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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Movie Review Rant: Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

I've only recently decided to watch the new iterations of the (in)famous web-crawler.  Originally, I had no intention of ever doing so, in part because of a misplaced loyalty to the Raimi renditions (2002, 2004, and 2007).  The real kicker, for me, was the fact that these films came hot off the heels of a preceding adaptation, and they were not a continuation of the original story, but a reboot.  Something about that rubbed me the wrong way.  But then I broke down and watched Amazing Spider-Man (2012; I'll talk about this movie another time) and liked it well enough that I wanted to see how the character would progress.  And so here I am -- reviewing Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)(ASM2 from now on).

(There will be some spoilers in this review.  I have, however, refrained from spoiling major plot elements that you wouldn't have learned about from the trailers.  I will discuss some of these elements in the footnotes, though, as they need to be discussed in the context of my rant.)

ASM2 is about a lot of things.  Peter Parker's relationship with Gwen Stacy and his conflict with her now-dead father's last request (stay away from her).  The truth behind Peter's parents' deaths -- what they were doing when they disappeared, etc.  Harry Osborn's desperation to live.  Spider-Man.  Angst.  Honestly, the more I think about this movie, the less coherent its plot seems.  There are so many things going on here that it is actually hard to determine what actually matters for the overarching narrative.  Is this about Peter Parker and his parents?  The film wants us to think so...for a while.  Is it about Peter and Gwen?  Ditto.  Is it about Harry and his daddy issues?  Apparently.  Max Dillon (a.k.a. Electro)?  Yup.  There are at least two new origin stories in this film, most of which draw attention away from the more interesting personal elements -- Peter's parents and Gwen.  In fact, if this had been a film about one villain, one parental issue, and one romance, with each tied together into a cohesive whole, this might have been on par with Captain American:  the Winter Soldier (2014).  Alas, it was not to be.

If it's not clear, I'm going to tear this film a new one.  But to make you feel better, I'll start with some things that I liked about the film.

First, though I know there are some problematic gender-related issues with regards to Peter and Gwen's relationship, I can't help but admire the dedication to the complexity of their relationship.  There's a sense here that their relationship is real, based on a mutual interest in what one another is feeling or desires (in life or a relationship).  This contrast with the Spider-Man elements is needed to humanize the character and remind us that, yes, Peter Parker really is just a young dude.  One of the things I loved about ASM2 was its brief focus on Gwen's career and the decisions she makes (a reminder that Gwen is actually a young professional on her way to bigger things than just "graduating high school" -- this film, in a way, is as much about her as it is Spider-Man, or at least feels that way).  This is not a movie where the woman is asked to give everything up for the guy; instead, Gwen and Peter both understand that Gwen's opportunities abroad are one-of-a-kind, and that it would be unfair for him to ask her to stay simply for a high school romance.  In the end, it's Peter who offers a solution that involves neither of them giving anything up at all:  he'll move with her.  I don't know how often we see compromise of this sort in film; regardless, it was an element that gave the film a bit of life.
There's a lot more I could say about Gwen, too.  For a film that essentially sidelines the female characters for the male hero (it's Spider-Man, after all), it does at least give Gwen something to do other than play the damsel in distress.  True, she's rather limited in that she's got the brains to out-think Spider-Man's superpowered opponents but not the physical prowess.  But she does help Spider-Man by giving him information for his tech and by participating as an active agent in the climactic fight scene.  In fact, probably the strongest bit of characterization in the entire movie takes place in that fight scene.  This scene condenses the overarching narrative that defines Peter and Gwen's relationship into two important thematic components.  First, Peter's attempts to stop Gwen from participating -- to control her -- when he webs her to a car so she won't follow him on his way to face Electro.  Second, Gwen's assertion of her own agency, and Peter's relinquishment to the reality that his powers do not give him the right to control her decisions.  This is shown when Gwen frees herself and reappears on the scene (I won't ruin this whole scene; just know that her involvement is important), accusing Peter of being "a caveman," to which Peter responds:  "You can't be here right now.  I'm not messing around."  Gwen's response puts Peter's perhaps unintentional patriarchal paternalism in its place:  "OK, guess what.  Nobody makes my decisions for me. OK?  Nobody.  This is my choice.  K?  My choice.  This is mine."  The contrast is almost beautiful.  If there's something to be said about the character development here, it's that Peter is actually pushed into becoming more feminist by the conclusion -- a man who listens to his significant other, who takes her choices seriously and respects them.  This is, unfortunately, undercut by the concluding moments of the film.[1]

