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Josh Reviews The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 4th, 2014
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Get comfy, folks, we have a lot to discuss with this one.

When The Amazing Spider-Man 2 works, it works very, very well.  There are aspects of this film that are truly amazing (pun very much intended).  And when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t work, and boy are there a lot of times when it doesn’t work, it is horrendous.  If this film was just terrible from start-to-finish I could more easily write it off and ignore it, but there’s enough that is great that the aspects of the film that fail are hugely frustrating, one enormous missed opportunity after another.

To re-cap, Sam Raimi directed a trio of Spider-Man movies (starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst).  The first two were incredible, thrilling super-hero films in their own right and, to me, pretty much a note-perfect way of bringing the character of Spider-Man to life on screen.  The films had some flaws (for example, in the first film, having the faces of both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin hidden behind inexpressive masks impacted the drama of their scenes together), but in tone they GOT it.  In particular, both films have terrific endings.  I loved that, in the first film, Peter Parker DOESN’T get the girl.  And in the second film, after Peter and Mary Jane are finally brought together, the pain and fear we glimpse in Mary Jane’s eyes in that final shot is spectacular, a wonderfully complex and enigmatic way to end the film.  Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 stunk big-time, as Rami famously fought with the studio, and the result was an over-bloated, nonsensical mess.  At that point, the studio decided they didn’t want to continue paying Raimi, Maguire, and Dunst’s big salaries, so they rebooted the series with a new cast and a new origin.  I would have preferred for them to not have started over again from zero.  Just re-cast the series and tell us some new, great Spider-Man adventures!  But that’s not what happened.  The result was The Amazing Spider-Man (click here for my review), a very mediocre film that had moments of greatness but over-all was forgettable.

I had been hoping that this sequel would be able to take what worked about The Amazing Spider-Man and and improve about what didn’t, but unfortunately this deeply flawed film only cements this rebooted Spider-Man series as an over-all disappointment.  This film is a big-time swing-and-a-miss.

So what works?

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.  Ms. Stone is perfectly cast.  She looks the part (and I loved the way her outfits in the film perfectly capture the classic Gwen Stacy look, especially that iconic white overcoat), and more importantly she breathes spectacular life into the character.  We can see why Peter is smitten with Gwen.  She’s beautiful and smart and fiercely independent and brave.  She is one of the more fleshed-out super-hero love-interest characters I can remember.  She’s terrific.  I wish she was in a better film.

The film looks terrific.  The film has an engaging, bright, primary-color look that fits the universe of Spider-Man (as opposed to, say, the darker world of Batman) while still keeping the characters and situations grounded in a real-world look.  That’s a tougher balance that one might imagine, and the film nails it.  The visual effects are spectacular, really stunning.  Spider-Man is an incredibly difficult character to bring to life the way he looks in the comics — always swinging through the air, incredibly agile and balletic.  For all that I love Raimi’s films, his Spider-Man always felt a little too heavy and bulky, and the combination of live-action footage with CGI was often awkward.  Not so here.  This Spider-Man looks incredible.  There are some big, crazy super-powered super-fights in this film, and they are (for the most part) incredible.

The film gets Spider-Man exactly right.  The film totally mis-understands Peter Parker (which I will get to in a minute), but weirdly, at the same time, they also get Peter as Spider-Man absolutely correct.  First of all, they finally have the costume perfect.  They thankfully eliminated all the extra crazy detailing on the costume from the last film, and have for the first time in all these films gone with an almost exact replica of the classic Spidey costume from the comics, and it is incredible to see on screen.  The shape and size of the eyes on the Spidey costume are perfect, a relief at last.  I love the way this Spidey has a slender, acrobatic look, and the way Andrew Garfield moves in the suit, the way he holds his body and turns his head, is all absolutely perfect.  As I noted in the above paragraph, the visual effects are used to enhance what was accomplished with live action to finally give us a Spidey who is convincingly able to swing between building and accomplish all sorts of super-heroic derring-do.  I also love that this Spidey is constantly cracking wise while fighting crime, a classic trait of the characters that finally has been brought to the screen.  Equally important: I love that this Spidey is laser-focused on saving people and minimizing property damage.  After the well-deserved criticism leveled at last year’s Man of Steel (click here for my review) for Superman’s seeming not to care a whit for the insane destruction caused to Metropolis by his fight with Zod, it’s so great to see a hero who is focused on saving lives.

