by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Did you see The Amazing Spider-Man from 2012? Congratulations, you don’t need to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2! You know, the lazier of us film critics like to snarkily dismiss sequels with the phrase “more of the same” as if that is inherently a bad thing. Sometimes it’s very much a good thing, something that works happily repeating its formula in a “if it ain’t broke” manner. Sometimes, though, it is a bad thing, the observation that the sequel hasn’t learnt from the previous film’s failings and the growing loss of patience on the reviewer’s behalf. This film is one of that kind. The second one. I am not kidding, this film makes the exact same mistakes as the first one did with the exact same potential of a great movie permanently bubbling underneath the near-endless mess of bad ideas or poor executions or bad ideas with poor executions.
Ladies, gentlemen and others, this was maddening to sit through. In fact, in lieu of a traditional review, I am going to dedicate my time and your time to a couple of case study examples as to how this film fails, in order to fully impress upon you, the reader, the way in which The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spends upwards of two hours taking a giant extended piss on its potential. No, there will be no spoilers, nothing more than the trailers have shown off, but I feel that this is a far more productive usage of our time. This film and its predecessor will be used by future, more intelligent generations who are less distracted by flashy and actually rather OK, all things considered, filmmaking as the basis of an entire class in film school on what not to do. I’m just getting in on the ground floor.
First, let’s talk about the Tragic Villain plotline. This is something that both this film and the original use as the basis for their villains, in an attempt to give them depth and something to do besides instructing the audience to comically boo their every appearance like we’re at a panto. I am all for this, it adds a nice measure of moral ambiguity to proceedings and a level of depth and maturity to the superhero medium in general; not every villain is evil for the sake of being evil, after all. The problem is not the fact that the franchise has used this idea for every single one of its villains so far and, in ASM2’s case, twice in one movie with Max Dillon a.k.a. Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). You can find enough spins on that formula. The problem is that the films never ever follow through with it.
The reason why The Dark Knight gets this right whilst The Amazing Spider-Man series doesn’t boils down simply to the fact that the former commits to the tragedy inherent to the plotline. In fact, sod it, this paragraph is going to spoil The Dark Knight. So, if you haven’t seen it and still want to, just jump on down to the next paragraph, you shouldn’t be missing too much if you do so (and if I’m doing my job right). See, Harvey Dent’s slide into the man known as Two-Face works because his motives remain understandable and relatable. He still has the same goal, to clean up the streets of Gotham and wipe out corruption in the GCPD, but his methods are now harsher. The point is that he has snapped mentally and now no longer cares about working within the law to get his goals. He’s not evil for the sake of evil, he’s just had his hope crushed and now he’s willing to do anything to reach his otherwise noble end goals and it’s the way the film commits to that falling that the plotline works.
Contrast this with Max Dillon. When he starts the film, he is a weak loner. He has an important job at Oscorp but he is constantly pushed around and harassed and put-upon by the world because he basically lets it. He has no backbone, no social skills and no life outside of his work and this makes him miserable, even emotionally disturbed. He just wants someone to notice him. Then, out of the blue, Spider-Man saves him from an oncoming truck and gives him the usual Spider-Man speech of “you are a somebody because you’re somebody to me”. This gives Max a reason to live and a reason for us to care about him, even if he becomes hopelessly obsessed with the man. It’s what’s supposed to make his fall into the electro-chamber sad and painful because it’s the world’s fault, not his. It’s why the public triggering of his powers is supposed to carry real emotional resonance as he finally gets the attention he craves from the public at large and his obsession, Spider-Man.
Pity the film is only an hour in by this point. So, because the film is only an hour in, the emotional arc of Max is very quickly wrapped up and the tragic side of his schtick is almost immediately dropped in favour of “I will do evil things because I am evil”. This would have been majorly disappointing… had the film actually handled any of this well to begin with, because they play pre-accident Max for laughs. Jamie Foxx pitches his pre-accident performance to absurd wet-doormat extremes and his every scene is backed by bouncy silly music so you know that you’re supposed to find events on screen funny instead of saddening. It undercuts the emotional groundwork and comes off as mean-spirited, overall.
