As you’re probably aware at this point from the inescapable marketing onslaught (damn that Evian Spider-baby to the darkest depths of hell), “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Sony‘s sequel to the reboot of the series based on a comic book, hit theaters in the U.S. on Friday, after opening in much of the rest of the world in mid-April. Seeing Andrew Garfield‘s Spider-Man take on Jamie Foxx‘s Electro and Dane DeHaan‘s Green Goblin (plus, in a cameo, Paul Giamatti‘s Rhino) while continuing to woo Emma Stone‘s Gwen Stacy, it had a strong box office weekend, although falling short of the total of both the first and third Sam Raimi Spider-pictures, and last month’s Marvel entry “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Perhaps more importantly, the film fell short critically, with lower Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores than any of the previous films in the franchise, while our official review pretty much straight-up loathed it. Not many members of the Playlist team are fond of the movie, so with the film now out for everyone to see, we’ve dug into it with more depth and laid out what we found good, bad and just plain ugly in the movie. Spoilers abound, obviously. And if you’re someone who loved the movie, or if you hated things about it that we didn’t mention, you can have your say in the comments section below.
The Romantic Leads And Their Chemistry
Let’s look at “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” in the most positive light, shall we? The lead cast is pretty terrific, and note when we say the lead cast we are not talking about: Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti or Colm Feore. However, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have awesome chemistry together and you can’t help but smile and lean forward when the two characters are flirting, riffing or trying to play coy together. Obviously, the actors are dating off-screen too, and this helps. There’s palpable electricity between them that’s authentic and in a few scenes their collective charisma is off the charts. They make for a credible love story in a credulity straining movie (yes, even for a superhero film), and while the movie puts them in some dumb situations—Gwen’s appearance during the climactic battle is both silly and unnecessary except for plotting purposes—they at least make every scene together work. Now if only a movie as magnetic and compelling as their romantic alchemy was built around them.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” series has gone the route of most superhero films these days; trying to cast some incredible actors in parts big and small, assuming and hoping their talents will really elevate the movie into something beyond your average comic book movie. Christopher Nolan arguably pulled off this approach best with his ‘Dark Knight’ series. But even great actors like Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan and Paul Giamatti prove that big talent given stupid and poorly written characters can’t make them work any better off the page, no matter how hard they try. But one supporting actor in particular is terrific, and that’s Sally Field. In an alternate universe where “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” gets an Oscar nomination, the film’s Oscar clip would be the heart-to-heart between Peter and Aunt May. She reveals to Peter what she believes to be the truth about his parents, all while insisting she is Peter’s real parent and she fights for him to believe that. It’s a wonderfully awesome emotional moment full of honesty, truth and vulnerability on the part of both actors. You can almost see Andrew Garfield’s impressed “wow” as he steps up to match Sally Field’s heart-wrenching performance. And again, how fantastic would this movie had been if it could have bottled up the emotion in that scene and sprinkled it over the rest of the picture?
Marc Webb Knows His Emotional Beats
Much muck has been slung at Marc Webb for his messy direction and far be it from us to defend him fully. But credit where credit is due—the aforementioned scene and all the scenes with Peter and Gwen are genuine, honest and authentic. Coming from the indie world and the mature romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer,” Webb knows how to really maximize the potential of any emotional scene and he nails almost all of them out of the park. Alas, the unfocused screenplay with several different and conflicting agendas—world building, villain arcs, and sowing seeds for future villains—eventually just dilute the emotional legitimacy of the film. And it’s almost remarkable how much these scenes pop in opposition of other “superhero” scenes where the movie drags so painfully. Taken on their own, maybe these aforementioned scenes could be used in a masterclass teaching demo on how to direct a love story. But within the context of the film they are good sequences that live beside the rest of the noise.
