The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens this weekend, which is considered the official kick-off of the summer movie season. Director Marc Webb's second outing with the Spider-Man franchise suffers from a script that inserts so much into its 144 minute running time it loses track of its main plot at times. That's not to say there aren't good moments and performances. Some of the action sequences are quite impressive, and the chemistry between Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker and Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is particularly good. But what works in the film feels like a loose collection of plot threads instead of a coherent narrative. And much of what's good gets lost in superfluous setup for future Spider-Man related films.
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Joss Whedon: "The thing that made Marvel Comics extraordinary was that they created people. Their characters didn't live in mythical cities, they lived in New York. They absolutely were a part of the world. Peter Parker's character was a tortured adolescent ... DC's characters, like Wonder Woman and Superman and Green Lantern, were all very much removed from humanity. Batman was the only character they had who was so rooted in pain, that had that same gift that the Marvel characters had, which was that gift of humanity that we can relate to."The crux of the Spider-Man story is that it's about a boy struggling with the concept of responsibility. Peter Parker is not wealthy like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, and he is perpetually looked down upon, underestimated and unappreciated by almost everyone. But Spider-Man's story is rooted in pain and regret. Whether it be the mistake that led to Uncle Ben's death, growing up without his parents or the strain being Spider-Man has on friendships and relationships, what makes Peter Parker work as a story is the struggle to deal with all of that while also having great powers and great responsibilities.
"Listen to me. You're Spider-Man. I love that. But I love Peter Parker more. That's worth it to me." —Gwen StacyThe Amazing Spider-Man 2 has its moments, but the script by Jeff Pinker, as well as Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci—the duo behind Michael Bay's Transformers films and both of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies—is loaded with characters and familiar comic book movie concepts. (e.g. an accidental mutation, the dying and desperate antagonist, the new clean but dangerous power grid, etc.) But only some of those characters are fleshed out to any depth and the concepts are only there to get from point a to b, blow up in a CGI-gasm or setup future movies. The first movie, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man, rebooted things after Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Webb's Spider-Man received mixed reviews, with many thinking the film's story and villain was mostly forgettable. But the film made over $750 million worldwide and Andrew Garfield's take on Peter Parker is generally regarded as capturing the creative, teenage smart ass nature of the character a little better than Maguire. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony is hoping to use it to build a bigger franchise of Spider-Man related properties (ala the Marvel Studios films). And there is a lot of setup for that in the movie, but it does nothing to help make these two-plus hours enjoyable.
"I can't lose you too." —Peter Parker
As this film begins, Peter Parker is still struggling with his love for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and the promise he made to her father (Denis Leary). It is the main tension of the story and it's an important part of the film's climax. But I don't think the sum of those parts equal a good movie overall.
“I was wrong. The city does need you. But you are going to make enemies. It will be dangerous. You have to promise me to leave Gwen out of it.” —Captain StacyThe opening action sequence, where Peter struggles to stop Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) and make it to his high-school graduation in time, is done really well. It captures the fun of the comic book Spider-Man. And for that matter, all three big action set pieces are interesting to look at, even though they descend into a CGI mess from time to time. Beyond that, relationship between Peter and Gwen is the most developed and best story element in the film, with Marc Webb having already shown that he can deal with tales of romance in (500) Days Of Summer. The problems come in when the movie introduces the villains, which are not really villains. They're more like obstacles, since the characterizations of Electro and Harry Osborn are paper thin.
Arguably, if you took Electro out of this movie and just shifted everything to where Harry and Oscorp blow shit up instead, the plot could still end up in the same place it reaches at the end. That's how unnecessary Electro is to the narrative. Going back to 1992's Batman Returns, the tendency to load superhero films up with villains has been their undoing. There's a line of thinking that says the most obvious way to raise the stakes in a sequel is to increase the number of threats facing the hero. The problem though is there's a limited amount of onscreen time to develop the story and characters, in-between the big budget action sequences. So instead of having one storyline done well over two hours, you end up with four storylines done piss-poorly. 2007's Spider-Man 3 is a prime example, where the movie had to juggle three villains and the love story between Mary Jane and Peter. Add into this that these movies are being made to keep footholds on franchises. Like Fox's X-Men films, as well as Fox's planned reboot of the Fantastic Four, Sony and Fox have to keep making films otherwise their license expires, the movie rights revert to Disney and the characters get absorbed into the Marvel Studios films.
- Norman Osborn: Chris Cooper's Norman Osborn is onscreen for about five minutes and then dies. Or did he? We're told that he died through a news broadcast, but we don't see him die or do we see a body. So I'm guessing that he's not really dead, or at the very least they're keeping open the option of bringing him back for a future film.
- Sinister Six: By the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a rough origin for the Spider-Man foes that make up the Sinister Six is set up (e.g. we see the Vulture's wings and Doctor Octopus' tentacles inside an Oscorp lab), with Sony hoping to give the group their own film. However, I'm not so sure it works to have every Spider-Man villain connected to Oscorp. Also, the promotional material that uses Paul Giamatti's Rhino comes close to false advertising. Giamatti is in all of two scenes and pretty much a non-factor in this movie.