Visually, the film is quite beautiful.  I particularly liked the look of Electro and the incorporation of sounds (like a giant, walking tesla coil) into his lightning-style powers.[2]  His final fight with Spider-Man perfectly captures the flexibility and dexterity of Spider-Man and the raw, emotional fury of Electro.  This is obviously a CG-heavy film, but I think they kept the CG at a minimum, allowing for enough of the real to shine through when it was needed.  This is not something that happens often in CG-heavy blockbusters (the Hobbit movies are a prime example).  You'll still need to suspend your disbelief more than normal, but ASM2 at least makes it (mostly) easy.
I likewise mostly enjoyed the film's pacing.  Some folks have complained about the heavy attention on Peter and Gwen's relationship -- their somewhat melodramatic breakup and return, their cutesy romance and banter, their conflicts, etc. (I've talked about some of this above).  Personally, I though these greatly humanized Peter and gave substance to their relationship that might have been forgotten.  Even the Raimi films didn't have nearly this much depth in the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane, so I couldn't help but appreciate the shift back and forth between the Spidey/Parents stuff and the Peter/Gwen stuff.  The film also doesn't drag as much as I thought it would, despite the fact that there are three villains and a lot of subplots.  That's not to say that it doesn't drag; rather, the film's pacing is more on par with a drama that merges for heavy stints into action spectacles than a straight action movie, where the personal is often subdued in favor of the larger conflict.  For the most part, the film is on point when it is focused on those heavy action sequences and the Peter/Gwen narrative.

That said, this is a film that suffers from a lot of structural problems, most notably in the fact that it has so many bloody things going on.  For example, there's almost no need to fulfill the "what happened to Peter's parents" narrative here, as it serves as a distraction more than anything else.  The resolution isn't so much a resolution as a relinquishment to the necessity of an ending.  We just get to the end, we're done with this now.  Sorta.  Add onto that Harry's narrative, which I'll discuss in more depth later, the relationship between Peter and Gwen, what happens to Aunt May, the Peter/Gwen's dead daddy conflict, and Electro's origin story and you have almost as many subplots as the first Hobbit movie in a space no less than 27 minutes smaller.  It's a bit much, and it certainly feels overbearing here, as if the audience is supposed to keep everything cohesive in their mind as the film jumps us about between conflicts.
While I'm on the subject of all these bloody characters, there are a few things I should say about the interpretation of the Spider-Man characters.  First, I actually like Andrew Garfield's take on the smart-mouthed character in these films, even more so than Toby McGuire's version in the Raimi films.  This is the Spider-Man I've come to expect (for reasons I can't quite explain).  He cracks jokes.  He uses his powers to humiliate villains while defeating them (see the opening fight sequence with Alexsei Sytsevich (the Rhino), wherein Spider-Man ties Alexsei by the arms and drops the man's trousers -- you've all seen this scene in the trailers); he also uses his words as a manipulation tool, either to drive villains to irrational anger or to disarm them by saying what they want to hear.  This is a definitively better Spider-Man.  A smarter Spider-Man.  Garfield's performance as Parker/Spider-Man is also much stronger in this particular film, as if he feels more comfortable in the character's shoes and isn't afraid to enunciate and speak.  Perhaps this is intentional on the filmmaker's part -- to convey the growth of Parker through an apparent confidence in presence.

Second, though many have had problems with Jamie Foxx's take on Electro/Max Dillon, I personally found the character a perfect villain for Spider-Man -- he also happens to be the only sympathetic villain in this movie.[3]  The challenge he presents is psychological (an unhinged, maligned man who terrorizes the city out of fear), physical (electric shocks hurt, after all), and intellectual (electric shocks also damage Spider-Man's tech, which requires him to adapt -- see above about Gwen Stacy refusing to be a damsel in distress).  If we were to leave it at these two main characters, I think the film would be better for it.  Alas, that is not so.
ASM2 has too many bloody villains.  Three, in fact:  Electro, Green Goblin, and the Rhino.  Well, two-and-a-half, since one of the villains only appears in the film for ten minutes.  This might not be such a problem if the film didn't also try to give origin stories to the first two of those villains or if one of those origin stories actually made sense.  Green Goblin (Harry Osborn)(played by Dane DeHaan) basically appears out of nowhere.  If Harry is mentioned in the first film, it's so subdued as to be irrelevant.  Here, we're to believe that Peter Parker and Harry were best buds when they were kids, and now they've reconnected and are best buds again.  Sure, if by "best buds" you mean "really awkward creepy friendship with a spoiled rich brat."  Harry's magical appearance in ASM2 means we're to accept that there is a character arc that leads one to sympathize, but aside from the fact that Harry, like his father (Chris Cooper), is dying of a genetic disease, there's really nothing for us to work with.  Harry is an asshole.  An unsympathetic asshole.  But we're supposed to feel sorry for him.  That's clear.  He's not a villain until the end, when he reacts out of absolute desperation, but I couldn't find a compelling reason to feel bad for him, to understand why he went down that dark path.  If anything, it made me think that he was never really friends with Peter all -- that he used Peter in a moment of weakness.  This might make Harry somewhat sociopathic (or whatever is the correct term).  Add to this the fact that DeHaan's interpretation of the Green Goblin character is sort of like a drug addict who hasn't brushed his hair in a while (why this comes and goes, I'll never know, but it apparently does) and you end up with a character who really doesn't belong here.  This should have been a "Harry and Peter become best friends" movie, not a "Peter betrays Harry" movie.

