Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
I’d begun hearing bad things about two weeks ago as critics leaked their negative thoughts onto their Twitter feeds. I also knew before the lights went down that the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score (54%/37%) was even lower than the RT score of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (63%/44%), which is one of the worst superhero movies ever made. So that was my frame of reference when the movie started.
And it’s not bad. It’s certainly better than “Spider-Man 3.” I think it’s even a step up from “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which critics mostly praised (73%/78%).
People keep comparing it negatively with “3” (“too many supervillains”) but it actually has more in common with “2,” which is the best of the Spider-Man movies. Unfortunately, its commonality is with the lesser aspects of that movie.
Just as Tobey’s Peter was haunted by Uncle Ben (with great power comes blah blah), this Peter (Andrew Garfield) is haunted by Capt. Stacy (Keep your sticky hands off my daughter!). Which means just as Tobey’s Peter ran hot and cold with Mary Jane Watson—one moment standing stock still when she touches his face, the next reciting British poetry to try to win her over—so Andrew’s Peter is all hot and cold with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). He loves her, sure, totally, but he made that promise to her father, whose frowning visage he sees everywhere. What to do? Shouldn’t he try to keep her safe? By keeping away from her? His dilemma is, in a sense, the dilemma of any of us who have a trace of self-loathing, which is most of us (or most of us at 18): those I love would just be better off without me.
At their high school graduation ceremony, which Pete arrives to late and wearing rolled up pants beneath cap and gown (oh you hipster kid, you), he gives Gwen, the class valedictorian, a big smooch in front of the crowd. Later that night they break up outside a dim sum restaurant. For a month they stay apart. Then ... you know. Love love love. But with tragic consequences.
I’m not kidding about the spoilers thing. If you don’t know Spider-Man #121, you might want to jump off now.
The second great tragedy in the life and times of Peter Parker
Want an example of bad timing? I bought my first Marvel comic in the summer of 1973 when I was 10. It was Spider-Man #123 and it opened with J. Jonah Jameson declaring Spider-Man a murderer (what the --?), while the first time we see Peter Parker he’s attending a funeral.* Talk about arriving in medias res! It took me many, many months to piece it together. The dead dude in the first panel was Norman Osborne, a.k.a. The Green Goblin, while the funeral was for Gwen Stacy, Peter’s girlfriend, whom the Goblin has killed. It’s the second great tragedy in the life and times of Peter Parker, after the original sin of allowing Uncle Ben to be killed by the Burglar.
(* see pg. 5, last panel. – Erudite Erik)
Hollywood has done much with the original sin—from improving upon it in “Spider-Man” in 2002 to screwing it up completely in “Spider-Man 3” in 2007—but they haven’t given us the second great tragedy. They’ve alluded to it, certainly. The Green Goblin dropping M.J. by the Queensboro bridge in the first movie? That was it. But they have Spidey save both her and the people on the Roosevelt Island Tramway. It was 2002. We couldn’t let the terrorists win.
That’s what I wondered about this movie: Would the studio have the guts to kill off Gwendy?
Before we get to that point, they have some fun. They also get distracted.
The fun is the thrill of web-slinging. We get a great opening scene of Russian mobster Aleksei Sysevich (Paul Giamatti) hijacking radioactive material and careening around town in his tank of a truck before Spider-Man comes to the rescue. The two have a great exchange at the driver’s side window. In the comics, Spidey was always known for being a smart-ass and the reboots emphasize this. That’s the great dichotomy of the series, really: between the insouciant lightness of being Spider-Man and the unbearable heaviness of being Peter Parker.
At one point, he also saves a nerdy scientist toiling for Oscorp named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). More later.
After his dim sum break-up with Gwen, we get a nice montage of more web-slinging, in which, among other escapades, Spidey saves a kid with a science project from bullies and then walks him home. But there’s concern around town. Is it vigilantism? Who is he to take the law into his own hands? The Daily Bugle, the FOX-News of the Marvel Comics world, gets involved: SPIDER MENACE? its front page trumpets. Pete’s sending photos to the Bugle via email but we never see J. Jonah Jameson. A testament to how much J.K. Simmons owned the role.
During this period, Pete also reconnects with childhood friend Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years, and who now runs Oscorp after the death of his father, Norman (Chris Cooper), of retroviral hypoplasia. Harry’s got it, too. He’ll die soon if he doesn’t get help.
I gotta admit: The Spidey hatred from the supervillains doesn’t work for me. It’s old. It’s facile. Harry thinks Spidey’s blood will cure him (it won’t: it will kill him), so when it’s denied, his need turns to hate and fixation. Max, meanwhile, starts out fixated. He has a kind of Mark David Chapman complex: he admires Spidey being admired. But when a late-night accident in the bowels of Oscorp turns him into Electro*, and Spidey saves the city from his powers-gone-amuck, he wants revenge on his former idol rather than on, say, his smarmy boss, Alistair Smythe (B.J. Novak, doomed to play smarmy), who always gave him shit details and took credit for his work. I thought for sure I’d see Novak fried in this thing. Is it a deleted scene? Are they saving him for the Ultimate Spider-Slayer?
(* And what’s with the aquarium of electric eels next to the computer banks? Isn’t that dangerous? And isn’t that how Oscorp powers the city? Do they have a squirrel running on a treadmill in another room? Will we get Squirrel Man next movie? – Erudite Erik)
DeHaan (channeling Brad Pitt’s voice?) is great, by the way, but wasted, as his Green Goblin is wasted. Basically Spider-Man’s greatest villain shows up at the 11th hour to replay Spider-Man #121. We needed more between him and Peter but their few scenes together are awkward. You don’t sense the friendship so the enmity makes no sense.
