Friday, May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Grade: 25/D+

The Spider-Man franchise has moved with the ups and downs of the modern superhero movie, from the towering heights of the auteur-driven first two to the disappointing (but still distinctive and underrated) too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen third film to Marc Webb’s anonymous 2012 reboot The Amazing-Spider Man. Now comes The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is emblematic of not only all of the problems with recent superhero movies, but most of the problems with blockbuster filmmaking in general. It’s the Webhead’s worst outing by some margin, an incoherent mess that doesn’t know what it wants to be from one moment to the next.

Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, a recent high school graduate who can do whatever a spider can. Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy (a still effervescent Emma Stone) keeps running into trouble, as he recalls a promise he made to her late father to stay away to keep her from getting hurt. After a run-in with escaped Russian convict Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti, prepping for a larger villain role in the follow-up), he questions whether or not he can stay with her, but has trouble staying away.

Meanwhile, there’s subplots a-brewin’: Aunt May (Sally Field) is training as a nurse to help put Peter through college; Peter is investigating the still mysterious past of his parents’ disappearance and their connection to OsCorp; Gwen has been accepted into Oxford, and may have to leave Peter behind; Peter’s childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns from boarding school to meet with his dying father Norman (a wasted Chris Cooper), only to discover that he has the same disease and he needs Spider-Man’s blood to save his life; and Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nerdy, lonely, put-upon OsCorp electrical engineer has an accident that turns him into Electro, a man with control over electricity who demands that the world see him.

That’s a lot of material to cover, even in 142 minutes, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn't take nearly enough time to develop anything satisfactorily. The film is overstuffed to the point to make Spider-Man 3 look like a model of narrative economy, inelegantly bouncing back and forth between one plot point to another with no rhyme or reason. It’s the calling card of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whose scripts for the Transformers films, among others, operate on the same needlessly convoluted plotting where character motivation is never clear and the narrative structure seems to be modeled less on a script and more on a series of plot points spread across disorganized Post-It notes.

An example: The Garfield/Stacy pairing is still the highlight of the movie (mainly off the actors’ real-life chemistry, not their characters or dialogue), but the movie keeps them separate for artificial reasons. Early on, Peter is rocked by the feeling that his relationship with Gwen is endangering her life, but the reminder comes out of narrative convenience rather than any real life-threatening moment. The script tries to pass this off as something Peter has continually done since the events of the first film, but it feels false, as if it’s excusing a choice that the screenwriters know is contrived. Or there’s Harry Osborn desperately trying to get Spider-Man’s blood and lamenting that he’s dying, even though there’s nothing to suggest that the disease he inherited from his father is working faster in him. Having the script actively undermine the characters’ relationships for no reason other than “because” is a sign that Orci, Kurtzman and Webb don’t really know what they want for the characters.

These scenes shift into bits of Foxx’s engineer bumbling around and obsessing over Spider-Man (who saves his life in an early scene) in scenes that don't seem to know whether they’re being played for comedy or pity, which mostly makes them feel cruel.  Or there’s DeHaan’s Harry acting petulant towards everyone around him, only to make an awkward transition to a being a supportive friend when Peter arrives to prop up a friendship that’s supposed to feel years-old but mostly feels like a lazy retcon. These come close to attempts at tragedy with the death of a minor character or the lingering effects of other deaths in the previous film. It adds up to tonal incoherence (both in individual scenes and in the film as a whole) to match the film’s structural and dramatic incoherence, a bunch of stuff happening with no idea of how it’s coming off or why anyone is acting the way they’re acting except because they need to finish the scene.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also continues the earlier film’s villain problem. Like Rhys Ifans’ The Lizard, DeHaan’s Harry/Green Goblin and Foxx’s Dillon/Electro are hampered with ridiculous-looking designs and character shifts that make them feel like they turn into completely different people rather than extensions and expansions of their earlier flaws (something Raimi’s villains consistently felt like). Foxx starts out as an abysmally hammy, embarrassing nerd stereotype that lacks the empathy required to pull off the character, only to shift briefly into a tortured monster before becoming little more than a shouting, sentient special effect. DeHaan is nearly as bad, overplaying Harry’s snottiness and entitlement to the point where his friendliness towards Peter feels false, all before he turns into a cackling evil troll doll. These are Joel Schumacher-level villains, broad caricatures that don’t coalesce into coherent characters.

Rather than blame the actors for going over-the-top, however, it’s best to take the script and the director to task for having no idea what they want the movie to be about or what they have to say about Spider-Man. The new series has stranded Garfield and company in a world where Peter Parker is supposed to be heroic but is mostly just a self-centered jerk, where his everyman quality has been fatally undermined by a generic destiny storyline, where any chance at character development is squashed by the need to move everything into place for a sequel.

Previous Spider-Man movies have been about sacrifice, identity, responsibility, guilt, and the need for love and companionship.  When the film hits the big emotional climax (or at least one of the three climaxes), it feels overly calculated and unearned because the film isn’t about anything other than how cool it’ll be when we get to the next one and Spider-Man is fighting a bunch of villains. Not if we don’t care about the man behind the mask. This cast deserves better, this character deserves better, and we deserve better.

EDIT: Upon further reflection...the "generic destiny storyline" mentioned above might be more insidious than I'd initially realized. It's not just a case where Spider-Man's quintessential everyman quality is undermined (though that's certainly an element), but a case where pretty much everything bad that happens seems designed to happen just because it has to happen, from Harry and Max becoming villains just because to Peter becoming Spider-Man just because to the film's emotional climax happening just because. It undermines the characters thematically and dramatically (stuff is happening to them more than they're making conscious choices), but there's also something troubling to the idea that bad things happen because they're destined to happen. There's a kind of determinism to this movie that's really rubbing me the wrong way because it's needlessly cruel to the characters, throwing out most of the empathetic qualities of the villains and more or less putting Spider-Man and Gwen through the wringer "just because."

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