Early Action Scenes Are Good
Before “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” devolves into the noisy, incoherent mess that it is, it does have some flair (so do some of the set-pieces in the second and third act, but by then it’s almost too late). The early action scene with the Rhino is breathlessly shot, really maximizing the 360 agility and impossible physical abilities of Spider-Man. The camera pirouettes through New York City as Peter Parker spins his way towards the Rhino in a getaway truck full of plutonium. All of it is well-staged and well-framed, and while the movie’s attempt to make Spider-Man as quippy and fun as the comics tends to get a little contrived and forced, this scene is otherwise cinematically thrilling. And even later on, some of the action scenes are rather inventive. The slow-motion sequence where Spider-Man saves innocents from an electrified Times Square sightseeing bleacher is conceptually ambitious as is the set-piece where a bus is struck, flies through the air and the people inside ping-pong around to their would-be doom before Spider-Man arrives and saves the day. Unfortunately, both those scenes arrive deeper into the movie when you’re struggling to care and thus we are numbed and many of these sequences, ambitious as they may be, feel like hollow video game gestures in a movie that feels filled with hollow video gamey-like gestures. Taken on their own, again, they’re visually kind of impressive. But by then, you just may not care, which is further reason why a movie has to work collectively on all fronts.
The first of the film’s umpteenth villains to be announced,
and central to the film’s marketing (the title even has his name in some territories), Electro (or Max Dillon, in real life)
had some promise on paper, with an Oscar-winning star admirably cast against
type, and with a striking makeover. Instead, he made us long for the
days of Rhys Ifans‘ CGI reptile from the last movie. More
than one person has noted that Foxx‘s arc has essentially been lifted
from Jim Carrey‘s Riddler in “Batman Forever“—a nerdy scientist
screwed over by his superiors, whose obsession with the hero causes him
to go crazy and become a supervillain. Except the execution here makes
Carrey looked nuanced and complex. Foxx plays Max like a broad nerd
caricature from his “In Living Color” days, borderline inaudible in his
mumbly manner, and with his already-unbalanced demeanor and Spider-Man
obsession preventing the kind of pathos that you got from the villains
of the Raimi movies. But once he’s transformed, at least past the first
Times Square transition sequence, he’s essentially an entirely different
person. The best of these villains can play the transformation while
still showing the person they once were, but Electro is just an entirely
separate creation. Not that it matters, because he mostly sits out
the film’s second half locked up in a tank, until he turns up for a
poorly motivated final showdown and is then vaporised, Foxx’s contract
presumably getting him out of “Sinister Six” duties. Lucky him.
The filmmakers continue to have a weird relationship to rebooting “The Amazing Spider-Man.” The first movie everyone seems to shrug off as the studio mandated telling of the origin story all over again, while the second film finds the filmmakers seemingly excited to tell new stories. But unfortunately, they shortchange the one character whose background is crucial to understanding his turn from weird friend of Peter Parker to weirder enemy. While ‘TASM2’ spends an almost unbearable amount of time underscoring Electro’s loneliness, how he has no friends and how he really wants to be needed but it’s very hard for him because is very lonely and he even has to celebrate his birthday alone and work late because that guy from “The Office” is a total jerk store, Harry’s relationship with Peter Parker is mostly related through exposition. Two scenes—one at Oscorp, and another where they skip rocks (LOL)—establishes they were friends, then Harry went away, and now they are not such good friends, but will try to be again. But the sense of deep betrayal Harry eventually feels at Peter’s inability to get Spider-Man’s blood because of its maybe healing powers (we just got dumber typing that) never quite transmits. We’ve never seen the pair as close friends, so when (jammed into the final half hour) Harry morphs into Green Goblin, the underlying reversal of what was supposed to be a former best friendship isn’t really felt. Instead, most of Harry’s attitude changes are transmitted by how good or bad his skin looks, and the fierceness of Dane DeHaan’s carefully coiffed bangs.
