Tuesday, 6 May 2014

You Are My Path: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The decision to reboot the Spider-Man film franchise has always been a controversial one- even four years after the reboot was officially announced in January 2010. For everyone happy about the re-launch of the series- 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb (henceforth known as TASM)- and considers it superior to Sam Raimi’s trilogy, there are still many detractors. I’ve had complicated feelings towards that film for some time. The backlash against the Raimi films has definitely soured me towards this new series, despite feeling there are things in that TASM which are stronger than the Raimi films.

Now, almost two years later, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (henceforth known TASM 2)- which sees Webb returning to the director's chair- is here and I have a similar reaction to the one I had in the days after seeing TASM for the first time- that of disappointment and depression. As with TASM there’s a potentially great film nestled deeply in TASM 2 but it suffers from the same problems of TASM. Namely, this series is more concerned with constructing a franchise and an expansive universe then just telling a solid story that can stand on its own terms. The main difference between the two films is TASM scenes cut out that would have made the film more cohesive a compelling, whereas TASM 2 has too much stuff to juggle, resulting in a unfocused film that never decides what story it wants to tell.

One of the main criticisms I and others had about TASM was its lack of exploration concerning the disappearance of Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) parents and his father’s connection to the spider that gave Peter his extraordinary powers. In that this plot line was dropped mid way through and didn’t have a strong enough through line in the film. Many said it would be picked up in the sequel but that mentality towards the film was a huge problem. People were too willing to forgive the film's dependence on getting a sequel in order to tell its story. Again, franchise building took precedence over clean story-telling, both for the filmmakers and certain audience members.

Thankfully, the story about Peter’s parents does get some resolution in this film. The film opens with Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) recording a video message explaining his disappearance. We get a shortened reprise of TASM’s opening scene, with Richard and Mary Parker (Embeth Davidtz) leaving the young Peter in the care of his aunt and uncle, May and Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen). We cut to Richard and Mary on board a private jet with Richard uploading files from his laptop. An assassin is on board attempt to kill them. Mary is shot but Richard is eventually able to blow out the windows of the plane, sending the assassin to his demise- but also sealing Richard and Mary’s fates. It’s a solid sequence with a touching ending. Nevertheless, I feel Webb wanted to craft a James Bond/Christopher Nolan style prologue but I don’t feel it reaches those heights.

After this sequence we essentially get another prologue with Spider-Man stopping the a Russian gangster (Paul Giamatti) from stealing Oscorp’s plutonium shipment. This sequence feels the most Spider-Man-y of any in a Spider-Man film thus far. The jokey Spider-Man stuff works better here than in TASM and Garfield feels pretty much like Spider-Man, even if I still can’t fully embrace the performance. On a side note: this is the best looking live action Spider-Man suit we've gotten so far. Peter makes his high school graduation just in time but his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) becomes strained. Peter is having visions of Gwen’s deceased father Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), who was killed by the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) at the end of TASM and made Peter promise to leave Gwen alone, lest Peter’s crime fighting life put her in danger.  

The ending of TASM was very controversial since Peter, after keeping away from Gwen, decides to continue his relationship with Gwen. Many took the ending as Peter being too flippant about keeping a promise to a dying man. I wasn’t too up in arms about the broken promise but I did feel Peter's decision negated much of his character arc and made unclear what transformation he was supposed go through. I admire that this film confronts that criticism pretty head on by showing us Peter’s conflicting emotions over desiring to be with Gwen but wanting to protect her. They essentially break up but they still try to be together in some capacity.   

During the plutonium heist Spider-Man save Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an Oscorp employee who becomes obsessed with Spider-Man. In typical superhero movie fashion Max, after attempting some maintenance work, falls in to a batch of electric eels, turning him in to Electro, who's essentially able to control electricity. Around the same time Peter’s childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns after many years absent. He takes over Oscorp after the death of his father Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper). We learn that Harry has the same disease which killed Norman. If you remember, Norman dying was established in TASM. In an odd twist of fate, Spider-Man’s blood may be the only thing that can save Harry.

Explaining the plot of this movie is pretty exhausting.  And as I mentioned earlier, there’s too much going on. I'm of two minds considering Electro's place in the film. Visually he looks great and the fight sequences between him and Spider-Man are miraculous. At the same time the film feels like it needed to focus on Harry's story and his eventual transformation in to the Green Goblin and having Electro gets in the way of this story. Electro’s subplot doesn’t have a strong enough thematic connection to Harry's story. It could be argued that the connection between the two is they both feel betrayed by Spider-Man. Spider-Man doesn’t want to give Harry his blood- afraid that it could harm him rather than heal him. And after confronting Spider-Man in Times Square Electro believes Spider-Man never cared about him. His delusion about them being friends is essentially shattered.

But the film doesn’t have enough of a thematic focus for the parallel between Harry and Electro to be sufficiently developed. Despite being built up as the lead villain, It feels like Electro is more of a plot device than a fully formed character, essentially here just so he's established for the eventual Sinister Six team up. I’m not certain anyone was truly committed to exploring his character or crafting a story around him. I wish Electro's shift from loving to hating Spider-Man was explored in more depth as well. I get that the character is delusional but his change of heart happen too quick.

