It would be really fun to write a review kicking the teeth out of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is a temptation that many reviewers will no doubt be struggling with. My number one credo with reviewing is fairness, though, and much like its predecessor, Amazing 2 is a good movie overshadowed by great movies. Amazing Spider-Man was doomed to be in the shadow of its 50% identical twin Spider-Man, which despite the drubbing Deadshirt recently gave it, is a truly influential piece for the genre. Amazing Spider-Man 2 was always at risk of being the fifth or sixth most memorable film of the 2014 action movie season, trailing the unmitigated quality of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the dark spectacle and high drama of Godzilla, the sheer wackiness of Guardians, the star-studded X-Men, and quite possibly the robot truck riding the robot dinosaur of Transformers 4. (In fact, that makes it potentially the year’s 5th or 6th most memorable film based on a sometime Marvel property.)
But it’s a good film, and a good Spider-Man film. As far as its treatment of the Spider-Man character, it’s probably the best of the Sony films, and yet the sheer aggressive disjointedness of the flick makes it feel like it’s constantly trying to justify its own existence. One can’t shake the feeling that a double handful of Sony execs are screaming in your ear that they’ve been good and they should keep handling Spider-Man, pay no attention to those Marvel Studios behind the curtain.
The end result is a film of unbridled ambition, executed just competently enough to be satisfying. Is there a great romance between Parker/Garfield and Stacy/Stone? Check. Is there a trainload of nasty villains with pop-psychology motivations? Check. Is the fate of NEW YORK CITY ITSELF IN JEOPARDY? Yes, though one could question what this added. Does Peter discover Dark Secrets about his past, aka all the cut material from the first movie that was stuffed into this one? That’s there. Does JJJ cameo via email? Uh, check. It’s a miracle that the film does manage to find quiet, tender moments, such as Harry and Peter skipping rocks, amid bombastic foreshadowing and the various cuts to
With such unevenness confronting me, I’m going to dive into the *SPOILER* section of the review with “Good, Bad, Ugly” organization.
– Dane DeHaan accomplished the impossible by equaling James Franco in the role of Harry Osborn, and by having an even cooler name. Even though he wasn’t around for the last installment, he accomplishes an easy rapport with Garfield’s Peter immediately. His fear of mortality creates a believable motivation for him. (More on that later.) His wild mood swings and passionate rages are more than explained by his extreme youth and impossible circumstances. The only misfire is his final “Goblin” appearance, which the filmmakers seem to apologize for by dialing it back for his final scene. While his role in Gwen Stacy’s death makes him an unforgivable villain, he’s a charismatic and even likable presence throughout the film, which is important both because he is the Green Goblin of this franchise (Chris Cooper’s Norman lasts one scene and he ain’t comin’ back) and because he’s probably going to headline future movies for Sony.
– Andrew Garfield is Spider-Man. He has mastered a more mature, “super-hero” aspect of Parker as perfectly as he embodied emo outcast Parker in the last movie. These filmmakers understand that Spider-Man will always risk his life before threatening or taking another, even a villain. Garfield also understands that Parker’s devil-may-care approach to crime-fighting is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness, and that the traits that eventually make a city fall in love with him will always create risk to himself and others. With the costume perfected (white lenses were not so much to ask for!) and an attractive design for the web-shooters and boots, every second he’s on screen is a visual pleasure, and whatever the VFX folks are doing as far as web-slinging is working just as well as it has since ’02. The tour-de-force fight with Electro might not have been possible just a few years ago on this budget.
– Sally Field’s Aunt May has only a few brief scenes, but she’s endlessly improved upon the original franchise’s own excellent take on what a character that, when mishandled, can come across as tiresome. May’s breakdown over Peter’s obsession with his father feels real and raw in a way that this broadly-played franchise has seldom mastered. Field will continue to be a great asset to these movies going forward at this rate, as they have been careful to avoid over-using her or threatening her character.
– Emma Stone takes the potentially thankless part of Gwen Stacy, Doomed Girlfriend, and elevates it in two ways. First, she takes advantage of her seething chemistry with Garfield. Second, she refuses to be denied agency. Spider-Man can fistfight a man made of electricity, but he can’t keep her out of the fray. Rather than the ephemeral angel that she ultimately became in the comics, Stone’s take on the character is always grounded and has a clear set of goals. As a result, when she does fall, it feels like your best friend is falling.
– Stan Lee’s cameo, because they got it out of the way early.
– The script: considering the number of elements that feel like a Sony-mandated checklist (kill Gwen, foreshadow ten villains, stick in these cameos, have these VFX setpieces), the plotting is actually very good and the dialogue serviceable. Even though they have a habit of biting off more than they can chew, I want to give credit to the oft-maligned Orci and Kurtzman. (Though at least one of them is a crazy person.)
