This article was originally written for and featured by KungFuMagazine.com on July 2, 2019. It’s still available to be read there. I’ve included it here for archival purposes & added more of my own comic-book geekery.
Journey to the East
Contrary to the character’s usual situation, Spider-Man has been quite lucky when it comes to movie adaptations as superheroes go. Arguably it was Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002) which kicked off the modern age of Superhero movie adaptations. Controversial for the organic web shooting (which was vaguely metaphoric of puberty), the film was an early adopter of CGI FX for depicting our hero’s web-swinging. It also enjoyed some significant casting coups, particularly in J.K. Simmons’ role as tabloid publisher J. Jonah Jamerson and William DaFoe as Nelson Osborn/Green Goblin, despite the Power Ranger-esque design.
Since then, Spider-Man has starred in eights films, not counting his appearances in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) and SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) earned their own coverage here; the 2012 and 2014 reboots, not so much. There is however, another Spider-Man adaptation worth noting here: Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (1981) also know by the title THE CHINESE WEB.
Released in Europe and on VHS, its poster featured Spider-Man throwing a high side-kick and also fighing Gi clad foes. This movie was actually the two-part series finale for the Spider-Man T.V. show of the late 70’s and was set partially in Hong Kong. Abysmally slow, there is a boat chase in Hong Kong harbor that is reminiscent of scenes from Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON (1978). The gangsters in color-coded jumpsuits hints that someone may have at least seen that film, but there is little that resembles a fight. Fast forwarding will lead to martial art fight stances on the roof of a local temple and even a flying kick, which misses. The closest this movie comes to anything martial is the casting of Nick Wai Kei Lam in a minor role; he had previously appeared alongside the legendary Sonny Chiba in GOLGO 13: ASSIGNMENT KOWLOON (1977); it’s a gossamer thread of a connection. THE DRAGON’S CHALLENGE can be found on Youtube if you want to see the Hong Kong skyline of the time and a stunt-double willing to climb the side of Hong Kong’s historic Jardine House (怡和大廈). But imagine what kind of Spider-Man movie could have been made if producers had handed control over to the local stunt teams. In an alternate reality, that might just have happened.
Here and now SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is a superior piece of media, the distillation of the Marvel Cinematic Formula applied to a pop-culture icon. It does for AVENGERS: ENDGAME what ANT-MAN & THE WASP (2018) did for INFINITY WAR by being much lighter in tone and very friendly towards the youngsters. Sophomore director Jon Watts shows he’s been paying attention to the much more raunchy DEADPOOL (2016 & 2018) with his music choices. This light-hearted teen drama still resides under the shadow of events from previous films. The coping with those events provide great gags. It also underscores the changes which their world, and ours, have faced since Marvel Studios released AVENGERS (2012) and the completed Phase 1 of their multi-movie franchise launch. Now onto Phase 4, Marvel Studios has effectively changed the landscape for movie franchises and the modern-day mythology contained within.
The Tao Dae Ka-Ching
Having opened in China this past Friday, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME was said to have already made $71 million USD by the end of the next day. As it opens in Japan and Hong Kong over this same weekend, all three markets may generate $110 million in overseas dollars. In the competition for box-office weekends the Parker luck holds true. While ENDGAME and INFINITY WAR hold the first and second place for opening weekends, it’s perennial Spider-Man rival VENOM (2018) surprisingly holds third place by having earned $272 million in China. In any case, it’s great news for SONY and they have China to thank for their most profitable Superhero weekends ever.
Might audiences remember the Dragon’s Challenge? Or is there something else about Spider-Man that appeals to Asia? Up until only recently, Spider-man was generally considered the trickster of the Marvel Universe. What with Spidey’s acrobatics, smart mouth, penchant for climbing and hanging upside-down, there has always been something rather monkey-like about the character. Perhaps this is part of the appeal to Asian markets. It’s something even Deepak Chopra noted back when he, Sir Richard Branson and Marvel comics teamed up to publish a version of Spider-Man set in India titled Spider-Man India. Published years before there was even a Spider-verse, this was one of the concept’s first testing grounds. The endeavor was short-lived but briefly spawned Virgin Comics, publisher of such titles as Ramayan 3392 A.D. and John Woo’s Seven Brothers (yes, that John Woo).
The furthest east Spider-Man makes it in this film is Prague, but having ‘Far from home’ international travel frame the story’s plot gets the character out of the usual ‘friendly’ neighborhood setting and plays with the idea of alternate Spider-Mans. It even drops enough monkey jokes to nod towards an awareness of that trickster archetype. Upon reflection, this movie is suffused with a trickster vibe, after all it’s not just in the mythology of Africa that the trickster is a spider.
