Wednesday, May 14, 2014

BOP Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2012's The Amazing Spider-Man was quite an anomaly among the current trend of franchise reboots. In some respects, it certainly succeeded in bringing the Spider-Man series back to it's former glory after it took a critical hit from 2007's Spider-Man 3, with an impressive 752 million box office gross and generally positive word of mouth at the time of release. The film also made a star out of new lead Andrew Garfield, with even the movie's detractors praising his dual portrayal of Peter Parker and his web slinging alter-ego in spite of a problematic script and questionable characterization. But with the success of Marc Webb's reboot came something of a retroactive failure, with many fans quickly voicing their disapproval of several elements plaguing the new direction - chief among them the apparent inability for the franchise to separate itself from the shadow of the previous Sam Raimi trilogy, with Webb and his writers infamously opting out of utilizing the crucial "With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility" rhetoric that defined the character in favor of trying to distance itself from it's predecessor. Noticeably, even the main character's costume didn't want to dare tread on ground already planted on by Raimi, but many wondered if Webb's stab at a sequel would become his attempt to alleviate some of the problems inherent to his original attempts. Surely with one film under his belt, he'd be free to drive the franchise towards a more faithful approach, right?

Well, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is here and it answers that question - the answer being "kind of". Upon first glance, after an admittedly convoluted and overly long prologue sequence in which we see the needlessly dramatic deaths of Peter's birth parents, it seems to be on the right track - we immediately jump in, literally, with Spider-Man going about his daily business and doing what he does best: fighting crime with a whimsical, nonsensical attitude towards certain death and destruction. Facing off against a Russian mob led by Paul Giamatti, playing the future "Rhino" villain Aleksei Sytsevich, Spidey doles out a number of mocking quips and saves a number of bystanders from impending doom in an impressive sequence that manages to cut right to the heart of the character - his responsibilities as Spider-Man interfering with his day-to-day as a high school student trying to make end's meet. There's even an intriguing arc set up with the return of Dennis Leary's Captain Stacy, seen as a haunting memory in Spidey's peripheral vision even as he's characteristically struggling to pull off the hat trick of doing good and not being late for an important engagement.

This sequence is gold, and this makes you believe for a second that the film's on the right track, managing to convey a sense of the comic book brought to life in a way that even Raimi's beloved movies never quite pulled off. But from the moment that Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) takes the stage at her and Peter's high school graduation, intercut with the latter half of Spider-Man's heroics, and she begins talking about how "we're not immortal" and "death is inevitable" and "life is never certain", among other nail-bitingly frustrating cliches, you start to see the film's problem - this shouldn't necessarily be called The Amazing Spider-Man more than it should be called The Amazing Lack Of Subtlety-Man. While Raimi's series was guilty of this at times as well, Webb's sequel manages to take that flaw of the past and run with it like a marathon sprinter, hitting you over the head with foreshadowing so obvious that it'd require you to actively ignore what it's trying to say in order to surprise you with later events - not to mention themes so transparent that you'd have a hard time coming up with anything else the movie wants you to take away from it.

Pictured: Subtlety
To be fair, this can still be done correctly, especially in a genre where subtlety sometimes only extends to which nutjob is putting on makeup or donning heavy armor to terrorize the innocent people that the hero inevitably has to save. But the movie suffers from another key flaw that makes trying to overcome that problem an overwhelmingly impossible task, and that's it's supreme schizophrenia. To put it simply, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. If this wasn't evident by the reviews and majority word of mouth, it's never clearer than when you're watching the movie and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) is desperately trying to find a cure from a hereditary affliction that's threatening his life and finding absolutely no sympathy from his terrifyingly sick and seemingly demented father, Norman (Chris Cooper) - only to cut to a cringe-inducing and partially comedic scene where the film's main villain, Max Dillon (Jaimie Foxx), starts talking to posters and cut-outs of Spider-Man as if he's actually there and admiring the birthday cake he left for himself.

