Friday, May 9, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2's Great Cast Can't Quite Overcome Its Tangled Web of a Script


- There's a lot of rage out there being directed towards THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. On one level, I get it: the movie is, in many ways, emblematic of everything that is frustrating with the current blockbuster movie landscape. On one hand, you have the mighty Marvel Studios seemingly doing just about everything right. On the other hand, the other studios - especially when it comes to beloved Marvel characters - well, not so much. Everyone wants to see Spider-Man revert to Marvel Studios, star in the next Avengers movie, and just generally be in movies as awesome as, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And then there's the other thing that Spider-Man 2 represents, which is an increasing frustration with empty-feeling blockbusters that seem to feel less like a coherent story and more like a collection of marketing-friendly moments. It's likely no coincidence that a lot of the recent big movies that felt the brunt of this type of criticism were written by the Kurtzman-Orci team. In the past, I've defended some of the movies that they've written. Star Trek: Into Darkness was one where, whatever failings the plot had, the crackerjack direction of JJ Abrams mostly made up for it. But THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 has some of Kurtzman and Orci's most glaring, most perplexing plot-holes yet. And when you combine those very noticeable logic-gaps with the perception that these films exist largely as a way to keep rights from reverting to Marvel ... a real dark cloud of cynicism begins to creep in.

With all that said, I enjoyed the movie. I like director Marc Webb a lot, and he really nails the look and feel of Spider-Man. The majority of the action scenes look fantastic, and the physical/visceral essence of Spider-Man is captured better than it's ever been. What's more, the cast is, again, excellent. I liked Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the original Sam Raimi trilogy, but I also always felt that there was something a little off about them. Maguire was always too dopey for me - he never seemed like the wise-crackin' Spider-Man of the comics and cartoons. But Andrew Garfield - to me, he's the definitive Peter Parker and the definitive Spider-Man. What the movie - and Garfield - get totally right is the way in which Garfield's Spider-Man does his superhero thing: swinging into battle with fluidity and grace, all the while kicking ass while never failing to accompany each strike with a well-timed quip. Spidey feels like Spidey. And Spidey - and Peter's - relationship with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is superb. Say what you want about this film, but you can't deny that the scenes between Garfield and Stone sparkle with a chemistry and likability that was never really there with Maguire and Dunst's Mary Jane Watson in the originals. Chalk it up to the real-life relationship between the two actors, sure. But I do think that you've got to give some credit to both the script and to Webb (who made his mark with the charming rom-com 500 Days of Summer) for the equally-charming banter and evolving relationship between the two leads. And there's the rub: aside from a couple of fun action scenes, what THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 does best, by a country mile, is the teen romance stuff.

But what's super-weird about the movie is that the Peter-Gwen scenes, as in the first film, feel pretty naturalistic - almost like something out of Webb's 500 Days - and yet, many other scenes in the film are seemingly from an entirely different movie. A superhero film from the dark days of the mid-90's, when Joel Schumaker gave us Batman villains that would make you laugh at their ridiculousness, if you weren't too busy cringing from their awfulness. Suffice it to say, the tonal shifts in this sequel come often and come hard. Relative to the first Amazing Spider-Man, it's sort of jarring. That whole film seemed to be going for a bit of a darker, edgier vibe than the Raimi trilogy. Here, the Peter-Gwen stuff, mostly, retains the tone of the first film. But the scenes introducing the new villains - in particular Jamie Foxx's over-the-top-to-the-extreme Electro - reminded me less of anything in the first ASM, and more of stuff I had semi-blocked out of my memory from the infamous likes of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

If there's one major disaster in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, it's Electro. And oddly, the character of Max Dillon starts out as sort of interesting, but soon completely devolves into a guy who just wants to destroy stuff and kill Spider-Man for no real reason. From the first moment we meet Max, something, to me, felt off. Foxx seemed to be playing him too broad, too cartoonish and silly for the movie that he's in. Still, the movie seemed to be going for something interesting by making Max a truly tragic villain - a well-meaning if slightly-strange guy who can't seem to catch a break. A low-level technician at OsCorp who is sort of a punching bag, the Spider-Man-obsessed sad-sack gets a life-changing shock when an on-the-job accident transforms him into the bright-blue, electricity-charged Electro. But as soon as Max makes the transition to supervillainy, he inexplicably seems to lose all traces of humanity. And Spider-Man, despite knowing Max's tragic origins, seems to have little regard for the once-amiable dude's well-being. Whatever potential Max had to be a very different sort of villain very quickly evaporates. In short order, he's just some low-rent Dr. Manhattan-looking antagonist who wants to fight.

