Look, I didn’t like The Amazing Spider-Man, not at all. It was one of the most shockingly incompetent big-budget movies I’ve seen in recent memory, aside from completely misunderstanding who its title character is. That being said, Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, and I really desperately want to see a great Spider-Man movie again. I really wanted this to be good; I didn’t expect it to be, but I really hoped it would surprise me.
Well, okay, the movie did surprise me, but only for roughly ten minutes. After a tremendously stupid opening sequence with Richard Parker – the scientist, not the tiger – we flash forward to the present day where Spider-Man is pursuing Aleksei Sytsevich through the streets of New York. This scene is actually quite good. The action is spot on with Spidey using his powers in fun, creative ways that we haven’t seen on film before. There’s a great bit with Spider-Man jumping from surface to surface in the back of an armored car, using his webs and his “sticky” hands and feet to try and collect containers of plutonium that are rolling around freely. We also see Spider-Man go out of his way here to protect innocent bystanders, and the way he balances trying to stop the crook with making sure to keep people out of harm’s way is wonderfully executed. The scene is fast-paced, well directed, and has a solid sense of humor. Combine that with the fact that the visual effects that make Spider-Man work on screen have never been better, Andrew Garfield really nails the attitude and the movement of Spider-Man in this moment, and the new costume is honestly perfect, and you have something that can stand alongside the best moments of the Sam Raimi movies. Honest to god, this scene gave me chills.
Unfortunately, this scene accounts for only 7% of the running time of the film and is the only moment that the film ever feels alive.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a really, really bad movie, but I think it’s one that a lot of people will walk away from feeling satisfied by. Why is this? Because the film’s greatest strength comes from replicating the texture of good movies without actually being a good movie. The movie is well shot, most of the actors have good chemistry, and several of the scenes are competently executed, but they conceal the fact that this movie does not have a plot.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this movie has four plots, each of which only partially formed with the narrative connection between them so thin as to be almost non-existent. You have a continuation of the mystery behind the death of Peter’s parents – a plot thread that was hinted at, but almost completely excised from the previous film. You have the changing dynamic of Gwen and Peter’s relationship, you have Harry Osborne’s return to New York City and his eventual transformation into the Green Goblin, and you have Electro… well, Electro doesn’t really have much to do now that I mention it. Every turn of the narrative in this film is astonishingly lazy and coincidence driven, but what do you expect from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the reigning kings of lazy, coincidence driven writing. As a rule, I don’t like to criticize screenplays without having read them first – I know how easy it is for good screenplays to end up as bad movies – but in this case, the film is positively dripping with Orci/Kurtzman’s unique brand of awful.
The aforementioned opening sequence – with Richard and Mary Parker fleeing on a private jet with some top secret information – is the exact same scene as the opening of 2009’s Star Trek. Parents aboard some sort of flying vessel, the vessel is highjacked and the captain killed, the father intentionally destroys the vessel, sacrificing himself in order to stop the bad guy and protect his son. The biggest difference here is that while J.J. Abrams directed the hell out of this scene in Star Trek, Marc Webb does only serviceable work here, leaving nothing to distract you from how staggeringly stupid the whole thing is. And yes, I’m aware that Peter’s Parents were eventually revealed to be members of the CIA in the comics, but it was stupid then, and it’s especially stupid now that it plays into the whole genetic destiny angle of Spider-Man introduced in the previous film.
I don’t think this counts as a spoiler since it was very heavily implied in the last film, but the gist is that Peter Parker is a super special snowflake and the only person who could ever have gotten spider powers because his father used his own DNA in creating the genetically engineered spiders that eventually bit Peter. Not only is the whole “hero chosen by fate” angle so stupid, lazy, and played out to begin with, but it completely undermines THE ENTIRE HEART OF THE CHARACTER! Peter Parker is just a regular, dorky kid who gets super powers due to a freak accident, and he has to learn not only how to use these powers but how to use them responsibly. The idea that this could have happened to anyone is part of the whole point, and by making Peter genetically preordained to become Spider-Man shows a complete and total lack of understanding of who the character is. But of course, this is coming from the guys who ended the previous film with Peter willfully breaking a promise he made to his girlfriend’s dying father.