It's bizarre and kind of creepy, but not even remotely in the way the scene before it was. And that's where the film loses you - is it a warm and heart-wrenching love story between Peter and Gwen? Is it the tragic downfall of a misunderstood Max, destined to become Electro? Is it a story about a boy who's looking for answers behind the disappearances of the parents he never knew? Is it a popcorn action movie where impressive and, even at times, stunning sequences befall a muddled plot that makes little sense? We don't know, and we're never given enough slack to be able to discern it for ourselves. The film just keeps jumping around itself not unlike it's title character, wanting to be everything it can be and eventually falling short of being anything. A film can be multiple things, don't get me wrong, but it's a balancing act that you have to be very skilled at pulling off - and neither Webb nor the screenwriters seem to be up to the task. The film just sort of sits infront of you and throws everything your way, hoping you can catch enough of it to come away entertained instead of confused. And the result is something that tries to be the best iteration of Spider-Man yet and nearly succeeds, but trips itself up at just enough of the key points to hold it way, way back.

Pictured: Subtlety
To it's credit, the film isn't quite as muddled by the villains. Well, not all of them. One of the biggest fears going into this movie was that it was another case of Sony forcing the filmmakers to include as many of the comic book characters as possible in order to seem like it was doing a service to the fans, notably one of the major downfalls of Spider-Man 3. There isn't a sense of that here, for the most part, as each of the villains has a specific part to play and they play it. But there is one that throws a wrench into everything and manages to undermine the rest, and that's Harry Osborn. To put it quite simply, he had no place in this movie. Could he have been introduced and set up for sequels? Sure, but to put him through an entire arc that results in a transformation near the end of the movie while trying to balance everything else going on was a mistake one can barely even fathom, cutting down on Electro's big super villain moment at the end just to shoehorn a piece of the comic book mythology into the film's final act for no apparent reason other than someone feeling like it had to be there. The moment itself manages to come off as rushed as a result, tarnishing both the first onscreen portrayal of it and the legacy of the villain that causes it, unarguably one of Spider-Man's greatest foes. It's an awkward sit and just makes you want to rewatch the bridge sequence from Raimi's first Spider-Man to see what a superior version would have been like.

The cast carries what remains to be salvaged. Once again, Andrew Garfield does an impeccable job portraying the masked hero, nailing every quip and managing to bring a lot of levity and depth to the Peter Parker role that the script would have otherwise left hanging there. But like the first film, the biggest flaw of Webb's version of Peter is that he's missing the one key ingredient to truly make him the hero he's meant to be - any, and I mean any, sense of trying to be responsible. Once again, Parker comes off as a normal teen without any of the extraordinary morality that makes him stand out as a hero, saving people only because he's wearing a bright and colorful costume and has spider powers. It's jarring and distracts from everything good done with his character, routinely prompting the already tired question of why another origin story was necessary for the first film in the first place, given it did more harm than good for the series. Emma Stone puts in another remarkable turn as Gwen Stacy, and her romance with Peter is something handled much better in this film than the first, but it comes off as surprisingly distant when compared to the other dilemmas Peter's forced to deal with. This was an element I fully expected to like, given I was told countless times that it was the best part of the movie, and I came away considerably unimpressed. Jaimie Foxx's Max Dillon character is awkward to watch whenever he's in full-on nerd with glasses mode, right down to him pathetically singing happy birthday to himself right before he suffers his agonizing transformation - but once he's Electro and allowed to become a full super villain, he's impressive. He's more than impressive, actually, making Rhys Iffan's lackluster Lizard character thankfully seem like a distant memory, conveying a real sense of intimidation and rage that are unfortunately cut down. Sally Field gets another chance to shine as an Aunt May much different from Rosemary Harris', and she does, coming out as one of the few untarnished elements of the film. And Dane DeHaan, for the most part, manages to be entirely captivating as an understandably troubled Harry Osborn. It's only when he's required to be the other thing that his performance falls short - not of his own fault, but of the script's poor handling of it. It's kind of heartbreaking to see him put so much effort into such a thankless role.
Pictured: I don't even...
Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a movie that manages to succeed - in spots - where the first film failed. But as a complete piece, it misses the mark by a much wider margin than it's predecessor (perhaps even all four of them) ever did. The result is something that even a die hard fan of the wall-crawler probably wouldn't lose a lot of sleep over skipping out on.

- MB