The generic nature of Spider-Man's fights with Electro highlights another major oddity about the film in general: Peter Parker is sort of a jerk. It's not something that's there, overtly, in the script. But time and again, Peter doesn't seem to have much in the way of compassion. He promptly stops caring about Electro's tragic origins. And when his childhood friend, Harry Osborn, asks Peter to help him secure some of Spider-Man's blood - which Harry believes might be the key to curing the degenerative disease that's killing him - Peter flatly refuses. In reality, the problem is not so much with any obvious agenda on the movie's part to make Peter a jerk. It all stems back to the script's jumpiness. 1+1 doesn't equal 2 in this movie. Electro is a tragic villain, and then not. Harry finds out that his middle-aged dad is dying from a slow-burn degenerative disease, finds out that he has the same ailment, and then for some reason is sure that he has only a matter of weeks to live. Peter refuses to give Harry any of his Spider-enhanced blood, but as far as we can tell, there's no good reason why he wouldn't. Basically, Peter - as far as he knows - could save the life of his friend with a quick blood sample - but refuses for reasons that aren't quite clear to us. Only later does Peter actually find out that the radioactive spider that bit him, that made him Spider-Man, was genetically-engineered by Peter's scientist dad to work only on members of the Parker family. Unnecessary changes to the mythos aside, this is a clear case where clearly Plot Point A is coming to light after Plot Point B, when the reverse should have been true.

This is just one example (and you can find many exhaustive articles online calling out many more) of why THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 has, regrettably, one of the most poorly-structured plots of any recent big blockbuster movie I can think of. Countless plot points seem conspicuously omitted, only to resurface after the fact. Character motivations surface up out of thin air, making characters feel two-dimensional and silly.

Harry Osborn's transition to the Green Goblin is another example of this. In Raimi's original trilogy, Harry slowly but surely turned against Peter and Spider-Man. Here, Dane DeHaan's Harry is set up from his first scene as having a dark side. But he goes from merely dark and brooding to evil and murderous with the flip of a switch. The whole thing feels rushed. It's a shame because a.) DeHaan is a great actor and does gradual villainy well (see: Chronicle), and b.) Harry Osborn is by far the more compelling of the movie's two villains, but what could have been a gripping, movie-spanning turn to the dark side is instead a total rush-job. When Harry eventually becomes the spiky-haired, green-skinned, sharp-toothed, stark-raving-mad Goblin, it's sadly pretty laughable. Just as Electro is set up to be the tragic villain, only to become a generic criminal, so too does Harry go from multidimensional adversary to random rogue who just wants to blow stuff up and kill people. Strangely, the goofiness of the villains is only amplified by their costumes and character-design. As much as Spider-Man looks exactly right, the bad guys look like conceptual design-work gone very-wrong.

The movie seems to just give up on trying to tie any of this together thematically. Peter and Gwen's romantic storyline is completely separate from the story of the two villains. And the two villains' plotlines are also completely separate from each other - eventually coming together in the same way that a kid might mash two random action figures together - just because.  What this means is that when the big finale brings Peter, Gwen, Electro, and the Goblin together for the big final showdown, it all feels very random, and there's little emotional weight to it all. In a different Spider-Man movie, that could have been not-that-big-a-deal. But, without spoiling anything, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is *trying* for a big, huge, emotional moment in its final act. And that moment, which should have been absolutely devastating, is instead only marginally affecting. Why? Because it's so forced in the context of the story, and so removed tonally and plot-wise from anything that's come before.

Going back to Kurtzman and Orci, lack of structural integrity in their films has been the biggest knock against them for years. They tend to do well with the witty banter and they tend to have a knack for setting up imaginative set-piece sequences that translate well from page to screen. But for some reason, plot always takes a huge back seat. Now, historically, blockbuster action movies don't always have the tightest of plots - and there's many a big blockbuster that is ripe to be picked apart by those looking for logic gaps and plot holes. But THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 does feel particularly problematic. Maybe it's because the movie is so good in other ways, from the eye-popping visuals to the great chemistry between its leads. Maybe it's that the gaps here are ones so central not just to the plot, but to the core characterizations of the main players, that you can't just separate them out in your mind. I mean, look, in Star Trek: Into Darkness, it annoyed me that Spock only learns about the extent of Khan's evil through a Spock Prime-provided info-dump. But at least in that case, the structural laziness was solely an issue with the plotting, and didn't really affect characterization. Here, the issues are much more interconnected, and less easy to isolate. Peter not helping Harry by giving his blood isn't just a plot hole, but, like I said, it makes Peter look like an irrational jerk. Harry and Max's villainous meltdowns aren't just examples of bad plotting - their sudden transformations into uber-badguys completely undermines the characterization that had been used to establish who they were as people. It was only recently that Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave us a superhero film that smartly delivered a plot about a hero having to fight against his former best friend. In that film, the Cap vs. Winter Soldier conflict was not just the film's plot, but the center of its entire emotional core. Here, Harry vs. Peter is just a rushed set-piece. The emotional core that should be there - two lifelong best friends tragically having to fight to the death - is almost entirely absent.

