Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spider-Man 2 Part Deux: The Adequate Spider-Man (Review)


As this is now the fifth Spider-Man film in just shy of twelve years, it should come as no surprise that the series (even with the supposed replenishment of a reboot two years ago) is starting to slip into the early stages of old age, set in its formulaic ways. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" however shouldn't be accused of total adherence to formula - it dips and dives and explores enough new avenues and new ideas that it should definitely be considered a noble attempt, and some of the key performances are second-to-none - but ultimately there's not enough to set it apart from the increasingly crowded superhero arena. 

Chief among the highlights of the film is Spider-Man himself - in his sophomore appearance Andrew Garfield gives one of the very best superhero performances in some time. He's always warm, always charming and crucially always believable as a teenager (despite being a grown man in his thirties). The film portrays a dedication to the teenaged way of life (just as the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics did) - we aren't simply told Peter is a young man - everything about his character is rooted in youth and innovation. He solves crimes from his bedroom by analysing photographs and diagrams awkwardly taped to his bedroom wall. He fixes his webshooters by watching YouTube tutorials (on his Sony Vaio), he makes up and breaks up with his girlfriend and sulks in his room listening to music on his Sony Mp3 player (get yours today!), he even takes the time to sweat the small stuff - the best scene in the film sees Spider-Man stopping a crowd of bullies from destroying a little boy's non-Sony science project (maybe the bullies were executives?). Sally Fields' efforts as Aunt May shouldn't go unnoticed either, and while she remains a tertiary character, once again she adds immeasurably to the texture of the film, providing an amusing obstacle to what is also one of Peter's greatest strengths. 

It should come as no surprise at this point that Emma Stone is a delight as well, oozing charm and presence and never prostituting herself to the tired old damsel-in-distress clichés that plagued the previous triumvirate of Spidey outings like a viral infection. The film gives her a very nice story arc in her own right, that never feels tacked on or undeserving. What's so amusing about the on/off love story between Gwen and Peter is that Peter's failure to commit has as much to do with his teenage insecurities as it does his duties as Spider-Man. Stone's chemistry with Garfield is so sizzling, so palpable, so superhumanly strong that it could probably conjure up Walter White's crystal meth. It is quite honestly the most natural and credible display of romance since Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the old Superman films. A rare thing in a genre plagued by stunt-casting that doesn't always take actor chemistry into account. Many have chalked this unusual dynamite up to the real-life romance of Garfield and Stone and while that certainly owes something to the effectiveness of their scenes together, the direction of Marc Webb shouldn't go unmentioned - he is responsible for "(500) Days of Summer" after all (which still teeters tantalisingly close to being The Best Romantic Comedy Ever in my estimation) and I noticed more than a few similarities to that film during the smaller Peter/Gwen scenes. 

Before we get into the negatives, I would also like to add that I loved Paul Giamatti as the Rhino - it's the definitive portrayal and depiction of the character and I would do nothing to change the nature of the character's short-but-sweet appearances. Fans are already complaining that the marketing suggested a greater role for the character, but that's not a valid slight against the actual film in and of itself. In the Spider-Man comics I always read, Rhino was an overpowered annoyance rather than a dastardly villain and the film  perfectly captured that sense of "Ho-hum, it's Tuesday and Rhino's throwing cars around the place," rather than shoe-horning in more clichéd rubbish about a sickly sister who needed medication from OsCorp or what have you. It's actually refreshing that the series has reached the point where supervillain appearances are a normal part of Spider-Man's day-to-day life, and not some grand diversion from the usual routine. 

Thus far, you would be forgiven for thinking that I loved the film. And really, if the film had been a small, quiet exploration of a week in Spider-Man's day-to-day life, dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, juggling a part-time job and a girlfriend while also trying to win over the citizens of New York  (complete with slapstick Rhino battles), I would have been beaming from ear to ear. So many small moments throughout the film were delightful. Unfortunately, the film does what all superhero films now do - it pumps dastardly villains with sinister plots and devilish deeds in by the truckload and never really manages to coordinate them effectively. 

