Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Mundane Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-man 2

As I was watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, directed by Marc Webb), I was imagining Shailene Woodley sitting in a theater somewhere this spring breathing a sigh of profoundest relief. She was famously cast as Mary Jane Watson in this film and even shot some scenes for it before being cut, ostensibly to move her to this film's inevitable sequel. That sequel is now in some doubt. This film is the least successful film in the franchise, both commercially and aesthetically. If Woodley is smart--and it appears that she is--she'll find some other movie to clog her schedule if Sony decides to pick her up again for the role.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is awful. There's not any getting around it. It lurches from set piece to set piece without any coherent connective tissue. Its scenes veer from the romantically heartfelt to day-glow camp and back again. It squanders actor after actor in scenes that aren't worthy of them. It's busy and ugly and not really much fun. Spider-Man needs to be fun. The world has enough grimdark Batman wannabes. This doesn't need to be one.

Here there be spoylers...

The story here finds Peter Parker puzzling once again over the mystery of his parents' deaths. The film provides a prelude in which Richard Parker and his wife are shown escaping from an assassin sent to kill them all while trying to upload vital information to their bolt hole. The location of that bolt hole is one of the film's mysteries. Peter, for his part, is trying his best to do good as Spider-Man, though he's haunted by the the memory of his promise to Captain Stacy to leave Gwen alone. He loves her, so keeping that promise is hard. As the film opens, Spider-man is in hot pursuit of Russian mobsters who have stolen a truck full of plutonium. It's Peter and Gwen's graduation day, and Peter promises Gwen that he won't miss her valedictorian speech. During the fracas with the Russians, Peter saves Max Dillon, a dweebish engineer at Oscorp who harbors a deep hero-worship of Spider-man. Dillon also harbors a grudge against his employer for stealing his designs for their electrical grid. When he's asked to fix that grid in a lab full of genetically modified electric eels, an accident transforms him into a living dynamo, a being of pure electricity. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn is dying and tries to convince his estranged son, Harry, to take the company in hand. The disease that has ravaged the father is also in the son, and Harry learns that Spider-man may hold the key to a cure. Harry is a childhood friend of Peter's, and he asks Peter to contact Spidey on his behalf for a vial of his blood. Peter, understandably, demures. Harry, it turns out, is a bit unhinged by this. After he's ousted from his company by the scheming Smythe, he enlists Dillon, now called Electro, to draw Spider-man into the open and get him into the company's vault of secret projects. Some of the venom from the spiders that made Spidey are stored there, and Harry injects some of it into himself, causing a transformation into the Goblin. Between them, Electro and the Goblin want to destroy Spider-man...

This is all over the map when it comes to mood and storytelling. Sometimes, it's a day-glow pop art wannabe, while at other times, it's an indie romantic drama in which Peter longs for Gwen and Gwen longs for Peter even though they break up and go their separate ways. Sometimes--particularly at the end of the film--it turns into a grim, violent post-modern superhero movie, something that doesn't suit the characters. It also indulges in naked franchise-building at the expense of its own drama.

Jamie Foxx in The Amazing Spider-man 2

Let's start with the villains. Marvel Comics used to pride itself on the moral complexity of its villains, and it makes an attempt at that in this film. Max Dillon has a legitimate gripe with Oscorp. In his particulars, he reminds me of Catwoman in Batman Returns: mousy, put upon, ground down by the job, suddenly handed great power. As an archetype, this works--or should, anyway. The hero-worship this film codes into Dillon and the way it transforms into hatred is wholly unconvincing. More than that, the nebbish version of Dillon is a broad caricature rather than an actual character with an interior life. Jamie Foxx is certainly capable of nuance, but the film doesn't give him the opportunity to play it. This is a character whose sole function is to be a villain. Nothing else. The Goblin is a bit more complex, but The Goblin is Spider-man's classic enemy so there's a certain amount of baggage involved. The way it portrays the relationship between Harry and Peter, though...that just doesn't scan. There's just too much awkwardness between them. There's a third villain hiding in the film, too. The Russian gangster Spidey catches at the beginning of the film is chosen by Harry to become the first of a cadre of supervillains as The Rhino, here incarnated as a clanking armored suit. The Rhino is even more of a cartoon than Electro or The Goblin. To say that this is all disappointing is putting too fine a point on it. These are characters with no interiority, whose motivations are entirely arbitrary. This, from a tradition in which the villains are more complex. Compare these characters to that most engaging of megalomaniacs, Magneto in the X-Men movies, or to Loki in the Avengers films, or even Doctor Octopus in the previous Spider-Man 2. These are all characters you could build a movie around even without Spider-man. The villains in this movie? Cardboard.

Andrew Garfield and Dane De Haan in The Amazing Spider-man 2

As a short digression, the complexity of villains is something that Sam Raimi's Spider-man films understood implicitly--even the much-derided third film.

More troubling to my mind is the backstory surrounding Richard Parker and his mysterious work for Oscorp. Without getting into the details, it places Peter into the role of a "chosen one," which strikes me as lazy. There's a faux grandiosity to this plot thread, starting with the opening action sequence in which Peter's parents take it on the lam and are killed in an airplane. When Peter discovers his father's bolt-hole, I really had to wonder at the resources involved in building it. The Parkers were never presented as wealthy, and yet, Richard Parker's means of delivering a video to his son is the equivalent of a Bond villain's lair? The sequence where Peter discovers this is one of the film's biggest "What the Fuck" moments, and it speaks more to a production that has too much money to spend. It pads the length and adds nothing to the story that couldn't have been accomplished in a much shorter, much simpler fashion. But that's the modus operandi of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who overcomplicated Star Trek Into Darkness and (god help me) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

The production design and special effects are similarly over--complex. I thought that the trick of depicting Spidey in space had been solved in the previous film, but this film regresses. This isn't much different from John Dykstra's effects on the first Raimi film, and that film often looked weightless.

Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-man 2

If there's anything tolerable in this film, it's the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter and Gwen--unsurprising given that the the two are a real-life couple. Their relationship is the ONLY thing in the film that rings even halfway true. Gwen is a much more active heroine than Mary Jane Watson was in the Raimi films. She's very much Spidey's equal in their relationship. She's not a a damsel. She's active in the defeat of Electro at the end. All of this makes the ultimate choice to mine "The Night Gwen Stacy Died" story for this film's denouement a bitter pill. This story is kind of a legend in the comics canon, and I've previously identified it as the birthplace of the grim and gritty superhero. I'm not a fan. I've always thought it represented a failure of imagination, and the fruit it's borne over the years has been bitter indeed. Placing this story in this movie is suggestive, though, given that Emma Stone is signed to star in further Spider-man movies. If The Amazing Spider-man 3 features The Jackal as a main villain, then I'll just throw up my hands and walk away, though the emphasis on Peter as a chosen one is certainly in character with The Clone Saga. God help us all.

Conspicuous by their absence is the cast of The Daily Bugle. I pity the actor who takes the part of J. Jonah Jameson in a hypothetical sequel, because J. K. Simmons pretty much owns that role for all time. Short of resigning Simmons and Elizabeth Banks, et al. to reprise their roles, it's probably just as well that they've left this off-screen.

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-man 2

In any event, this film left a bitter taste in my mouth. I like Spider-man. I've been a reader since I was a kid. This film puts me off of him like nothing I've ever seen. I freely admit that there's a certain amount of nerd rage involved with my reaction to this film. I mean, I understand that this film's only real function is to preserve the IP for Sony lest Marvel take it back and reap its payday instead. I get that. But, how dare they make a movie this bad? How dare they make me not like Spider-man? That takes work.

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