Conflicting intentions, contrasting tones and nonsensical villains add up to one steaming hot mess in 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Columbia Pictures
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Colm Feore, Campbell Scott and Chris Cooper
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 22 minutes
May 2, 2014
(out of four)
The people responsible for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - and its predecessor, for that matter - must be aware by now that they're the luckiest bastards in the room. If they didn't have Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone saving their behinds and covering up their messes, it'd be a lot easier for everyone to notice how utterly inept their entire series reboot has been.
Now, they're probably going to argue that they deserve credit for casting Garfield and Stone in the first place, and I guess they're right. But that's no excuse for surrounding those two immensely talented and immensely likeable stars with a screenplay that makes no sense and characters that don't have any reason to do the things they're doing. For that matter, not even Garfield and Stone's characters have reasons for doing what they're doing, but they're so damn charming together, we hardly notice or care.
But when they're not sharing the screen, all the movie's seams start to show. And what they reveal is a failure on the most basic level - storytelling. This is a terrible, terrible piece of storytelling, one that asks its audience to take every device and plot development on faith, even when they're not only unreasonable but indefensible. It's the Roland Emmerich method - artificially make everything seem familiar enough that we presume it makes sense, and hope we never use our brains long enough to question any of it.
There's a laziness to it all that irked me more and more as I thought about it afterward. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows such contempt for its audience. It's assembled in patchwork fashion, the filmmakers floating vague notions about what this Spidey saga is presumably all about but ultimately doing little more than lazily stitching together something that superficially resembles a superhero movie. Bad guy, love interest, another bad guy, needlessly muddled background mythology, action climax. The initial 2012 reboot had many of these same problems, but they seem to have stemmed more from the editing and studio interference than from the screenwriting itself.
This one, written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, has neither a story nor a point - but it's blissfully unaware of that fact. It has the raw materials for a purposeful narrative, in the form of the on-again, off-again romance between Peter Parker (Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Stone), and the ongoing struggle with guilt and personal responsibility plaguing Peter as he tries to reconcile his feelings for Gwen and his awareness of the very real danger his crimefighting duties may pose for her. But this is a completely disingenuous arc - which has been obvious ever since the last few minutes of the previous film, which concluded with a total cheat that rendered any idea of Peter's personal growth meaningless - and beyond that, the film gets too distracted by Spider-Man's obligatory new nemeses to really do much with the relationship.
About those nemeses, though. Here's where the film is most obviously going through the motions. Superhero movies must have villains to fight, and this one gives Spidey a pair. Except director Marc Webb and his writers never find any reason for them to be in this movie. They just .... are. First up we have Electro (Jamie Foxx), a bright blue, glowing electromagnetic presence who, in his former life, was mild-mannered electrical engineer Max Dillon, self-professed Spider-Man superfan. What is Electro's beef with the webslinger? Well, Spidey forgot Max's name.
Yes, that is literally the entire motivation for Electro's sudden pathological desire to destroy Spider-Man. After a freak accident on the job (which concluded with him falling into a vat of electric eels) transformed him into his current state, Electro - wandering the streets of New York one night, still discovering the powers he has suddenly developed, as fearful and alone as he's always been - is met by Spider-Man, with whom he (or Max, rather) had a brief encounter earlier in the film. Spidey remembers Max. Remembers where and when he met him. Remembers who he is. Remembers the blueprints he was carrying that day. Remembers their entire conversation. One small problem? He briefly forgets Max's first name. And ... that's it. Suddenly, Electro hates Spider-Man and will stop at nothing to destroy him.
This is your idea of a villain, fellas?
But that's not all - the writers double-down on the half-assed bad guys. We're introduced to Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), heir to the Oscorp empire. Despite the fact that he and Peter haven't seen each other in nearly a decade, Peter still refers to Harry as his "best friend." But Peter apparently betrays their apparent close friendship when he - or, rather, Spider-Man - refuses to share his mutated blood, which Harry believes will cure the genetic, degenerative disease that killed his father Norman (Chris Cooper) and threatens to do the same to him.
And yes, that is Harry's entire motivation as he moves inexorably toward his transformation into the Green Goblin. It's certainly not as flimsy as Electro's story, but the fact that there's virtually no relationship between Harry and Peter means there's no weight to the supposed "betrayal" that sets all of the Goblin's villainous machinations in motion. Not only that, but Harry is a smarmy brat from the moment we see him, so there's really no transition from good guy to bad guy - he always comes across as the bad guy.
The only purpose the villains serve is to bolster the presence of Oscorp itself, which is clearly set up as the key backdrop to everything that will happen in the future of this franchise. But as entities in this movie, both Electro and Goblin - Max and Harry - are virtually useless villains who cheapen every true moment the film manages to squeeze in. Those true moments, invariably, are between Peter and Gwen - though despite their chemistry, they're stuck with some pretty bad storytelling, too. Their relationship is complicated at random by the script's need to drive them apart and bring them together at its convenience. There's no real struggle on Peter's part - one scene, he's the happiest boyfriend in the world, and ten minutes later he's tearfully breaking up with Gwen because of the supposed guilt that we've seen absolutely no sign of until that moment.
The erratic nature of that character dynamic is emblematic of the film as a whole, which has so many conflicting intentions, it feels like it was written by a dozen different people and directed by a team of directors who never consulted with one another. On one hand, the film's early scenes strive toward the grounded crime-epic approach of Christopher Nolan's Batman saga, beginning with a dramatic setpiece aboard a plane, a la The Dark Knight Rises, and continuing with an extended chase scene during which Spider-Man thwarts a heist. There's even lip service paid to a supposedly ongoing debate over whether Spidey is a hero or a menace - and I say "supposed" debate because it's a point brought up repeatedly over the first 15 minutes and then never mentioned again.
Webb tries to blend the Nolan-esque gritty realism with the levity and silliness of Sam Raimi's earlier Spider-Man trilogy. But the film ultimately lands somewhere awkwardly in between. Some have made the comparison to Joel Schumacher's Batman films, which for the most part I don't agree with*, but whatever the case, the tone is a rather disastrous misfire.
* While the production design in this movie is largely grounded in 21st Century realism, the campy tone of Schumacher's movies was driven in large part by his elaborately cheesy art deco and the stagy conception of the action setpieces. Webb's tone goes off the rails frequently, but it never comes close to taking the full camp plunge that Schumacher did. This goes for the performances as well. With Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, there was a deliberate and brazen theatricality to the acting. In this movie, DeHaan goes the humorless, maniacally intense route, which clashes badly with the rest of the movie. But his poor over-the-top performance isn't nearly at the same zany tenor of Jim Carrey's Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face or Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy.
I'll never defend those movies, but hey, at least their villains had some reason for being. Webb and Co. never figure that out. The one thing this Spider-Man reboot has made explicitly clear is that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have magnetic star power - they just deserve a much better franchise to show it off.