Great Chemistry Can’t Save the Day in Poorly Scripted “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, much like its predecessor, is a colorful comic book movie that stands apart from the recent slew of common hyper-realist superhero films, but not necessarily in a good way. In the rest of the Marvel Universe, superheroes are used as the gimmicked premise for which a logical, compelling, and otherwise realistic plot develops. Even Thor’s stories, though grounded in Asgardian “magic”, retain a kind of logic that makes the world feel very much so like our own.
The fundamental tonal difference in both The Amazing Spider-Man movies directed by Marc Webb, however, is one that constantly reminds us that we are indeed watching a very cartoony movie. Though not has heavy handed as the likes of Watchmen, which took some shots straight out of the graphic novel, or Hulk (2003) which tried to make use of ridiculous comic book-ish split screens, very seldom do you forget you’re in a comic book story when you’re watching Spidey do his thing.
It’s in the quippy one-liners and Spidey’s ridiculous acrobatics, which we see in the opening scenes when some Russians thugs are trying to steal plutonium. It’s so typically Spider-Man — to juggle dozens of plutonium canisters — that it’s silly. You know immediately that if you’ve come looking for a creative and invigorating new take on the character, then you’re going to be disappointed. This isn’t Nolan’s brooding Batman. This isn’t Marvel’s bold and cleverly crafted Avengers bombast. This isn’t Captain America’s excellent spy thriller. This is your favorite neighborhood web-crawler, and the only thing he shoots out more than webs are puns. He even uses his webs to pull Paul Giamatti’s pants down. It’s a lot of fun, albeit colorful, simplified, and completely unsurprising fun.
“Amazing Spider-Man 2” picks up soon after the first film: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is dating Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) despite the dying wish of her father. Gwen knows and accepts that Peter’s duties as Spider-Man often take priority over more typical commitments, like being there to listen to her valedictorian speech at graduation. She’s totally cool with it. In fact, she’s the perfect girlfriend. Gwen is brilliant, funny, charming, and supportive of Peter (even when she’s being smarter than him, which is no easy feat). She’s a delight to watch on-screen, especially when Emma Stone can work her natural chemistry with Andrew Garfield (dating in real life actually, but I reckon you already knew that). Peter’s guilt complicates things — as does the haunting ghost of Gwen’s dad — and over the four-year expanse of this movie, they break up and struggle to move on with their lives while still pining for one another. They reconnect. They’re in love. He’s a superhero. She’s a super-science genius. It’s cute. We love it.
The delightful romantic comedy led by Garfield and Stone, unfortunately, is marred by several other pesky movies that happen to occur at the same time. We uncover more about the nebulous work of Richard Parker, Peter’s dad, who was actually the brains behind the whole radioactive spider business. Peter is also reunited with his childhood friend (they haven’t been friends since they were 7 by the way…), Harry Osborn (Dan DeHaan) who is real happy to hang out with Pete again. Unfortunately, Harry is also dying of a weird disease, and the only cure is
more cowbell Spider-Man’s magical spider blood (que???). Meanwhile, a borderline psychotic electrical engineer named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is involved in a crazy accident involving lots of electricity and some mean eels; over time his godlike control over electricity grows as he becomes Spidey’s baddest baddie to date. When these stories do sporadically converge, things heat up, and the movie just sort of bubbles over, like a sad little pot of boiling water. Too much was thrown in to cook, and everything at the wrong time. This is not only a metaphor taken way to far, but the worst dinner you’ve had in awhile.
There’s just too much shoved in. Aunt May is taking classes and struggling financially. There’s also a scene during a blackout where air traffic controllers freak out about two planes on a collision course. We also see Aunt May rushing about an ER during said blackout helping out. There are just so much random things added in for color that subtract more than they add. It makes you wish the director had focused more on the things that mattered, like close-ups on Emma Stone’s face.
There’s one particular sequence in which Peter is meeting with Harry about Harry’s illness. Harry’s emotional instability peaks. He pleads with Peter to find Spider-Man so he can get some blood to heal him. He’s dying (even though his dad lived to about 60 with the same illness…?). Peter makes his awkward exit. Meanwhile, a few dozen floors down in the same building, Gwen has discovered that Oscorp was covering up the whole accident that created Electro. Peter and Gwen literally bump into one another — omg HEY! — for a little closet rendezvous before parting ways. A couple funny things happen. A lot of weird things also happen. And then the whole movie just sort of forgets that Gwen is in trouble with Oscorp at all. But it doesn’t matter anyway. She’s going to Oxford in the Fall for grad school!
Underlining all this is that constant journalistic murmur of the press constantly questioning Spider-Man’s role as a vigilante. Meanwhile, the people of NYC are totally obsessed with him, especially the cops, therefore negating whatever negative stuff J. Jonah Jameson is spreading about him. It’s literally impossible to hate this Spider-Man. Literally no one except for the villains in the movie show anything less than absolute adoration. He routinely high-fives cops, wears firefighter helmets while hosing down baddies (see below), and even scares off bullies that pick on nerds. His first encounter with a bumbling Max Dillon is one of ego-boosting reassurances (a patronizing move that will bite him in the butt later, but comes off as earnest and generous when it happens). I’d go so far as to stake the claim that the most charming relationship in the whole movie, even more enjoyable to watch than Peter and Gwen, is the bromance of Spider-Man with the entire city of Manhattan.