To be fair, you could say that every actor in the film, Garfield and Stone included, are having their talent wasted, in that there are roughly four hundred thousand scripts out there more deserving of them, but some people get better work to do than others. You could probably excuse Paul Giamatti’s scenery-chewing bookending cameo as the Rhino as a fun nod for fans, an equivalent of the pre-credits sequence in a Bond movie, with a little promise for something more tacked on at the end. It’s quite possible that you could miss Chris Cooper entirely if you went to the bathroom at the wrong moment, and we’re not sure what the purpose of the character is beyond revealing douchey son’s convenient disease (we were expecting some kind of death fake-out, which the movie thankfully doesn’t go for, though that doesn’t rule it out in a sequel). And Felicity Jones might get it worst of all: one of the most promising actresses of her generation reduced to playing, essentially, a receptionist. To repeat, the second-billed female character in the movie is a receptionist with two scenes. One suspects that the actors may have shot more, because Webb’s metier with these movies is to leave in dangling threads of characters who don’t make much sense (see Irrfan Khan in the first film), but if you insist on keeping these people from doing more interesting work for weeks at at a time, at least give them material that’s worth their while.
This is something of a running bugbear of ours, and one that we’ve feared with the upcoming run of superhero movies hoping to capture the success of “The Avengers” (see also “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Batman Vs. Superman” et al.), but the hamfisted way in which the world building is accomplished in ‘TASM2’ makes “Iron Man 2” seem positively subtle. If you can build a world organically and gradually, that’s absolutely fine—it’s what blockbusters have striven to do since “Star Wars,” and for the most part, the Marvel movies have managed to strike the right balance between including Easter Eggs for fans and letting the movies stand alone. But given that Electro seems like such an afterthought here, and Harry Osborne only becomes the Goblin in the third act (like Venom in “Spider-Man 3,” which this film borrows from structurally), the story here feels like it’s spinning its wheels, going towards a third film in which the filmmakers seem to be saying, the really cool stuff will be revealed. But there’s a problem beyond that: connecting the creation of all the villains, and Spidey himself, through Oscorp and Harry, shrinks the universe of the film, making what could be expansive feel petty and small. Sony trying to spin-off multiple titles from ‘Spider-Man’ already felt like madness, and the results of the first part of their plan don’t make us feel any better about it.
Pointless Opening Sequence
Embeth Davidtz and Campbell Scott are very fine actors, and it’s always nice to see them crop up in films. That said, we can’t think of any reason for the opening scene of the film to exist. We know that Peter’s parents are dead, because it was dealt with in the first movie. Learning more about them (or, more accurately, about the way they died) doesn’t expand our understanding of Peter, it’s just convenient plot set-up, and the first of four or five chances in the film to see the thrilling sight of something being uploaded or downloaded to the Internet in the movie (do Kurtzman and Orci have stock in Dropbox or something?). Once again, it’s essentially a crib from another superhero movie (the plane sequence is clearly inspired by “The Dark Knight Rises,” a film that’s barely two years old), and just one more noisy, crude action sequence in a film that’s already stacked with them. But it has no stakes or tension, we only faintly care about the characters involved, and we already know they’re going to die.
Gwen And Peter’s Relationship Is Botched
So yeah, we’re all agreed that the relationship between Peter and Gwen is the highlight of the movie, but that’s literally just because of the chemistry between the actors. Unlike the first film, the movie doesn’t even handle their relationship very well on a script level. When we meet them, they’re back together, but Peter’s still haunted by the promise he made to her late father that he’d stay away from her for her own safety (Ghost Denis Leary playing the same sort of role that Uncle Ben does traditionally, but without the same thematic weight, because Peter mostly ignores it), and so he breaks up with her. There then follows a brief period of Spider-stalking (again, possibly inspired by the much-derided scene in “Superman Returns“), which Gwen seems to find charming rather than creepy for some reason, and the film has them as not a couple for much of the film, before they reunite just in time for him to promise to move to Oxford to be with her. We honestly can’t understand why, when their relationship was the most universally praised aspect of the first film, you’d contrive to keep them apart for so long, especially if you know throughout that you’re going to be bashing Gwen’s head against a church floor at the end of the movie.
