Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (review)


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) is the recent sequel to the franchise reboot of the original Sam Raimi & Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy. Superhero fever is higher than ever, and with crazy box office numbers and summer blockbuster season fast approaching it shows no signs of slowing. Amid all this excitement it can be easy to forget that success isn't necessarily an indicator of quality, and while Amazing 2 is making an amount at the box office similar to The Winter Soldier there is a definite difference in their quality which is most apparent in the films' writing. Specifically, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn't have a plot. It has several plot elements, but they're never tied together to form a central conflict.

In my review of The Winter Soldier I mentioned that the financial success of these comic book adaptations has allowed them to bloat beyond the two hour mark regardless of whether the or not the depth of their content merits this distinction. Where I found that film slightly excessive but consistently enjoyable, Amazing 2 really feels its length and and seems to struggle under the weight of audience expectations. It attempts to tell anywhere from three to five different stories in the course of its run-time (depending how you count them; I've got it clocked it at about 4.25), and it fails to connect these various plots into a single cohesive narrative. Where The Winter Soldier for example was about Cap coming to terms with his past and learning to live in the present, Amazing 2 isn't about anything. It has no overarching narrative progression.


The central emotional plot line (if you can call it that) involves Peter Parker's relationship with Gwen Stacy, and basically takes the conflict from the previous film—Peter promised to leave Gwen alone so as to keep her out of harm's way—and attempts to stretch this preexisting tension across the entire movie without developing it. Gwen is competing for a prestigious scholarship to Oxford, which would presumably mean moving to England. She asserts her frustration with their situation. He sympathizes without offering a solution. They go back and forth and eventually land on one side at the end with no real progress or change made. And this is the best of the four-and-a-quarter stories in this movie.

Next there's the obligatory reminder that Peter's parents died and that he's struggling to find a purpose he can identify with. Peter wishes he knew his father, Aunt May wishes he could just be happy, and in his sadness Peter discovers clues that lead him to a disappointingly clear-cut resolution. Like his relationship with Gwen, this is a clearly identifiable story arc, but never at any point does it interact with any of the other arcs and it has no influence at all over the ending. Gwen never asks if maybe something has been bothering him and Peter never mentions it. Neither of them even hint that maybe they have lives outside their time together, and this pattern repeats itself in the other plot lines.

Finally there's the inevitable respective villain subplots. We meet Max Dillon, a lonely electrical engineer who becomes Electro after an accident at Oscorp. He sees this as an opportunity to finally be noticed by the world, but his destructive tendencies quickly draw Spidey's attention. Concurrently, Peter's old pal Harry Osborn has been diagnosed with Convenient Antagonist Syndrome which he believes can only be cured by Spider-Man's blood. Naturally he's out for vengeance when the wallcrawler politely declines. (There's also Rhino which I'll get into below, but it's hard to talk about him without getting into spoiler territory.) The strangest thing about these two baddies is that they only meet once, and despite their initial cooperation they end up fighting Spider-Man separately. Again, no cohesion or cross-development or anything. Not even Spidey's web slinging can hold together these disparate threads.


The biggest misfortune from my standpoint is that each individual story has the potential to be great. A lot of work clearly went into the CGI fight sequences and they all look pretty good, but they don't have enough character development or emotional involvement to carry any weight (plus if you saw the trailer then you've seen them all already anyway). The performances each have a wonderfully caricatured and almost campy comic book quality to them with Dane Dehaan in particular really chewing up the scenery, but since none of the characters are given any complexity or depth they begin to wear on you by the end. I don't think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is without merit as there are some portions with which I had quite a fun time, but it never manages to find its raison d'être and ends up feeling scattered and incoherent.

There's something else that fascinated me about the movie and particularly its advertising campaign. It will move my discussion firmly into spoiler territory though, so if you haven't seen this movie and don't want to how it ends then turn back now. Do it. Go. Okay, ready? Here's the spoiler: the movie and the trailer end the same way. Not only do they end with the same scene (the fight with Rhino), they end on the exact same shot cut in the exact same way.

When you put a scene like that in the trailer it implies that anyone who goes to the movie will get to see the rest of that scene, but in fact there's almost no footage of that fight in the film that's not in the trailer. The trailer is cut in such a way that you're lead to expect approximately equal screen time for all three villains (definitely not the case), and posters like the one heading this article even go so far as to imply that they're all on screen together at some point (even more flagrant of a lie). I know talking about this is hard because most audiences don't want endings spoiled for them, but the trailer itself literally spoils the ending without telling you.

Also, while we're in spoiler territory anyway, the Gwen Stacy character is a really unfortunate stereotype of the illogical, hysterical woman, and killing her off doesn't help matters. The movie basically wants to say that the only lovable woman is a dead woman since Peter only manages to find the time for her after she dies.

2014 Ranked List


Final Notes:
 - There are plenty of ways these various narrative elements might interact with each other to actually form an arc to hold up the story. The "Green Goblin and Electro cooperate to defeat Spider-Man" movie could be fun (with "the more people I save, the more enemies I make" as the thematic center, a quote which is actually in the trailer but never finds its way into the movie); the "Gwen interferes with Spider-Man while he tries to fight crime" movie could be interesting (Spidey has to choose between his desire for Gwen and his drive for justice, or maybe Gwen intereacts with Harry Osborn through her position at Oscorp); there are even natural connections possible between the "Peter wants to learn about his parents" and "Peter and Harry Osborn reunite" plot lines. But none of it happens in the movie. There's too much crammed into the story and it mindlessly jumps from one thing to the next. So much potential, so little result.

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