Spoilers to follow.
“You see, I’ve come to believe that things have to get really, really bad before they can get good. Not even really, really good, although I wouldn’t mind some of that. I guess when you look at the way my life turned out so far, it’s about the only way you can look at it. Good follows bad. Kind of amazing.” – Peter Parker, Spider-Man: Blue
I think that’s the only way to describe The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s certainly a rough ride from start to finish; the realities of how Gwen and Peter’s relationship must end hangs heavy over the film…will this be the one where the music stops? I was nervous to see the movie, the audience was making judgments about how good or bad it was going to be before anyone had seen it, and the jury had come back “guilty”. Yet leaving the theater yesterday evening, I couldn’t help but feel that many of those criticisms were unjust, out of context, or just a mess of words that didn’t actually mean anything. It seems as though reviewers were criticizing the genre, instead of the movie itself. They want to remind us that “this isn’t an art film…it’s one of those…big superhero CGI movies…”
Here are a few of the more nonsense-filled excerpts:
“About the best thing one can say about this fiasco is that Webb has taken only two films to reach the same exhausted, exhausting endpoint that Raimi required three to achieve. It’s progress, of a sort.” – Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
“This is a movie that needs to remove a piece of jewelry.” – Alonso Duralde
“I think I’ll pass on The Amazing Spider-Man 3.” – David Edelstein, Vulture
“How bad is this one …? Amazingly so. Villainy abounds, but the villains are strident contrivances. Spider-Man flies, but does so dutifully, without joy.” – Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
“An unforgivably long assemblage that never coalesces into a compelling story.” – Ann Hornaday, Wall Street Journal
“The small moments, the physical comedy, Spidey’s constant wisecracking; these things are all charming, but they’re counterbalanced by stock summer blockbuster elements that Webb never seems interested in.” – Ian Buckwalter, NPR
I’ll be up front in that my bias for what you’re about to read is that I really enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and in this review, I’ve chosen to address the top five criticisms of the film.
1. The plot was overstuffed.
I keep seeing this as a criticism, yet I don’t really see anyone talking about why it’s overstuffed. Please give me some bullet points about what was too much about it. The plot was complex, but it all made sense to me when viewed as a franchise. I don’t know that anyone has been really thinking about this film as a franchise. There are hints and pieces and parts that all manage to interlock together by the final act, or just give us a hint of things to come. A lot of people don’t like the focus on Richard Parker, Peter’s absentee father. Richard Parker exists to ground Peter into the mythology of his villains. I’ve read that the complaint that this takes away any agency in the hero’s journey, but I cast that off. Did Hercules not have divine intervention that gave him the strength to be a hero? Yet he still had labors to complete, he still had to earn his title. The same goes for Peter. It doesn’t matter how he was given the power, it matters what he chose to do with it. Richard’s work indirectly creates Spider-Man, it gives us a familial connection, a legacy, that was missing from the original stories. It elevates his status as a hero above “a happy accident that didn’t just kill him”. In the comics, his parents were never so strongly connected, they were CIA agents. Peter being bitten was really just an accident, and his parents died in a forgettable way. In all my years of reading Spider-Man comics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mention the fact that his mom and dad are dead, just Uncle Ben. When laid out in the film, it makes you feel the weight of loss even more for Peter. He hasn’t just lost an uncle, he’s lost his parents, too. They’re finally given some dimensionality. Heck, even Aunt May has a story arc in this film for the first time ever in a Spider-Man adaptation. So when people say the story is overstuffed, I disagree.
2. There are too many villains.
This is sort of a continuation of the first point. People were ready to label this movie as bad because it just had too many villains! How will they ever juggle that many characters? It’s not like Spider-Man ever fought multiple people at the same time, right? The Winter Soldier actually had the same number of villains with comparable screen time, yet there wasn’t a peep about that (Alexander Pierce, The Winter Soldier, and Batroc the Leaper in case your memory is selective…and that doesn’t count the other countless HYDRA agents).
We open with Aleksei Mikhailovich, a seemingly one-off thug to remind us how awesome Spider-Man is at being Spider-Man. This is pretty standard fair. Most superhero stories open with the end of a battle with some D-List character. It also serves the dual purpose of giving us a reason for Spider-Man save and to know who Max Dillon is. Aleksei is off the board for the rest of the film at this point. Jamie Foxx’s performance is very organic as the bumbling and obsessive, then powerful and obsessive Oscorp employee. He was a credible, and sympathetic threat. Who doesn’t need to feel needed and important, how do you cope with strange abilities you don’t understand when you’ve been living in isolation? And then there’s Harry Osborn. It felt like a smart move to kill Norman Osborn early in the film. (Though is he really dead? We didn’t see him die…) Norman and Harry complicate things as a family. Who’s the Green Goblin? One of them? Both of them? Norman’s hatred of Spider-Man never felt as motivated as Harry’s, anyway. We’re given a real reason for Harry to become the Goblin, more so than “I hate you because you maybe sort of were involved in the death of my evil father that I really hated.” Harry’s story isn’t meant to wrap in this film, whereas we’re supposed to get more closure on Electro. Harry will be the driving force into the future of the franchise, and so we’re not supposed to get more than the origin and initial act to make everyone sit up and pay attention. And fortunately for us, we already have Aleksei Mikhailovich, the thug from the opening fight, to put in the Rhino armor when Harry decides to start assembling his Sinister Six. That throwaway character was meant for bigger things all along, and he didn’t muddle the movie at all. In fact, he serves in the role to get Peter out of his funk, because we know what happens when you make a movie about Spider-Man being sad all the time (See Spider-Man 3). It was a smart way to change the tone one last time. Of all heroes, Spider-Man is always one who is juggling many things at once; love, a job, and the many rogues in his gallery. Spider-Man very rarely has to deal with just one villain, so why must he in a movie?