All of the clichés rear their ugly heads - secret rooms, hidden experiments, forgotten friendships, a disease that must be cured, unexplained costumes, mental illness played both for laughs and for ham-fisted horror, dialogue like "You're too late Spider-Man!!" "The tables have turned!!" and "I will take back what's rightfully mine!!" - even the old classic of writing out letters with newspaper headlines gets a bizarre inclusion. The film trudges through the same old setting-it-up-for-the-sequel rigamarole as the first film did, and while many of the story threads from the first film are tied up, We are Left with More Questions than Answers (TM). The spiralling plot of the film (and the franchise) again involves Peter trying to discover the mystery of his lost parents, with the seedy history of the Osborns bleeding into his investigation over the course of the film - again, as a Spider-Man fan I have no interest in Richard and Mary Parker, but even divorced from any preconceptions one may have about the world of the comics, the subplot is just too clichéd, like something out of a TV action series like 'Arrow' or 'Smallville'. A multi-million dollar movie series shouldn't be wasting its time with serialised rubbish we've all seen before.  

Jamie Foxx just isn't very good as Electro. The visuals are fine and there are some serviceable displays of computer-animation and sound design, but in a film populated by characters as meaty, modern and well-rounded as Peter, Gwen and even Aunt May - Max Dillon is cheesy and one-dimensional enough that he might as well be a Power Rangers villain (right down to the 'Silly Nerd' hairstyle, buck-tooth and glasses from 1988). At times, I half-expected Bulk and Skull to come along and throw a milkshake over his face. When he transforms into his electric alter-ego, his arc essentially ends and he is relegated to muscle-duty for the sake of the We Have to Kill Spider-Man plot. Foxx himself seems to be playing the part as he was hired to play it so it's hard to lay the blame with anyone other than Marc Webb. In some ways, it would even appear that the way Electro is depicted is Webb's way of thumbing his nose at the studio, as if to say "You want a big silly villain in your film? Here you go." It's worth mentioning as well, that pre-electrofied Max Dillon bears more than a passing similarity to Jim Carrey's pre-riddled Edward Nigma in "Batman Forever".

Even more irritating is Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin. As someone who dearly loved 'Chronicle', I did still feel that some of the acting was a bit stiff and DeHaan was certainly included in that estimation. As Harry Osborn, he plays the tortured heir as well as could be expected, and his friendship with Peter is even believable in the few short scenes they spend together as reminiscing childhood friends (again, a smaller scene adding greater weight than any of the grander scenes of action and peril). Once, however, he is charged with plunging into the depths of evil and despair, an invisible moustache appears to protrude from his face and he proceeds to twirl it like a pantomime villain for the rest of the film. The Raimi trilogy and its cast of characters receives much retroactive derision since the inception of this newer, trendier series - but I always found James Franco effective and believable as a real person (I even thought he was one of the saving graces of the notoriously-maligned third film). DeHaan is a stupid, spoiled cartoon character. A poor man's Lex Luthor. 

Ultimately, the film is split right down the middle - I adored the smaller character-driven moments as much or more than I ever have while watching a Spider-Man film. In some rare cases there were scenes and moments that are among the very best of the entire genre. The film fell spectacularly from grace however when it was required to deliver the now-customary larger elements of action, plot, villainy and pizazz. I had more interest in Peter saving the little boy from the bullies than I had in Spider-Man saving the police car from Electro. I was more engaged in Peter and Gwen talking about Korean Food than I was in Harry Osborn trying to maintain his family legacy (by doing...something?). 

As is often the case with superhero movies nowadays, the film leaves you yearning for a smaller experience that doesn't need to pander to the masses or a make a kabillion jillion box office dollars - if it's ever possible to do a Spider-Man TV series (like one of those high-budget HBO or AMC affairs) Sony should try their hand at that. Otherwise, like many others, I'm clamouring for the focus and direction of Marvel Studios in a Spider-Man movie (this film could have benefited so much from being as small and character-driven as Captain America: The Winter Soldier). 

While "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is still on the better side of 'only okay', it still stands that the webslinger needs to be rescued and brought back home to where he belongs, with the rest of The Avengers. Maintain the crucial resource of Garfield (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) and climb aboard the helicarrier. Nevertheless, the film is serviceable enough that family audiences and fanboys should enjoy their time at the cinema without too many strong feelings of resentment.

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