26 August 2014

So I Finally Saw "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

I never made it to see this in theaters, but instead chose blockbusters with higher ratings from critics. It's too bad. While I was repeatedly disappointed by those movies, this one actually exceeded my expectations. I guess that goes to show I should stop paying attention to the critics.

I agree it has its problems, but I still had a hard time finding things not to like about this movie. A second viewing might reveal more, but for now I can number them with the fingers on one hand - mainly just a few silly plot points. Narrative and tone took a lot of hits from critics, but I found the movie very well balanced. Sure, there are several plot threads to follow, but haven't we come to expect that from this genre? Isn't it one thing we like about this genre? What's more, they develop alongside each other, so that no character arc or subplot feels too sudden or convenient. We know where it's going and just get to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Or dread it, knowing the tragic fate beforehand.

Like the first time around, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have perfect chemistry and are so much more fun to watch than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Many seem to agree on that point, but maintain that Spider-Man 2 is the superior movie (and has long been considered one of the best superhero movies ever, only finally dethroned by The Dark Knight and The Avengers). It's the only entry in that original trilogy that I can stand, and that's owing entirely to Alfred Molina's Doc Ock. I'll admit that The Amazing Spider-Man 2's villains aren't quite as fun, but the "create your own villain" trope is consistent with the first movie (not to mention superhero movies in general). Jamie Foxx's Electro, despite being very reminiscent of the Riddler in Batman Forever, works just fine. Electro was never my favorite villain, but this version at least has an underlying motive (attention starved) that makes him more responsible for his "from nobody to nightmare" development than Spider-Man. However, he also provides one of those few moments of irritation: How is he able to turn both his physical body and the leather suit he's wearing into pure electricity and back again? Is that a nod to Hydro-Man and Sandman, who can both simulate clothing?

Conversely, Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn/Green Goblin really impressed me. Like Electro, his path through the movie is very linear and transparent, but I found myself appreciating that. This movie does a good job showing characters' relationships in single scenes, like Peter and Aunt May (I loved that she resented his obsession with his parents), Peter and Harry, and Harry and his dad. His daddy issues are more straight-up contempt than love/hate and end with the early death of Norman, replaced by self-preservation. Therein is another quibble, or maybe just misunderstanding on my part: If his genetic disease is beginning and progressing the way Norman's did, why does it start to affect him so quickly? The movie mentions several times that OsCorp was forced to terminate their human/animal hybrid projects because of Connors/the Lizard, so maybe the implication is that Harry's disease will progress faster than Norman's did owing to the lack of treatment. In any case, the way Harry represents a consolidation of the OsCorp/Peter's parents mysteries makes me like the first film more.

A theory I developed to explain the movie's critical failure is that the ending is too upsetting. On the subject of tropes, we're dealing with "women in fridges" here, who, despite being stiffed (horrible pun), are missed only by other characters and not the audience. Rachel's death in The Dark Knight is surprising, dramatic, and important to the plot, but I doubt if anyone really missed the actual character (played by two separate actresses in the franchise). Gwen Stacy's death, on the other hand, is a deeper felt loss. While even more dramatic, it is less important to the plot and even less surprising, obediently adhering to the comics - notwithstanding an initial fake-out (Spider-Man saves her successfully once, then fails the second time). There's therefore a lot of tense foreshadowing leading up to it, and even those who knew it was coming probably hoped the writers would subvert it the way they did with Mary Jane in Spider-Man.

In other words, she didn't have to die to move the story forward, like the creation of Two-Face in TDK. But we see (and hear!) her die, with no getting around the fact, confirming the movie's status as a tragedy. I imagine that was bittersweet for Spidey fans, and I personally wish there were some way to resurrect her as Spider-Woman, given Gwen will fill that role in the upcoming alternate Spider-Verse. Still, I feel the denouement, bookended with the beginning, is the perfect conclusion to the theme of letting go and moving on. Given Captain Stacy's death in the first film, I think it's a fair argument that killing Gwen this soon after, or at all, was too much...though again, the return of Spider-Man in the end, in spite of all this loss and guilt that keeps piling on, makes for an inspiring finish. And so I'd argue that she's not a fridged character at all, except in the most basic sense (a love interest who dies). It's her life and not her death that motivates Peter to keep going in the end, and that's after two movies full of strong, voluntary assertions of her independence and capability.