3. It was a CGI-fest.
This is maybe more of a criticism of modern movies, than this one in particular. For better or for worse, Electro’s look necessitates a lot of computer art. Electro’s look wasn’t my favorite comics to film design, but I appreciated that they made an effort. Electro’s original yellow and green was always so tacky (he must have noticed because he looks more similar to Jamie Foxx as Electro in recent years). The CGI came in controlled bursts, and particularly the scene at the power station, felt appropriately grand and imposing for a third-act battle. More often, the CGI was beautiful. It allowed for a fluidly spectacular movement that we’ve never really seen before for Spider-Man. He was acrobatic, grounded, and always pushing forward.
4. The tone shifts too frequently.
This is a thing that many don’t really know how to grapple with Spider-Man. Everyone feels he’s either too serious, or too jokey. Why can’t he be both? I can guarantee he’s both. Spider-Man has always had impeccable comedic timing, it’s one of his hallmarks. But that humor hides his pain. Peter is pulled in so many million directions and constantly feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. I thought that ASM2 did a great job of making you feel that in the same way Peter would. There’s so much bad, but there’s so much good and it’s a constant back and forth. The last 15 minutes of the film are dark, but we can’t really end it that way, can we? We need that hope that Gwen spoke about in her speech, we need to experience the good and the bad, and come out victorious on top. This is why Rhino’s introduction worked so well for me.
5. Another Spider-Man movie?
Look, I won’t sit here and have you tell me that you liked the first trilogy. I mean, go back and watch it. I’ll wait. Terrible. It’s a franchise that needed a reboot, and this time I think they’ve done it right. I know they filmed some scenes with Mary Jane Watson, but ultimately cut them. I think that was more or less the right decision, though I think it could have been powerful either way. She may have detracted from Peter and Gwen, who were shining stars in the film, and entirely compelling to watch. Yet Gwen an MJ were friends. One of the things about Gwen Stacy was how she affected everyone around her, not just Peter. Without Gwen Stacy, Peter would have never ended up with Mary Jane. At this point, I’m not sure I could ever like Peter/MJ the way that I’ve adored Peter and Gwen. And ultimately, Gwen is why we needed another Spider-Man movie.
It almost seems as though Gwen senses that she won’t have a long life, and that dying young will be a side effect of loving a man that attracts so much danger. Gwen never plays the victim; she always makes her own rules and does things on her terms. She uses her knowledge to save the day, being an impressive complement to a man like Peter Parker, even reminding him that she’s got an academic edge. She’s a hero through and through, and a character we need to see more of in media. She doesn’t wait for a hero, she chooses to be one. She only a victim when it’s destined to be, because unfortunately her story has to end sometime. I held my breath wondering if she’d make it until the next sequel, but I had a feeling she wouldn’t. I struggle to decide whether or not this is a case of “women in refrigerators”, where a female is killed or hurt just to create an emotional moment for the male lead. By definition, Gwen is a WIR, yet her death is one that changes Peter’s life forever. Most WIR cases are introduced to shock, but then forgotten about, yet Peter never forgets Gwen, he never stops thinking about her, what he taught her, and what her death means for him as a hero. It permanently changes the status quo for him. As much as I didn’t want to see her go, as much as I was hoping that she would continue in the franchise to continue one of the most entertaining relationships in superhero film, it’s a hard call modify the mythology that far, to choose to have Peter Parker continue a life as a superhero without consequence. Arguably the biggest flaw in Otto Octavius’ recent turn as Spider-Man is that in wiping away most of Peter’s memory, he forgot about a lot of that weight. Sure, those people were still there, but it was easy for him to push past Uncle Ben, Gwen, Captain Stacy, and Marla Jameson, to do what he thought was superior, but for Peter, they are always front and center. I debate it back and forth in my head, but I can’t decide what should happen to her. That debate aside, I’d seen her die so many times in so many different ways over the years, but when it happened, I still wasn’t prepared. It still got me. It still surprised me.
And that, to me, signals a success.
(Love or hate this film, you should pick up a copy of Spider-Man: Blue by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Available today on Comixology for just $3.99.)