May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: A Review, I Guess

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: A Review, I Guess
Ben Smith


I understand the power of nostalgia more than most, being a comic book fan and all. I also understand the importance and impact that the first Spider-Man movie made on audiences, because it was something I personally had waited my whole life to see without ever actually expecting to. Seeing that movie in a small theater in the armpit of Texas inspired me to resume my childhood hobby of collecting and reading comics, which eventually led to me writing these words to you, so that’s the first strike against it.

The second strike is that the Raimi movies, while revolutionary and exciting at the time they came out (well, the first two), have not aged well at all. If you saw those movies in the throes of childhood, I can understand why you might never be able to see how dated they are, but the fact is that the comic book movie has gotten a lot more sophisticated since then. Everyone understands the impact of the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1, but that doesn’t mean it is still a satisfying comic to read. Comic book writing, art, production, and printing have all drastically improved since then, the same way comic book movie acting, writing, directing, and special effects have all improved since 2001.

Even while I was marveling over the excellence of Spider-Man 2 (at the time it came out, it became my favorite comic book movie), Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane Watson was already beginning to grate on me. Tobey Maguire was a decent enough Peter Parker (up until the abominable Spider-Man 3), but a horrible Spider-Man, and the villains—well, it says something that the only one worth mentioning even to this day is Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus. I remember a co-worker mentioning how much they didn’t like the second movie because he basically whines and quits for the whole movie. My only defense was that Spider-Man does that sometimes. Unfortunately, with many much more entertaining movies having been made since that one, it turns out he was right. Spider-Man struggling with his role as a hero may make for an interesting single issue of a comic, but for a two-hour movie it can be pretty unsatisfying.

When the series rebooted with Amazing Spider-Man, I was cautiously optimistic. I liked Andrew Garfield well enough in The Social Network, and loved Emma Stone in everything she had ever done, but I was beginning to wonder if Sony would be able to make a movie to my admittedly high standards. The villain and origin story were as flawed, if not more so, than the original trilogy, but the movie was saved by truly transcendent performances from Garfield and Emma as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. Their on-screen (and off, apparently) chemistry was apparent from the beginning. Unfortunately the rest of the movie (except for Sally Field as Aunt May) couldn’t keep up with them.

Which is all a very long-winded way of bringing us up to The Amazing Spider-Man 2.



Everything I loved about the previous movie, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone primarily, was even better in the second. Their relationship and interactions are obviously the driving focus of the movie. Unfortunately, that only serves to highlight the rest of the movie, which, while it’s not as poorly done as the previous movie, it seems much worse because of how great the rest of the movie is.

I understand that if you cast Jamie Foxx as Electro, who as far as motivations go is basically a generic bad guy in the comics, that you have to give him something to do as an actor, but everything to do with Max Dillon before he gets powers took me right out of the movie. They did their best, unfortunately it didn’t work for me. However, the scene between Electro and Spider-Man in Times Square was intense, and makes me wish they had just foregone the obligatory origin story for this villain.

Outside of Peter Parker, this is hands down the most accurate and entertaining portrayal of the Spider-Man half of the character in any movie. The costume was perfect (thankfully they fixed it from the previous) and his non-stop motor mouth was present for the first time yet. This is the first time I actually felt like it was the Spider-Man from the comics on the screen, with his combination of humor, compassion, and outright effectiveness as a hero in full display.

The strength of the movie is the love story between Peter and Gwen, which is also what made it so hard to satisfy the action quotient required for a summer blockbuster. Every time Andrew or Emma are not on screen, the movie suffers as a result. Only Sally Field provided the movie with any kind of support, with another entertaining turn as the perpetually weary Aunt May. If your eyes don’t get a little wet in her heart to heart with Peter, you are an emotionless robot, my friend.

Emma Stone is remarkable as Gwen Stacy in this movie. Rarely has Gwen ever been explored as a character as deeply as she has in these movies, yet it never felt like it wasn't being true to the comic version. While Mary Jane might be the more popular love interest in the comics, she’s never been a great fit for Peter Parker. Despite what a legion of over-obsessed nerds on the internet might think, writers have always had to force those two characters together. Gwen was always the more natural fit. She’s just as smart as Peter, and her personality matches up with his much better than the much more outgoing Mary Jane. Unfortunately, a compatible couple with little conflict doesn’t make for great fiction, and the free spirit Mary Jane was more interesting to the writers working on the book.

In the Raimi trilogy, the depiction of Mary Jane was closer to Liz Allen as far as the comics go, and it took her the entire movie to realize she loved Peter. And even then, she only realized it because Peter was always around to be nice to her, pining for her while she was involved with his best friend, basically stealing her away from him by the end. In the second movie, she’s engaged to John Jameson essentially because she’s in a hurry to get married and doesn’t want to wait for Peter any more, which is light years different from the non-committal Mary Jane from the comics. There’s something to be said that the most chemistry between two characters in that first trilogy is between Mary Jane and Harry Osborn in the terrible third movie. If you still think those movies are good, I’m pretty sure you haven’t watched them in 10 years.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, PROCEED AT OWN RISK

As any comic fan knows, Gwen Stacy was killed during a battle between the Green Goblin and Spider-Man. The relationship had progressed to the point where there was nowhere else to go with them except marriage, and they were not willing to marry off Spider-Man (with good reason). The movie plays with this knowledge beautifully, setting up from the very beginning (using Dennis Leary as a phantom Captain Stacy) that Gwen’s safety is in question. Every signal thereafter suggests that Gwen Stacy’s days are numbered, and yet I still couldn’t imagine they were going to pull the trigger. Not with Emma Stone so important as a character in the movie, and as a popular actress attached to the franchise.

Even up until the climactic battle, as Gwen falls in slow motion to her doom, I didn’t know if Spider-Man’s webline was going to save her or not. To my complete shock, she violently hits her head on the ground just as the webline catches her, killing her instantly. (I took it as the webline breaking her back, not seeing her head hit the ground, so maybe it was both. Or intentionally vague, just like the comic.) If you’ve read Back Issue Ben before, you might know that my favorite comic of all time is Amazing Spider-Man #121, the death of Gwen Stacy, so it’s easy to guess how important that storyline it to me. Never before have I experienced in a movie the feeling I had when she dies in this movie. So brutal and sudden, I felt a warm feeling travel throughout my entire body, akin to receiving terrible real life news. It was like watching a real live death, and the effect it had on me was a visceral experience I’ve never had before. Along with me, you could hear audible gasps in the theater when it happened, and afterwards the audience seemed to be in shock (relatively, it is just a movie). As we exited the theater, we could hear other patrons wonder out loud if she really did die, not believing what happened.

With all the flaws of this movie, which may or may not be flaws because of my high expectations for any Spider-Man movie, I have to give them credit for having the creative courage to not only kill Gwen Stacy, but have Spider-Man play a part in it, just like in the comics. For that, and the resolve that Spider-Man eventually shows afterwards, it’s a movie well worth watching.

Just be prepared to hate it for what it does to its most lovable character.

1 comment:

Coby Criste said...

i very much agree. i actually re-watched the original trilogy just before seeing ASM 1 on Blu-Ray and then ASM 2 in the theater. i loved the first 3 when i was a kid, but pretty much hated them on the re-watch. altho, that emo dance in the 3rd one that everybody hates was actually pretty entertaining to me.
and, yeah, my theater shared the similar punch-in-the-gut that yours did when Gwen died. i applaud them for the ball to do that, but not for much else. in fact, i was pretty much almost hoping it would happen the whole movie.

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