Sunday, May 11, 2014
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014)
2012's The Amazing Spider-Man was a film I fairly enjoyed and then, a week after seeing it, promptly forgot had happened at all. Partly, it got swept aside by the sheer weight of The Dark Knight Rises releasing later that same summer. Moreover, as a reboot of a property that had been dormant but five years, Marc Webb's take retread too much familiar territory, while also comparing unfavorably to the Sam Raimi films almost wherever the two interpretations diverged. I just wondered what the point of it was—its reason for existing—and, unfortunately, there seemed little to it beyond "Spider-Man makes money for Sony Pictures, which needs to continuously pump out new movies in order to keep the license." Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man was a pleasant but uninspired production that, by the redundancy of its existence, served to diminish both itself and the Sam Raimi trilogy. Does Webb's sequel, the much darker and weightier (though unexpectedly so, on both counts) The Amazing Spider-Man 2, manage to attain a sense of consequence that the previous film was so sorely lacking?
Honestly, the movie is kind of a mess. As with the last one, it's generally entertaining and enjoyable. For both better and worse, there's a lot more going on this time. The previous film was, in spite of the circumstances of its production, a neat and rounded tale, and, for that one narrowly defined generation that only came to moviegoing age during the five years in between Spider-Man 3 (2007) and The Amazing Spider-Man, perfectly valid as the definitive take and their Spider-Man. The sequel, on the other hand, has all sorts of weird elements that wouldn't spring to mind as things we would distinctly associate with any incarnation of Spider-Man. Chief among these is the entire character of Electro, the primary antagonist.
The original comic book Electro was not one of Steve Ditko's finest creations—basically a petty criminal and traditionally laughable villain. Stories involving him were all the more unbelievable and intolerable because, if you were to treat his abilities seriously, he should clearly be one of Spider-Man's most powerful foes. The movie version is, in many ways, a very different character. The ridiculous "star head" of the comics has been discarded, in its place a digitally face-painted Jamie Foxx, which, frankly, looks just as ridiculous. No longer is the character some low-minded bank-robber, but the film does portray Electro, before he acquires his superpowers, as a pathetic creature, the volatility of his pysche being initially the only check on his otherwise near-limitless capacity for destructiveness. He is at least a character that hasn't been done in a Spider-Man movie before, which is not to say that he is remotely an original concept. The guy looks and plays basically like he walked in from a '90s Batman movie. His origin story is a cross between Catwoman's (discarded cog resurrected by animals) and the Riddler's (unstable sad sack disappointed by his hero), and his appearance kind of resembles Mr. Freeze.
I would have preferred if Electro had been only a first- or second-act villain. I think having multiple villains actually makes sense in a Spider-Man movie, because most of his classic foes were neither grand scheming megalomaniacs nor enemies bearing him any personal animus, but rather were of the more petty variety (albeit with superpowers), engaging in the sorts of crimes that an active urban superhero would be expected to confront and resolve on a daily basis. And the film, like all of the Spider-Man films before it, does do a good job of portraying its hero as a full-time crime-fighter and peacekeeper. One of the better moments in the movie is when Spider-Man first attempts to talk Electro down, considering force only as a last resort. Unlike the trigger-happy cops, Spider-Man has the awareness to recognize that Electro, at that point, does not mean any harm but simply cannot control his abilities. It's a moment that shows what really makes a hero—not superpowers but the conviction to help those in need, which in this case included the confused Electro. A pity it did not take, and Spider-Man was forced to beat him down after all. And an ever greater pity that the Electro storyline did not end then and there.
The worst part is that, even though Electro is Spider-Man's main foe through most of the movie, the truth is that the character could be removed entirely from the story with negligible effect on the final outcome. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a story of two halves that don't really complement one another. On one side is Electro's arc, while Peter, Gwen, and Harry's stories are mostly together on the other side. The two plots have almost no relevance to one another, either thematically or sequentially. I suppose, rather than remove the Electro plot, it would make more sense to say that, if you were instead to remove the considerably more abrupt part of the Green Goblin, you would be left with a neater, more rounded story.
