The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Not the Adjective I’d Have Used
It’s completely unfair, not to mention unprofessional, to judge a film outside of its own merits. You don’t go into a grade school art show and berate a child for not producing the Mona Lisa, in the same way that movie critics don’t begin every review with, “Well, it was no Citizen Kane“. That being said, if the aforementioned grade school artist is loudly demanding millions of dollars and a dedicated wing at the Louvre for their already-crumbling macaroni portrait, it might be time to sit down and have a little chat about the comparative merits of art. So with that in mind, Sony…listen. Your Amazing Spider-Man franchise is NEVER going to be The Avengers. It’s just not. And that’s okay! Literally nobody but you wants or expects it to be. And yet…
I was pleasantly surprised by Sony’s 2012 franchise reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. It had its flaws, but was miles ahead of Sam Raimi’s trilogy in important areas such as casting and tonality, and it displayed a fundamentally superior understanding of Peter Parker/Spider-Man as originally intended by creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Andrew Garfield’s sarcastic, cocky portrayal of Parker is vastly preferable to Tobey Maguire’s perpetual sad-sack approach, and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is the exact polar opposite of Kirsten Dunst’s impossible-to-like damsel in distress Mary Jane Watson. There was the expected bout of origin story fatigue and an unspectacular villain to weigh the whole thing down a bit, but I fully expected those to be corrected by the time the sequel rolled around, freeing ASM 2 up to be perhaps the best onscreen Spider-Man story yet. And then The Avengers happened, and the sheer gravitational force exerted by that massive stack of cash pulled every other would-be superhero franchise completely off the rails.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t so much a movie as it is a disjointed series of trailers and vignettes for other hypothetical Spider-Man movies. It’s a two and a half hour (!!!) demo reel meant to sell the “shared universe” potential of a series which has no other heroes to bring into the fold and instead will have to rely on an endless parade of samey, Oscorp-generated versions of Spider-Man’s extensive rogues gallery to fill out screentime. Electro, Green Goblin, and Rhino occupy the overcrowded tip of the iceberg in a world where Doctor Octopus and Vulture’s mechanical apparatuses already lie in wait for random schmucks to don them, and where every random office drone is also a villain waiting to happen, be it Alistair “Spider-Slayer” Smythe or Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy. I eagerly await the reveal of the Oscorp mail room, where a beleaguered Mysterio no doubt lies in wait for the first perceived slight to set him on the path of villainy. Better not get mad at that new intern for getting your coffee order wrong for the third time this week, what if he’s Kraven the Hunter? It’s a New York City where everyone Peter Parker has ever known or ever will know arrives by way of Oscorp, eliminating the need to ever develop a story with an original or even coherent beginning or end. It’s all middle parts from here on out–Spider-Man vs. an inexhaustible supply of bad guys whose only purpose in life is to prop up teasers for other bad guys.
The most frustrating part is that there’s so much here worth saving–probably enough that a skilled editor could go back and sculpt the existing footage into a pretty great film. Garfield and Stone’s onscreen chemistry is near-magical, to the degree that all of their shared scenes seem lifted from another, better film. Even Jamie Foxx puts in an admirable performance early on, before he’s transformed into a human version of the “Dubstep Gun” from Saints Row 4. Spider-Man’s costume is hands-down one of the best ever transitioned from page to screen, and all of the web-slinging business is the best its ever been. The fight staging and choreography is excellent, and is made even better by the fact that this Spider-Man, like his comic book counterpart, often goes in talking and trying to avoid those fights altogether. It sounds like a minor thing, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen fights in a superhero film cater to the issues of bystander safety and crowd control to this degree. Nearly everything I liked about the first movie still applies to the sequel, and there’s a clear sense that at least somebody involved in the production knows what makes Spider-Man interesting and unique as a character.
None of that, unfortunately, can quite compete with the negatives. There’s never any indication of a real script or structure at work, and no character arcs to speak of. Any good character moments for Spider-Man himself get choked out by the film’s insistence on making him a “chosen hero” destined for greatness rather than simply a good person who does good things even when it complicates his own life, which again is all in service of making literally everything that happens in his life lead back to Oscorp. There’s an entire third-act plot point which happens without the awareness of any of the main or even secondary characters, exacerbating the impression that so many sequences in the film only exist to fill time and make the whole thing “feel big”. Dane DeHaan is truly awful as Harry Osborn, with a performance that would have felt right at home in the Star Wars prequels. I couldn’t even tell how much of that was “poor actor” vs “poor script”–no actor alive could scream lines like “You’re a FRAUD, Spider-Man!” and come out looking good–but I’m inclined to believe it was a little of both. Either way it’s a serious problem, since the entire future of the franchise is now bound to Oscorp and by extension Harry Osborn, the lone exception to the series’ otherwise spot-on casting.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, despite a scattered handful of great moments, a bad movie. Worse than that, it’s not just a bad movie on its own merits. It’s an indicator of everything yet to come from every big superhero film without the good fortune to be produced by Marvel Studios. Simply telling a story has been deemed secondary to setting up the next film–and I use the phrase “setting up” generously here. Standalone scripts, meaningful character arcs, and any attempts to gauge audience interest or demand have gone out the window in favor of overly ambitious multi-year plans, desperate attempts to replicate the success of The Avengers without even the slightest understanding of why The Avengers actually worked. To everyone at Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros, here’s a hint: it wasn’t because there were a lot of characters in the movie.