Revisiting a Sticky Situation
A Film Review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2
By Lawrence Napoli
The summer is fully up and running what with a second comic book blockbuster to grace the box office in the much anticipated sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man. We are almost two exact years to the day removed from The Avengers and the (ahem) amazing things it did by interweaving multiple franchises into a culminating, team-based extravaganza the likes of which have never been seen before. Marvel Studios, and Kevin Feige in particular, certainly had sky-high ambitions regarding this effort, but they continue to reap the rewards as the trend setters. Since then we’ve seen every other major studio with comic book rights setting themselves up for the same kind of “Avengers-like” mega film in hopes of duplicating, if not surpassing, $1.5 billion in global sales. Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel/Justice League, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men and of course Sony Picture’s Amazing Spider-Man franchises all aspire to Marvel Studios’ success, but they all want to get to that Avengers money faster, and they’ve all figured throwing a whole bunch of major characters at audiences in one fell swoop is the key.
We all knew the rouge’s gallery was coming. Every trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 specifically showed us the tech that “belongs” to classic members of The Sinister Six of which Sony has confirmed will have a stand-alone film not to mention a separate film to introduce everyone’s favorite lethal protector, Venom. Rest assured true believers, references, name-dropping and direct appearances from major characters in Spidey’s universe are part of the very joy that makes ASM 2. Unfortunately, it is also the major source my criticism for this film as I predict similar problems for future films in other franchises pursuing the character-bomb method. You see, if a film is trying to sell me on multiple antagonists, then that film better have enough screen time to get the job done properly. The problem is that ASM 2 is a film primarily concerned with Peter Parker’s struggle with his alter ego, his relationship with Gwen Stacy, his relationship with Aunt May and his search for the truth surrounding the mystery of his parents’ disappearance. All of that stuff was absolutely great as Spidey’s moments with his girlfriend and Aunt are far and away the most dramatic and emotional high’s (and low’s) of this film. The screenwriting team of Kurtzman, Orci, Pinker and Vanderbilt carried over the best plot elements from the first film and expanded upon Web-Head’s drama in the second.
Thus, it should be to no one’s surprise that this leaves little old Electro (and everyone else) a whole lot of bupkis regarding screen time to develop themselves as characters, to make their presence meaningful and to compare/contrast with the hero’s motivations to perhaps identify them other than flat, evil and dull. I simply could not help but think that every one of these supposedly alpha villains was a mere afterthought to Peter’s intimate relationships, and this problem is amplified by their sheer number. These fellows go through some pretty drastic personal and physical transformations in no time flat that results in some plot gaps here and convenient plot devices there just to get the audience from point A to B as efficiently as possible. That’s all well and good for animated series and comic books because there’s always the next episode or issue to explain what just happened. Movies need to get it right the first time around because sometimes a character arc gets fully resolved in the same film he or she is introduced. Every single villain in this film, regardless of how strong or menacing they appear to be, pale in comparison to the Tyrannosaurus Rex that is Peter Parker’s personal insecurity, guilt and shame. ASM 2’s villains are vacant spectacles of eye candy and they could have all been replaced with common bank robbers and gang bangers.
If story isn’t your meat and potatoes, ASM 2 has some of the best CG effects at work in the film industry today, and it almost makes up for one of the worst endings I’ve seen in a comic book adaptation to date (but more on that later). I loved how the virtual camera gets in super close to Spidey’s POV while swinging around NYC. and I appreciated more than just one static angle where the audience only sees his hands, then webs then rinse and repeat. Spider-Man has never appeared as aerial as he does in this film, and this welcome feature infuses some visually pleasing movement to the frame without jarring explosions or mid flight fisticuffs muddling the flow. I believe director Marc Webb finds a good balance between real time and bullet time effects for the overall action. Yes, yes, we all know the “Spider-Sense” is technically “on” all the time, but it would get pretty boring to watch slow motion action in every scene. The visual aesthetics don’t get any better than the powered up Electro whose CG team were clearly drawing some inspiration from Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. Every sinewy, neon bolt pops from every background in both day and night and seeing that character fling lightning and transport from place to place is a sight to see.