In fact, before I move on, I want the name of whoever decided on the music that should back Electro’s action sequences and I want to make sure they never work in this field again. Why? Because his theme is dubstep. Nearly every shot of electricity is accompanied by dubstep wubs that are severely out of place with the rest of the film’s score. But that’s not why I am calling attention to this. No, there’s also the fact that his music contains whispers buried in the background. Whispers that go something like “Hate… destruction… kill… I hate him…. I hate him…” This kind of crap might have been cool to a teenager in 2001, but to me in 2014 it’s the equivalent of backing his action scenes with “Batman’s Untitled Self Portrait” from The Lego Movie. It’s embarrassing is what it is.
Harry Osborn gets a better treatment on the whole Tragic Villain angle but the film falls down by again just not committing to keeping his goals sympathetic and relatable to the end. Him and Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, still deserving of so much better) used to be childhood friends (because everybody is connected to everyone for cheap and easy drama in amateurishly written scripts). He’s dying of the same disease that’s killing his father and, therefore, desperate for a cure. His cure may involve Spider-Man and, when things don’t go his way, he goes a bit off the deep end. That last part would be fine… except that it involves him turning straight crazy evil so that we can have a two-part action finale.
The failure of the Tragic Villain plotlines, the same reason it failed in the first film with Curt Connors and his sudden obsession with creating an army of lizard men, is twofold. The first is the lack of faith from the screenplay that the audience will be completely behind and invested in the proceedings if they don’t know who to cheer and root for. And since Peter is still kind of a huge boring dick in this one (more on that in a bit), the film cops out on its moral ambiguity and emotionally heavy stakes by reverting to “these bad guys are evil because they’re eeevilll!!” which squanders the depth previously built up and the groundwork laid beforehand. The second is the fact that this is just a bad screenplay, in general, with both villains’ switches to straight-up evil-doing boiling down to the switch on the back of a Krusty doll. I guess you could salvage such a behavioural switch but it requires far better writing and handling than what’s on display here. It’s amateur work.
Now let’s move onto the issue of serialisation. Do you want to know why the Marvel Cinematic Universe get away with doing things the way they do? It’s because when their films end, they feel like they’ve ended. They’ve told a complete story, all of the plot threads are wrapped up and the character arcs are completed. They may leave an uncertain future or a sequel tease but they can do that because it doesn’t feel like story is being held back for future instalments. I could hop off after pretty much any of MCU entries with the sense of completion. That is why Iron Man is allowed to end the way it did, that is why The Avengers was allowed to end the way it did, that is why Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are allowed to end the way they do. Some had some plot threads hanging, others blatant sequel teases but all felt complete because everything important is wrapped up and all character arcs have concluded.
Much like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does not do that. In fact, despite running over two hours and even having a clear stopping point ten minutes before the end (even if, yes, it still would have failed to wrap up several big plot threads and character arcs so I would still be having this rant anyway), it actually has the gall to not have an ending. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stops. It just stops. At roughly two hours and nine minutes it goes “OK, that’s all the time we have! Come on back in two years and we’ll pick this up again!” So, no, the conspiracy stuff with Peter’s dad Richard Parker (Campbell Scott who plays the role like a gruff William Shatner and is awful here) again does not get a payoff, Peter still doesn’t seem to learn anything from the events of the film (and the incredibly rushed final five minutes do not serve to fix this problem) and Harry Osborn remains a threat who even starts up his latest scheme as the film wraps up (and, no, not in the sense of “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!”).