After the film’s ridiculous and unnecessary prologue with Peter’s parents (more on this in a minute), we get an incredible sequence in which Spider-Man tries to stop a criminal (played in full-on crazy-accent scenery-chewing wonderment by Paul Giamatti) who has hijacked a truck of plutonium.  It’s the best sequence in the film, and I think the very best depiction of Spider-Man from all five of the Spider-Man films so far.  It’s perfect and so much fun.  I wish the rest of the movie was nearly as good.

OK, so what doesn’t work?

Just as I’d noted in my review of the first film, this sequel once again gets Peter Parker entirely wrong.  I think Andrew Garfield is a fantastic actor, but he is terrible as Peter Parker.  (To be fair, much of the fault lies with the script.)  This arrogant, selfish Peter doesn’t do it for me at all.  Look at Peter’s behavior at his high school graduation, at the beginning of the film.  It’s classic Peter Parker behavior to be late to something because he was off doing good as Spider-Man.  And it’s the classic Peter Parker flaw to break the hearts of those he loves, because he is so focused on serving the greater good as Spidey.  But the showboating idiot who gives Gwen Stacy a huge kiss in front of the entire school and all the parents & families assembled is not the meek, good-hearted Peter Parker I have been reading about in the comics since I was a kid.  The too-cool-for-school Peter who quickly ditches his cap and gown to walk around in a raggedy undershirt isn’t the Peter Parker I recognize, nor is the selfish Peter who goes out of his way to ignore and snub Gwen’s family again and again.

Neither of the villains work at all.  Let’s start with Electro.  Actually, once Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) goes full-on super-villain, I like the look he’s given.  OK, I dunno why Electro needs a super-suit but I’ll go with it.  And I was very pleasantly surprised that the film used Electro’s ability from the comics to sometimes abandon his human form and become pure electricity.  But boy does the film mis-handle the character right from the start.  For some insane reason, Mr. Foxx and the screenwriters have patterned this character on Jim Carrey’s performance in Batman Forever.  Max is not a real character, he’s a one-dimensional cartoon of the worst kind, an unbelievably over-the-top caricature of nerd-dom.  For this character’s story to have worked, we needed to like and pity Max, but instead he’s an off-putting joke.  And once he becomes Electro, the character has no purpose in the story at all other than to provide some exciting action set-pieces.

The Green Goblin is even worse.  Ridiculous and unconvincing as it is, at least Max Dillon has an arc, as the character transforms from stepped-on nobody to powerful, angry super-villain.  But Harry Osborn goes from skeezy, angry kid to, well, skeezy and angry villain with pointy hair and terrible teeth.  The film tells us that Harry was Peter’s best friend, but we never saw him in the first film and we only get one (terribly unconvincing) scene here of the two as buddies before Harry turns against Peter and Spider-Man.  In the original Spider-Man trilogy, they took three movies to transform Harry from Peter’s best friend into a super-villain, so that worked really well (even if they didn’t stick the landing in Spider-Man 3).  Trying to throw him in here and take him all the way from best-friend to arch-enemy in one movie was a huge mistake, and it was bungled all the way through.

Dane DeHaan had a very similar story-line (transforming from nice but broken kid into dangerous super-powered maniac) in Chronicle (click here for my review), and he was magnificent.  So I can’t put all the blame on him for this terrible, over-the-top performance.  Certainly the screenwriters and director Marc Webb share the blame, but boy did Mr. DeHaan make the wrong choices.  There is no modulation to Harry, he’s over-exaggeratedly evil from start-to-finish.

