[I’m attempting to see as many big-budget Hollywood movies as I can this summer, and writing about them as soon as I’ve had a month or so to reflect. Spoilers follow, so don’t read if you plan on seeing.]
If you’re like me – a comic book enthusiast, but far from a hardcore fan, brought up in the 1990’s – your favorite superhero growing up was probably either Spider-Man or Batman. Both had popular animated shows, eccentric, compelling rogue galleries, and a shared ideal: that true heroism is the ability to sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of preserving the greater good and punishing injustice. To a wide-eyed child with his whole life in front of him, that’s a confusing yet endearing aspiration, one that sticks with us as we get older and realize just how difficult it is to achieve on a personal level, let alone a superheroic one.
I liked Batman, but loved Spider-Man for all the reasons typically associated with the character: his grounded everyday struggles, the prevailing sense that he was genuinely having fun with his powers despite numerous personal tragedies, and the smoothness of the way he looked in motion. Yet somewhere around the dawn of the new millennium, Batman leap-frogged Spidey. Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire helped birth the modern superhero genre, but the Christopher Nolan Batman films have become more enshrined in Hollywood’s legacy. Spidey had a couple good/not great videogames before Arkham Asylum reversed the abysmal Batman videogame track record and set a new precedent for licensed games. Hell, Spider-Man even spent the majority of last year dead in his own comic book, with Dr. Octopus taking over his old foe’s body (haven’t read any mainstream Spider-Man in years, but heard this was actually great!) And now, even though Ben Affleck did his best earlier in the year to swing momentum back the other way with his performance art exhibit “Ben Affleck is Batman Now,” The Amazing Spider-Man 2 squanders the opportunity to get us excited about Spider-Man again.
Unlike many, I have no problems with rebooting the franchise so soon after Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. I like Stan Lee’s original proposal for continuing the franchise in a James Bond-like structure, with different actors donning the Spidey mask and different directors telling their versions of his life. In forty years, we can have wonderfully heated arguments about whether Raimi, Webb, or whoever else enters the fold told the best rendition of the Spider-Man story. Ditto whether Maguire or Garfield was the better Spider-Man (so close for such different reasons, but I go Maguire), which Goblin would win in a fight (forever James Franco), which Gwen Stacy would win in a fight (obviously Emma Stone), whether anyone ever gave us a weirder moment than that nightclub scene from Spider-Man 3, etc. Instead, we choose to be irked by the over-saturation of a property that only comes out once every two or three years? If you’re genuinely upset by the Spider-Man movies solely because it’s “too soon,” all I can say is… see something else, dude. This isn’t going to stop. There’s going to be another Batman movie soon. There’s going to be another X-Men movie soon. Hell, if America takes to Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman the way we’re obviously going to, there’ll eventually be another Aquaman movie soon. The days of putting a character to rest for the sake of a creative resurgence, a scenario in which studios aren’t making a lot of money for no apparent reason, are gone. That’s just the world we live in.
Having said that, what I do have a problem with is the constant “world-building” that every franchise sees the need to establish in the wake of The Avengers’ success, leading to unsatisfying standalone products. The biggest flaw with ASM2 is that if you asked me to describe its plot, I would honestly struggle. Peter and Gwen work through some poorly-transcribed relationship problems, breaking up and reconciling a lot. Peter’s old friend Harry returns to his life, searching for the cure of a blood disease he’s inherited. Peter’s looking into his parents’ past, which was built up a lot in the last movie but adds up to a whole lot of nothing. Electro and Rhino are there to sell toys. These are all things going on in this movie, but it’s not clear which of those elements we’re supposed to be latching on to. There are several ideas in place of a single, coherent story, and by the end, it felt a lot like the entirety of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was meant as a prologue to The Amazing Spider-Man 3.
That’s a huge problem, because two years from now, who knows if Amazing Spider-Man 3 won’t wind up feeling like a prologue to The Amazing Spider-Man 4? At what point do we admit to ourselves that all this “world-building” might not be anything more than an endless strand of “to be continued” tags? That ASM2 ends in the middle of a fight scene is telling. (As an aside, when I slowly realized this movie was going to end with the same cut to black that they used to end the trailer – no lie, the same exact shot, with him jumping in the air with the sewer lid – all I could think was “holy shit, that has to be a new cardinal sin for cinema, because there’s no way anyone’s ever been dumb enough to pull that before.”)
As America has fallen in love with serialization in the age of Netflix and sprawling, cable television epics, studios have been quick to adapt, in ways both good and bad. I think it’s awesome that we can get a new season of Arrested Development or Orange is the New Black in a day, with the ability to process it at any pace. To an obsessive-compulsive media junky who loves serialization like myself, that’s like several Christmases a year. It’s also a big reason why I think Marvel’s upcoming Netflix series’ – Daredevil, Iron Fist, etc. – are going to be both a massive hit and deathblow for Marvel. Yeah, The Avengers made a lot of money, and The Avengers 2 is going to make a lot of money – but those world-building models in film franchises simply aren’t sustainable. They’re a fad that’s going to see backlash as soon as the general public realizes they can have very similar content on a much more accessible medium at a much quicker pace. As they’re seamlessly transitioning from Daredevil episode 4 to Daredevil episode 5, they’re going to realize “wait, why the fuck am I going to wait two years for a film that exists solely to set up a film an additional film two years away?” It sounds like lunacy, and it is. That’s like if this years’ Game of Thrones had ended after its ninth episode and you had to wait two years just to see episode 10. America’s attention spans certainly aren’t getting any shorter; the masses will revolt, and ASM2’s diminishing box-office returns are already evidence of that.