The 6th Deadly Venom
The thing is, spiders are not actually that prevalent in Chinese myth. Some Chinese folk customs believe that spiders are lucky, that they bring happiness in the morning and wealth in the evening. Because of this, spiders sometimes appear in good luck charms. Like many Chinese superstitions, this is based upon homophones. Spider is zhizhu (蜘蛛), also xizi (蟢子), a homonym of spider in Chinese. Xi (spider) sounds like the word for happiness, also xi but a different character (喜).
Despite the vast menagerie of imitative animal Kung Fu, there isn’t a spider style. There are other bugs, like Praying Mantis and scorpion. The classic Kung Fu film, THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978) included Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard and Toad but no spiders regardless of their toxicity. Many of these cinematic animal styles can trace their origins to actual forms of Kung Fu. In this case, the Centipede, Lizard and Toad are derived from 72 Consummate Arts Secrets of the Shaolin Temple compiled by Jin Jing Zhong in 1934, allegedly from a much older secret manual (see Deadly Venom: The Toad By Gene Ching in the SEP+OCT 2016 issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi). When it comes to old school Kung Fu films involving spiders, the most outstanding one is THE WEB OF DEATH (1976). It’s a clichéd story about Kung Fu clan rivalries – this time between the Centipede, Scorpion and Snake clans – but the web-spinning spider isn’t a fighting style. It’s an actual weaponized spider – a magic tarantula to be specific – that spews lethal spider webs.
Mythologically speaking, the most prominent spiders of Chinese legend are the seven spider women, demons disguised as Daoist maidens, from the saga of the Monkey King Journey to the West. Just like many chapters within the epic novel, Monkey and his fellow pilgrims get trapped by the demons and have to fight their way out. Like with THE WEB OF DEATH, it’s more about getting entangled in deadly spider webs than a specific style of Kung Fu.
Bromance of the Three Kingdoms
The young Peter Parker is in pursuit of a romance with M.J. as played Zendaya, its wholesome charm makes for a stark contrast to her new unflinching HBO series EUPHORIA. But it’s the absence of Tony Stark, Parker’s adopted father figure, that is the driving presence throughout the film. Having left the care of his Aunt May on a metaphorical journey to manhood, three men to alternate in fulfilling the fatherly role that Stark provided. They are Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck/Mysterio and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. In those three characters, a full range of paternal archetypes are presented for Peter’s choosing. Much of the story’s drama is driven by Parker’s attempts at modeling obvious strengths while humor and poignancy is deftly wrung from those attempts failing.
It’s worth noting that Faveau’s character has been around since the very beginning of the MCU and he brings much heart to his role here. But there’s no denying that Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury has become indispensable to the MCU. Having just reinvigorated the SHAFT franchise and been digitally rejuvenated for CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) might a NICK FURY AGENT OF s.h.i.e.l.d. or even a HOWLING COMMANDOS be on a list somewhere for MARVEL’s phase 4 or 5. JOHN WICK level training regiments would not be necessary given advances in visual FX. Picture a digitally younger Sam Jackson head stitched onto a stunt double’s body.
With so much CGI combat, is a fight choreographer even necessary anymore? It’s almost akin to Looney Tunes – the fights between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck – they don’t credit a fight choreographer. MCU CGI fights aren’t much different, particularly with their defiance of basic physics. Nevertheless, Marlow Warrington-Mattei is credited as the Fight Coordinator, his first time to be acknowledged with that coveted credit. But along with a chunk of MCU stunt work, his filmography includes body doubling for Luke Evans in DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) and stunts for SKYFALL (2012). A look at the man’s social media reveals a love for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but nobody gets choked out or submitted in this film. There’s one knock-out that makes a great punchline but for the most part its CGI acrobatics. For the tumbling, we can thank British born Gymnastics champion Greg Townley.
Superhero movies have come a long way. They are no longer simply about good guys punching the bad. These days, the distinction between the two is as blurred as the distinctions between an actor, their stunt double and the CGI which brings their character to life on screen. But like most Marvel Movies, this one strives not to delve too deeply into topical matters. There is perhaps a not-too-subtle meta-commentary on the dilemma of drone warfare in a post-truth society. Deep-Fake technology has only just become a concern in our universe, not so on Earth 616. As the song goes “Like a streak of light he arrives just in time” this time Spider-Man’s here to show us the kind of men we’ll need in our society to work our way out of such tangled webs.