I've made a lot of comparisons with Batman movies, but I haven't mentioned the only one that occurred to me while actually watching this, which was The Dark Knight Rises. Basically, I kept thinking how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pulled off certain ideas that the other didn't, making it, in my mind, the superior film. I'll demonstrate:

Large theatrical message on a bridgeBatman's flaming Bat-signal, I guess meant to scare the bad guys and encourage the good, makes no sense at all. How in the world did he rig it?Spider-Man spells out "I Love You" in webbing for Gwen. This serves a stronger, simpler purpose and is entirely plausible. Also, it recalls Venom's taunting of Spider-Man (over Gwen Stacy, no less) in the same way in The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series.
Secret identityBat-fans like to think Gordon knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, given he's a great detective and all, and just doesn't say anything. Here, Gordon has to ask him outright, and is truly surprised. Blake does figure it out, but his explanation how makes no sense.It's implied throughout that Aunt May suspects Peter is Spider-Man and allows him his privacy. Bonus: Gwen has known since early in the first movie.
Smart heroBatman - a ninja, by the way, who usually beats his enemies with strategy - loses to Bane in a straight-up fight. When he returns to Gotham for a rematch, his new plan is to...face Bane in a straight-up fight. His success this time seems almost lucky, as if the shot to Bane's mask is coincidental.When Electro fries Spider-Man's web shooter, Peter spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to prevent that happening again, and finally reaches a solution with Gwen's help.
Anyone can be me!Batman calls this "the point," and although he complained in the previous movie that literal Batman copies wasn't what he meant by inspiring people, he secretly leads Blake toward becoming Batman (sans training or personal guidance). Overall it's a muddled, inconsistent message.The Spider-Kid in the ending, while literally dressed as Spider-Man, is a simpler, more successful rhetorical point in that he can't literally do what Spider-Man does, but stands up to evil anyway.
Homage to the larger universeThis final installment left me unsatisfied for not taking the opportunity to give subtle nods to other Bat-villains left unexplored, like Penguin, Riddler, etc. For example, why not make the guard pushing people out onto the ice a bald guy named Victor?Rhino's brief role at beginning and end is exactly what I mean. Perfect! The entire Sinister Six is set up for future installments, and the mere implication would make this movie a satisfying conclusion to the series (even though it's not).

Obviously these superhero movies, especially when too loyal to classic (outdated?) stories, tend to hit a lot of the same notes. That's the Hero's Journey for you. But that's just a formula, and while The Amazing Spider-Man 2 follows that formula, it does an admirable job making it work for its characters and universe, rather than the other way around. That some people have trouble seeing past that formula is maybe the sadder ending here.


  1. This, like a few other films, has received quite a bit of criticism from both critics and fans. It's interesting to note that it currently has a 53% on Rottentomatoes.com, which is just 7% shy of being certified as Fresh. What that means to me is people are complaining very loudly about the things that are wrong with the movie, while still appreciating a lot of the things it does very right. And I think that's happening because it's SO CLOSE to being, well, Amazing.

    First, let me just say how awesome the suit is. I'm not sure I've heard a single person complain about the suit. I love how big the eyes are. It is classic while integrating the longer-legged spider on the back to create a unique touch.

    Ok, I think the biggest thing this movie suffers from is wild shifts in tone. One of my first thoughts after seeing the movie for the first time was that Marc Webb decided he wanted to come closer to the tone of the comics more, but he still had to deal with the "serious" things he started in the first movie such as Peter's parents. So this is largely a transition movie for this and my following point. Before I go there, I need to say that in the special features (of which I've watched all that are on the disc) Marc Webb specifically mentions he wanted to bring in some heavy comic elements. And that's where even more issues arise. Rhino is laughably camp. A character like that would be right at home in the old comics, but in not only a more grounded movie, but also with remnants of the "serious" themes from the first ASM, Rhino comes off as utterly absurd and pulled a lot of people out of the movie. Same goes with Goblin's appearance and odd laughing. Laughing for the Green Goblin worked in the first Spider Man with Willem DaFoe worked because the character was kinda campy, and somewhat humorous as a character in general. With DeHaan's Goblin, it's just out of place.

    Ok, so the second reason this is a transition move is because it's really busy expanding the Spider Man universe, which makes it suffer from the same problems Iron Man 2 did. The main storyline suffers for the sake of developing a larger, more expansive storyline. And frankly, I'm STILL in utter disbelief that Sony forced a too-large storyline into Spider Man yet again. I mean, I get that Marvel is making money hand over foot with the MCU they've built up and Sony wants a piece of the pie. But c'mon guys. The issues with Spider Man 3 are pretty well known by now, and you guys tried to do it AGAIN. Again! The more I think about Spider Man 3, the more I'm convinced it was ultimately a huge middle finger to Sony by Sam Raimi for taking over his film. Anyway, ASM 2 could have benefited from not forcing Goblin to come about in this movie. But I think Sony was so anxious to expand the Spider Man universe to rake in the dough that they sacrificed good character development for it.

    If I'm not mistaken, this movie had some reshoots after principal shooting was done. The story felt so much smaller at the beginning of development. At least that's what it felt like when reports were coming out. But it kept ballooning and ballooning until it became what it is. And can you believe that Mary Jane was supposed to make a cameo through Shalene Woodley? Man, I"m glad that was ultimately nixed. Maybe it was the little amount of pushback Marc Webb could manage, I dunno.

