Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2 diminishes strong character work with its maddening plot

The best thing about movie studios making an outside of the box choice when choosing the director for a superhero movie is that the director in question often brings their non-blockbuster sensibilities to the project.  Take The Avengers, for instance.  Part of what makes it great is that at times it feels like Joss Whedon just wants the movie to be Buffy or Firefly, so great importance is placed on winking humor and strong group dynamics.  Likewise, Christopher Nolan brings an element of his intense psychological dramas into his Batman films that aren't present in the previous versions.  Choosing (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb to helm Amazing Spider-Man was a gift and a curse for Sony.  On one hand, he brought his character-centric sensibilities to the film, delivering a Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) that was much closer to the comic book version than Sam Raimi's interpretation ever was.  On the other, his inexperience with superhero -- or even action -- films showed, given its nonsensical plot and lack of compelling action setpieces.

Once again, Marc Webb has succeeded in making a good film about Peter Parker.  Even more so than the first installment, Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like Webb just wanted to make (500) Days of Summer again.  The film picks up around the time of Peter's high school graduation, where he's still dating Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).  He finds himself wrestling with everyday responsibility and his duty as a crime fighter, and it's made even more complicated by the guilt he feels for going against Gwen's father's dying wish for Peter to stay away from his daughter.  Just like the first time around, the scenes between Peter and Gwen are the highlight of the movie, due to Garfield and Stone's relaxed chemistry.  But it's not just a romantic relationship that Peter is embarking upon.  There's also the introduction Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), the childhood friend Peter reconnects with after the death of his father, Norman (this series sure has a thing about dead father figures, doesn't it?)  In just a few scenes the film establishes a warm, affecting relationship for the two of them, and between that and the love story with Gwen, Webb sets up a strong emotional foundation to hold up the story on.

Unfortunately, it all falls apart once the plot rears its ugly head.  Amazing Spider-Man 2 might be a good film about Peter Parker, but it's a terrible Spider-Man one.  While dealing with some street-level baddies, Spider-Man runs into Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a lowly employee at Oscorp.  Max is also a superfan of the titular web-slinger, a trait that the movie plays up in the most cliche and stereotypical way possible.  As if that weren't enough, he's also ignored by everyone around him, and when he's not being ignored he's being cruelly mistreated, a fact that eventually leads to a freak accident that gives him the power to control electricity.  It's a setup that's not inherently bad, and the idea of the "Accidental Villain" is a trope that comes up time and time again in comic books, but the execution is so poorly handled.  Max's full transition to Electro, during a laughably soundtracked scene in Times Square, feels like the product of a first draft in the way that it skips a few steps in mapping out a believable turn to villainy.  It's a moment indicative of this rebooted series as a whole -- always taking shortcuts to get to the spectacle.  

At least in the first film, the good parts were pretty easy to extract from the bad elements, but they're so entwined here that the merits of the sequel are almost lessened.  So much time is devoted to Electro, a villain who ultimately doesn't amount to much in terms of drama or excitement, that not enough is allocated to the relationship between Peter and Harry, which seems to be the real meat of the story.  The film's conclusion is effective and well-constructed, but it's not enough to forgive the bland plot that gets in the way of the strong character work for the majority of the story.  Ultimately, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is just as much of a mixed bag as its predecessor was.  The highs are may be higher, but that just makes the lows more frustrating.  Perhaps the third time will be the charm.


  1. I have yet to see this one, but I've heard the same complaints you've brought up here being plot.

    Is this as bad as Spiderman 3 was? (My hierarchy of Spiderman films goes as follows: 2 > 1 > Amazing 1 > 3)

    1. I saw Spiderman 3 when I was 16 and haven't seen it since then, so my opinion of it has always been "eh, I don't think it's that bad." I also don't like Spiderman 1 very much either, so maybe my opinion on these movies isn't the best one to go by (although I do acknowledge that Spiderman 2 is incredible like every sane person should). But I guess I'd say this is not as bad as most people think Spiderman 3 is? I don't know, Spiderman 3 might be overstuffed, but at least Sam Raimi had a more distinct style than Webb does. There's some goofy stuff in the 3rd Raimi movie, but it's better than how generic the non-Peter Parker stuff comes off in Amazing Spiderman 2. The action scenes in this movie literally feel like the ride at Islands of Adventure.