Published on May 6th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant2
The Amazing Spider-man 2
Mark Webb’s Spider-man is back in a sequel that the Internet hates. Craig Silliphant asks, are there any redeeming qualities to The Amazing Spider-man 2?
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” – E.F. Schumacher
Some of the writers here at The Feedback Society work in advertising, myself included. Our aim in ad writing and graphic design is often to simplify what our clients want to say, because clarity is key in cutting through the clutter and connecting with people. A business owner can be uniquely unqualified to tell their potential customers what makes them different, because they are so close to their business that they want to tell you everything. The components of an effective ad can be likened to a recipe for soup, say, a nice chicken noodle, with noodles, chicken, maybe some carrots or celery, and the right seasonings.
When a business owner starts messing with the recipe, your soup can lose its honest simplicity. Suddenly, they want to talk about things that don’t move the needle for consumers, like free parking, being locally owned, and horrible clichés like, “for all your [insert product] needs!” It’s the metaphoric equivalent of adding eggs, mustard, and fish to the soup — you’re left with a commercial that doesn’t work, because it’s no longer a nice chicken noodle that people will respond to. These notions of clarity and simplicity bring us to The Amazing Spider-man 2 [ASM2], which can safely be described as chicken noodle egg mustard fish soup. In other words, a big, bloated mess.
Thanks to dire comments on the Internet, I trudged off to ASM2 this weekend, head hung low, heart beating nervously in my chest, like a man shuffling off to his fate on the gallows. Before we tear it a new one here, though, it should also be said that the movie is not as bad as the Internet histrionics are leading us to believe (I heard it mentioned in the same breath as Batman & Robin, and it’s no where near as horrible as all that). Through the murk, you can squint your eyes and make out what director Mark Webb and his team were attempting to do, and it was admirable. They just got carried away adding ingredients to the soup.
The plot is labyrinthine, but I’ll boil it down for you. Those damn origins out of the way, Peter Parker has grown into his role as the web-slinging vigilante Spider-man. He’s in love with Gwen Stacy, but conflicted. After all, he promised her father, Captain Stacy, that he’d stay away from her, so not to bring danger to her doorstep. (I hope there’s a disapproving Denis Leary/Captain Stacy meme already started, because it was unintentionally hilarious).
Plot-wise, I don’t want to tell you everything that happens; it will become tedious just to read about it, and I don’t want to spoil plot points. Let’s just say that a few more people and their respective stories climb into our broth: Rhino, Electro, Norman and Harry Osborne, the board at Oscorp, Peter’s parents (in flashback form), Aunt May’s nursing career, the disapproving ghost of Captain Stacy, and more. (And now, as I am vague so not to cause spoilers, I wonder if I’m breaking my own rule of clarity in trying to delve into this story and what’s wrong with its construction — untangling this mess isn’t going to lend itself to simplicity. We’re through the looking glass here, people).
Too many characters and a hot mess of a narrative are the most obvious problems with ASM2, and of course, other problems stem from that. The film feels like it started as a 500-page mini-series script and was hacked down to feature length in editing with a dull machete. Some characters are given way too much screen time, some too little, and many relationships are not developed enough to warrant the emotional payoffs they ask for from the audience. As well, too many of these characters and plots are squeezed in to set up later Spider-man movies or planned spin offs like The Sinister Six — the movie is a two and a half hour commercial for MORE Spider-man movies! To paraphrase Smithers to The Springfield Drag Strip people when he takes a job at the racetrack after being fired by Burns, “The people are already here — we don’t need to keep hustling them like this, do we?”
Some story threads become loose ends, a sweater to be pulled apart if one stops to think. In one scene, Gwen is at her job at Oscorp, trying to find information on Max Dillon (a.k.a. Electro) when the Oscorp Security Team is alerted to her digging. They try to apprehend her, and long story short, she evades them. The movie never follows up on this yarn string — the next time we see Gwen, she’s stressed about preparing to go to school in England. This is the same company that disappeared Peter’s parents and anyone else who has gotten in their way. But with Gwen, Oscorp gives up once she’s out of the building? Did she call ‘homefree?’ And then, is she like, fired or something? I can’t imagine she comes back to work the next day?
And what is the point of this scene in the first place? We (and Gwen) already know that Max is Electro at this point, so this scene is not about giving us information. Basically, they needed an action scene at that moment, so they lazily set it up with the weakest of circumstances and then, worse, pretended there were no inconvenient consequences to the scene itself. The first movie was plagued with bizarre contrivances (like the fact that Peter’s high school girlfriend happens to work at Oscorp AND is Curt Connors’ protégé), but scenes like this go off the rails in terms of insulting a moviegoer’s intelligence. Just because it’s a movie about comic books, doesn’t mean it should be cartoonish and dumb.
The action sequences are mostly dull and cheesy, overusing the slow motion technique that will really date the movie within a few years. I would complain that as in the first movie, there’s not enough Spider-man, but even most of Spidey’s scenes are just stock action scenes with no rhythm or ingenuity, so maybe we’re better off without him anyway. Compare Raimi’s Spider-man fighting Doc Ock when he robs the bank in Spider-man 2 to the final sequences in this movie. Raimi’s scenes are fun and dynamic, where Webb’s are flat and perfunctory. I don’t say this to compare the two franchises (though that is somewhat unavoidable), and even Raimi’s films get a bit too vaudevillian at times (Aunt May cracking wise and hanging off the side of a building by her umbrella handle), but Spider-man is one of the greatest superheroes of all time, with a bevy of captivating powers. It’s hard to believe that the height of action is watching him lunge around oversized power station pegs.
Now here’s the flip — there is some good in there, a spectre of the original chicken noodle soup. Yes, this movie is a baffling mess that leaves you scratching your head — but it wasn’t as bad as the Internet wants you to think it is. There is a brilliant, heartfelt movie buried in the story rubble of ASM2. I’m not sold on the millennial-style Peter Parker, but updates must happen and Andrew Garfield does a great job. He and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy have a believable love story that tries to be the spine of the film. It’s worth noting that Stacy is also a great female protagonist, with brains and guts, almost a partner for Spidey by the end, as opposed to just a screaming heroin to be saved. I was really worried that Jamie Foxx was going to go full-Carrey, a la Batman Forever, but his performance was mostly nuanced (other than a scene here and there, especially the one where he talks to himself).
There are scenes where story and character do shine through, like Aunt May’s conversation with Peter about his parents — she is hurt that he is fixated on some perfect father who abandoned him while Aunt May and Uncle Ben spent their lives raising the boy. The movie should have jettisoned a lot of other ingredients and focused on simmering components like this. It’s a wonderful scene that mostly gets lost in the film — it could have been the emotional core of the movie.
As a viewing experience, The Amazing Spider-man 2 was confused and baffling, but it was not the Batman & Robin-style skewering of a beloved character as some of the Internet trumpeted. While I was endlessly distracted and pulled out of the movie by some of the insane story choices, I was also entertained to a degree, and perhaps moved here and there. There are some good moments, some flavours worth savoring. It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t stay out of their own way, dumping all those unnecessary ingredients into the soup, muddying the vision.