Speaking of which, the film tries to run with that stupid decision, with Peter being perpetually haunted by the image of frowny-faced Captain Stacy, and eventually breaking up with Gwen, but the dynamic doesn’t really feel different at all when they’re broken up and before we’re even a third of the way into the movie, it just kind of gives up and throws the two characters back into a relationship. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together have the texture of an indie rom-com, but there’s really no narrative movement at play. It’s another example of the texture trying to trick you into thinking something is good when it really isn’t. It’s just a series of conflicts that are introduced before being quickly given up on. Peter feels guilty so they break up, but eh, whatever, they’re back together now. Gwen is going off to college in England, but don’t worry kids, Spider-Man can still stay in New York because Gwen is going to…
Okay, this next bit is such common knowledge and so heavily implied by the marketing that I cringe to call it a spoiler. After all, it’s really the ONLY thing that Gwen Stacy is known for, but as a formality, I’ll throw up a proper SPOILER WARNING here.
[Obligatory spoiler buffer]
Yes, Gwen Stacy dies at the end of the movie. I have problems with the use of the Gwen Stacy character in these movies to begin with because her entire presence is just a morbid countdown to that inevitable moment where they “shockingly” kill her off, but the most offensive thing about it in this film is just how perfunctory it feels. Gwen’s death is completely unearned on a narrative or character level. It doesn’t really play into any of the major themes of the story (partially because the story doesn’t actually have themes) and it doesn’t reflect Peter’s arc in any meaningful way. The only reason it’s in the movie is because that’s what everyone knows happens to Gwen Stacy. This is why it was so smart for Sam Raimi to skip straight to Mary Jane as the primary love interest for Peter Parker because he could do meaningful things with that character instead of just having her wait around for her own death. There was real weight in the Brooklyn Bridge scene at the end of the first Spider-Man because Raimi was able to play with expectations rather than simply acquiesce them. In that story, the Green Goblin was a meaningful character that was integrated in with the rest of the story. Here the Goblin is only on hand so that he can be involved in the death of Gwen Stacy, again, because that’s how it’s supposed to happen.
This is all so incredibly lazy and poorly executed. Harry Osborne’s whole role in this series is undermined because they’re just checking off boxes in this movie. Here we have a character who is supposed to be Peter’s lifelong friend who is only acknowledged for the first time in the second movie and has only two or three major scenes with Peter before he goes bad. The movie tells us that Harry is a really important part of Peter’s life, but we never really see it. He’s just someone who’s kind of a creepy looking jerk who ends up becoming a creepier looking jerk. Dane DeHaan was undoubtedly cast as Harry because of his role in Chronicle, but he doesn’t have any of that same spark here. In Chronicle you got to see the heartbreaking transformation of a regular kid into a monster, here he remains one-note throughout almost the entire picture. When he does finally transform into the Green Goblin, his performance is astoundingly terrible. It’s actually uncomfortable to watch how bad he is, and it’s one of the few elements that I think might shatter the illusion for general audiences that this is an okay movie.
I suppose I should talk a little bit more on that point. Film Crit Hulk describes this idea really well when he talks about his theory on “tangible details.” Basically, a typical moviegoer doesn’t have the expertise needed to really understand problems with narrative structure or tone, but on some level they often feel there’s something wrong, so they gravitate towards things they can understand. Spider-Man 3 is a great example of this, the movie is narratively a mess, and is tonally uneven, but when people talk about why they don’t like Spider-Man 3, the common answer is “because of the dance scene.” The dance scene itself is actually not the problem – in fact, it’s one of the BEST scenes in the movie, and way better than anything in either of the Amazing Spider-Man movies – the problem is that it’s this big, goofy, high-energy scene that immediately follows a really dark part of the movie where Peter blows up his best friend’s face (at this point you’re not even sure if Harry survived). The problem is the intense tonal whiplash between the two scenes, not the scene itself. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, on the other hand, does not have this tonal whiplash issue. It maintains a relatively even tone, and it has enough positive tangible details like characters who have good chemistry and decently executed action sequences that your average audience member might not be alerted to the fact that the story is just as incoherent as Spider-Man 3 and actually way, way dumber. I expect that, “At least it’s better than Spider-Man 3” will be a VERY common backhanded compliment given to this movie, but it’s a sentiment that is dead wrong. Spider-Man 3 was a mess, but it was a mess that had a soul and had interesting ideas. This is just an overlong, lifeless slog, with a script that’s as dumb as a bag of rocks.
