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Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Is...Amazingly Confusing (Spoilers)

I finally broke down and saw Amazing Spider-Man 2. I had been avoiding it due to negative press and low expectations, but in the end, my huge love of Spider-Man as a character won out. I have to say that I was almost pleasantly surprised.

And then it broke down exactly how and when I expected it to. The best way to summarize my thoughts on the matter are this: it feels like almost one and a half Spider-Man movies crammed into a single one, with several failed attempts to make it into a single cohesive story.

Let me start with the good things, but let me throw out that I am a huge Spider-Man fan, so maybe I’m overselling the good things in a failed attempt to like the movie more. First, the main cast is great. I love Andrew Garfield as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. I feel like he gets some flack for his Peter, but I actually very much enjoy it. Garfield and Emma Stone make for a compelling couple; I actually felt like they were a couple (which, I know they are in real life, but it translates well to film, which isn’t always a given). Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a refreshing take on the character; she feels defined, like she’s more than just “the love interest”, and I much prefer her over the original trilogy’s Kristen Dunst. New members Dane DeHaan and Jamie Foxx make solid additions. DeHaan’s Harry Osborn connects well with Peter, and please note that I am only referencing his performance as Harry and not certain alter-egos. Meanwhile, Foxx brings something new to the super villain role, and his Max Dillon is uncomfortable to watch in a good way, oozing uncomfortableness.

Marc Webb (I love that someone named Marc Webb directs Spider-Man films) is also solid. I’ve never seen his (500) Days of Summer, but seeing his romantic Peter-Gwen scenes very much makes me want to; the man seems to have a way with Romantic Comedies. Let me put it this way: Marvel Studios has said that their goal with the Avengers is for each superhero to explore fully different genres to keep the genre from becoming stale (you know, Iron Man 3 was a buddy cop movie, Captain America 2 is a political espionage/thriller, etc.). I wish they had the rights to Spider-Man so that they could have Webb direct a Spider-Man movie that is one part superhero movie and one part romantic comedy (preferably starring Garfield and Stone, but really, I would just be interested in seeing what he turns out with a little more freedom). Most of the other stuff is good too, particularly the soundtrack; it definitely added to the film.

Also, this actually feels like a Spider-Man movie. The action is so fluid, Spider-Man quips while swinging through the city, and everything is wonderful. And let me even add that I am much less critical of the choice of subplots than most. I always love seeing other artists’ take on established characters; if Webb et al choose to explore Peter’s parents, more power to them if they do it well. I can’t say it doesn’t makes sense on some level, and as long as it seems justified on some level, why not? If they want to make it so that his dad worked on the Super Spider formula? Again, sure, fine. I am first and foremost concerned with a good story, and I think you can make those ideas part of a good Spider-Man story. The characters and ideas are still recognizable, and as long as that’s okay, I grant a lot of leeway in the narrative.

Good, all the positives are out of the way, so I can now precede into rant.


I’m a big proponent of less is more, and there was a lot of ASM2 that could have stood to stay on the cutting room floor. The biggest issue is the excess of plotlines. How many are there, when we break it down? Well,


-Electro is a villain, a rather disturbed man who still gets beaten down at his job, while being obsessed with Spider-Man (think Milton from Office Space if he fell into a vat of electric eels)

-Peter is Spider-Man, protecting the city and all that good stuff

-Peter is in a complicated relationship with Gwen, where he feels bad dating her because of a promise to her dying father but she wants to be with him and he wants to be with her so maybe it’s best for both of them if they both move on so she’s trying to do that but goodness is it hard when that’s not what either of them want

-Peter is reconnecting with Harry in the wake of the death of the latter’s father, as the two provide mutual support for their various life issues

-Harry is dying, and wishes this wasn’t the case

-Oscorp is doing something vaguely sinister behind the scenes as Harry takes over

-Peter is searching for the truth about his parents, who seem to be involved in several of the above issues

-Peter’s relationship with Aunt May is touched upon a little as well


As you can see, there’s a lot here, especially as some of the storylines have quite a bit of nuance. There are two ways to handle this in the world of a superhero franchise movie: you can either not waste any scenes, or you can leave some of them dangling in the interest of making it part of a larger storyline.

The people writing the script for this story wisely chose to do neither of those things. There are a handful of scenes that could be done without. The two most notable, due to their irrelevance to the story, are the opening scene depicting the death of his parents and the panicked attempts of air traffic controllers to avoid disaster in the wake of Electro’s citywide blackout. You might notice that none of these characters performing actions were mentioned as main parts in my subplot list. This is important.

Look, I can understand adding Peter’s parents as a plot point. Go for it. But we really didn’t need a ten minute scene at the opening at the beginning of the movie showing them leaving him with Ben and May and then leaving on a plane but encountering an assassin and trying to upload files while engaged in a gun fight at the plane is crashing and oh god what is happening. The point of the characters is to die and set up a mystery. The opening scene did nothing for establishing this plotline that hadn’t already been done in the first movie. If you really had to touch upon it again here, it could have been done in a minute or two.

For the second, there’s a scene to create tension during the Electro battle showing the effects of the villain’s massive blackout, showing two planes on a collision course but none the wiser to the impending doom (this isn’t even getting into the implausibility; I am very forgiving on coincidence in writing). Ideally, this would give a sense of urgency and danger to Spider-Man, knowing the planes would collide killing everyone if he doesn’t act fast enough. EXCEPT HE DOESN’T KNOW THAT, SO IT ADDS NOTHING. You know what would create a sense of urgency and danger in that scene? If a floating blue guy was shooting lightning bolts out of his hands at Spider-Man. OH WAIT THAT’S ALREADY HAPPENING. This is time that could have gone to the Peter-Gwen romantic comedy, or the Peter-Harry bromantic comedy, or the fight scene, or really anything else that I actually care about.

