Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Three Things: Amazing Spider-Man 2

1) It's better than it has any business being.

I came into Amazing Spider-Man 2 as a skeptical viewer--I didn't like the 2012 original, and I'm unenthusiastic about the whole idea of this franchise reboot, particularly the participation of the ubiquitous blockbuster writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci. I was like the club audience at the end of Purple Rain. However, I was on a long flight, and I'm fascinated on a storytelling level by how everyone is handling all the various comic book franchises that are scattered throughout Hollywood.

I was a little startled, then, when at the end of the film's opening action sequence, I gave a chortle of delight that earned a look from a couple of passengers nearby. I hadn't come close to that sort of reaction when watching the movie's predecessor. I usually wouldn't throw a video this long into a post, but here's the film's opening scene, courtesy of IGN and Youtube:

The bones for a really good movie are here. The action scenes are vastly improved--they're now differentiated from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films by more than just the technological upgrade of a decade's worth of CG improvements. ASM2's Spidey has his own distinct style of fighting and web slinging, and we're given a good feeling of where everything and everyone is during the big action set pieces.

In the cast, Andrew Garfield has grown into the title role--his accent's more consistent as Peter Parker, and they've found a balance where his Spidey now sounds less like a jerky insult comic and more like a teenager who's using a persona to bluff his way through situations that are often way over his head.

Even better, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is no longer just a walking, talking plot device (although, this being a Kurtzman and Orci script, some aspects of her character arc are ladled on really thick lest anyone in the audience risk missing them). The relationship between Gwen and Peter is relatable and the leads have good chemistry. This is the rare comic book sequel where the focus is still on the hero. So what could go wrong?

2) For once, the weakness is the villains.

The usual pattern in super hero films is for the hero to be overshadowed by their villains. We've had seven Batman films since the Adam West era, and Batman's the most interesting character in maybe one and half of them.1 Heroes tend to be staid, stoic characters, while villain parts are often meaty roles that allow for scenery chewing, experimentation, and sometimes even social commentary. Because of this, superhero sequels often become films about the villains, and how damn awesome/scary they are.

With this in mind ASM2's villains are astonishingly lame. Jamie Foxx's Electro is a nerdy Oscorp employee (what else? everyone in New York apparently works for Oscorp) who develops a Rupert Pupkin-level obsession with Spider-Man. He's basically a rehash of the Riddler from Batman Forever--without Jim Carrey's humor, charisma, or camp appeal.

So what we're left with is a one dimensional sad sack who, once he gets super-powers, is closer to a dangerous mentally disabled person than someone truly villainous. Are we supposed to pity him? Is he capable of redemption? The story doesn't seem interested in these questions. The whole character arc is just a setup so that someone with big huge superpowers really hates (and has to fight) Spider-Man.

Even worse is the story's secondary villain, Harry Osborn. Where the setup for Electro's villainy is weak, the setup for Harry's is nonsensical. (I'm going into very light SPOILERS here, so if you're interested in avoiding such things, skip ahead to #3.)

Harry's got a genetic disorder, one that apparently will kill him in 30 or so years. Peter Parker, who used to be Harry's bestest bud in grade school, looks Harry up when he comes back into town. They have a nice bonding scene, and then the plot has to move on to make Harry a villain. Harry gets the idea that a blood sample from Spider-Man could be the key to curing his disease, so he asks his pal Pete (who takes pictures of Spider-Man for the newspaper) to hook him up with the big guy.

Now, Spider-Man doesn't give Harry his blood sample. This could have been a really interesting plot point--Peter could actually be torn between saving his friend and a more selfish desire not to share the secret of what makes him Spider-Man. This could echo his guilt about Uncle Ben…another situation where his self-interested inaction cost someone his life.

Such a plot could be the backbone of a good Spider-Man movie…except the film's not really interested in Spidey's character development, or giving Harry Osborne a fleshed-out set of motivations for his actions. Again, all it cares about is getting Harry to the point of "I hate Spider-Man," so that they, too, can fight.

Instead of any angst about not helping his friend fight a gruesome disease, we get a scene where Peter explains to Gwen his reticence to help as concern for Harry's safety ("My blood could kill him!"). As if Harry didn't have a billion-dollar biochem company to oversee the process of turning Spidey's blood into a cure, a company that would presumably test any cure to make sure they don't kill their majority stockholder. On its face, it's a bullshit excuse.2

3) The movie's obsession with world-building works against it.

Since the film doesn't spend its time developing Harry or Electro, what is it busy doing? As indicated by this trailer, moving forward the "Peter Parker has a secret past" storyline from the previous movie.

When I discussed the first Amazing Spider-Man movie with Thaddeus and Lady T back in February (see the comments to the post), my main objection was that this plot line turned Spider-Man into Harry Potter--a "chosen one" who's just fulfilling his destiny, rather than an everyman character with greater agency over his life.

What I didn't realize then was a much worse side-effect of this subplot, and the Amazing franchise's attempts to expand Spider-Man's world: it completely diminishes the role of Ben Parker. With Peter's dad featured so prominently in the plot, Uncle Ben's death is no longer Peter Parker's big formative trauma. Now it's just part of a larger constellation of same-sized tragedies, including being abandoned by his parents, losing a mentor, Curt Connors, and basically getting a bunch of people killed, including Gwen's dad, when he helped Connors to turn into the first film's villain, the Lizard.

So, in this movie, when Spider-Man has PTSD flashbacks, it's not of the dead Uncle who raised him, it's of his girlfriend's dead father, a guy he had dinner with once. We see both Dennis Leary and Campbell Scott reprising their roles as Captain Tracy and Richard Parker in ASM2, but I don't think there's so much as a single flashback scene of Martin Sheen's Ben Parker, the guy who ostensibly is the reason Peter dresses in a blue-and-red unitard to fight crime.