No Rhythm Or Theme
At one point in Alan Bennett‘s play “The History Boys,” a character says “History? It’s just one fucking thing after another.” We can only imagine that the writers and editors of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” have this phrase framed above their desks, because it appears to be their approach to structuring a story—one fucking thing after another. The scenes themselves are, you could argue, decently constructed, but the multiple plots and even tones are never really melded, they just crash repeatedly into each other, never adding up to the sum of their parts. And ultimately, it’s because the movie isn’t about anything. We love stories because they tell us something about the world, and that’s true of the best (and even the worst) superhero movies, but “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is only concerned with events, occasionally stabbing towards some sort of theme, but never cohesively enough that it fills the empty void at its heart. Again, the rhythm of the film is so choppy that perhaps there was something more coherent left on the cutting room floor, but we’d be pretty surprised if that was the case.
Gwen’s Death Is Very Badly Handled
The death of Gwen Stacy is one of the most famous moments in the history of comics, the Marvel equivalent of the death of Bambi’s mom, and one of the few character demises that’s never been undone in comics continuity. Raimi‘s films shied away from the storyline (though it referenced it visually a few times), but by foregrounding Gwen rather than Mary-Jane, it’s been clear that Webb‘s rebooted series would be tackling the plotline for a while, and it was essentially confirmed by filmmakers in interviews ahead of release. By virtue of killing off the most likable character in the film, the moment itself still packs a punch, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that Webb and the writers could have handled the build up or aftermath any worse. It’s clear that Gwen’s doomed from the moment that she gives her ridiculous, lazily-written graduation speech: it’s the superhero equivalent of coughing blood into a hankie at the beginning of a Victorian melodrama. The film continues to foreshadow her end, not out of a sense of dramatic inevitability, but essentially in an attempt to prematurely absolve Peter of any responsibility in the death that Gwen’s father predicted he would cause (Ghost Denis Leary was spot on, as it turned out). Gwen is a strong female character, but that the film uses her agency to essentially excuse her demise, and give Peter an out for his guilt, leaves a very sour taste. Then comes the big moment itself, and the clocktower sequence feels positively sadistic: Webb keeps faking out the death, prolonging the inevitable like a cat playing with a mouse, which doesn’t feel suspenseful, but cruel. Then, after the death itself, Peter gets a brief moping montage before he’s up and cracking wise again, with a handy video file of that goddamn speech helping to close his broken heart. Months are meant to have passed, but it’s only about five minutes of screen time, and that essentially robs the death of the weight that it should have. Webb has said in an interview that he didn’t want the film to go out on a downer, which we assume translates as “Sony‘s shareholders didn’t want the film to go out on a downer,” because this is the dramatic equivalent of Han Solo being frozen in carbonite, then being freed before the credits roll.
Hans Zimmer is about the busiest composer working, with five big-screen credits in 2013, and another four in 2014, including this (stepping in for James Horner, who worked on the first film). As such, you could be forgiven for thinking that Zimmer’s started to repeat himself, and that’s shown a bit in his work, with both “12 Years A Slave” and “Rush” last year echoing somewhat some of his previous scores. That’s part of the issue here—Zimmer has scored three Batmans and one Superman in the last decade, and the textures of his work in those films can occasionally be heard in ‘TASM2.’ But it’s the, uh, experimentation that’s the far bigger problem. Zimmer recruited an all-star gang of collaborators to work on music for the picture, including megastar Pharrell Williams and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and the result is something that’s only an appropriate fit because, like the film, it’s a hot mess. Beepy video game synths, siren noises and unintentionally hilarious and already-dated dubstep references all crash into each other in one of the ugliest, most painful scores we can remember for a major motion picture. Perhaps worst of all is the cue “My Enemy (Paranoia),” which scores the Electro Times Square sequence, and combines a fairy-tale wind section, a hearty dubstep influence, and in a bold and entirely unsuccessful move, chanting, seemingly meant to represent the voices inside the villain’s head. An interesting idea, but it doesn’t even remotely work in practice. Listen below, though we’d only recommend doing so if you don’t have speakers, or if you’re deaf.