Just like Max, Harry is given a ridiculously silly and over-exaggerated look right from the start.  (In Harry’s case, they made the insane decision to give him evil Peter Parker from Spider-Man 3′s comb-over haircut.)  Things only get worse when he becomes the Green Goblin.  I think they had the right idea to make the Goblin a physical transformation, rather than a man under a metal mask as he was in the first Raimi film.  But what they came up with here stinks to high heaven.  It’s not scary, it’s laughable.

The film mistakenly focuses on Peter’s parents.  I don’t understand why these two Amazing Spider-Man films have been so focused on Peter Parker’s parents.  The driving force behind Spider-Man is the murder of Uncle Ben, a murder Peter Parker could have prevented.  It’s not his abandonment by his parents.  (Why not?  Because Peter Parker didn’t grow up in a foster home, he grew up being cared for and raised by his loving aunt and uncle.  They WERE his parents!)  But these two films have wanted to make a whole big deal about the mystery behind Peter’s parents’ death/disappearance, and they’ve presented us with a Peter obsessed with his absent parents.  Uncle Ben is hardly mentioned at all in this film.  The one time Aunt May does mention him, when she comments how much she wishes he’d have been there to see Peter graduate from High School, annoying Peter immediately jumps in with “and my parents.”  Oy.  (Also, in these sequels, we’ve still never heard Uncle Ben or anyone say the classic and critically-important Spider-Man line: “with great power comes great responsibility.”)

But I could live with this change to the Spider-Man story if this focus on Peter’s parents actually went anywhere.  Sadly, despite all the time the film gives to the mystery behind Peter’s parents — both the lengthy and stupid prologue with the James Bond-like fight on the plane, and all the screen-time spent on Peter’s investigation into their disappearance — what do we or Peter learn that we didn’t already know?  Absolutely nothing of any consequence.  OK, Peter gets to watch a video of his dad (guess Richard Parker took the idea from Howard Stark in Iron Man 2) who tells him that he loved him.  That’s nice.  But what does any of this have to do with the rest of the story of the movie?  If you took that whole story-line right out of the movie, how would the film’s over-all story be changed?  Not one iota, and that’s a complete and total failure of story-telling.  And don’t even get me started on the insanity of Peter’s dad’s secret underground hidden lab.  You’re telling me Peter Parker’s dad, all on his own, created that enormous buried-then-levitating train-car laboratory??  Give me a break.  And again, where does any of that go?  Peter finds the lab, and then we never see or hear of it again for the rest of the movie.  What was Peter’s dad so desperate to upload to “Roosevelt”?  Surely there was more than just that video to Peter??

The film suffers from Star Wars prequel-itis in that it makes everything connected, which shrinks the world of the story far too much.  Every super-villain in this rebooted Spider-Man universe has come from Oscorp.  In the last movie, Peter gotten bitten by a spider while visiting Oscorp.  Gwen Stacy has a job at Oscorp.  Peter’s dad worked with Norman Osborn.  Peter’s purported best friend in the world is Norman Osborn’s son, Harry.  And at the end, as the film lurchingly and painfully builds to the Sinister Six spin-off film they’ve already announced, we learn that all of those yet-to-be-seen super-villains will have an Oscorp connection too.  Ugh.

They bungle the ending.  OK, gang, there’s no way to discuss the film’s ending without getting into spoiler territory, so be warned.  If you haven’t yet seen the film, best to stop reading here.

Almost all of the other sins of the film I can forgive, but this is the one that most ruins the film for me.

From the moment it was announced that Gwen Stacy, and not Mary Jane, would be the love-interest in this rebooted Spider-Man film series, comic book fans wondered if, when and how we would get to see her death at the hands of the Green Goblin.  This is one of the most powerful and iconic moments in Spider-Man’s long history in the comics.  I was tremendously excited by the potential for the filmmakers to make the heads of all non-comic book fans world-wide explode, by building up this wonderful, beloved character and then mercilessly killing her off in a future film.  Oh my god that would be pretty extraordinary, and pretty unprecedented for a super-hero film.  (Only the brilliant The Dark Knight has ever dared to go down that path before.)

The whole climactic fight between Spider-Man and Electro gained an increased sense of tension and urgency for me, as I was watching it, because I knew that as soon as that fight was over the Goblin would enter, and I feared for Gwen.  And once Spidey’s fight with the Goblin begins, I was on my edge of my seat wondering if this was going to be The Moment.

