Spiderman is similar. Webb realises all of Spidey’s acrobatics mean sweet bugger all without some emotional investment. Parker is practically invincible so by developing his relationship with Stacey we give a crap what happens and as the climax approaches we are really really nervous about the outcome. Especially someone like me who is sadly in on what happens having read the comics. You can feel Webb literally straining against the hellishly tight bonds of Sony’s demands and crowbarring in necessary character points for everyone. That’s when it works best. He has also assembled a really good cast even though the marketing demands mean almost all of them get sidelined in favour of shitty conspiracy plots and corporate bullshit. Foxx turns in a really nuanced performance as Electro which  I was crying out for more from, Field is wonderful as a more sassy Aunt May, Giamatti has a ball with his two pages of screen time as the Rhino, the only misstep is the emo Harry Osborne who seems only to have been cast because he looks a bit like a Goblin. Regardless what this amounts to is an audience knowing why things happen and where every character stands which adds weight to the action sequences and tension where necessary. The pyrotechnics are all pretty perfunctory whizzbangs towards the end with the slow downs and speed ups but the finale is pretty tense.

Sadly most of what I saw was ruined by trailers and promotional material that Sony threw EVERYWHERE prior to release which meant it didn’t have the impact it could have. Many of the main “twists” being spoilt and most of the good jokes. The scene in Times Square is pretty fantastic though. If it could have been stripped back to just a film about Electro, Spidey and Gwen Stacey with a little more breathing room you could have had a really stellar film. What this made me realise though was its not necessarily the size, length or budget that makes an Epic.

As I said earlier, Epics deal with big topics and grand themes but normally on a personal level: The war is brought about by Helen of Troy in the Odyssey, Its Adam and Eve that bring Sin into the world, Spartacus leads the Slaves to war, etc etc. The intensity of Helen’s beauty and Odysseus’ love for her, the depth of Adam and Eve’s shame and despair at their treachery, the heat of Spartacus’ fury at his captors are all things we as an audience relate to and sympathise with. The Epics bother personifying the protagonists and their struggles instead of simply having them as avatars for battles, historical events or to deliver well known speeches. What this ultimately means is that something very small can be Epic it just depends how intensely you are concerned with the characters and the results of their trials. Back to the Future amounts to little more than a kid getting his parents to hook up and breaking the speed limit but by golly how tense is the last half an hour?! With Doc on the clock tower? Marty in the Delorean with its engine not starting? You’re tearing your hair out! Truly an epic finale as he races toward the wire as Emmett Brown wrestles with the plug.

I recently rewatched The Princess Bride and was stunned how budget it now seems. The cast is smaller than I remember and there is little in the way of grand events but from minute one you give a crap about Buttercup and Wesley, then later Inigo and Fezzik and so the fairly minuscule sword fight, hand fight, battle of wits, fire swamp, lightning sand and ROUS’ in comparison to the frenetic, crash bang lightning quick action scenes in the Amazing Spiderman, are suddenly EPIC! Same as Indiana Jones merely ducking a blade, playing giant foot scrabble and stubbing his foot on a painted floor is BREATHTAKINGLY TENSE AND THE WORLD’S GONNA END OH SHIT. Audience investment is what makes an Epic because what makes an Epic is what concerns us personally. Humans are messy, live a long time and a lot of crap happens to us in a lifetime, our best stories reflect that. Human’s require symbolism to work through our problems, we use art as symbolism for inner turmoils, the closer a work of art represents these problems the more drawn to it we are. The deeper the fears, loves and joys represented the more fiercely we care, to get at those the more detailed a work of art must be (or certainly more direct) this means the canvas must be bigger. More Epic.

We are Epic works which is why when something impressive happens that affects us we use the word to describe it now. Being an angsty, insecure teenager deep down The Amazing Spiderman films speak to the bit of me that loves mushy teen romances and sterling action. It is a badly flawed film but for me there was enough there for me to enjoy it. Yet, ironically, to make it truly Epic it could have done with being shorter, quieter and smaller.

The most hilariously ironic, almost mendacious, piece of nomenclature.
The most hilariously ironic, almost mendacious, piece of nomenclature.
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