At some point too, you can't just blame Kurtzman and Orci for this. As director, Marc Webb has to tie each scene together, and has to find that connective tissue, that emotional core, at the heart of his film. But because scenes feel randomly-assembled, and character motivations seem to come and go on a whim, all of the movie's big emotional beats hit only at the surface level. There are a lot of moments that feel like they are, perhaps, *supposed* to be emotionally resonant, but that simply feel cold and unaffecting. We know that Webb is capable of better. I'll still defend the first Amazing Spider-Man as a very solid, well-done superhero flick that was, overall, a lot more effective and affecting than its sequel. Now, the first film had a different set of writers (some of whom worked on Raimi's trilogy), and more leeway to breathe and just sort of establish this new take on Spider-Man. The second film seems to be boxed in by all kinds of studio pressure. I don't know the full-story, but this, again, feels like a throwback to the 90's when it was all about more=better. Two villains are better than one. Twelve subplots are better than three (and indeed, this film is overloaded with mostly-useless subplots - from Aunt May's training as a nurse to the secret history of Peter's dad and Norman Osborn). Ultimately, the film seems to be building to some vaguely-outlined Sinister Six movie that, again, feels less like a natural extension of the story, and more like a studio-mandated directorate to give Spiderman his own connected movie universe - just like what's happening over at Marvel Studios. There's really no solid narrative through-line that takes us from this film to Sinister Six. It's just "oh hey, remember those villains from this film? Well, there's a bunch more that we haven't shown you yet, and soon they may just decide to team up!" So you've got to wonder: did Kurtzman and Orci's tendency to place minimal importance on structure, combine with the studio's insistence that various stuff be unnaturally shoehorned into the film, to create a perfect storm of superhero schlock? Doesn't seem too far-fetched.

And yet ... the movie generates enough goodwill - through Peter and Gwen's charm, through the cool visuals, through the fantastic score, and through the odd individual scene that really works well - to help sort of cover-up all of the gaping holes. I mean, man, the movie's first big Spider-Man set-piece (following a slightly meh flashback opening to Peter's dad's final days), is pretty awesome. We see Spidey take on Paul Giamatti's low-rent criminal Rhino in a pretty glorious sequence that nails Spider-Man to a T (Giamatti is mostly wasted, but that's besides the point here). Everything I said before about Spider-Man feeling 100% spot-on in this film - from the look of the costume to the wise-cracks to the way he fights - is all there in this sequence. The scene is all Webb, and it's Webb at his best. I don't know if anyone has directed better Spider-Man action sequences, ever, and that's a credit to the director's talent and feel for the character.

For those moments where THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 so perfectly nails ol' web-head, I think that it is well-worth checking out, despite its flaws. Certain moments will bring a smile to the face of new and longtime Spidey fans alike. And for those who are able to tune out all the sound and fury of the villains and larger plot, what you're left with is a very charming and likable love story between two goofy-yet-lovable kids named Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. At the same time, this is a long movie, and one that's jam-packed with characters and plot. And at some point, the plot holes and weird characterizations and goofiness of the villains begin to weigh down the movie. And ultimately, the weight causes the movie - held up by the flimsiest of structures - to collapse, and sink. This is a film that's heavy with plot, and the plot simply doesn't hold up - and what's more, it actively undermines the film's broader emotional and thematic intentions.

I think that this director and this cast are more than capable of giving us a classic Spider-Man movie. They already gave us a really solid one with the first film. But here, things begin to unravel a bit, and now I am slightly worried for the health of this franchise. This sequel certainly has its moments. Like I said, I enjoyed it, overall. But it's also a prime example of how a big franchise film can start to go off the rails, by worrying so much about being a big franchise film that it forgets the basics of good storytelling. The first ASM defied the odds and successfully re-booted Spider-Man. But hey, Spider-Man himself said it: with great power comes great responsibility. And filmmakers should have faith that if you prioritize first the responsibility to tell a good story, then good things will follow.

My Grade: B-

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