And then they did it, and on the one hand I was impressed at the filmmakers’ moxie in going ahead and killing off this great character, played so wonderfully by Emma Stone.  I thought the moment was very powerful, even though in my head I was already disappointed that they’d changed a few key details.  First, the location: after showing us the Brooklyn Bridge only a few moments earlier, I couldn’t believe they didn’t use that location for Gwen’s death as it was in the comics.

Also, we didn’t get the snap.  For non-comic book fans, let me explain that in the comics, the Green Goblin tosses Gwen off the Brooklyn Bridge.  Spidey shoots his webs to catch her, and he succeeds in snagging Gwen right before she hits the ground.  Spidey is at first jubilant that he’s saved his love, but it’s only when he gets closer to her that he discovers that despite his efforts, she has died.  The key is a tiny sound effect in the panel in which Spidey’s webs catch Gwen.  It’s a tiny “snap.”  The comic never actually addresses what has happened, only that Gwen is dead, but from the small sound effect readers can understand that her neck broke from the force of her deceleration when Spidey’s webs grabbed her.  The filmmakers went a slightly different route, and while what they did worked, I really was surprised and disappointed that they weren’t more faithful to the original scene from the comics, one of the most famous scenes in any super-hero comic book ever.  (Interesting side-note: in the exact moment of Gwen’s death on-screen, a moment in which this loud and bombastic film goes nearly completely silent, I heard a man in the row behind me whisper “snap”.)

Even with those changes, the moment works in the film, and it is devastating.

But.

Here’s the problem.  The film goes there and kills off this compelling and much-loved character.  And literally five minutes of screen-time later, Spidey is back in action, happily quipping and fighting bad guys, and the movie’s over.

So what was the point of Gwen’s death???  In the film, it is totally meaningless.

This should be the moment that absolutely breaks Peter Parker.  Not only is Gwen the love of his life, but here is his worst fear — the fear that he has been running from since the end of the last movie — realized: because he is Spider-Man, Gwen Stacy is dead.  This needed to have an impact on Peter, and while the montage of the seasons changing while Peter stands by Gwen’s grave was powerful, that wasn’t enough.  This needed to be explored far more deeply.  If they were going to kill off Gwen at the very end of film 2, then this should have been an Empire Strikes Back level cliffhanger ending, with the hero defeated and the bad guys seemingly triumphant.  That would have been an extraordinarily ballsy way to go , and would have left fans absolutely insane with anticipation for the third film.  Alternatively, kill Gwen off not five minutes before the end of the film, but 45 minutes before the end, and then give us a fully-realized act three in which Peter struggles with the impact of her death and engages in an intense, emotional final battle with Gwen’s murderer and his former best friend, the Green Goblin.  (Consider the way Rachel’s death in The Dark Knight drives Bruce Wayne’s emotional arc throughout the entire second half of the film.  Even if you loathe Joss Whedon’s decision, consider the way Wash’s death in Serenity raises the stakes for the film’s climax, giving the story an oh-my-god-anything-can-happen intensity.)  Either of these two options (Gwen’s death as shocking cliffhanger, or Gwen’s death as key plot point to drive the third act) would have been amazing, but that’s not what we got.  (Note here that Peter has already defeated the Goblin, knocking him out, before the moment of Gwen’s death, so we’re robbed even of a short but emotional final battle between an enraged Peter and the Goblin.)

And so while Gwen’s death was an emotional moment, five minutes later Peter has already moved past it.  So what impact does Gwen’s death have on Peter Parker, or the over-all story of Spider-Man in these films?  Apparently, none at all!  Now, I’m sure the start of the next film will walk things back a bit and give us some more scenes of Peter mourning for Gwen.  And if they go forward with their stated intentions of re-introducing Mary Jane, I’m sure Gwen’s death will impact that story.  But the possibility of more satisfying developments in a future film do not alleviate my frustrations with the failure of this moment to have any importance in this film.