Cast performances are all over the map, but thankfully the main roles that are reprised are solid once again. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is easily the most charismatic character onscreen, and it’s more than just her good looks at work. She has a great smile, great energy, comedic timing a notable ability to dial it back for drama and dial it up for anger and all while having some genuine chemistry with Peter Parker a.k.a. Andrew Garfield. And speaking of whom, Spidey is a perfect blend of smart-ass, hopeless romantic, and indecisive pariah as the charming Mr. Garfield delivers once again while minimizing his ADD nervousness around Gwen when he wishes to communicate his guilt about the relationship in light of the promise he made to Captain Stacy. Sally Field gives the audience another reliable “mom performance” and continues to keep Aunt May energized with some attitude, which is fine by me because I never want to see that character as a decrepit grandmother ever again.
Everyone else appears to be out-acted by Dennis Leary playing the stoic ghost of Captain Stacy. Paul Giamatti hasn’t played a more irrelevant character as Aleksei Sytsevich since the fraudulent Rudy he played in The Negotiator opposite Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson. His appearance in this film as the “Rhino” is nothing more than a paltry down payment for future films which will hopefully evolve into more than a series of snarls and grunts, but don’t hold your breath. Chris Cooper goes un-credited as Norman Osborn in an absolute throwaway role. I suppose this is just as well because I too would want to forget that I was criminally underused as perhaps the most talented thespian of the cast in a mega-budget paycheck film. Dane DeHaan delivers a duplication of the dreary and demented Andrew Detmer from Chronicle. Seriously, his rendition of Harry Osborn is the exact same character, but with better clothes, and his Green Goblin … well, it could very well end up with the golden razzie for worst character of the year.
Perhaps it was silly of me to expect more out of an academy award winning actor like Jaime Foxx because quite frankly, those actors are usually not filling out these kinds of “popcorn” roles. He definitely overplayed the hokey nature of Max Dillon almost as if he was mimicking Jim Carrey’s Riddler. I understand he did this to accentuate his obsessive compulsive social disorder which in turn makes him a more pathetic target for everyone else to push around if not completely disregard. It explains the anger he lets loose as a severely pissed off Electro, but it also left open a moment for Electro to be a sympathetic villain which almost happens in the Time Square sequence. Due to time constraints and the pre-designation of that scene being a “fight” scene, that moment vanishes as quickly as it’s suggested as whatever character he had left loses all dimensionality and transforms as another, ho-hum (I’ll get revenge on Spider-Man!) villain that’s about as cookie-cutter as comic book villains get.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a film that suffers from way too much going on at the same time for the duration of the entire film that it lessens the emotional impact of every moment as a result. Peter Parker’s internal struggle was conveyed well at the expense of trivializing his external conflict. This would not have been an issue had Electro been the sole villain which would have (potentially) expanded Spidey’s ability to talk down a would-be villain or find some way to reason with him or her to resolve the conflict other than knocking them out. Alas, that option literally goes up in smoke as what seems like a natural end to the film after a climactic battle drags out into a half-hearted, amended ending for no other reason than squeezing in a couple more characters for the last precious minutes of screen time. It’s the kind of moments you would see shoehorned into a post-credits or mid-credits teaser (of which there is none, so once you see the X-Men thing, you can leave the theatre). What’s worse is that these token battles bookend a major (and somewhat expected) plot twist that simply does not deliver the emotional outburst it damn well should have accomplished. It was a disappointing end to an already slumping third act that I kept shaking my head over and over seeing how the first 2/3 of the film was shaping up so well.
Spidey fanboys will go nuts over all the references in addition to all the dramatic placeholders left in this film that expanded universe films might eventually deliver upon. There is plenty of action and special effects to satiate the average audience member looking to take a mental vacation for a couple of hours. But if you’re looking for a real character-driven, action-adventure, set in an ever expanding cinematic universe, you might still be able to catch a screening of Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. This Spider-Man suffers from too much tacked-on, especially at the end. Topher Grace knows exactly what I’m talking about.