Scandal Plagued Fanmade Film Is a Mess

For fans of DC and Marvel heroes, the once-exciting slate of big-budget, big-screen stories to come has become shrug-worthy. For every quality release (think The Suicide Squad, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3)—there’s a flop: Eternals, Morbius, The Flash, and so on and so forth.

Perhaps it’s time for the fans to rectify the matter of the lackluster superhero flick themselves. But Spider-Man: Lotus, the much-hyped, non-Marvel-affiliated project by teen filmmaker Gavin Konop, suggests otherwise. Now streaming for free on Konop’s YouTube channel, Lotus is a lousy film, technically impressive in flashes but weighed down by disastrous performances, scripting, and direction. Perhaps worst of all is that, ahead of its Aug. 10 debut, Lotus outgrew its humble fan-made origins to become an internet punchline; what should have been an ambitious, little-known flop became a trending topic, a subject of discourse, and a source of online mockery.

Lotus is a crowdfunded, not-for-profit fan project made without Marvel’s involvement, but it isn’t explicitly a reaction to the theatrical Spidey franchise. For one, most of the four different iterations of Spider-Man films have received widespread acclaim. (That said, Konop allegedly made his disdain for Spider-Man: Far From Home clear.)

Konop framed Lotus as the ultimate love letter to his favorite superhero, paying homage to the existing on-screen efforts while drawing from comic storylines yet to be adapted. “We pulled from hundreds of different comic books from over the years, whether it was written by Stan Lee, or Gerry Conway, or Tom DeFalco, or any other legendary writer to take on the character, all in an effort to craft a story that honors the character in the best way that we can,” Konop wrote alongside the film’s crowdfunding campaign in February 2021.

Konop’s passion for the comics, Sam Raimi films, and cult-favorite Amazing Spider-Man 2, resonated with Spider-Man fans who had grown tired of the post-Avengers: Endgame slate of superhero flicks. Spider-Man: Lotus received more than $100,000 in contributions on Indiegogo, blowing past its $20,000 goal; that money bolstered the film’s initially slim budget. Its ambitious proof-of-concept trailer, released a year after the campaign launch, has been viewed more than 2.8 million times. Konop’s production updates were promising, and the excitement for the film grew.

These innocent beginnings quickly gave way to controversy, which followed the film from midway through its production up until its premiere. In June 2022, screenshots of racist social media posts allegedly from star Warden Wayne circulated online. The actor, who was to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man, confirmed their legitimacy and released an apology. John Salandria, who played the Green Goblin, defended Wayne’s language—to the tune of even more backlash. The final nail in the coffin was when, shortly thereafter, a former friend of Konop leaked messages from the director that also included racial and homophobic slurs—leading to his own apology.

Following the leaked messages, backers wanted refunds and requested to have their names removed from the credits (a campaign reward for donating), but Konop refused. His claim that all the money had been spent seemed to hold less water once he admitted in his apology that he had not paid the project’s storyboard artists, although he promised to do so going forward.

The film’s reputation was irreparably damaged from there, to the point where one of its lead actors (Tuyen Powell, who played Gwen Stacy, and is biracial) eventually disavowed the project ahead of release. Spider-Man: Lotus went from an anticipated fan project to a movie that people jokingly referred to as “racist Spider-Man.” It was a judgment it could never shake—especially after the movie’s release.

It’s hard to reduce all of this drama to a footnote, but it may have been easier if Lotus were a better film. Instead, it’s a poorly paced, maudlin, wheel-spinning snoozefest, livened up only by its rare instances of actual Spidey action. But as exciting as $100,000 sounds, it’s a paltry budget for an action film that doesn’t allow for much in the way of thrills. That left Konop focusing on the poorly conceived character study alluded to in his pitch.

In lieu of arachnid antics, Lotus follows Peter Parker (Wayne) contending with his grief over the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Powell), the story of which is told in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. At the same time, Peter’s best friends Harry Osborn (Sean Thomas Reid) and Mary-Jane Watson (Moriah Brooklyn) struggle to make sense of the loss in their own right, while Harry also mourns the death of his father Norman (Salandria), a.k.a. the Green Goblin.

Unfortunately, the actors come across as more exhausted than emotional, sleepwalking through a story defined by their mutual depression. With the film heavy on long, chatty scenes, this makes for a painfully slow watch. Most of them follow a similar rhythm: MJ chain smokes on a roof as Flash Thompson (Jack Wooton) tries convincing her that she has something to live for; Harry vents to MJ in his car as MJ tries convincing him that he has something to live for; Peter spends most of his time talking to a terminally ill young Spidey fan, trying to convince himself that he has something to live for while this kid courageously faces his own death.

It’s how the film handles Peter that’s most egregious. Spider-Man, despite his many traumas, is a superhero known for his quick wit, regular quips, and commitment to his great power and responsibility. When Spider-Man adaptations deviate from this characterization, it’s to their detriment. (One of the big complaints about Spider-Man 3, for instance, was that it turned the sweet Peter into an emo, kvetching asshole.) Lotus’ Peter is the ultimate sad sack, who resents the Spidey suit he feels obligated to keep on. He tells his young friend that Spider-Man isn’t so great, actually; after all, his attempt to save his girlfriend from falling to her death led to her neck snapping, killing her.

But Spider-Man, like any good superhero, is supposed to be a friendly, loyal, neighborhood good guy. Even as he processes his pain, we both want and expect him to end on the reassuring note: The people need him, and he must do right by them first and foremost. But that’s not the Spidey we end up with in Lotus; this Spidey makes peace with his suit on a begrudging basis. “I’m not Spider-Man because I want to be,” Peter says in voiceover, “but because I have to be.” Cue Uncle Ben rolling in his grave.

That said, it’s a fitting conclusion for a slow-moving, self-indulgent, even nihilistic story. But while he fails to tell a compelling narrative, Konop does succeed on a few other fronts. The Spidey suit designed for the film is attractive and comic book-accurate. The visual effects are occasionally quite astounding for a crowdfunded project, like when Spidey swings fluidly across a building. A scene in which Peter recalls his final fight with the Green Goblin benefits from Konop’s unsteady camerawork, which is typically poor; we watch Peter wail on his nemesis as he becomes increasingly bloody, delirious, and confused by his actions. This offers a rare bit of tension, which the film could stand to benefit from more of.

It’s doubtful that Spider-Man: Lotus will inspire any fawning imitators or hype anyone up for the future generation of superhero movie makers, even besides the controversy. But considering how boring and forgettable Lotus is, perhaps all the pile-on might be a boon for Konop: All the talk won his passion project far more attention (and viewers) than it would have otherwise.

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