That aside, in this film, we get more Richard Parker backstory and more Oscorp conspiracy gobbledygook, including a few bits that look like they were swiped from the National Treasure franchise. Honestly, it adds very little to the story, and while I'm sure it's leading to the "exciting" reveal that Papa Parker is still alive in ASM3…I'm getting drowsy just thinking about it.3 ASM2 would be infinitely better if it spent less time trying to establish a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe and instead focused on characters we cared about, like Peter and Gwen (and characters we're supposed to care about, like Harry and Electro).

One more thing: This franchise is in trouble.

I know I call this column "three things" but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention where this installment leaves the franchise, given that the Amazing series is so obsessed with franchise-building.

After ASM2's disappointing box office and reception (as disappointing as a movie that's the fifth-highest earner so far this year can be) ASM3, which had been scheduled for a June 2016 release, has been pushed back to 2018. Reportedly, two more years will give them time to "revamp" the franchise.

Of course, needing to revamp the franchise doesn't mean they're going to actually stop making Spider-Man related films until the franchise has been retooled. You see, everyone wants to be Marvel these days, so Sony imagines Spider-Man as the launching point for a number of franchises based on Spider-Man supporting characters and villains. So, at the same time they announced they were pushing the next ASM back two years to fix the franchise, they're going ahead with spinoff series: the Drew Goddard-helmed Spider-Man villain film, Sinister Six, in November 2016, and also a "female-centered film" based on an unnamed female character and with no announced casting, director, or script, in 2017.

As much as people are cheered by the idea of getting a high-profile solo female superhero movie, how does any of this sound like a good idea? The lack of enthusiasm around the Amazing franchise is because it's been a relatively cynical enterprise. Sony didn't have a great new idea for a Spider-Man movie, it made the Amazing Spider-Man because they were contractually required to put out a Spider-Man movie or allow the rights to Spidey to revert to Marvel.

With the spinoffs, particularly the "unnamed female-centric" one, Sony seems to be putting the cart before the horse once again, expecting fans to get excited about what look like obligatory franchise moves. Maybe they're just being coy and they have a great character, story, director, and/or actress lined up, but it seems likely that Sony has decided on a target--"movies about women are hot right now, plus it's a way we can one-up Marvel"--and will worry about the little stuff like picking a character, story, and filmmakers later.

How'd that work out the last time? More importantly, how are any of these spinoffs supposed to work when the main franchise is on life support? That's the big question.

Final Verdict: ASM2 is mildly recommended, with its improved action scenes and characterization outweighing the lame villains and world-building. It's available today on Blu-Ray and DVD.

1 The Tim Burton Batman counts for half, as the movie's a genuine two-hander between Keaton's Batman and Nicholson's Joker. Batman Begins is the only movie where Batman's the true primary character.

2 This seems like an obvious patch job to cover up a place where a large chunk of story has been torn out.

3 SPOILERS: After I wrote this, it was revealed that Richard Parker was supposed to make an appearance at the end of ASM2, to show Peter that he wasn't dead. As if to rub the whole thing in, in that scene he was supposed to deliver Uncle Ben's line, "With great power comes great responsibility." On the one hand, the filmmakers were actually stupid enough to film this, on the other, at least they had enough sense to cut it from the final film.


  1. I'm hoping to see ASM2 on DVD soon(depends on Netflix) and even without seeing it, I do think you're right about negating Uncle Ben in favor of Peter's father.

    Granted, I am not that up on the many retcons of Spidey that the comics have done over the decades but Uncle Ben's legacy of "With great power,,," has always been a diehard main stay of any Spiderman saga.

    Have to admit that Jim Carrey did make Batman Forever watchable, especially with the campiness of the character but then again, that was mild compared to Uma Thurman doing a Mae West meets Marlene Dietrich impersonation during Batman & Robin(let's not talk about Arnie and his chillingly awful puns).

    I do wish that Marvel didn't have certain characters parceled out to separate studios, since Spiderman would fit right into an Avengers movie(he was part of the group for a time in the comics) and who wouldn't love an Iron Man Vs. Wolverine movie, seriously? *sigh* If Sony does make a "female centric" superhero movie, I'll keep my fingers crossed that it's not another Elektra.

    1. Great point. One of the cool and awful things about adapting comic books to the screen is that most of the prime comics have many decades' worth of history behind them, the work of multiple writers and artists of widely differing quality.

      So you don't have just one Spider-Man, or just one Batman, you have several versions, as different writers emphasize different aspects of the character. Some Spider-Man writers focused on Peter Parker as a scientist who happens to have super-powers, others like Gerry Conway were more into Peter as a social misfit who doesn't get social acceptance for either of his identities, J. Michael Straczinsky's run on the comic had this weird mystical angle with a Spider-spirit, and then you have JM DeMatteis and the various clone sagas. The less said about that last version, the better.

      Carrey's been on my mind since Robin Williams passed, because for a while he was considered the heir to Williams's place in the comic firmament. It's entirely possible that without Carrey's performance Batman Forever would've fallen apart and been almost as bad as Batman & Robin.

      Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face was more in line with what Thurman and Ahnold were doing in B&R than with Carrey's performance, which was just as campy but a heck of a lot more committed. Recast Carrey with Eddie Murphy (the longtime rumor for the Riddler) and I suspect the movie would've been awful.

      I've tried watching Electra twice, and fallen asleep both times, so yeah, I hope Sony Female-Centered Spider-Universe Film Product #1 is better than that.


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