While critics find it to be “generally favorable”, you and I will most likely find it to be more of a “general favorite”.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014) is an action drama that begins like clockwork. After a rushed back-story on the death of Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) parents, we find Spider-Man on a sunny urban morning, zinging through a jungle gym of New York skyscrapers in pursuit of Russian criminal Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), the soon to be Rhino. Spidey is a first-class showman here—his action, quick, and his humor, quip. While on the streets we also slam into the nerdy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) whose nervous shakes are later electrocuted away to bring us Electro.
If you remember, at last sight Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) were bid farewell with uncertainty. Gwen’s disapproving father (Denis Leary), the Chief Police Commissioner, extracted a promise from Peter to leave her be as his dying wish. So of course ASM2 provides us a Peter mentally torn between duty and love, foreshadowing the depth of character psychology and emotional turmoil that this sequel explores. Harry Osborn, played by a steely-eyed Dane DeHaan, then arrives on cue, stepping on-set to visit his dying father Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper). Harry learns his health is doomed by the genetic “Osborn Curse” and desperately seeks a cure, while at Oscorp (the largest brewery for villainy) our bespectacled oily-haired Max conveniently falls into a tank of super electric eels and—Electro!
Peter battles on with his personal struggles while also trying to 1) fight crime, 2) diffuse Electro, 3) be a good best friend, 4) be a good boyfriend 5) be an even better nephew 6) diffuse Electro (again), and 7, 8, 9…) subdue the extra villains who keep jumping off Marvel’s overly excited assembly line—Rhino, the Green Goblin, and the soon to come Sinister Six.
The terrific writing trifecta are also back: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, who revamped miracles such as Star Trek and the Transformers. Unfortunately though, in ASM2 they plummet from the glorified pedestals of their reputations. While the movie has many strong points, plot complexity and villainous dialogue are not some of them. Sadly, the screenplay is rigged with clichés like a fertile minefield. Raggedy sentences and cardboard villains like Electro, Green Goblin and Rhino— who just keep blurting out “I WANT to kill Spider-Man!” will not cut it.
The film, however, gains a momentous swing only after the mid-way point and a series of highflying upswings near the end—more due to the chemistry of the actors than from a success of sharply provocative writing. Relative to Raimi’s versions, casting for Webb’s Spider-Man is definitely an improvement. It is somewhat like chemistry—it’s not how big the names are, but how well they react onscreen to their roles, and to one another. Garfield’s Parker is more likable and utterly relatable. He reminds you of that angst-ridden teenager you saw every day by the locker. Immediately, we get that Garfield’s version of Marvel’s beloved character is more loyal to the comics than some of those mopey performances by Tobey Maguire. He strikes the right notes when we need him to, and he is just emotional enough to not make him a wimp.
Jamie Foxx’s Electro, on the other hand, was dreadful, diffusing before even hitting the ON switch. We understand the limitations of mediocre writing, but we also understand that great actors can turn “okay” characters into Legends. Apart from cool pyrotechnics and loud bluish electric surges, from Foxx we received not even a memory worth saving. Villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker, or Tom Hardy’s chilling Bane, make audiences sweat and lean forward, suspended by real belief of the unreal that they watch. Electro on the other hand we forget, easily overshadowed by the true heroes of the movie—the couple.
It is the emotional tug of this movie that strings it together and catapults it over to the side of our good graces. Gwen’s flirty blushes, laced with her smart lines served with a side of Peter’s awkward humor and slapstick mishaps is a recipe baked just right.
I’m sure their real-life romance helps but we can’t deny them their due credit for good acting. Two-time Academy Award winner Sally Field also comes in with all guns blazing. That scene when Aunt May thinks she isn’t enough for Peter and breaks apart in front of him, and both are on the verge of being stabbed by grief as Field’s jaws begin to shudder? Ah, it is just too human to watch. Effortlessly conveyed by Field, and so well reciprocated by Garfield, it will make your heart want to turn in and hug itself.
When an audience’s empathy is reeled in by the performances of the actors it becomes the recipe for viewer-movie lovemaking. Everything else that doesn’t do this is “meh”. This was the problem with the “Toby-Kirsten” duo, and I’m sorry I keep bashing them (it’s just the result of something new done better than its predecessor). The “Stone-Garfield” match we genuinely like out of choice. The body language, the expressions, the humor etc. contribute to this appreciation of their coupling. For “Toby-Kirsten” though, we reacted mechanically: like “okay they are happening, so guess we are meant to like them?” Yeah, no thank you, that won’t work.
Apart from great casting, ASM2 also does wonders on the eyes with crafty cinematography. The tasteful use of hyper-slowed frames, known as “bullet time” shots, zone in on the minutia of the action. In essence the point being to give the audience a view from inside the mask, to experience scenes how Spider-Man would. Today’s films rely so heavily on CGI and slow-motion it’s either a hit or miss—this was a homerun. It works especially well for fans wishing to be immersed in every gracefully acrobatic detail of their high-swinging hero.
The purpose of the opening CGI shot, where spinning microscopic cogwheels and widgets work one another rhythmically, is to set in motion the most central, yet also understated, theme of this movie: Time. At an emotionally action-packed 142 minutes, even one of the last climactic scenes in the movie, ornately filmed from the perch of an old clock tower with tumbling cogwheels and widgets, recounts the importance of Time as a significant marker of life. Over 40 prominent critical reviews raid on and on, dripping with opinions, and yet none of them touch on the artistry of Marc Webb’s (Director) visual attention to this message—that time is of the essence; and that as it ticks by, one should never miss out on the moments as a second’s miss might be a lifetime’s loss. The shot of the disassembling structure, where time itself is dying by the very collapse of the mechanical clock tower’s parts is filmed deftly, as Webb leave’s everything in suspension: audience, villain, hero and all.
In the end though, we appreciate mostly the risks that this movie takes. For a PG-13 kids-friendly production, this is a brave step forward in storytelling. I can’t even remember the last time a Marvel movie does what this movie does (the spoiler section can be found below to explore the meaty details). Thereby, Webb’s tale on Spidey earns a solid 8.4/10
for doing it differently. If anything, at least Spidey sure caught me by surprise.
!!!SPOILER SECTION!!! For those who’ve already seen the movie, read on:
They say when you lose someone your first reaction is denial. That was exactly the hopeful emotional air inhaled in one collective breath, and then let out with disbelief and depression. We saw the smack, heard the crack, and yet we hung onto that sliver of hope, on that one string of web that reached out for salvation. Webb’s direction of the scene is applaud-worthy. Hearing the sniffles and tears around me in the theatre, slosh to the floor, was evidence enough.
One of the reasons the reaction was so great was also due to Emma Stone’s evocative performance. In my opinion, she is much more lovable that Kirsten Dunst. If Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson had got the smashing crack I honestly don’t think audiences would have been as sympathetic. Stones’ Gwen Stacy is not as inscrutable, and therefore commands a greater affective reaction.
It is an ending done well. I’m not saying it’s nice that it happened; I’m saying I admire the fact that the creators went for it even though they didn’t have to. They could have easily sandwiched her end between two movies as invisible back-story material but they didn’t. Having the scene elevates the credibility of the movie, setting it apart from movies that would normally cower under the norm, like Iron Man or Thor where Pepper Potts or Jane Foster clichéd-ly cough themselves back to life and then all is well. The End. ASM2 goes beyond this line and paves a new path of possibility for this genre to explore.