– The storyline with Peter’s parents. Look, I was disappointed when it was cut out of the first film, as it would have distinguished it in a really interesting way from Raimi’s Spider-Man. Here, it’s stuffed into a movie that’s already stuffed. Making the first scene an action sequence with Richard Parker was a terrible idea, one that distracted from the next scene’s tone and intent from moment one. All they had to do was darkly suggest at the fate of the plane, Temple of Doom style. And by the way, who was Richard’s message for in the first place? Was it Dr. “Lizard” Connors? Did he get it? We don’t know, and probably never will.
– Electro is a fucking terrible villain. That’s not Jamie Foxx’s fault, or even the screenwriters’, who used him really creatively to make the plot work. But he’s a terrible villain, period. He’s way too powerful to be a Spider-Man villain, having basically the same power set as Livewire, who can stand up to Superman, and as Magneto, who is a walking strategic weapon. He’s also got a weak motivation. We could have had “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but instead we get “Spider-Man forgot my name,” and he just feels like an asshole who’s hogging screen time from all the interesting guys. The two really good scenes we got out of him were the Times Square scene and the team-up with Osborn, both of which were still stupid premises that were saved by good dialogue and great acting.
– The “man in black” from the last movie shows up again, we still don’t see his face, but his name is revealed and he’s… I had to look him up actually but he’s apparently just the Spider-Man version of the Scarecrow.
– “The Death of Gwen Stacy” was certainly, uh, re-created. She sure died on the end of a webline, at the hands of the Green Goblin. There is one major improvement, as Gwen risks her own life rather than being a rag doll like in the original story. But the re-creation here focuses on superficial similarities. If you wanted to recapture the impact of the original story, you should ditch the trappings and re-stage the death entirely as something unexpected. Instead, we get to watch a cloud of doom follow her around for two hours, and then she gets a 5 minute death in SLOW MOTION. While I’m glad that they had the stones to kill her off, I’m not a fan of how it was done. Keeping her alive and benefiting from Stone’s chemistry and energy would have been preferable to doing it this way.
– The advertising campaign fucked over this film something bad. Case in point, all the reviews are saying “Paul Giamatti was wasted as the Rhino.” Let’s get this straight. Paul Giamatti has one of the greatest and most hilarious cameos of all time, as the man who in the film’s FINAL SCENE becomes the Rhino. The very word “Rhino” should have been considered a top-secret spoiler of the highest magnitude. Paul Giamatti’s role should not have been advertised AT ALL. The trailers literally show you his entire role, so of course it’s a disappointment.
– FLASHBACK TO 18 YEARS AGO: Richard Parker uses state-of-the-art computer equipment, a laptop supplied by Product Placement.
– “Dr. Kafka” is the worst character who has ever appeared in a Spider-Man movie. At all. By far.
– This movie presents several poignant observations and invocations about death, but say what you will about Sam Raimi, at bare minimum he would have woven this into a coherent theme that informed every scene. With Webb, you get all these individual scenes that are just nailed, but the transitions are shaky. While there are distinct narrative arcs, comedic scenes are awkwardly stitched to tragic ones. There is no real arc for Spider-Man. His experiences as Peter Parker don’t seem to have changed his approach or persona to superhero-ing by the end of the film.
I can’t not recommend this movie, because I had a great time and my wife had an even better time. It’s incrementally improved over all previous Spider-flicks, which technically makes it The Best Spider-Man Movie Ever. So why am I not excited?
It’s probably because there is nothing in the film as energetic or unexpected as the simple line from Amazing 1, “You found my weakness, it’s small knives!” Or Uncle Ben getting killed over two cents. They’ve stopped bothering to give the Amazing franchise that darker look and tone, with the result that it’s more of Spider-Man swinging through the same few brightly-lit streets webbing up cars, just like the Raimi films. I would go so far as to say that any two of Nolan’s Batman films look more visually distinct from each other than this film does from the Raimi trilogy. There is no pretense anymore of Spidey being a street-level hero, of him running out of web fluid, of him worrying about money, of him losing control of his anger in a fight. Sony wants to print money, so they’ve taken their one asset out and drafted some very talented people with the unenviable mission of “Make a movie like that Avengers movie by that Josh Wheaton guy.” In the end, this movie is lethally conservative.
To a degree, it’s worked, because I’m jonesing for the promised spin-offs and sequels. A Sinister Six heist movie? That sounds freaking awesome! A Venom solo movie? I’m there with bells on if they use Flash Thompson. And I’m hoping to see more of a “sad clown” take on Peter by Garfield, as he enters the post-Gwen era of Amazing 3. I can see Sony’s Spidey franchise reach a creative zenith in the wake of Amazing 2. Or, I can see it becoming a bloated, unwanted train wreck, which will be at least as fun.
But right now, all we have is Amazing 2, a superhero movie that is stunningly proficient, but lacks the soul and message of a movie that has something unique to say. It tries to be all things to all viewers, and it succeeds a million times better than it has any right to, but it shouldn’t have tried to do that in the first place.
P.S. Please bring JK Simmons back as JJJ for Amazing 3 or I’m boycotting all Sony products forever. Yours, everyone.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is now playing in theaters everywhere.