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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 2, 2014
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I may be one of the few who didn’t hate The Amazing Spider-Man when it came out. But after watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 I have to wonder what I was thinking. It’s mostly the same team, but the sequel is an ungainly mess, including contributions from some of the the same people I somehow praised last time around.

There’s some story input from James Vanderbilt, who led the writing team on the original, but the sequel’s screenplay is dominated by J.J. Abrams writers and producers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner. And a lot of it feels like it was written the same way the Master Builders tried building a ship together in The LEGO Movie: everyone jamming in whatever they think is cool but following no coherent guiding principles.

Everything in this iteration of the Spider-Man story begins and ends in the same place: Oscorp. This, of course, is where Peter Parker got his powers, bitten by a radioactive and genetically-engineered spider. It was also where Peter’s father (Campbell Scott) worked, developing those very spiders in an attempt to research new medical treatments. And it was Oscorp that killed Richard Parker and his wife when they tried to flee, leaving young Peter with his uncle Ben and aunt May (Sally Field).

Oscorp also employs Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. Her father was the late police captain George Stacy, whose dying wish was that Peter would keep Gwen out of the dangerous life Spider-Man would have to lead. This changes Peter’s motivation from guilt over his uncle’s death — an uncle who barely gets a mention this time around despite his foundational importance in most other iterations of the story — to that of a star-crossed lover, wanting to be with the one person explicitly forbidden to him.

And yet the relationship doesn’t really work. These two are obviously into each other, but that seems to be chemistry between the actors — a real-life couple — more than between the characters. Everything they do is pro forma: they’re just in love and that’s supposed to be enough to explain everything. And yet they never really talk about anything; it’s all sweet words and grand gestures, and no substance. If Gwen Stacy does eventually go the way of all Gwen Stacys, it’s hard to feel that much has been lost, besides a highly visible role for one of the best young actresses we have, albeit one that doesn’t really give her much to do.

Oscorp is also undergoing a change in management. Founder Norman Osborn dies, replaced by his son, Harry (Dane DeHaan), who just happens to be Peter’s old childhood friend. Harry is dying of the same degenerative condition as his father, and is desperate to do anything to stop it. This does lead to this movie’s second climax, but it’s really more about setting up the next sequel, which sort of points to how aimless and incoherent this installment is.

For the real arc, we must go back again to Oscorp: Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a schlub of an electrical engineer who designed the new power grid the company deployed for New York, which somehow makes “hydroelectric” power from a river instead of a waterfall. He has an industrial accident involving electric eels — I’m wondering why OSHA hasn’t sued Oscorp out of existence yet — and gains electrical superpowers. At first confused, he begins to revel in the attention he’s getting for the first time in his life. But when Spider-Man shows up and steals the spotlight, the newly-named Electro is out for revenge.

I kind of see what the idea was here: Peter was the overlooked nerd, if not a particularly convincing one, who gains powers and a sort of popularity, and things go relatively well for him, psychologically. Max shows that things could go the other way; he’s the great power without great responsibility. The movie fails to develop this thematic parallel, though. There’s no real exploration of what makes the difference; Peter’s family and friends versus Max’s social isolation, maybe? But this is par for the course, since the motivations of Peter and Gwen’s romance is just as unexplored.

I wish I could lay the blame all on the story, but director Marc Webb deserves a lot of it too. Ebert said it about Battlefield Earth, but it applies almost as well here: Webb has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why. The big fights are chaotic, confusing jumbles. I know I wrote lovely things about Webb’s direction before; I haven’t gone back to compare, but everything shot with a real, physical camera is just so awkward that it’s hard to imagine it being that much better. Maybe I’ve just learned a lot over the last two years.

The tone jumps wildly from goofy slapstick to oh-so-serious. Sometimes the antics work, like one well-choreographed bit that plays like a takeout from Drunken Master, but usually they make Garfield’s Spider-Man look like a clown.

But nothing is as cartoonish as the action. Swooping through the urban canyons of New York City was exciting once, but it’s so clearly animated now that it gets boring. And that’s when there’s something in the scene to use as an anchor for spatial orientation. Half the time the background is so abstract or blurred that it’s just bodies flying through space too fast to really make sense of it.

Still, as bad as the direction is, the story is worse. It’s a haphazard jumble of half-baked ideas and factual inaccuracies — spider-silk is a pretty good electrical insulator, guys, not a conductor. There’s a kernel of a story idea in there, but it’s wasted while we spend an hour shoving the setup for the next movie into this one. I’d say “back to the drawing board”, but really Sony should just turn Spider-Man back over to Marvel. They at least have a track record of using superheroes to tell good stories.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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