Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) – Review

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 accomplishes essentially what it sets out to do (be entertaining and move the story forward), but it lacks any real meaningful punch (even though it does try quite hard). The film follows the events of The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) still struggles with why his father and mother left him as a young boy. This loss is only compounded by his Uncle Ben dying, which leads Peter to break-up with Gwen, believing that she will be safer if she is away from him (he both cannot lose her like he feels he has lost everything else in his life and he made a promise to her dying father to leave her alone). Meanwhile, Harry Osborn has returned to New York to take over Oscorp in the wake of his father’s death, reconnecting with Peter and renewing their friendship. Also meanwhile, Oscorp employee and electrical engineer Max Dillon leads a life of solitude, feeling invisible to the world. During one of Peter’s many patrols as Spider-Man, he rescues Max (and Max becomes obsessed with Spider-Man). Things start to get complicated and fall apart when Max has a devastating accident turning him into Electro. His mind is warped and he believes Spider-Man has betrayed him in some way and he seeks vengeance, as well as power over all those who ignored him his whole life. Peter’s relationship with Harry too becomes frayed when Harry believes that Spider-Man’s blood is the key to helping him ward off the same genetic disease that killed his father, now present in him; yet, Peter is reluctant to help, thinking it will cause more bad than good. And finally, Peter’s relationship with Gwen continues to be complicated. He wants to keep her safe, but their connection is so strong that he cannot seem to stay away.

This review will contain spoilers so see the film first if you do not want to be spoiled. The concern, initially, with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was that there were too many characters and thus the narrative would be too complicated and muddled – characters not being given time to develop. Director Marc Webb does do a decent job, overall, managing his many characters and the narrative (considering that the script is pretty terrible). He keeps the narrative moving forward more or less with only a few moments that feel slow. The main issues with this film, really, end up being the same issues that the first had, only compounded. The motivations of the characters all feel very forced and contrived as if they are merely plot devices instead of natural and organic. Things seem to happen for no good reason. Character emotions explode without necessary development. The audience is only ever told that the characters feel or are a certain way, but it never takes its time to show the audience why, as thus the audience is never really emotionally invested in the characters or the story.

The biggest offender of this is again the main villain. Max Dillon/Electro is very poorly developed. Basically, he is just a crazy person who suddenly has access to great power. This is all fine and well, except he takes up a big chunk of the film; and, Webb tries to imply that there is some emotional connection between Spider-Man and Dillon and that Dillon does have a redeeming humanity to him, yet none of it works. He is just incredibly boring, nothing he does means anything to the audience, and his whole narrative just wastes everyone’s time. I think he was only included to allow for more cool action sequences involving a flying blue man.

All that said, Electro’s narrative could be forgiven if only Peter and Harry’s relationship worked. Electro is more or less just a henchman by the end anyway, easily dispatched without anyone caring. One of the key elements to this whole film, and maybe the whole series depending on what happens next, is Peter’s relationship with Harry. Webb forgets that cinema is chiefly a visual medium and that viewers need to be emotionally engaged to really care about what is going on. He only ever tells us in regards to Peter’s relationship with Harry. There is no time to develop Harry as a character, so things just escalate because the need for more action sequences demands it and no one is all that interested. The audience needs to feel and see that Peter and Harry are good friends, that they really do mean something to each other. That way, when Peter decides not to help Harry, his heartbreak and the weight of Peter’s decision is palpable and resonates with the audience. As it is now, these decisions exist merely to push the plot forward and really have no actually emotional fortitude (when they really should). Peter having to fight his “best friend” should mean something to the audience and not just exist as mindless spectacle. Harry is also criminally underdeveloped (because so much time needed to be spent on Max Dillon for some reason).

In the first film, Gwen and Peter’s relationship was not particularly managed all that well, succeeding mostly on the chemistry and strength of the actors. This is again mostly true, except this film goes for a very big emotional moment between them and it sadly falls a bit flat. Their relationship is all over the place. Peter is torn between what he believes is his responsibility and his feelings for Gwen. It is clear from their chemistry (despite how hard the script tries to make the audience not like them) that they cannot really bare to be apart; although, Gwen seems to be trying to move on, but Peter cannot let her go (even though he tries). Peter also seems to treat the relationship very one-sided. Everything is about him and not Gwen. Fans of the comics know that Gwen is a doomed character and I applaud Webb for actually going through with her full narrative arc (as most Hollywood films would have side stepped it in some way – for example, in the MCU a character has died in each of the last four films, a character whose death emotionally affects the main characters of the film, only to be brought back and revealed as not actually being dead). This is a transformative moment for the series and for Peter as a character, and yet for the audience it is sad because a character and actress they like is gone but the full devastation that Peter feels is never fully transferred, and thus the moment is wasted. Stemming all the way back to the first film, their relationship is just never really developed in a manner that creates a strong emotional connection with the audience; and so, this film is hollow and nothing more than spectacle. This is something that Webb must get right with Peter and Mary-Jane Watson in The Amazing Spider-Man 3.

