Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it is clear that Sony Pictures really, really wants a piece of that Marvel money. They're clearly hoping to turn their flagship superhero property into a long-running series with its own complex continuity running between several films; there has already been talk of spinoffs based on Venom and the Sinister Six. Unfortunately, Sony's efforts thus far have lacked much of any vision beyond cynical greed, missing everything that made even the lesser films of the Marvel universe work. While those films are, by and large, self-contained stories that just so happen to share a cinematic universe, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is so dedicated to world-building for the sequels that it flails wildly as its own film. Much like with the first film, the biggest emotion that I can muster for this is a big, loud "meh." It's been a long time since I've seen Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, so I can't really say how well they've stood the test of time, but I at least distinctly recall enjoying them a lot more than this.

The best thing I can say about this film is that it's pretty, at least. Director Marc Webb shoots some of the best action scenes that I've seen in any of the Spider-Man films thus far, scenes that look especially impressive in IMAX 3-D. The villain Electro's big reveal in Times Square, the final battle, and of course, the many shots of Spider-Man web-slinging through midtown Manhattan are all sights to behold, and the film loves to take every opportunity to show this off. It also helps that most of the cast is good, particularly Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. Given that their romance forms a huge chunk of the film's personal story, they needed actors who had great chemistry together, and the fact that Garfield and Stone have since become a couple in real life indicates that they scored a home run on that bit of casting. It's in these smaller moments, with Peter and Gwen making lovey-dovey eyes or Peter being a goofball, that the film truly overcame its weak, disjointed writing. Such moments reminded me of why I loved (500) Days of Summer, the indie rom-com that put Marc Webb on the Hollywood map. Dane DeHaan was also a wonderful prick as the rich kid Norman Osbourne, making me want to punch him in his little hipster jaw for all the right reasons, while Jamie Foxx did well as Electro despite being saddled with a fairly one-note character who seemed like a male scientist version of Carrie White. The Times Square scene alone was one of the sweetest moments in the film, thanks largely to the energy (pardon the pun) that Foxx gave his frustrated, newly-empowered nerd-gone-rogue. It was the actors who made the film pop even at its worst.

And unfortunately, "at its worst" is a whole lot of ground to cover. I have never respected Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci as screenwriters; together, the duo has been responsible for the Transformers films, Cowboys & Aliens, and the rebooted Star Trek films, which have ranged from decent (if mindless) at best to virtually unwatchable at worst. Somehow, these guys' movies make a lot of money, so they keep getting work in spite of themselves. And with this film, they're at their worst yet. The narrative is so incoherent that it almost feels at times like an anthology film whose component parts have been loosely tied together with frayed bits of dental floss. It has the illusion of a narrative, sure, but until the very end, the various parts of the movie -- Peter and Gwen's relationship, Max Dillon's transformation into Electro, and Norman Osbourne's takeover of Oscorp and search for a cure for his illness -- never come together even when logic really suggests that they should. It's the same problem that prevented American Mary from becoming a truly great movie, only blown up to the scale of a summer blockbuster with sequel expectations.

That's not even counting the myriad plot threads that are left dangling in the wind with only a few minutes' screen time, like the Ravencroft Institute (easy source of baddies and nasty experiments), Norman's assistant Felicia (played by a criminally underused Felicity Jones, clearly being set up to become the Black Cat in sequels), Oscorp's mountain of advanced technologies (another easy source of villains), and the mysterious Man in the Shadows serving as the messenger for some nefarious, nebulous supervillains. Whereas Agent 13 in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was barely a blip on that film's radar that didn't affect the main story, here the weight of all of this sequel-teasing gets to the point where it starts dragging on the film, slowing it down and bloating it to a runtime of close to two and a half hours. There was so much that could have, and should have, been left on the cutting room floor, leaving a much better-paced, more streamlined film.

To top it all off, there's the big, final gut-punch at the end. If you know even the first thing about the comics, you probably know precisely what I'm talking about without even seeing this movie, but I'll refrain from spoiling it just in case you don't. That right there leads to my main issues with the scene. It suffers from two seemingly opposed problems that only reinforce each other: not only is that moment given little foreshadowing during the rest of the film (which had been more concerned with world-building than actually hammering its story into coherence), but like I said, anybody who knows anything about that character knows what's coming. This ultimately leads to a scene that felt shoehorned in so as to give a cheap shock to people who aren't comics fans and fulfill the checklist of expectations for those who are, with little of the emotional punch required from such a moment.

None of these problems stand alone. Rather, they are all merely signs of what I feel is truly wrong with the Amazing Spider-Man series. After Sam Raimi walked off of Spider-Man 4 due to studio interference, Sony Pictures knew that it had to get a Spider-Man movie out the door soon, lest the film rights revert back to Marvel -- who, by that point, had become one of their direct competitors and would never be giving the rights back. These films were not made out of any sort of passion, be it to make a great movie or even just to give moviegoers a good time. Rather, they are what is known in the comics industry as "ash can" movies, made simply for Sony Pictures to hold onto the trademark to their golden goose. Everything these films have put on display marks them as cynical attempts to copy Marvel's success in the hopes of creating a rival to their series. And while Marvel (now owned by Disney) is as much a business as Sony is, so far they have understood that building up a reliable reputation for making good movies is the best way to get moviegoers to keep turning out to consume your product. Sony Pictures, on the other hand, saw Marvel catch lightning in a bottle and tried to copy the bottle.

Score: 2 out of 5

It's not an awful movie, but it is a soulless one, a demonstration of what happens when you try to copy Marvel's continuity-focused storytelling without a scrap of understanding of what makes those films tick. Maybe worth a matinee for the action and web-slinging, but little else.

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