But at least those don’t make the movie feel like it’s dragging. No, that honor goes to all the plotlines that come after the Electro fight. More on those later.

There are two other major issues I have with the plot, which I may as well touch on here. First is the “Harry is dying” storyline. For those that haven’t seen it, Harry has inherited the disease that killed Daddy Norman. But! As luck would have it, much of Oscorp’s tech was being developed to keep Old Papa Osborn alive. But! In the wake of the Lizard disaster from the first film, they shut down the spider unit (the most promising) due to public pressure to shut down all of the animal-related things. Fine. But! Spider-Man exists as a result of the testing, Harry deduces. Why not get a blood sample and try to reconstruct the cure?

Peter disagrees, reasoning that this could kill Harry. Harry is not thrilled with this answer, for obvious reasons. Why? I mean, Peter spilled his identity to Gwen with little prompting back in the first movie. Why hide now? And on top of it, he shows up later as Spider-Man, removing the possibility that he’s trying to keep distance from his alter ego. No, he’s just really worried he’s going to kill his friend, who is already dying.

What?

Okay, fine. Whatever. But then the movie one-ups itself on inexplicability. Peter, after believing that his dad was selling Oscorp secrets to terrorists, finds out that no, his dad was just framed after discovering that his partner Norman planned on weaponizing his spider research and selling it. In an attempt to prevent this, he destroys the work and flees.

Now, I know I said I don’t mind the convoluted earlier. There is one exception: when the convolution is caused by character stupidity on the part of the characters. Let’s look at this from Norman’s perspective:

“Hey, I’m billionaire scientist Norman Osborn! Gee, I’m dying of a horrible debilitating disease. I wonder if I can develop a cure for this so that I don’t die a horrible prolonged death. Also I wonder if I could weaponize this cure and sell it to the Russians or whoever for money, because cures for cancer are apparently a hop, skip, and jump away from biological weapons and this is something this extra income intrigues me equally as much as not dying.”

Again, what?

And then, there’s the resolution to the Gwen Stacy plot. Of course she dies; the movie made it incredibly obvious this was going to happen in her graduation speech at the very beginning before it more or less inexplicably dropped that plotline up until the final fight. For a movie that seems to play fast and loose with the comic canon in other areas, this whole plotline feels horribly awkward, almost like it only exists because it happened in the comics so therefore it has to be here, on screen, right now. Or it could be because these writers seem to love killing characters for cheap dramatic effect (I mean, two movies in and they’ve already killed off Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, and Gwen; it’s like they’re just rushing to get to these).

Awkward how? Well, first, everything after defeating Electro seems shoehorned on, like some ungainly appendage on what would be fused near the rear end of the movie in this body metaphor. You think it’s done, most of the important plots are wrapped up then OH YEAH HARRY IS THE GOBLIN NOW WHOOPS NEED TO GET THIS IN HERE. So he shows up and there’s a pretty quick fight and…that’s it. It plays out just like you’d expect. It carries surprisingly little weight, despite being a betrayal by Peter’s friend resulting in the death of his love. I’m not sure if DeHaan just makes for a weak Goblin or if the script just gives him nothing to do (it could be both, really, as a drone/missile could fill the Goblin's role here). The fight is over extremely quickly after a few punches, and it feels less like an actual battle and more like playing “When Will the Bass Drop?” with Gwen, except literally. OH SHE’S FALLING wait he caught her OH WAIT FALLING AGAIN never mind she landed on something… ad naseum.

There wasn’t really a need to kill Gwen here. It makes the rest of the movie, which focused so heavily on developing her and Peter’s relationship, feel a little like shaggy dog story, especially since it clashes so heavily with the earlier “romantic comedy” tone. And then, to rub in how poorly thought out this development was, the movie then tries to show Peter grieving, coping with, and getting over this tragedy, all in the final ten minutes in order to reach a happy ending (or maybe it was fifteen? Or twenty? All I know is enough to feel like it is simultaneously not being given enough weight while slowing down a movie that feels like it should be concluding).

And that in and of itself is a problem. Gwen Stacy dying is supposed to be sad. If you choose to kill her and have it mean something, you either need to not have a happy ending or do it sooner in the movie so there’s adequate time to grieve. We just invested four hours or so over two movies watching this character grow and connect with Peter; we should not see Peter get over her dying in ten (fifteen? Twenty? Again, who knows) minutes.

And really, that leads into my final issue. This is probably the least excited I have been at the prospect of a new Spider-Man movie. Yes, even after Spider-Man 3, even after Amazing Spider-Man 1, it felt like there were good things to latch on to and get pumped up for in a sequel. Now? Well, Garfield is good. I loved what they did with Gwen as a character, and I love her relationship with Peter. Both gone. I liked Peter’s relationship with Harry. He’s in jail, all ready for the sequel or Sinister Six movie or whatever. Electro is…who knows. What’s left for the next movie? This is what happens when you keep going back to death as an easy way to inspire emotions; sooner or later, you just run out of cast.

So I guess that’s my take away from this movie. Not bad, could have been better. It wasn’t bad enough that I regret seeing, and the good parts were enough to get me satisfied, if not much more than that. But despite trying harder than any other Spider-Man film to set up future projects, this is the one where I feel the least ready for that prospect.

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