Amid all the competing threads, what's missing is that essential Spider-Man angst that has always been what makes the character so compelling in the first place. In the quintessential Spider-Man tales, the superhero elements are only one part of the story. Equally explored are Peter Parker's everyday problems, as a struggling young man from Queens, who doesn't always feel himself adequate even to make it through his civilian life. His girlfriend needs more from him than one half of a secret double life, his aunt's health is deteriorating, his studies have to be put on the back burner, and he doesn't know how he's going to pay the bills. The guy already can't catch a break, and now he also has to deal with Doctor Octopus! At its best, the Spider-Man story so strikes a chord with audiences because they are able, on a personal level, to relate to the challenges and understand the stakes. These are the qualities that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 overlooks.
Much of it has to do with this series' take on the Peter Parker character, as a much cooler and more confident personality than in traditional incarnations. Whereas Sam Raimi's version, played by Tobey Maguire, was a socially awkward nerd with serious anxiety issues, this new Peter Parker, played by Andrew Garfield, seems like a guy who, all things considered, has it pretty sweet—smart, good-looking, well-spoken, awesome girlfriend, superpowers—and so, when he agonizes over whether to continue his relationship with Gwen Stacy (a "predicament" that everyone in the audience should rightly perceive as totally asinine), he comes across as a mere drama queen, needing to manufacture challenges to obsess over, because he actually doesn't have to deal with the everyday problems that the rest of us do. He's just graduated high school, as a good student with what should be a pretty bright future, but college isn't something that crosses his mind at all. Aunt May does mention not knowing how she'll pay for it, and that has Peter briefly feeling guilty, but then he doesn't even try to do anything about it. He's more concerned with investigating the truth about his parents—a subplot that really leads nowhere and adds almost nothing of worth. In this story, the only major conflicts arise from random lunatics harboring some pathological beef against Spider-Man.
Coming out of the theater, I didn't know what to think about the shock ending, because, even as significant as the twist was, it seemed not at all of a piece with the rest of the movie, and so was hard to evaluate as anything other than a crammed-in and tonally incongruous scene that I might normally gloss over as a throwaway moment, except that, in this case, this one scene completely changes the tone of the entire movie. A little over a week since viewing it, I now realize that the twist—that is, SPOILER, the death of Gwen Stacy—is really the only thing anyone cares to discuss from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the only thing about the movie that might endure in the public consciousness until the sequel arrives in another two years or so.
I'll say that the scene afterward, which depicted the seasons passing as Peter continued to mourn at her grave, was the most effective scene in the entire movie. Even the heart-stopping sequence ending with her death was one of the more auteuristic pieces in a movie that rarely musters a level of personality as found in the Sam Raimi films, or as found in Marc Webb's own theatrical debut, (500) Days of Summer.
But, mostly, I think it's unfortunate. I maintain that, thematically, Gwen's death fulfills nothing, and it just comes across somewhat nihilistic. I feel like the movie only went there because a) the comics did, and b) the Raimi films didn't. Neither is in itself a valid justification for killing off Gwen Stacy this time. When they did it in the comics, it surely was a mercenary stunt, or, more disgusting yet, a way to bail Spider-Man out of having to settle down in a long-term relationship (which was perceived as bad for business). And Emma Stone as a charismatic and capable Gwen Stacy was the one thing that the Marc Webb movies absolutely had over the Sam Raimi trilogy, so what a stupid move to let that go!
Maybe the point was to capture the crushing hollowness when a loved one dies suddenly and senselessly, this grief too a part of the human experience. Maybe this was meant to be a watershed moment for brightly colored superhero flicks, or for those young viewers who had never been exposed to anything so dark before. But, unfortunately, the rest of the movie—decently fun but not great—doesn't earn such distinction. It doesn't earn itself the credit to have audiences backing this play as an artistic decision.
If the only point was to make me feel bad, then mission accomplished, I suppose. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the feel-bad movie of the year. Better than a feel-nothing movie? I suppose. I'll definitely remember this more than I remembered the last film, but not in a way that will have me particularly looking forward to a third installment, sans the first two movies' best element.