You inevitably have to compare Garfield’s Parker/Spider-Man to Tobey Maguire’s. I spoke in great lengths about how much I love Andrew Garfield’s portrayal in my review of the first movie. Garfield’s portrayal is everything Spider-Man should be: lean, wiry, wise-cracking and silly as a means to hide inner emotional turmoil. Being cool as Spider-Man is Peter Parker’s coping mechanism. Tobey Maguire lacked the sort of undeniable charm that makes Garfield thrive. Maguire struck a much more serious tone with his character, and in a lot of ways that was the greatest strength of Spider-Man 1 and 2. A maturing Peter Parker grapples with his responsibilities as a hero and how to protect the ones he loves. The human relationships are the focus of those movies rather than the villains. Garfield’s Spider-Man, on the other hand, is far more immature and it takes him almost two full movies to gain any sense of gravitas and only a smidgeon of real responsibility. Bad writing and a bloated studio budget, perhaps? If we learned anything from The Amazing Spider-Man, it was that Peter Parker is a too-cool-for-school mildly emo punk who just sort of does what he wants. That kind of attitude is likable in its own right, but more often than not it is irritating. His more likable sides come out in his interactions with Aunt May and Gwen. Maguire’s Parker was always more humble, earnest, and desperate to do the right thing. We respect him more as a character, which made those first two movies all the better.
The best way to epitomize the differences between The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 2 is with two nearly parallel scenes. In SM2, Doc Ock sabotages the brakes on a train and an unmasked Spider-Man has to sacrifice his body to stop it. He nearly dies in the process, and is lifted through the crowd, floating all Christlike. The gracious people promise to keep his identity a secret. It’s a long, complex scene that is just so darn potent it makes me tingle. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2? A bus is knocked over by the villain and is about to slide into an innocent bystander. Spider-Man does virtually the same maneuver to stop it just in time, but it costs him no physical toll whatsoever. He’s gone in a flash to subvert more destruction and continue the expensive, flashy, shallow action sequence with virtually no emotional toll. This Spider-Man is much more powerful. Everything is effortless and even when he’s beaten down, he heals almost instantly.
The sheer energy permeating throughout The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is tangible, but the film suffers a great deal because it dabbles only tangentially in shallow pockets of substance. A LOT of things “happen” in the movie, with very little resonating on any striking emotional level. Much of it just doesn’t make sense; the little that does, irritates or distracts us. It’s an extension of the most glaring problem in the first “Amazing Spider-Man” movie: an immature Peter Parker, despite rightfully blaming himself for Uncle Ben’s death, doesn’t have the maturity to maintain the “great responsibility” that comes with his “great power.” Everybody knows that’s the whole point of the character, and it’s a point that never truly surfaces in these movies.
Watch it for the Stone-Garfield dynamic and try to smile past the holes in the plot. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is enjoyable enough to watch for the beautiful action sequences alone, even if it does feel rather immature and goofy at times. Spidey’s maneuvers are brilliantly executed, particularly when he’s using a manhole cover to deflect a series of missiles before swinging it into Rhino’s face.
SPOILER-HEAVY PLOT REFLECTIONS
Spider-Man is forever the hero who learns his lessons too late.
How many people have to die for a hero to learn his lesson?
Apparently at least two.
Everybody who has any prior knowledge of Spider-Man sort of knew that Gwen Stacy was going to die at the end of this movie. Even the promo shots and trailers featured her falling through some sort of bell tower while Spider-Man tries to save her and the Green Goblin tries to ensure her demise. We knew this was coming, but that didn’t stop Gwen’s death from being the most emotionally potent thing to happen in the whole movie. It had everything to do with their reunion atop the bridge before the final showdown. It’s adorable and wonderful, but as soon as Peter says he’ll leave New York to be with her in England, we know that the funeral bells in the tower are already ringing. Imagining Spider-Man perched atop Big Ben is just sort of horrid. Where’s he going to swing from in such a low-lying city? We know there’s a sequel coming, so Gwen Stacy just sort of has to die from that moment. It spoils any of the potential shock of the moment for us, by fixing that point in time.
The biggest problem with these movies is Peter’s stunted emotional growth. Gwen Stacy’s death hits him hard in the end, but after a sad montage lasting no more than 5 months, Spider-Man is back on the beat, no worse for the wear. I couldn’t help but think of the far too abrupt conclusion to How I Met Your Mother, in which a whole lot of emotional things happen while decades are condense into seconds and the audience isn’t given enough time to feel the loss they’ve just seen.
Given the nature of the very end to the movie and the teases, it’s clear that the next film will feature Spider-Man battling the Sinister 6. We know that Dan DeHaan will likely reprise his role as the Green Goblin, and the same for Paul Giamatti as Rhino. Doc Ock’s tentacles and Vulture’s wings were also an obvious tease, along with some things from Kraven. The sixth member remains unclear, and I hope it stays that way for a long time. It’s bad enough that we already know 90% of the plot in the next movie, considering we know for sure that Shailene Woodley was supposed to play Mary Jane in this movie, but was left on the cutting room floor. So we can only assume that we’ll see a somewhat wiser Spider-Man battling six villains at once while Peter Parker begins to romance Mary Jane.
It looks like I will never live to see my childhood dream of a live-action Spider-Man vs. Venom movie.
And before you try to point out the obvious, we all know Spider-Man 3 was abysmal.
And if that sixth member of the Sinister 6 is Venom I will flip out.