The latest installment of the rebooted Spider-Man franchise is in theaters today, and just like the Tobey Maguire series the second film is far superior to the first. But it definitely doesn’t surpass Spider-Man 2, to which I compare pretty much all other modern superhero movies.
I thought The Amazing Spider-Man was okay. I loved Andrew Garfield as Spidey (definitely funnier than Mr. Maguire), and I thought he and Emma Stone were well-matched. Overall that movie had great banter and lots of humor. And some of the special effects were so much better than in the previous movies. (Was anyone else as distracted by the terrible web-swinging CGI in the first trilogy as I was? I mean, I know it was ten years ago, but seriously. It was bad even at the time.)
But I couldn’t stop drawing parallels between the hero/villain relationships of Peter Parker and Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 vs. Peter Parker and The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man. At their bones, they were the same story: a scientific mentor for Peter driven to the edge by a loss and turned mad with power and anger. But Dr. Curt Connors just never achieved the level of greatness in an adversary that Dr. Otto Octavius did. Alfred Molina cemented Spider-Man 2 in the halls of greatness for superhero movies, but Rhys Ifans (great as he is) just couldn’t match it. And that made the first new movie just okay for me.
Now with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the volume is turned up. Peter Parker is juggling life as Spider-Man, student, nephew, and Gwen Stacy’s boyfriend. But he sees Captain Stacy everywhere, reminding him that he hasn’t kept his promise to stay away from her to keep her safe. He tries to stay away, she tries, but they’re like magnets drawn to each other. Teenagers.
Meanwhile, several other things are happening at once: Peter is investigating his parents’ disappearance, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) comes home to inherit his father’s legacy and deadly disease, and Spidey-obsessed nobody Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has an accident with some bad wiring and eel tanks. All of these things come to a head with big battles, tragedy (mild spoiler: I did not think the filmmakers were going to go there), and buildup to the Sinister Six appearance in the next film.
Yes, the plot is a little dense. And the movie could have been about 20 or so minutes shorter. But the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is super hot (the dating off-screen definitely helps), the movie is crazy funny, and there are several sequences throughout the film that were darn impressive. There’s a scene with Electro in Times Square that was pretty great. The choreography of Spider-Man’s swinging sequences is CGI done properly, the kind that adds visual weight to a story and isn’t just, you know, throwing more robots at it (*cough* Transformers *cough cough*). But there were so many of them, it got old. Things like that are what made the running time feel excessive.
And we finally get to see Sally Field show us the solid rock that we know Aunt May to be. Uncle Ben gets a lot of credit in Spider-Man’s world for helping him become the man he is, but it’s Aunt May who truly grounds Peter. And in this movie Sally Field brought a level of humanity and true middle-class values to the table that grounded this movie right through the floor. Especially at the end. I think she helps set the tone of this new Spider-Man world as much as, if not more than, a villain or hero could.
So let’s talk villains. Jamie Foxx’s Electro demonstrates a character who is not evil at the core, but who is driven to extremes and is almost child-like in his needs and rage. The special effects in his scenes are incredible, and he puts weight and sadness into Electro. But. BUT. His scenes as Electro reminded me so much of Doctor Manhattan in The Watchmen that it was a little distracting.
And, frankly, I’m just going to put this out there: I find it really alienating when certain types of pre-transformation villains are so over-the-top socially awkward that they probably have emotional or developmental issues if anyone in that universe cared to look. But they are portrayed as absolute caricatures (Max Dillon is straight out of one of Foxx’s In Living Color characters) who are freely bullied until they have an accident, reach a breaking point, and turn evil. I get the attempt to highlight the stark change between a “nobody” with terrible self-esteem and someone with all the power and confidence. But I don’t like when the audience is manipulated into laughing at them. And in this film especially I feel like Foxx’s Max Dillon is basically on the spectrum, but designed to illicit laughs. And, disappointingly, Spider-Man and the other good guys largely gloss over the actual tragedy of his situation. They talk about it, but they don’t really talk about it. You’d think at two-and-a-half hours the movie could find time for that somewhere.
Side note: For ideas on how to create an awkward, bumbling character who is funny without being made fun of, see Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully in Ghostbusters. There is a difference. </end rant>
Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn oozes as soon as he appears on screen. Almost literally. He’s creepy and menacing long before any lab accidents, a perfectly obnoxious prep school brat. I honestly found this way more satisfying and disconcerting than James Franco’s Harry Osborn (comparisons must be made, people). And when Harry is finally transformed into the Green Goblin, I was surprised by how effective he was. This is a petulant, spoiled Green Goblin with serious daddy issues, and I liked it.
But I do miss the days of one really well-developed super villain who can carry an entire movie, rather than a tasting menu of villains who are tossed in to keep things interesting. I don’t think we’re going back to that anytime soon, in any franchise, but to me it means the tension between good and evil will never be as awesome.
Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is worth seeing. It’s long (what action movie isn’t?), and in some places it suffers from the summer movie syndrome of imperfect character development (which I think is an extension of the must-have-all-the-villains-in-the-movie syndrome). But the good moments are good. But not as good as Spider-Man 2, it must be said.