Web of Shame: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

9 May

I’m probably foolish to think that the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies should have been enough. That series got tiresome fast, but until now I never thought I’d be pining for the colourful, cheesy, fantastical, flawed comic book world that Raimi built in Marvel’s fictional New York City. But if The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has anything to teach us, it’s that there’s no limit to what a studio like Sony will sacrifice in the name of a profitable product, including contrivances like plot, character, believability, and logic – which Raimi’s films at least acknowledged, if sometimes in a fumbling way.

The film follows Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) as he struggles with graduation from high school, complications in his relationship with his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and the rekindling of an old friendship with Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan). Predictably, Peter is late for graduation, fumbles his romance, and unwittingly steers Harry towards evil. There’s also a man made out of electricity called Electro (played by Jamie Foxx in what seems to be the only motivated performance in the film), because apparently one villain isn’t enough. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 takes many cues from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but it misses that one; Batman only ever dealt with one real antagonist at a time. Those films were imperfect, but their grittiness and dark tone suited the Batman context. That kind of tone is deeply unwelcome in a Spider-Man movie, which should focus on fun characters, exciting and inventive action sequences, and a lighthearted spirit. Director Marc Webb seems happy to capitalize on the elements that made The Dark Knight series a box-office success, without really grasping why these elements worked (or, more pointedly, why they wouldn’t work in his own film).

Both of Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films insist upon the inclusion of a backstory in which Peter attempts to solve a mystery surrounding the disappearance and death of his parents. This subplot, or anything like it, was wholly absent from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and they hardly suffered for it; I am at a loss to understand why it’s positioned as being central to the Spider-Man story when it could have been removed with literally zero affect on the film. At the inevitable moment at Peter’s graduation where Aunt May says “I wish your Uncle Ben could have been here”, Peter is quick to add, “And my folks,” and it’s like the forced shoehorning of that line into a conversation that wasn’t about his parents is an echo of the whole subplot, an addendum that doesn’t add anything. I’m already indisposed to these movies because of how utterly unnecessary they feel, so I have little patience for an unnecessary subplot. The film is polished yet pandering, very indicative of the kind of flashy, brainless, lowest-common-denominator screenwriting I’ve come to expect from the duo of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The problem is twofold: either they are more than willing to bend the knee to the studio bigwigs who write their cheques and make concessions instead of honest stories, or they genuinely have no respect for the intelligence of their audience, and neither possibility is something I can abide. Perhaps these larger structural issues can’t be placed on their shoulders, but the unnatural and hackneyed dialogue certainly can. Even people in a comic book universe don’t communicate this way.

The film feels very dishonest and constructed, very much a hodgepodge of disparate pieces of other successful films sewn together Frankenstein-style. Peter has a poster of the movie Blow Up on his wall and it’s like OK, I get it, he’s a photographer. But if you want him to be a journalist and a science genius and an engineer and a superhero and a relatable protagonist, then these elements need to be handled more delicately, and woven in more cleverly. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is awful, and that Andrew Garfield croaks his way through the “ain’t”s and “hey man”s that seem appropriate for a Brooklyn teen, but not for a socially-awkward chemical engineer. It’s abundantly clear that the producers and Sony execs decided their Spider-Man movie needed to have certain marketable elements in it in order to appeal to as many people as possible, and then tasked the writers and director with making a genuinely enjoyable film out of them; basically, the mission statement seems to have been: “Please make our advertisement into a feature-length film”. I admire their tenacity in trying to make that happen, although I’m not sure you can call it a success. Sony’s Vaio laptops and Ericsson cellphones are more than common sights; they’re pushed into centre frame. We’re meant to infer that Electro is drawn to Times Square because he feeds off of electricity and Times Square, with all its brilliant lights and billboards, must be the “most electrical part of the city” (even though the final showdown between him and Spider-Man takes place in a power station, doubtless coursing with a hundred times the voltage of Times Square). But this actually happens because it’s where Sony could sell the most adspace and still convince you it’s a movie – ads strewn across a power station would have been too obvious. The mid-credits scene – now a staple of the comic book film, intended to tantalize you with details about the inevitable sequel –  is simply a context-free clip from the upcoming X-Men movie, a film franchise which isn’t even owned by Sony. They were too lazy to write and film a scene bridging the gap between this Spidey film and the next one, so they used the expected mid-credits scene as just another billboard. The shamelessness verges on infuriating.