Additionally, we have the Rhino (Paul Giamatti), who may be the worst thing about this entire film.  This feels like a moment when Giamatti needed money and decided "eh, I don't need to actually act."  For most of his lines, I had no idea what he meant to say.  I think he might have said "spider" once.  Maybe.  Giamatti blurts and yells these lines in a horrendously bad Russian "accent," providing nice bookends of absolute trash to an otherwise OK film.  We begin and end with Giamatti giving up on his acting career (or at least doing what may be the most brilliant piece of meta acting, in which he pretends to be an actor named Paul Giamatti who has given up on his career and accepted the Rhino role only to blurt things out like a raging drunk turd; if this is the case, I say he needs an Oscar nomination).  I also have no idea what we're supposed to think about the Rhino.  Is he a serious villain?  Is he a caricature?  Is this a new way to represent the comic book format, where a film refuses to conclude by simply throwing random villains into the mix to keep Spider-Man busy?  Whatever is going on, it's not unlike getting clawed in the eye by a cat.
This is the pre-CG look.  Imagine this is what the Rhino actually
looked like in the movie and you'll have a sense of how ridiculous
Paul Giamatti is in ASM2.
There's just too much going on in this damned movie.  If I recall, one of the things people hated about Raimi's Spider Man 3 (2007) was the fact that it had too many villains.  The writers for ASM2 clearly didn't listen.

I really wanted to like this film.  It's certainly better in places than the first film, but it is ultimately a mess that tarnishes all of its good with horrendous cinematic sins.  But it made a lot of money, so don't expect the writers to do much to correct these errors in the next movie...As a thematic "ride," it is quite fun.  As a film, it is subpar.

Directing:  2.5/5
Cast:  3/5 (on the basis that Giamatti's performance is so utterly horrendous that he drags everyone else down with him, even though he's not on the same screen with most anyone else; also:  the Green Goblin mostly gives me the heebee-jeebees instead of a "threatening" or "truly villainous" vibe)
Writing:  2.5/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation:  2.5/5
Overall:  2.9/5 (58%)
Inflated Grade:  C- (for a bloated plot, poor direction, and terrible performances)


[1]:  The film, sadly, shoots itself in the foot by killing off Gwen Stacy, presumably as a form of fridging.  Instead of having her leave Peter for a special program in England, they opt to kill her off as motivation for Peter to, well, I guess do more of what he's already been doing.  Wouldn't it have made more sense to have had her leave the relationship to pursue her own path?  Wouldn't it have been a better message to remind us that sometimes relationships end?  Nope.  The film says "Gwen must die because she had to die."  Derp derp.  It basically nerfs everything Gwen did in this film, however little; she's rendered into a corpse, because corpses are less dramatic than a fully-realized woman who makes her own decisions which sometimes hurt the hero and doesn't die because of them.  In effect, the message the film relates about young men learning to respect women's choices, as Peter does, is undercut by the realization that letting women do that will apparently get them killed (I'm not kidding; the film reinforces this message, probably by accident).

[2]:  Electro actually plays a version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider."  I don't know how many people caught that in the theater.  I certainly didn't, but upon watching an online clip from the finale, it became crystal clear.

[3]:  We learn throughout the film that Max Dillon, a socially awkward fellow who wishes he were liked, has been systematically abused by basically everyone, such that his fragile trust in Spider-Man is so easily shattered along with everything else.

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  1. The film, sadly, shoots itself in the foot by killing off Gwen Stacy, presumably as a form of fridging.

    I kind of knew it was coming, from the "classic" comic book storyline where she dies. She's wearing the same outfit, even, as in that comic. I was hoping for something more, but, no.

    This movie has the Spiderman 3 problem--too many villains, not enough development. A Spiderman vs. Electro movie would have been just fine, especially since Electro was so dangerous and challenging.

    1. I knew it would happen eventually, but they fell on their face here. Her death shouldn't have come as a consequence of her asserting her agency. But, I get it, they're killing her off to move in new ladies for the offing. It's like the Hunger Games or some crap.

      An Electro-specific movie would have been so much better. Leave the Oscorp/Parker's parents stuff for the third film.

  2. I love the thought you put into this review. In my mind, the effects were great, but the transitions and settings klunked unhappily from one topic to another. This might be my preference for comics and my own imagination over watching the characters talk and the inevitable re-adjust in the next movie.

    1. I've only seen the film once, so I didn't have any feeling of clunk-iness. Maybe a re-watch will reveal them.