Aside from Dane DeHaan being astoundingly bad after transforming into the Green Goblin, the other thing that might be tangible enough for people to clue into the fact that this is not a good movie, is everything involving Electro. The whole Electro subplot feels like it’s part of a completely different film (and that’s saying something since the rest of the film is hardly coherent as it is). Everything about the character is reminiscent of something from one of the Joel Schumacher Batman films, even down to the fact that he shares the same basic origin story with Jim Carey’s take on the Riddler. He looks really dumb, has the silliest set of powers, and does dumb things like use electrical pylons to play the tune of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” For god’s sake, his theme in the score is dubstep. That itself feels almost like a parody of Hans Zimmer’s unconventional score for the Batman films, but it’s played completely straight. Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that there’s any life in this silliness. Any potential for fun that this might have had is squashed by a completely bored performance from Jamie Foxx. As bad as Batman & Robin is, at least you can tell Arnold Schwarzenegger was having fun with it.
On top of that, there are a lot of little things that don’t work. There are two back-to-back montage sequences featuring terrible music choices, including “Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip Phillips underscoring Peter’s search for clues about his father’s past. The movie tries on a few occasions to make winking references to the comics, but they’re all obvious and annoying, like Electro having a birthday cake with green and yellow lightning bolts on it. The fact that the origin of every super-powered character in this series has to do with an accident at Oscorp continues to be really boring, and the movie is full with visual metaphors that either don’t mean anything or are tremendously stupid and on-the-nose. My favorite was Spider-Man launching a web line after Gwen Stacy as she’s falling to her death, and a close up of the web revealing that it looks like a hand reaching out towards her.
There are also bigger issues that remain problematic from the last film. Outside of a few scenes, Andrew Garfield still doesn’t really work as Peter Parker OR Spider-Man; the movie feels more like an ad for its sequels than an actual movie; and the series continues to echo story beats that we’ve already seen done a thousand times better by Mr. Sam Raimi.
That’s perhaps the most disconcerting thing. After Marvel introduced the concept of a shared universe in film to the tune of several billion dollars, other studios have been dying to get a piece of that action, and at this point, Spider-Man is the only Marvel character that Sony retains the rights to. They’ve announced all these plans to build a “universe” out of Spider-Man, but if two movies in they’re already doing bad versions of the same stuff we saw in the Raimi movies, what hope is there of the Spider-Man “universe” being anything more than just a crappy retread? Yeah, they’re trying to get the Sinister Six together, but so far they have the dumbest possible versions of these characters. The sad irony is that Marvel’s earned success indirectly benefits these movies that don’t deserve it. A lot of people don’t understand the rights issue at play here that makes Marvel Studios releases separate from other Marvel branded films, and this confusion ends up hurting Marvel while benefitting Sony and Fox.
If Sony was doing good work here, the rights complications would be a non-issue. Spider-Man is a character that I’ve always thought works best on his own, and so having him be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not as essential as, say, the Fantastic Four. The big issue here, is that I’m confident that Marvel Studios would do good work with Spider-Man while Sony Pictures seems intent on betraying everything the character stands for. I love Spider-Man, he’s my favorite superhero and one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, but The Amazing Spider-Man movies have thus far given me a version of Spider-Man that is almost unrecognizable. I want to love a Spider-Man movie again even half as much as I love Spider-Man 2, but instead we have two terrible, terrible movies and no sign that this trend is going to stop. This movie is already tracking to make big numbers which means we’re stuck with this awful Spider-Man for the foreseeable future, and that fact makes me profoundly sad.