If only they’d spent more time on this rather than on the backstory on Peter’s parents. That’s the distraction to me. That’s the subplot too far.
I know. Fox Studios, desperate not to lose the property back to Marvel, had to do something new with the story; but the tale of Peter’s parents, or at least his father, Richard (Campbell Scott, wasted), which was retconned onto Spidey’s storyline in, I believe, the 1990s, adds nothing and detracts awfully. So the super spiders that made a Spider-Man out of Peter Parker were mixed with Richard’s DNA, which is why only Peter can be Spider-Man. Whatever. Uncle Ben, the true father, is lost in all of this. Pete has all of these other fathers to deal with. He’s haunted by Capt. Stacy while he searches for DNA dad. And where does he find him? In a video in a science lab that emerges from a dusty abandoned subway platform—like something out of “Get Smart.” Don’t get me started.
So what works besides the web-slinging? Emma Stone. I’d forgotten that this Gwen was supposed to be smarter, science-wise, than Peter Parker. Not only does she win a fellowship to Oxford (about which Pete is ambivalent, because he doesn’t want her to go ... even though he knows she should ... because he still wants ... and yet ...), but she figures out how to stop Electro when he absorbs the city’s power grid and creates a 1977-era blackout. No looting with this one, by the way. We’re post-9/11, so it’s all about the two planes that might collide. They don’t. Whew. Another unnecessary subplot.
Anyway, she’s good: Emma. Fun and open. The way she shouts “Peter!” after he webs her hand to a car then clamps her free hand over her mouth? That.
He’s a little too self-conscious, though, isn’t he? Garfield? Aw shucks, the world is looking at me? He’s basically James Dean on a skateboard (nice “Dogtown and Z-Boys” poster, btw), but I find the attitude, and the stocking caps he occasionally wears, grating. He’s a spoiled shit. There’s a scene where Aunt May, trying to keep (ultimately false) information from him, mentions, as part of a long, rambling speech, that she has two jobs to keep him in college, and he doesn’t pick up on it. Dude. Your Aunt May is nearly 70. Help the fuck out!
But he’s good for the Spider-Man #121 scene.
Harry as the unnamed Green Goblin shows up after Gwen and Spidey restore the city’s power supply and defeat Electro, and Harry quickly figures out the following: 1) Spidey is Pete; and 2) nothing would hurt Pete more than killing Gwen. So we get a battle. And finally Gwen falls. Spidey dives after her and catches her with his web, but maybe a second too late. A kind of startled cry went up in the audience where I saw the movie* when she half-bounced off the ground—apparently from people who had never read Spider-Man #121—but as in the comic he thinks he’s saved her. He hasn’t. Me, I kept waiting for Hollywood to give us the Hollywood ending and wake her up. It doesn’t. It gives us her funeral.
(* Pacific Place, downtown Seattle, natch. – Product Placement Erik)
That leaves the question, though: How do you end this thing?
The kid in the Spider-Man costume
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” isn’t as bad as everyone is making it out to be, but it’s not quite good, either. It’s overlong and unnecessarily convoluted. It’s as convoluted as the number of screenwriters it has, four, including Alex Kurtman and Robert Orci, who have a spotty history writing together: they gave us the first two “Transformers” movies, the first two “Star Trek” reboots, and “Cowboys & Aliens.” Ick. To this, add Jeff Pinkner, who has mostly done TV (“Alias,” “Lost,” “Fringe”). And, of course, director Marc Webb (thwip!).
Was it fixable? Maybe. Lose the Richard Parker storyline, give us less Hamlet-like dithering on the Peter-Gwen romance, emphasize Harry more. Maybe lose Electro. Or at least emphasize him less. Not only does his story not resonate, it pushes Green Goblin to the side. Which is like putting Baby in the corner.
But the movie does the ending well.
How do you end it? As Peter stands before Gwen’s grave, one shot leads to another. Seasons, changed, months go by, but he remains by her side. Meanwhile, Spider-Man has disappeared. This is something else “Amazing 2” has in common with “2”: the Spider-Man-No-More phenomenon. There, Spidey got his groove back because of a Gipper speech by Aunt May (“I believe there’s a hero in all of us”) and it’s similar here. Except Gwen gives it. Pete has her commencement address—which he missed the first time—on a zip drive, and he listens to it. And just as Aunt May’s Gipper speech was of its time, emphasizing heroism post-9/11, so Gwen’s commencement address is of its time, emphasizing hope in the Obama era. “My wish is for you to have hope,” she says to the Class of 2014. “And even if you fail, what better way is there to lose?” That works. And he puts on the mask. And he goes out to battle Aleksei Sysevich, whom Oscorp has transformed into the Rhino.* The movie ends mid-battle. Nice touch.
(* Every super-powered being in this movie series, btw, is the result of Oscorp. Maybe time for less hope and more business regulation? – Liberal Lundy)
Was the kid too much? Maybe. The kid with the science project shows up wearing a Spider-Man costume as the Rhino fulminates in midtown Manhattan, and he sneaks past police lines to go out and, like the brave protester at Tiananmen Square, face the man inside the tank. It’s absurd, really. The cops hold the crying mother back but do nothing to try to retrieve the kid. They leave that to Spidey. Who shows up, talks to the kid, and then ...
I know. But I still kind of choked up a bit.