Spider-meh: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ is a gorgeous mess of a movie


The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Rated: PG-13
Directed by Marc Web
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has the unfortunate luck of being the first superhero blockbuster to follow Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel flick since 2012’s “The Avengers.” Even if the film did everything right, that’s still a tough act to follow.

But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a kind of a mess — albeit a well-meaning one.

Director Marc Webb returns for this installment with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner (Alias, LostFringe). These guys clearly love the characters, but fall short of fully developing them or the plot in any satisfying way.

From the start the film feels rushed, as if it were merely checking off the requisite boxes needed to move the franchise forward. Indeed, Sony initiated this current reboot due to its need to do something with the property or lose the rights. That “let’s get on with it” attitude comes through overshadowing what are, in fact, some solid performances from the cast.

Andrew Garfield again makes a fine Peter Parker — a better fit that Toby Maguire ever was. His wiry frame captures the awkward energy of a teenager still growing into superherodom. And he nails the Spidey-speak. An opening chase through Manhattan in pursuit of Russian gangsters features some solid web-head quips.

But subtly and nuance are jettisoned for too much plot and too many villains. Even at 142 minutes, the film leaves little room to develop the relationships that shape the hero Spider-Man will become.

The people who have defined Peter Parker/Spider-Man can be divided into two camps: those who are present and those who are absent. Aunt May, Gwen and Mary Jane were there — to raise him, to love him, to sacrifice for him. His parents, Uncle Ben and Gwen’s father, meanwhile, were taken away. But in their absence Peter tries to find meaning — a sense of duty to preserve a legacy, to wield power responsibly, to keep safe the innocent.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone

Over the course of the film, that dichotomy plays out with the expected consequences. The cost of being Spider-Man is high, but it’s a lesson Peter must learn on his path to becoming a hero. Unfortunately, the film is too rushed to earn its tragic third act, which ends up feeling like another box checked off.

Some relationships do have weight. Peter’s connection with his Aunt May (Sally Field) is surprisingly sweet. (It doesn’t hurt that Garfield and Field have the chops to pull it off.) The world has taken everyone from these two people, but they still have each other. And while May might be powerless to protect Spider-Man from his enemies, it’s in her where Peter — broken by film’s end — finds the strength to suit up and once again save the day.

Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), on the other hand, lacks such depth. The movie wants us to know Gwen is Peter’s one true love. It spends a lot of time hitting us over the head with this fact in scenes so overwrought they make Scandal seem restrained by comparison. That Garfield and Stone are a couple in real life helps to add some natural chemistry to these scenes, but it isn’t enough to pull it out of the sap.

I keep coming back to subtly, and that’s because its absence characterizes most of the film. As the villain Electro, Jamie Foxx best exemplifies the films emphasis on spectacle over character. Visually, Electro is an imposing villain with a great design — a being of pure electricity who can travel via electrical currents, making for some of the film’s best action sequences. But he’s a one-note villain: a loser with an unhealthy Spider-Man obsession who gets superpowers and, after one misunderstanding, goes full bad guy.

As Harry Osborn/the Green Goblin, Dane DeHaan plays the film’s other big bad, depicted here as a brooding emo kid with daddy issues and a fatal disease. DeHaan was great in “Chronicle,” but seems to be channeling the same type of character here with less successful results. Honestly, James Franco made for a more interesting Harry in the previous Spider-Man films. (There, I said it.)

Dean DeHaan

Dane DeHaan

It’s another unfortunate shortcut taken by the film. We are told to believe Harry and Peter are BFFs from one scene. Then we must accept his dark turn after an acrimonious meeting Spider-Man — because that’s what the film needs him to do.

Even the scene where Harry transforms into the Goblin is sloppy cheat. He writhes on the floor under strobe lights. (Why would a lab have lighting like this?). Seconds later — voila! The Green Goblin: Spider-Man’s greatest foe. It’s disappointing. For all its failings, at least the previous franchise let this rivalry play out over multiple films.

Then, there’s the Rhino, played by Paul Giamatti, who aside from the opening and closing scenes is entirely absent. And it’s too bad because Giamatti looks like he’s having fun here.

This villain bloat is necessary, however, to set the table for the upcoming Sinister Six film, the franchise’s next installment. A pointless post-credits sequence — available only by using the Shazam app during the closing song, because synergy! — gives some clues as to who those six will be. (Save yourself the time and just Google “Spider-Man Sinister Six characters.”)

Part of me feels the problem here is that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t for grownups. The overall tone feels juvenile, from the saccharine love story to the villains’ fuzzy motivations. It’s the type of sloppiness younger audiences may overlook, but leaves older viewers rolling their eyes. Add to this the iTunes-ready soundtrack and in-your-face product placement — hey look, Spider-Man uses a Sony smartphone! — and it’s clear the studio didn’t make this film for a very sophisticated audience.

But so what? It’s a superhero movie; why nitpick?

Because we can.

Over the last decade and nearly a dozen films, Marvel Studios has proven that smart, fun, well-plotted superhero films are possible. They have been critical and commercial successes that can be enjoyed by all ages and any level of fanboy/girl. Sure, there were some duds — The Incredible Hulk, “Iron Man 2 — but there have been far more winners.

While Sony’s toy box may not be as big as Marvel’s, there is a lot to play with in the Spidey-verse. But the studio’s over-eagerness to prove this point and build a world as dense as Marvel’s weakens The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

I wanted to like this film. I really did. Spider-Man is a fantastic character with a rich history. But those stories need room to breathe, and the relationships need to grow organically. At one point in the film, Peter notes that people love Spider-Man because he gives them hope; that even when things look bad and the chips are down, good can win out and the day can be save. It’s something to keep in mind as this troubled franchise moves forward.

[A version of this review appears in the May 7, 2014 edition of the Rutland Reader]


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