Part of what made Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films work so well was that, although there were sequels in mind from the start, each entry was able to function as its own separate entity. That makes such a difference for any director, who is able to give his films plenty of room to breathe. Look at that weird chocolate cake scene from Spider-Man 2. Peter, who has been knocked down by the world so many times at that point that it’s getting harder and harder to get up, is offered a slice of chocolate cake by his (quite skeletal) neighbor. They eat, smiling awkwardly, before she tells him that Mary Jane left him a message and exits. It’s a scene that exists solely to give the protagonist one moment of quiet happiness, a chance to put the rest of the world on hold and savor a couple bites of cake. It works beautifully because of its awkwardness. It’s also a moment that would never fit into The Amazing Spider-Man movies, because nothing of consequence is happening. In Webb’s films, something needs to be happening, and every second needs to advance the plot or the character direction not only of the film, but the franchise, in some way. Yet when so many things are happening, it can feel like there isn’t a lot of anything happening.
That makes all the difference, because that forced tempo prevents the film from forming its own personality. Raimi went into the first Spider-Man best known for his self-aware, campy horror classics, and his Spider-Man trilogy is way more campy than you probably remember. Think of the split-second close-up of Willam Defoe’s Norman Osborn going “Oh” right before he’s impaled, or the woman on the doomed skyscraper in Spider-Man 3 running towards and screaming directly into the camera. That’s not a bad thing whatsoever – in fact, it enhances those movies, giving them shades of an old-school comic book. Webb’s movies, meanwhile, have been lauded for giving Garfield’s Spider-Man more quippy one-liners, but in the big picture, Raimi’s movies are way funnier. When a director applies his particular aesthetic touches to a film, it not only convinces you that the film is a labor of love, but that he cares about the characters as well by extension (and I’ll forever lament that we never got a Raimi Spider-Man 4, because he’s on record saying “I don’t think I’ve brought out the best in what this character has to offer yet.” Plus John Malkovich was going to be The Vulture, so need I say more?)
I’m not sure what Marc Webb thinks of these characters, if he does so at all, because compared to Raimi’s light-hearted, confident approach, these movies feel like they’re coming off an assembly line. I don’t know how much is mandated by Sony, and how complacent he was to do their bidding when they hired him and his one-line resume (or if they felt like hiring based on surnames that day.) The chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone has definitely been a highlight of these movies, so (FINAL SPOILER WARNINGS) why don’t we feel more about Gwen’s death? It’s all filmed fine, and her final thud certainly resonates, but given the actors’ chemistry, it seems like a no-brainer, instant tear-jerker. And it’s just not that. It all comes back to the script’s misunderstanding of the characters.
When Gwen dies in the comic books, it’s because Norman Osborn has discovered Peter’s secret, and he’s threatened to go after everyone he cares about. Peter does everything he can but it almost brings him to the point of insanity, because he’s literally powerless. The Goblin gets hold of Gwen, tosses her off a bridge, and she dies. Peter chases down the Goblin in rage, and even though Norman dies in the fight, there’s a prevailing sense that the villain won the war, despite the hero’s best efforts. Webb’s films take a much murkier trajectory. The first film ends with Gwen’s dad saying “listen, don’t be an asshole. Stop seeing my daughter, or she’ll die.” Peter continues seeing his daughter. Then Harry figures out Peter is Spider-Man and tosses Gwen through a clock-tower, not because he has an agenda so much as he’s just batshit crazy. So already, the villain here is much more of a non-entity. But here’s where things get tricky: in the comic books, Peter technically “saves” Gwen. He catches her on his webline before she hits the water, but once he gets her to solid ground, he finds that she’s already dead. Is it from the shock of the fall, or did his webline snagging her foot, as many suspect, snap her neck? It adds a layer of ambiguity to Peter’s already guilty conscious, more blood on his hands that he will feel responsible for, even if he’ll never know the extent of his actual involvement in her demise (hey, autopsies were trickier in 1973).
In this movie, Gwen Stacy hits the ground harder than a Mystikal verse. There’s no ambiguity there. She’s dead, and it was fucking Peter who killed her. In Gerry’s Conway original version of the story in 1973, Peter was a desperate man who made the sacrifices necessary of a hero, fought the best he could, and still lost. Here, he’s a horny asshole who stripped the remainder of the franchise of the only thing people could agree upon – the Garfield/Stone chemistry. I know that’s not entirely fair, but it’s the best reason I could come up with for why that moment didn’t work the way it should have.
Despite this, nothing in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is egregiously bad. If you’re going solely for a fun summer spectacle, I’d argue that you get your money’s worth. Garfield and Stone, again, are as good as before, as is newcomer Dane Dehaan as a creepier, more unhinged version of Franco’s Harry Osborn. And Jamie Foxx gives a warm, funny, slightly disturbing performance as Max Dillon in the first act of ASM2, excitedly chirping away to anyone who will listen, only to have them exit his life as quickly as his birthday comes and goes. That personality virtually disappears along with Dillon’s pants once he becomes Electro, yet another hulking CGI beast in a genre that continues to inexplicably put CGI antagonists front and center over more nuanced, revered personalities like Heath Ledger’s Joker and, to a lesser extent, Tom Hardy’s Bane. But at least ASM2 also has a little kid in a Spidey mask standing up to the Rhino, which I’m always a sucker for (yes, that exact scenario is what I’m a sucker for). So while the first Amazing Spider-Man is probably a more coherent film, if you put a gun to my head, I’d choose its sequel for its more impressive action set-pieces and a little kid in a Spidey mask standing up to the Rhino. More likely, though, I’ll just reach for one of the Raimi movies for the 50th or so time.
Perhaps the second sequel will be the one to finally redeem the franchise – which is still definitely not unsalvagable – but I’m tired of waiting two years to find out. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the fifth feature to star one of my favorite characters, left me with a feeling arguably worse than disappointment – indifference.