Last week, my family watched Spiderman together– the one starring Tobey Maguire. It’s one I’ve seen a few times before, but this was my first time watching it while being educated about story structure. I have to say, I was impressed.
What is it about this movie that makes it such an excellent example of a well-crafted plot?
In the introductory scenes we are given all the important characters and their personalities, needs and desires: Peter, Harry, Norman, M.J., Aunt May and Uncle Ben– all have been given well-rounded representation. And let’s not forget Jameson, the intrepid editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle.
I’m not going to dwell heavily on the characters in this post, however, as what I really want to focus on is the plot and how well it drives the characters– particularly Peter– throughout the course of the movie; and how the characters themselves make choices that affect the plot.
One element of plot structure that gets a lot of attention– and for good reason– is the inciting incident. A good story typically has an inciting incident within the first act. For this particular movie, one might say that Peter getting bit by a radioactive spider is his inciting incident; while I agree that is and inciting incident that affects the course of Peter’s life, it is something that happens to Peter. There is another inciting incident later in the film that comes about because of Peter’s choices and which in turn determines how Peter chooses to use his newfound powers– more on that later.
As in any good story, it’s not only the main character who gets to have a story arc. There are a few others who deserve mention as well.
First, enter Norman Osborne. Pride and desperation drive Norman to inject himself with an experimental enhancement drug and– much like in the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– finds himself the victim not only of his jealousy and ambition, but of the added curse of finally possessing the prowess and unfettering of his former inhibitions– or ethics, if you will– to do something about the perceived injustices in his life. Thus a villain is born; and if superhero comics and movies have taught us nothing else, it’s that where there’s a villain, there will always be a hero– and vice-versa.
Harry– Norman’s son and Peter’s best friend, is also a compelling character in his own right. As viewers, we get to witness the gradual falling-out between Harry and Peter, setting Harry up to take his father’s place as the villain in the next movie installment. We observe Harry’s concealed jealousy of his friend first in the fact that Harry’s own father seems to approve of Peter more than he does his own son; and later, the tension between these two friends increases when Harry starts dating M.J., a girl whom he and Peter have both been in love with for years and never had the guts to ask her out before.
M.J. herself is an interesting character, coming from an abusive home life, but with big dreams of breaking away and becoming an actress. It would have been nice to see her developed as more than a love interest– especially since Peter himself as the narrator claims that this movie is “about M.J.” If anything, that one statement is really my only gripe with the movie, as it is clearly not about M.J., and even Peter’s choices throughout the movie have more to do with other people in his life and not his lifelong crush.
Finally, we circle back to Peter, and the most important relationship in the whole movie: Peter’s relationship with his Uncle Ben. Why is this the most important relationship to keep in mind? Two words: Inciting Incident.
The most important scene in the whole movie, I believe, is after Peter has gone to collect his winnings after the wrestling match with “Bonesaw,” and is given a meagre $100 after being promised $3000 for entering the ring. Miffed by this injustice, Peter calls for the elevator, and when it opens a robber pushes through and robs the man at the table for a sackful of money. Peter– with his newfound power– has the ability to apprehend the thief, but instead he chooses to let the man get away. Feeling smug that justice has been served, Peter starts walking home. On the way, he discovers a crowd of people gathered around a car robbery victim, who happens to be Peter’s own Uncle Ben. Uncle Ben dies, and then Peter learns that the man who killed him is the same man whom he abetted in the robbery.
Because of this incident– and this incident alone– Peter channels his guilt and anguish and from that point forward, commits himself to the life of a vigilante. His former boyhood selfishness falls to the wayside, and in its place Spiderman emerges as a true hero who– when he is later faced with the opportunity to join the Green Goblin in lording over the rest of the city– finds it easy to refuse the allure of power because he already made up his mind weeks ago, thanks to his previous experience and the wise words of Uncle Bed: “With great power comes great responsibility.“
And if that’s not a theme worth repeating over and over in story after story, what is?