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Wednesday
May072014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Greater Power, Greater Responsibility

Despite my best efforts to remain objective, I found myself aligning with the Anti-Spider-Man-reboot-sequel army. I considered Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man to be a disaster, a business decision disguised as a movie that lamely tried to capitalize on Sam Raimi's (mostly) lauded new-century trilogy--while also delivering a crowd-pleasing, Dark Knight-style melancholy. The result was a self-serious rehash that didn't take the source material seriously. How could a two-and-a-half-hour sequel fare any better?

Quite well, in fact, and I will happily toss out whatever critical credibility I have left in defense of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Don't get me wrong: there's so much garbage in this movie, so much unforgivably ripped-off material and bizarre tonal problems as to make the new Ninja Turtles trailer seem downright cohesive in contrast. But the stuff that Webb and writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner get right--they get really right, and I'm dying for a fan cut that unearths this film's potential from its goofy, electrified sarcophagus.

Warning: Turn back now to avoid a web of spoilers!

If you've seen the other films, there's not much new here, by way of a synopsis: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a nerdy science whiz with spider-like super-powers who swings through New York City catching criminals--when he's not running late for high school graduation or taking pictures of his costumed alter ego for The Daily Bugle.

Peter has lived with his Aunt May (Sally Field) since his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) died mysteriously years before, and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), has kept his secret since finding out in the last movie. When we pick up a year or so later, the couple are on the verge of college and having what looks to be their thirtieth fight about whether or not it's smart for a superhero to carry on a romantic relationship.

This is the second-strongest aspect of the film (I'll get to the first in a bit). Garfield and Stone finally show evidence of chemistry--instead of the inferred chemistry carried in the first film by Stone and projected onto Garfield's downright snotty, entitled, and disturbingly twitchy take on one of the nicest, most normal characters in comics. It's as if Kurtzman, Orci, and Pinkner took fan outrage to heart and drew Peter as a completely different character the second time out.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers go back to the pre-Iron Man well of comic-book movies for everything else in their story--specifically, Joel Schumacher's last two Batman flicks. Webb and company play up the 1960s TV show garishness that Schumacher grossly misinterpreted as being a brand staple. And I don't mean this figuratively: compare Jamie Foxx's Max Dillon character (a nerdy scientist obsessed with Spider-Man, who becomes an electrified super-villain following a traumatic lab incident) with Jim Carrey's Edward Nygma from Batman Forever (a nerdy scientist obsessed with Bruce Wayne, who becomes a hyperactive super-villain following a traumatic encounter in his lab).

The Bat-nanigans don't end there, however. With the introduction of Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), we get a secondary villain in the form of The (unofficially named) Green Goblin. A childhood friend of Peter's, Harry was sent away to boarding school. His his dying father, Norman (a fantastic-as-always-even-in-a-nothing-part Chris Cooper) calls him to his death bed to chastise him for being a lousy son, and to let him know about the irreversible degenerative disease coursing through his veins--a disease engineered by him, which turns people into physical and psychological monsters. Harry gets it into his brain that the only cure is a dose of Spider-Man's blood, and so begins a sub-par sub-plot that serves only to propel us into a really well done third-act shocker.

What does that have to do with Batman? Nothing, specifically; the screenwriters do a nice job of burying their tracks. But astute filmgoers/comic-book junkies will likely come wobbling out of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with some serious Dark Knight deja vu. To wit, both movies feature:

  • An "Off the books"research division in a major corporation, complete with massive subterranean lair
  • A semi-truck flipping over in the middle of a downtown street
  • A grinning villain, disguised as a nurse, sneaking into a hospital to awaken a lesser villain, 
  • A terribly scarred villain popping up in the last ten minutes to threaten the hero's loved ones
  • The killing off of the hero's love interest as a means to make him give up crime-fighting.

That's not to mention this film's opening scene, which directly parrots Kurtzman and Orci's own Star Trek reboot from five years ago--complete with parents sacrificing their lives in the face of unstoppable evil and going down in a fiery, dramatic crash.

Yes, I've spent about eighty percent of this review explaining why TASM2 sucks. As I said before, there's a lot here to hate. But in some areas, it feels as though the filmmakers really listened to what people found most troubling in the previous films, and took steps to make things better. Most of this centers on their depiction of Spider-Man. Not only are the CGI building-bounding scenes top-notch, they display a real commitment to telling the visual story of how Spidey gets around Manhattan. Webb and his army of effects artists show the character stumbling, reaching, and reacting to his environment--instead of relying on the audience's acceptance that, well, his webs must be connecting to something just outside the frame.

Also, Peter and Spider-Man aren't douchebags this time out. Some people liked Garfield's more self-assured, hipster take on the character; others (including me) found him to be an insufferable, stammering knob that absolutely no one in their right mind could get behind--in or out of tights. Peter's more human now, more relatable and grounded. Much of that may have to do with Gwen's growth into a self-assured young woman, who has dreams and plans that don't center on getting rescued from a falling/burning something-or-other.

The last detail (a deceptively major one) is that Spider-Man keeps his mask on for ninety-five percent of the movie. It's is a feat that not even the revered Raimi trilogy could pull off, and this subtle difference speaks volumes to not only the character's humility, but the filmmakers' as well. Tobey Maguire and Garfield could barely make it through a Spider-Man scene, in previous chapters, without either ripping off the mask or dealing with several gaping holes that conveniently revealed their precious movie-star mugs. Consciously or not, Webb and company have finally given audiences a modicum of assurance that the new Spider-Man franchise might just be about a beloved comic-book character and not (primarily) about retaining franchise rights with the maximum possible profits.

Going into this movie, I was afraid that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would just be an over-long and unnecessary trailer for the much-discussed Sinister Six film (a proposed villains-only team-up movie that would gather Spider-Man's greatest villains in a sort of anti-Avengers epic). There's some of that here, sure.

When Paul Giamatti pops up at the end in an unwieldy, metal rhinoceros suit, I practically had to shield myself from the waves of movie-studio desperation emanating from the screen. But that scene also brings us one of the series' tenderest and most profound moments, in which an eight-year-old boy (Jorge Vega) briefly takes up the mantle of Spider-Man in order to save his city. All the sweeping, swooping, chest-swelling heroism of the previous two-hours-and-twenty minutes shrank in the shadow of a kid in a wrinkly, store-bought costume. In an instant, I went from choking on vomit to choking back tears.

That, true believers, is nothing short of amazing.

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