There’s no resolution here. I don’t feel like I’ve been told a full story. I feel like I’ve been told half of a story, at best. There’s no payoff. Just a whole bunch of clumsily handled foreshadowing and set-up work for the endless sequel parade to possibly payoff down the line in the future maybe who knows? The Man In The Shadows from the mid-credits stinger of the first film makes a reappearance at the end because reasons, Harry’s assistant is called Felicia (as in Felicia Hardy because that’s just how subtle this film is in regards to going “THIS CHARACTER WILL DO SOMETHING IN A FUTURE INSTALMENT”) but she doesn’t do anything and, surprise sur-f*cking-prise, there’s a conspiracy at Oscorp that is left totally unresolved at the end because of-f*cking-course it is. The point of a film ending is that it is supposed to have told all of the story it needed and wanted to tell but such a thing is clearly not the case for ASM2.
Speaking of, Peter Parker is a boring dick. Andrew Garfield is trying so very, very hard to make this character work (he has a lot of natural, easy-going charisma and he is great at the better parts of Spidey’s mid-combat snark) but his character spends most of the film in the background and, when he does actually get to wrestle control of his own film back to him, he’s actively dislikeable. He’s a dick to everybody almost all the time, primarily because his character arc is almost permanently stuck on the cusp of the transitional period from “dickwad hero” to “noble figure for hope and justice” and he doesn’t actually start that transitional phase and learning lessons until ten minutes before the end of the GODS. DAMN. MOVIE.
And the stuff with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, deserves better). Oh, Maker, how I hate all of the material with him and Gwen Stacey. It’s predicated around the fact that Peter loves Gwen but the promise he made to her dying father to stay away from her is causing him to feel guilty about that love. Good, fine, you can do stuff with this. You can do good, non-crappy stuff with this. Except this manifests as Peter being a dick to her at all times but his love for her leads to him stalking her (again), putting her in danger (again) and begging her to give up her own wants so that they can be together happily (again). Hell, a better movie would make parallels between his obsession with Gwen and Electro’s with Spider-Man, but that movie wouldn’t allow a big loud action sequence with a hint of tragedy, apparently, so it’s nowhere to be found and their romance is played as true love that’s futile to deny. Credit to Stone and Garfield, they have excellent chemistry, but the material is awful.
Those are just a few of the major problems with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were also present in the original (well, admittedly, the original at least had the decency to attempt to come up with an ending). I’d go on for more, but I’m running out of time here and I need to wrap up. This a bad film. It is a bad, bad film. But it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars and we are going to be up to our eyeballs in sequels for however long the shared-universe superhero bubble manages to avoid bursting. And it will do so because it is not a badly made film. The surface level sheen is great. The performances are mostly great (Dane DeHaan still makes time to put in excellent work even as he seems to be voluntarily flushing his career down the toilet between this and Metallica: Through The Never), the film is nice and pacey which at least didn’t make me feel like I had been dragged through a sloggy bog watching the damn thing (*coughcoughDivergentcough*), the effects are great and the fluidity of them fits the hyper-reality of the film’s universe, and action scenes are shot like every action scene in every Western action movie ever (shakily, busily, nearly incoherently at points) but may at least seem exciting to less jaded viewers.
More importantly, there is still the spark of a great movie and a great franchise in here. No matter how badly the series so far has tried to snuff them out, there are still nuggets of potential littering The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This could be a fantastic superhero movie in a fantastic superhero franchise but it, like its predecessor, keeps making all the wrong moves at the worst times and in the crappiest possible manner whilst, all the while, never openly sucking. This is not an outwardly and plainly bad movie; its badness simmers underneath beneath a protective sheen of great performances and well-made filmmaking, but still ruining everything. It’s why I cannot tear this film to shreds. I should do, it is terrible, but that potential is still there and I am adamant that if people who actually knew what they were doing were given creative control, this series would learn from its mistakes and subsequently realise that potential.
Consider this a staying of execution, then. I am prepared to give The Amazing Spider-Man franchise one more chance to realise that potential and learn from its mistakes. If I come back here in two years’ time to find a sequel that again wastes that potential and makes the same mistakes, I will consider this series officially devoid of all hope and the resulting review will be merciless. In the meantime and nevertheless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bad film. You should not go and see it.
Callum Petch run on the track like Jesse Owens, broke the record flowing without any knowing. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!