The only part of the whole thing that’s convincing is Spider-Man himself. When Peter’s in the suit, he’s the perfect film incarnation of the web-slinging, wisecracking, spandex-suited superhero you’d pay to see. Garfield absolutely looks the part, as well – this is the most convincing the costume has ever been, and his lanky frame really sells it; his nimble CGI antics are well-choreographed, well-shot, and exemplary of Spider-Man’s hyperkinetic abilities. He spends so little time in the suit, though, probably a quarter of the film’s runtime, and the success of his performance is due more to the film’s talented digital artists than the star himself. I recall reading that Garfield and Emma Stone were praised for their onscreen chemistry in The Amazing Spider-Man, especially because of their offscreen romance, but Stone provides more than her share here – she’s the funny, endearing, charismatic one, and she absolutely carries the couple, despite her quote-unquote quirky dialogue ringing false more often than not. I can’t get over that Aunt May is played by Sally Field; she never stops being Sally Field, and I can’t not see her as Sally Field. She’s as incongruous in this comic-book context as Christopher Lee would be in a romantic comedy. And why cast Shakespearean veteran Colm Feore as an Oscorp fatcat, or the excellent Paul Giamatti as classic Spidey villain The Rhino, if you’re going to underuse them? Giamatti has about eight lines to work with, all of which are cliched takes on “I am unstoppable!”, and his two – count ‘em, two – scenes bookend the film with no context, arc, explanation, or resolution. They knew better than to try and top J.K. Simmons, though, whose J. Jonah Jameson was probably the most memorable part of the Raimi trilogy, here restricting the character to a blithe offscreen reference (Peter emails him a photo). His cartoonish portrayal of the cantankerous newspaper chief fit brilliantly into Raimi’s more unrealistic films, but such a spirited performance would easily outshine anyone in this new series by a New York mile.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also distinguishes itself with possibly the worst soundtrack I’ve heard yet this year. Hollywood’s eminent musical hack, Hans Zimmer, is teamed up with pop-producing media darling Pharrell, and I’m baffled by the flagrancy of these choices – these men were picked because they are famous, and not because they were a) a good fit for the Spider-Man universe, or b) able to create an engaging and memorable score. Zimmer and Pharrell do manage to construct a musical setting for the film which is as pandering and disposable as the film itself, so maybe they’re a good choice in that regard. A comic book movie needs a strong melodic theme, something people will hum as they leave the theatre (think John Williams’ unforgettable Superman theme). Instead we’re made to suffer through Zimmer’s tired trademark orchestra blasts (the now-infamous BWAAAHHH from 2010’s Inception – how has this film music fad survived for four years?) and Pharrell’s inappropriately-placed pop-dubstep. That’s what the kids like these days, right, dubstep? Let’s throw some of that in there, why not. That could by the rallying cry for the entire production: “why not”. It’s a shame nobody took the time or effort to actually answer the question.

The trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends with a smash-cut shot of Spider-Man swinging a manhole cover at the Rhino, halfway through a showdown-style fight sequence – now, imagine my surprise when the film itself ended on the exact same shot. This is fundamentally dishonest: you buy the ticket in order to see what happens next. They advertised a fight that doesn’t occur. These issues compound upon one another and the film’s cynicism quickly began to mirror my own, until we both just sat there fuming. That’s not how this is supposed to work. If you’re not a comic book movie fan, feel confident in avoiding this shallow clunker, and if you are, may Stan Lee have mercy on your soul. Nothing that you treasure about the genre is evident here, except the sight of Spidey in his suit, which you can buy at your local comic book shop for far less than the price of a movie ticket.

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