And this is further exacerbated by the fact that this was a moment that can only be done once.  Let’s say they again re-boot the Spider-Man film series a few years down the road, and re-introduce Gwen, this time played by another actress.  They can’t just kill her off again.  They had one chance to do the death of Gwen Stacy on-screen in a way that would really shock audiences.  And they bungled it.  It’s like the Phoenix story in X-Men: The Last Stand.  The complete ruination of the Phoenix saga — one of the very best and most famous X-Men story-lines from the saga — was so painful not just because that film didn’t live up to expectations, but because they forever ruined the Phoenix saga on film.  It’s not like another X-Men movie could just do it over again.  (Well, I guess it’s possible, but extremely unlikely.)  So not only did we not get to see the Phoenix saga done right in that film, but it means we’ll likely NEVER get to see it done right in a movie.  Same goes for the death of Gwen and the impact that story should have.  This is a huge missed opportunity and my biggest disappointment with the film.

Other notes:

I love the way Peter is constantly seeing Captain Stacy (played by Denis Leary).  This is a wonderful way to visually express Peter’s gnawing guilt at breaking his promise.

Once again I have to complain about a big-budget super-hero with a lackluster score.  I liked the weird, whispering soundtrack given to Electro, but other then that, where are the big, memorable themes for the heroes and villains??

I’m glad J. Jonah Jameson was mentioned in the film (and I liked the joke about Jameson’s paying Peter a fair wage “for 1962”), but I guess they were afraid to try to compete with J.K. Simmons’ amazing performance as Jameson in Raimi’s films?

Another flaw (among many) in the film’s story is Peter’s reasoning behind not wanting to give his blood to Harry, who was convinced that Spider-Man’s blood could save his life.  (And by the way, what the hell is it with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s obsession with life-saving super-blood??  That was also an important-but-stupid plot point in Star Trek Into Darkness.)  Peter says no because he’s afraid his blood will turn Harry into a monster, but why does he think that?  Yes, Curt Connors turned himself into a monster, but that was caused by something else entirely.  Peter turned out just fine after he got bitten by the spider, so why would he think his blood couldn’t save his friend Harry?

The first Amazing Spider-Man film had one of the worst post-or-mid-credits stingers I can remember, and the random and poorly-edited peek at X-Men: Days of Future Past was almost as disappointing.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had the ingredients for success.  Unfortunately, the film winds up repeating the Spider-Man 3 problem of being over-stuffed with villains and plot, to the point that none of the stories have enough time to breathe.  We wind up not caring about anything, because it all comes way too fast and none of the characters or story-lines are given enough time to result in any sort of audience investment.  Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci really need to be put into Hollywood jail (their list of screenwriting credits is a list of the worst big-budget films of the last decade: the various Transformers sequels, Cowboys and Aliens, J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film — which was great EXCEPT for its terrible script — and the horrendous, agonizing Star Trek Into Darkness) (and by the way, note to Misters Kurtzman & Orci: having a character point out to another character how cliche a plot device is DOESN’T EXCUSE YOU FROM WRITING SUCH A STUPID AND CLICHE PLOT DEVICE!!!), and director Marc Webb must take some blame as well.

In an age in which we have seen so many amazing super-hero movies, particularly those created by Marvel Studios, the many mis-steps made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are really inexcusable.  Certainly those Marvel Studios movies haven’t been perfect.  I’ve had some quibbles with even the very best of them.  But what they have gotten right has far outweighed any mis-steps, and most importantly they have absolutely nailed the TONE of the stories, and they’ve perfectly captured the characterization of the characters.  So while maybe I have some complaints about, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they got Steve Rogers absolutely perfectly, as opposed to this film’s bungling of Peter Parker.

Sigh.  As you can tell, these stories mean a lot to me.  Nothing makes me happier than to see a classic comic book character or story-line successfully brought to the big screen.  As we have seen in so many of the great super-hero films of the last few years, when done right these stories can have a tremendous power and resonance, both for die-hard comic-book fans and casual movie-goers alike.  I hate to see such potential wasted.  Oh well.  Better luck next time.

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