If the film did focus on just Harry, the film could've paralleled Peter and Harry-both are orphans, both abandoned by their fathers. There's also the whole sins of the father theme that exists between them. Norman wanted to use RIchard's research for militarized weapons and Richard, who says in his video message that "People will call me a monster for what I've done," attempts to redeem himself before his death.   

As with the first film, Garfield and Stone have a strong onscreen rapport which adds weight to conceptually tedious material. There’s an improvisational quality to some of their scenes that makes one wonder if everything they say is scripted or if Webb allowed them to riff together. I can’t say I enjoyed watching their scenes- probably because Garfield and Stone’s deep connection on and off-screen makes me depressed about myself. But that's neither here nor there.  

Foxx is a good actor but his performance gets lost under a lot of CGI, though I really liked the scene where he takes on the name Electro. DeHaan is quite good as Harry. He has a slightly unhinged quality that emphasizes his troubled past and eventual evil transformation. The scene between him and Cooper, shot in a darkened room with Norman on his deathbed, is a great example of one scene being able to tell us a lot about the relationship between two people. It is surprising that we’re told Norman Osborn has died but it’s strange to think Norman is gone for good. He’s too important a part of the Spider-Man and Marvel mythos to be relegated to a cameo. At the same time, considering the route this film goes down with Harry suggests that maybe Norman may not come back. I’m still convinced that Norman is coming back, especially since there was a deleted post-credits scene with Norman's head in a jar, Futurama style.   

I’m not a purist but there are certain twists to the mythology that I’m not sure I like. For one, I feel Uncle Ben’s influence on Peter’s life has been somewhat marginalized. Ben had more of a presence in TASM than in Raimi’s original film but the film implied it was Stacy’s lecture about vigilantism that spurred Peter to use his powers to help others- whereas in the traditional origin story it’s Peter’s guilt over not stopping the man who would eventually kill Ben which makes him realize that “with great power must come great responsibility.”  And in TASM 2 its Stacy’s ghost that Peter sees throughout the film but Ben’s presence is hardly felt.

I’m also not fully onboard with Richard having a connection to his son’s eventual transformation in to Spider-Man. I understand the desire to deepen a superhero character’s origin story. But most of the time with these characters, the appeal of their origin stories are their simplicity. Peter Parker was a just an ordinary kid (aside from being a genius), an outcast who was bitten by a radioactive spider and inherited super powers. He made a mistake that got his uncle killed and now uses his powers to fight evil. That’s pretty much it.

What TASM suggested and the filmmakers confirm here is Peter was essentially the only one who could become Spider-Man, and that undermines Peter’s relatability as a character. Moreover, Peter is supposed to be a character with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a guy who has a lot of bad luck and who has difficultly balancing being a superhero and living an ordinary life-because essentially he can’t. This was the central dilemma of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and crafting a film around Spider-Man's existential crisis is why I feel it’s still the best Spider-Man film. And I know I’m not the only one who’s disappointed that J. Jonah Jameson is never seen in this film.

I don’t want to say that the filmmakers don’t understand Spider-Man at all since I’m not an expert either. And there are many moments that are very much Spider-Man. The ending, which I’ll get to later, also says something incredibly meaningful about superheroes and this character in particular.

Now, I want to get to the big part of this film, which may not be a complete surprise, especially to comic book readers. So, spoiler warning........


The death of Gwen Stacy is something many fans have wanted to see on screen. And ever since Gwen Stacy was known to be in this new franchise there was constant discussion about when and if she would die in the series. For a while it appeared she wouldn’t die in TASM 2 since Electro and Rhino were the only confirmed villains- that is, until Green Goblin was revealed to be in the film. The sequence in which she dies is not exactly like the comic story but it's still incredibly powerful. Garfield’s reaction to Gwen’s lifeless body is beautiful and has the potential to break the most hardened heart.

However, her death does seem redundant after the deaths in TASM, which occurred so Peter could learn about responsibility and the tragedy that's part of life he’s been thrust in to. I also feel, as I mentioned earlier, Harry’s transformation in to the Green Goblin needed more breathing room. For being involved in such a significant moment as Gwen’s death, Green Goblin is essentially a cameo. There’s also the whole issue of Gwen feeling like she was just in this franchise to die. I do like the cemetery montage, which shows us, without words, Peter’s grief over Gwen’s death and his numbness to anything else. It’s a haunting piece of filmmaking by Webb that shows how talented he can be.   

Coming back to the final scene, where Spider-Man returns after a significant absence to battle the Rhino,  now in a mechanized suit created by Oscorp.  What I like about this ending is shows that despite all the tragedy in his life Peter will still push forward and reminds us that “with great power...” The sequence states what’s beautiful about these heroes: they use the tragedy in their lives to do good for others.

Spoilers for ending over

I wrote an article some time ago concerning my mixed feelings about Marc Webb and this franchise: http://thenoirzone.blogspot.ca/2014/03/some-thoughts-on-my-mixed-feelings.html. I still stand my feelings but I’m not mad at Marc Webb. He does have talent. I’m more upset with Sony and how they didn’t allow this film to breathe and be a story. TASM 2 isn’t a soulless film. It has some incredibly soulful and beautiful human moments, Webb crafts some magnificent visual effects sequence and its climax is pretty much perfect. It’s just that Sony has suffocated this franchise with world building and wanting to catch up with Marvel Studios.  Ultimately, TASM 2 is too problematic in regards to its story and character development to be a completely satisfying.

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