    1. Yeah, I guess those tone shifts just weren't as noticeable to me, though my complaints kind of fit into the campy category (like Electro's suit becoming pure electricity). Again, I like a lot going on at once, provided everything is linked. I think the franchise stuff in Iron Man 2 was more noticeably tacked on, but I like that movie, too...at least more than most people seem to.

      To me, the biggest issues with Spider-Man 3 were reopening a resolved plot point (Uncle Ben's death) and mishandling the symbiote, both when Peter wears it (Tobey Maguire can't do "tough") and when Brock wears it (Venom gets like 10 minutes of screen time). I know Green Goblin gets a similar treatment in ASM2, but it's more justified in that case because we've already seen that villain on screen before; that, and his story fits much more comfortably within the larger plot than the unbelievably random arrival of the symbiote in SM3.

      Yeah, I was happy over the news that Shalene Woodley was cut. If they bring M.J. back in, I hope it's with a different actress.

  2. Anyway, I think those are the two big things people had issue with: wild tonal shifts through characters like Rhino (and don't even get me started on Dr. Kafka and his horrid accent (again, something that would work in the comic, but comes off as weird in this movie)) and Goblin's oddities, and the movie suffering from bloat because they stuffed in Spider Man universe expansion.

    Oh! And I read that the entire Rhino mech scene was originally intended as a post/mid-credits scene. This could have helped the movie breathe a little more as well. But Marc Webb was originally contracted to direct a film for Fox, and broke that contract to film ASM 2. As recompense for that, Sony agreed to add the X Men: DoFP stinger on at the end of the film, forcing the Rhino mech scene to be added directly onto the end of ASM 2. Curse you, Fox!

    Ok, I think I've complained enough. One could easily think I really disliked the movie. The truth is, though, I quite enjoyed the movie, even on a second viewing. I think it absolutely nails Spidey, and of course the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is so darn fun. I think once we finally hit ASM 3, we will have gotten rid of much of the seriousness residue from the first movie and we'll have a really, really solid Spider Man, quite possibly the most fun, playful and entertaining Spider Man movie we could hope for.

    Electro has gotten a bad rap as well. One of the deleted scenes involves Dillon and his mother before he goes to work. His mom is rather cruel to him, further explaining his character progression more. The scene also contains another "scene" in Dillon's brain where he acts out and yells his true feelings at his mother, similar to what happens earlier with Alistair Smythe (BJ Novak). I'm sad they cut that, because it does a lot to further reinforce his fractured mind.

    But even without that, I think his character is done pretty well, and I don't get why people criticize his arc so much. I think the movie very clearly demonstrates how forgotten his character is and how, once he's not only forgotten by his idol, and seemingly humiliated and shown up by him, he reacts with his newly acquired power. And further on, when approached by Harry, he finds out that not only does Harry need him (as nobody has before), Harry gives him the offer of exacting revenge on Spider Man and he jumps at the opportunity. I wouldn't be surprised if he shows up as part of the Sinister Six.

    Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne actually disappointed me quite a bit, and I think it's because his arc was compressed because of all the world building. Ideally, I would have liked it if he was introduced in this film, but didn't become Goblin until the next film. Of course, that would have delayed Sinister Six for another movie, but I think it would have done right by the character. It would have been neat to see Norman survive this movie, so the next movie would have been Harry as a Proto-Goblin, with Norman taking a refined formula which turned him into something like the Green Goblin from the Ultimate Spider Man comics where he's a behemoth. Oh well, opportunity lost.

    All in all, the movie has inconsistencies and outright failures, but it succeeds more than it fails. It contains so much of the soul of Spider Man that it's still a delight to watch, and I'm very excited to see where the future takes the series.

    And I think I wrote enough that I probably should have made this a blog post since this was long enough to span two comments, but it's more exciting to see huge comments like this, right?

    1. Oh man, I completely forgot about Dr. Kafka! He was definitely one of the "count on one hand' issues of mine, though I got a good laugh/eye roll out of him. His character is a woman in The Spectacular Spider-Man (seen rehabilitating Electro at Ravencroft, no less), but I wonder if they chickened out of showing a woman killed the way the character is in the movie.

      I'm personally glad they ended with the Rhino scene. It just worked for me, restoring the "keep on keeping on" concept that Spider-Man has always represented.

  3. Another interesting note on Norman Osborne. There's apparently concept art of a disembodied head in cryostasis, leading a lot of people to speculate that Norman will come back somehow has another Goblin in future movies. Personally, that boat has sailed, and I hope they don't expand the idea.

    1. I heard about that and I agree. I thought he was great in the one scene they gave him. There's plenty they can do without him.