Setting the narrative flaws aside for a moment, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does feature a few very good action scenes. I particularly enjoyed the prologue scene, detailing what happened to Peter’s parents. It is probably the most engaging scene in the film. Although, it too is problematic, as it further disconnects the audience from Peter. Because Peter’s search for the truth is one of the central elements to the series, the audience should discover things as Peter discovers them. Telling the audience information before Peter knows just deflates his discovers dramatically and emotionally.

The best aspect of the film is its tone. Webb really does a good job getting the tone and visual style right, carrying over from the first film. It feels like a Spider-Man film, which is probably the most important aspect for creating an enjoyable experience (I just wish that more care was also taken with all the characters).

The film sets up the future of the series well too. In many ways, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is more of an origin story than the first (but, this also lessens its ability to function as a standalone film – something all the best super hero films do well, including Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2). It sets up Sony’s Spider-Man universe, laying the groundwork for The Sinister Six. Plus, the events of the film really propel Peter Parker into the hero becomes in the end. Before this, Spider-Man was sort of just for fun (in a sense, it is all just a game) without real dire consequences, and thus not as heroic. Now, Peter must move forward having experienced loss directly because of his actions as Spider-Man and with greater villains who know how to hurt him in a more personal way. And thus, there is promise that despite the first two entries being letdowns (in comparison to the original Spider-Man Trilogy and the high standards that those films, or two of them at least, and The Dark Knight Trilogy set for superhero films) the future of the franchise is ripe with potential and may yet produce a good to great film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Marc Webb was a gamble when he was hired to direct The Amazing Spider-Man, having only previously helmed (500) Days of Summer and a few music videos. It seemed like a savvy choice at the time; and while Webb has done okay with the franchise two films in (somewhat tripped up by awful scripts and character development, but as the director that is still mostly on him), I would not be opposed to Sony changing things up for part three (even though that seems very unlikely, as both films have succeeded at the box office). It also seems that Sony and the Spider-Man producers have still not learned the lesson that if the film is going to have many characters it needs to have a very strong narrative structure balancing each character appropriately. This is was the flaw of Spider-Man 3 (among many others, including Sony and company thinking they knew better than Sam Raimi) and it has continued to carry over to each film since. The writing is just substandard and that desperately needs to change going forward (but will it? Probably not considering these films are all very successful monetarily).

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, however, is visually magnificent. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel and production designer Mark Friedberg have created a world that is vibrant with color and yet still grounded. It is playful yet rooted in a world that the audience can relate to, very much capturing the spirit of Spider-Man the character. Composer Hans Zimmer created a super group to score the film, primarily featuring Johnny Marr and Pharrell Williams. I cannot decide if I liked the score or not, though. On one hand, it is bombastic and exciting in all the right ways, accentuating the action and drama of the film. But on the other hand, some of the choices feel odd and there seems to be a lack of an iconic theme for any of the characters (something superhero films should have). There is really almost nothing to like about Electro in the film, and the score connected to his character may bare part of the responsibility (though a very small part) as it just does not seem to fit at all (both in terms of fitting the character and the tone of the rest of the film and its music).

Even though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems to treat its characters as secondary elements of the film, the actors who play them are all mostly good (in the face of having to work with clunky dialog and little to no character development). That said, many good actors are wasted (maybe none more so than Felicity Jones, who basically just shows up as a bookmark, so that everyone can come back to her in a future film in the series). Paul Giamatti and especially Chris Cooper are very good with limited screen time. Dane DeHaan is also very good as Harry Osborn. His character is paper thin (despite being a crucial element to the film universe) and yet DeHaan brings so much to him. Harry is privileged and entitled, but with major abandonment issues. In some ways, he is a cracked mirror reflection of Peter Parker. Jamie Foxx does his best with Max Dillon, creating a very nerdy crazy person. But he, like the script and director, never really invites the audience to care about Max in any way, shape, or form. Foxx is a good actor, but there is nothing to like about Electro. Emma Stone is good again as Gwen Stacy. She is very charismatic and that translates very well for the audience, doing a lot of the narrative’s work for it. Regardless of her character’s development, Stone’s charm is enough to make her likable and engage the audience (at least superficially). Andrew Garfield is also again good as Peter Parker. His version of Peter Parker has a lot of fun as Spider-Man and seems to have a strong moral grounding, but the complications of his personal life as Peter wear him down. He does not seem to know what he wants exactly (but who does). His chemistry with Stone is the best aspect of the series so far. It is sad that there will not be more from these characters together as their story never really got going in any real meaningful way (despite what the films might have you believe); but at the same time, I am interested to see how Peter grows as a character in the wake of the tragic events and how his relationship develops with MJ. Emd of spoilers.

Summary & score: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is all flash and no bang – that is to say, it looks wonderful, has some good action, but again seems to miss the mark when it comes to creating characters that the audience can care about in any real way. 5/10

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