- The end of spectacle in an age of casual magic: As I mentioned above, some of the visual effects sequences in this film are impressive. But none of them are quite jaw dropping or memorable. Over at The Dissolve, Matt Singer has a piece that wonders if audiences have become numb to CGI effects?
In a column at HitFix earlier this week, Drew McWeeny echoed a lot of my feelings about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the summer movie season in general in a piece about what he dubs “the age of casual magic.” Hollywood has gotten so good at bringing the impossible to life onscreen, he says, that they’ve devalued their most important (and often only) selling point: spectacle.“There is nothing more dangerous to storytellers than the idea of an audience that is incapable of awe anymore, and yet that's what our studio system seems determined to create. It's like putting someone on an all ice cream diet. If you forced someone to eat ice cream breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any interruption, that person would eventually learn to detest ice cream. The thought of it would make them physically ill. You would destroy it for them.”
- J. Jonah Jameson: The publisher and editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle is not seen in the film, but is referred to and responds to email. Peter is selling him pictures of Spider-Man, with Jameson paying "1960's rates" for the images. Also, other than Jameson and the Bugle, it seems like Spider-Man is beloved by most of the public as well as cops and firemen. One of the criticisms of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel was that Superman didn't seem to give a shit about the collateral damage to humanity during his battles. Webb's Spider-Man goes out of his way to save people from harm, to almost campy extents.
- Richard Parker: The mystery of what happened to Peter Parker's parents is revealed in this movie, but I don't think it adds all that much to the story. We already knew Oscorp was bad and the most likely force behind their disappearance. We also knew from The Amazing Spider-Man that Oscorp was performing dangerous, biological experiments using Richard Parker's research. So the reveals are an interesting moment for the character of Peter Parker, but they're totally unnecessary for the film. The only relevant story detail added is that the genetically engineered spiders that bit Peter and made him Spider-Man were genetically coded with Richard Parker's DNA. It's mostly a holdover of scenes deleted from the first film which implied Peter Parker was in some ways always "fated" to become Spider-Man. And this film explains the Spider-Man "effect" can only occur with a Parker descendant, and leads to the deformities when Harry tries to use the spider venom. The entire plot point feels like a strange attempt to meld elements of the Superman mythos onto Spider-Man (i.e. a long dead father creating the circumstances for his son's superpowers and leaving a final message to guide him).
- The search for Uncle Ben's killer: This plot thread from the first movie, with Peter searching for the man with the star tattoo, is just completely forgotten about in this film. Although, the writers were already drowning in too many characters and excess storylines.
- Felicia Hardy: Harry Osborn develops a business relationship with an executive at Oscorp named Felicia (Felicity Jones). While nothing in the movie indicates it, the character is intended to be Felicia Hardy (a.k.a. the Black Cat).
- Mary Jane Watson: Speaking of excess characters, originally this film would have introduced Divergent star Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane. However, Woodley was cut from the film.
Marc Webb: "There was one little scene at the beginning where she is next door and it took place right around the montage where he comes back and there was another little moment between Gwen and MJ. But it just tipped over. The relationship between them [Peter and Gwen] is so sacred and so powerful, that it just didn't feel right. And it sucks because Shailene is such a f**king great actress and so cool and magical but it was just about having this obligation to this romance that I thought was sacred. It was just one of those things."
- The post-credits sequence: The scene is from X-Men: Days of Future Past, and depicts Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leading a crew of mutants against a military base during the Vietnam era. The sequence is NOT meant to signal a new cross-studio synergy between Sony and Fox that will merge the Spider-Man and X-Men films. In order to secure director Marc Webb for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony had to get Webb out of a preexisting deal with Fox Searchlight. Eventually Fox agreed, but one of the concessions they got out of Sony was free promotion for X-Men in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
- Gwen Stacy: The climax of the movie is based on 1973's "The Night Gwen Stacy Died" story arc from Marvel Comics, with Emma Stone's character wearing exactly the same clothing as her comic book counterpart when it happens. However, there are some significant changes. In the comic book (as well as in the somewhat similar scene in Raimi's Spider-Man that subs in Mary Jane), the Green Goblin throws Gwen Stacy from a bridge instead of a clock tower. Also, in the comic book, Peter was unsure whether he actually killed her with his webs or if the Green Goblin had already killed her before throwing her. However, in both the film and comic book, Peter blames himself for what happened. The movie does telegraph her death at the beginning of the film with Gwen's graduation speech. And Gwen Stacy's death in the comic book is as significant to the character of Spider-Man as the murder of Uncle Ben. One troubling aspect about this development for the film series is that Garfield and Stone's chemistry is one of the best things about these movies, and now they don't have that anymore.