New Zealand’s Marton Csokas can be a strong and welcome actor, having done good work in things like “The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Asylum” and “The Debt.” He can also be absolutely terrible, as in “Kingdom Of Heaven” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” and manages to top even those in aid of a performance that seems to exist in aid of making Foxx and DeHaan look underplayed and subtle. Csokas’ appearance is pretty brief, as a mad doctor dunderheadedly called Kafka (seemingly based on a female psychiatrist from the comics, though that still doesn’t excuse the name), and appears to have wandered out of a ’90s Joel Schumacher Batman movie via an amateur production of “Cabaret.” Complete with a German accent that would have been deemed over the top in a 1930s serial and a haircut/steampunk goggles/lipstick combo, he basically stops the film dead in its tracks during his brief appearances. We would say that the performance is so tonally incongruous that the only explanation is that it was shot on Webb’s day off and inserted into the film without his knowledge, but we’d also say that about every other scene in the movie.
The Chosen One Narrative
One of the great things that separates Spider-Man from some other characters is his essential everyman quality. He’s not a god from another world or the children of billionaires or an Amazonian princess or anything like that—he’s an ordinary, somewhat nerdy New York kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but used his newfound powers for good, because that’s the kind of person he was. He was the superhero for the outsider, and that has to be one of the reasons the character has appealed for so long. Garfield‘s performance has never really clicked with that version of the character, but the film doubles down on that, confirming some hints from the first movie that Peter’s superpowers aren’t purely accidental. Instead, Peter’s late father explains, in a handy video, that the genetically-altered spider venom is only compatible with his own DNA, and we soon see that it has horrific effects on others, mutating Harry Osborne into the Goblin (though it appears to have worn off by the end of the movie). It’s not the departure from canon that bothers us so much as 1) the way it makes the film into the familiar chosen one narrative we’ve seen so many times before, and 2) it changes Spider-Man from someone who could have been any one of us, to the one person in six billion with special abilities.
The Secret Subway Laboratory
So let’s get this straight. Richard Parker is being framed up by Oscorp, so he has to go on the run. But before he does, he records a video telling his side of the story, something that will exonerate himself and the family name, should anything happen to him. So he grabs his wife, drops Peter Parker at Uncle Ben’s, and takes that fateful flight (see above) which involves uploading the video and secret files and whatever else to something mysterious called Roosevelt. And as Peter eventually learns after finding mysterious tokens and using Google (but before building an ultimately useless “Zodiac“/”True Detective” style Obsession Wall) is that Roosevelt is actually a secret underground subway station used by the former President. Cool. What does Peter find there? A science lab and his dad’s video clearing his name. Wait, what? If Richard was flying to (presumably) another country, why would he build a secret science lab in New York? Or did he build it? And why would he make his confession only accessible by secret tokens hidden in a calculator hidden in a briefcase? And who created the Roosevelt server where he could upload his file? And ultimately, why create this elaborate treasure hunt secret hiding place that Peter Parker has to discover, only to have it present in the film for the 40 seconds it takes him to watch his Dad’s video? Nothing about this subway secret laboratory makes any fucking sense, and seems to be in the movie just because the writers wanted to have it in there. Like many things in the film, logic tears apart the plot device by barely pulling the thread. And when the current Oscorp hides their experimental programs under the name Special Projects, that can be easily found by simply searching in their database via Harry Osborne’s magic desk, what did Richard have to worry about anyway? Given their lax security, it’s quite amazing that the true story about Richard’s work stayed hidden at all. It seems all Peter Parker really had to do was just go to Oscorp and look it up. — Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth