The Amazing Spider-Man 2

There’s a reason most of the movie reviews for Amazing Spider-Man 2 have been unceasingly similar: “Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have great chemistry! Didn’t we just do this Spider-Man thing?!?” I think it’s interesting to admit that, but also question why: what are the reviewers to do when potentially the only thing worth loving or hating in this film, the only thing worth feeling strongly about at all, is a major spoiler? It’s because they can’t spoil anything for their readers that they end up spouting the platitudes (Emma + Andrew 4EVER!), and therefore can’t even discuss or hint at the one thing that truly distinguishes this rebooty sequel monster from any other Spider-Man or, really, superhero film that’s come before it. Actually, the American media has done a shockingly good job of keeping details about the film tightly sealed up – they all did that thing where they locked up their mouth with an imaginary key and then threw it away. Very impressive. But it’s made for some boring, incomplete-feeling movie reviews. Yeah.

Let’s make an implicit agreement right now, reader. If you have not seen the movie, than you should read the following bulleted points, in which I give my non-spoiler thoughts on Amazing Spider-Man 2, and then you should close this browser window until after you’ve seen it. (Let’s not front, you will.)

  • Like the first film in Marc Webb’s rebooted Spider-series, Amazing Spider-Man 2 struggles to be a superhero film while soaring in leaps and bounds in the department of teen melodrama. Webb’s one previous directing credit was the divisive (IMHO, brilliant) romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer, which cemented Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschenel as the world’s two most adorkable people, a throne which Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield infringe upon with each passing day (the fact that Jennifer Lawrence appears inexplicably in a mid-credits X-Men promo means that all the adorkable people you desperately want to have brunch with are here… except Shailene Woodley; she got cast as Mary Jane but cut from the film, which hurts me deeply).
  • Garfield continues to delight me in the role even as I continue to understand that what he’s doing here – a sort of cool guy, hipster pose – is not true to the character as he was originally envisioned. But, as an actor, Garfield brings so many little touches that so endear him to me as Spider-Man – snarky, misunderstood kid from the borough who feels like he can truly explore his wit once he’s all wrapped up in that full-body costume – that I’m perpetually thankful that it’s him I’m watching and not doe-eyed Tobey Maguire.
  • The interplay between Stone’s wicked smahhht Gwen Stacy and Garfield’s doofily charming Peter Parker is disappointingly downplayed in this second outing because early on, Peter Parker does that stupid Peter Parker thing where he mansplains to his woman that he can’t be with her because he has to protect her. It’s a weird scene because the last movie left Peter and Gwen broken up because of Captain Stacy’s last word’s re: his daughter, and it begins with them back together mostly so they can then tearfully break up over the same thing… again – it’s by far the worst scene Garfield and Stone will do together in this series because it is so clearly scripted to death, and these two do best with seemingly improvised banter.
  • Still this is all much better than the superhero shenanigans surrounding our scruffy lovebirds. Paul Giamatti shows up at the outset as a Russian thug, which may have given you some palpitations of excitement since Giamatti is one of the finest actors of his generation; I’m going to do you a favor and steady your heart right now – it’s not even that Giamatti is barely in the film, it’s that for the three minutes that he is, he is horrible, a shouting, gun-toting caricature.
  • Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon – wearing the nerd costume Andrew Garfield never got to wear, since in these films Peter is more of a misunderstood loner than an asthmatic dweeb – fares not much better, unless you count getting more screentime as a villain in one of these movies as better. (I wouldn’t.) As Dillon, Foxx goes full pocket protector, talking to himself because no one else notices him, latching on to anyone who says they need him in the most absurd, excessive ways. On the page, it’s supposed to be a psychologically nuanced take on what would make someone become a supervillain (and read through the lens of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as Walter Chaw does here, it becomes sort of racially profound if you squint), and it takes on extra layers of media significance when cameras play into Dillon’s fantasy of being seen and loved; but, in execution, it is one of the most psychologically one-note, flat performances a villain has given since the Joel Schumacher Batman films, and we haven’t even gotten to the part where Foxx starts doing flat line-readings once he transforms into Dr. Manhattan. Oh wait, I’m sorry, I’ve received word he couldn’t call himself that for trademark reasons and instead chose the name Electro, but he stole everything else from Dr. Manhattan outside that name.
  • And yet! Like Spider-Man 3, Amazing Spider-Man 2 (wow typing those titles next to each other does make you realize how far we’ve come in ten years…) gives us three headlining villains for the price of one, and inevitably, if you throw a whole lot at the screen, something is bound to stick. In Spider-Man 3, it was the tragic and physically intimidating Sandman, and here, its threat #3, Harry Osborn. If there’s one reason to see this film, it is Dane Dehaan. Dehaan is essentially asked to do what Topher Grace was asked to do in Spider-Man 3 – play an entitled, simpering twentysomething prick with loose ties to Peter and Spider-Man who grows to resent them both, and, in the last act, gets the power to do something about it. Everything that Grace did wrong as Eddie Brock, Dehaan does right here, creating an utterly sympathetic young CEO whose life and whose friendship with Peter deteriorate for understandable reasons. His turn as Osborn is heartbreaking, playing right into the film’s strengths in the teen melodrama department, and it’s difficult to understand why this film wasn’t given over completely to Osborn’s downfall (a la the similar unraveling of Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2), especially considering Electro’s insignificance: once Harry asks nicely, Electro becomes the rich kid’s blue lapdog. Ask yourself: do you want to see a film in which the advertised primary antagonist simperingly acquiesces to a rich douche in a leather jacket, even being called a “fairy godmother”?

No really, ask yourself. Time for you to decide whether you want to go see this thing, and that should be a major determining factor. As for me, it’s spoiler time. You’ve been warned.

Want to know what sets this series apart from the Raimi films? Of course you do, the question comes up virtually every five minutes. What do Sony, Avi Arad, Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield, what do they all have to say about Spider-Man that Sam Raimi didn’t say already? Like five years ago.

Folks, this is the Oscorp saga. Ostensibly the films take place through all of New York, but every significant beat revolves around Norman Osborn’s corporation, making it all the more surprising what a non-entity the actual Norman Osborn is in these films. Taking its cues from the Ultimate Spider-Man series, which rebooted the comics franchise with a new-millennium sheen, putting Norman Osborn’s grubby, green fingerprints all over everything, Amazing Spider-Man is just as much the story of a nefarious genetics company willing to do anything – ANYTHING – to gets its way as it is the story of the Webhead. Every character has some tie to the corporation, from the villains, to Gwen and not-yet-Black Cat, who both work there, to Peter, whose parents left him when they went on the run from Norman as they tried to keep their genetically altered spider venom from being turned into a biological weapon. (If every government agency is not already investigating Oscorp heavily after four superfreaks have emerged from those glass-paneled walls, than the government agencies in this film’s universe are incompetent.) In this film, we see that all this corporate malaise is stored in a secret department known as Special Projects, otherwise known as the place where they keep all the props for the next five Spider-Man films. (Hey, look, Doc Ock’s arms!) At this point, we could begin to draw an organizational tree of the management structure at Oscorp, so many of its employees having been introduced to us through just two films – only three major characters haven’t had major ties to the corporation, and two of them (Ben Parker and George Stacy) are super dead; only Aunt May lives on, triaging sick patients in the hospital and not caring a lick about where her adopted son is during a city-wide blackout. (Not a complaint, Aunt May always worries too much, it’s not good for her heart.)

Tied up in all of this is Peter, who in these films is not just some schmuck who happened to get bitten by a stray radioactive spider on a class trip. Peter is at the center of a CONSPIRACY, a CHOSEN ONE with a MISSION. It’s a subtle but significant change because it alters the DNA of the character in ways beyond simply adding spider DNA; part of the appeal of Peter has always been how ordinary and random he was, just a normal kid who happened to be in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time. As Peter sits in his father’s secret subway bunker and learns that his blood is the key to unlocking spider genetics, its emotionally resonant because Peter is watching his dad on that screen, but it’s weird to see that the Osborn-Parker conflict is a decades-long conflict so important that we spend the first five minutes of the movie not with Peter but with his father Richard. It’s weird to see the webslinger caught up in a much bigger web. As Peter slowly unravels the deceit emanating from the sloping Oscorp building (which we pan up to view from ground level, emphasizing its malevolence, not once but twice), he becomes a smaller and smaller player in his own saga – not so much pluckishly fighting to act with great power and great responsibility as he is acting out his part as a pawn on a now dead-man’s chessboard.

Speaking of pawns, the true thematic throughline of Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the refusal of certain parties –Gwen in particular – to be eager pawns in a bigger story. Max wants recognition for the good work he’s done for Oscorp, and as perversely as this need is played by Foxx, it plays into a larger thematic structure. In the only scene that justifies Sally Field’s continued use in these films, she demands to be seen as more than Peter’s doting caretaker. May puts her foot down, asserting her rights as Peter’s true maternal figure.

This ability to intrude in on Peter’s reality, his single-minded pursuit of his own goals, is called agency, and it’s rare for female characters to have it in a superhero film. For instance, Felicity Jones shows up for what is essentially a cameo as a woman with the same name as a character who, in the comics, is the Black Cat (morally ambiguous, just like Catwoman). She is Harry’s assistant, and tells him one important piece of information. She will be important in future films. If you were frustrated by Scarlett Johansson’s protracted performance as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, that was Oscar-worthy compared to this. That is what it means to lack agency.

If anything, we’ll always look back on Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the moment the hero’s girl asserted her independence and refused to stay in a “safe” location (never that safe, truthfully, as Mary Jane perpetually found out). Gwen feels she has something to contribute (she’s probably the smartest person under twenty in Manhattan, smarter than Peter, so she’s right) and will not be condescended to by the man she loves. So, if it lives on absolutely nowhere else, Amazing Spider-Man 2 will deserve at least a footnote in feminist studies courses for Emma Stone’s feisty performance as a girlfriend who tries her darndest to transcend the damsel-in-distress trope.

Does she though? You can look at this one of two ways, neither of which seems to do justice to what’s onscreen – it’s probably an amalgam of the two honestly. Either Gwen makes a conscious decision to put her life in danger so she can help defeat a menace (which she does), and she ends up in a position in which she, or anyone, would find themselves defenseless – hanging on for dear life. Or you can see it as the ghost of George Stacy (who appears repeatedly to throw shade at a guilt-ridden Peter) would have seen it: she is repeatedly told stay out of the way and let the boys handle things, first by her father, and then by Peter acting on his behalf, and she doesn’t listen and is punished.

In a way the filmmakers killing Emma Stone’s Stacy was always going to seem like a punishment, in part because it was something we were never going to truly desire. Only comics fans with the most slavish devotion to source material could truly have relished the opportunity to see the best thing about a flailing movie franchise have her neck snapped. And yet, like Ben Parker, Gwen has become an almost impossible character to work with, because for the savvier portion of your audience, her name will always be synonymous with tragedy. At a certain point in history the words “Gwen Stacy” and “dead” did not mean the same thing, but since the storyline that changed the face of comics came out, the two notions have been inextricably linked. Only Spectacular Spider-Man, a wonderful animated series that likely helped inspire the science genius take on Gwen these films use, really managed to turn her into a full character that wasn’t just a doomed version of Mary Jane.

Building sympathy with her feels manipulative since, almost certainly, it’s all for naught. But Stone always melted through that inherent skepticism – for the first few moments of her performance in Amazing Spider-Man, I felt like a man whose wife wanted a puppy: “But… it’s just going to die when we’re not ready to let it go…” Stone brought so much loose charm to the role that, by the middle of this film, in spite of every effort on the part of the film to foreshadow the hell out of her imminent death, I just saw her as Peter’s true love, not as a walking symbol of the unpredictability of death or the unfairness of life. She was just Gwen, the divinely wonderful, strong, level-headed Gwen. Idolizing a woman like Stone is what director Marc Webb does best, and humanizing a character like Gwen is what Stone does best. Thanks to their work, and Garfield’s clear adoration of his on- and off-screen partner, scenes like the one in Union Square that stops Peter in his tracks or the romantic gesture that sees Gwen get out of her cab and see “I Love You” webbed onto the Brooklyn Bridge soar in ways that anything involving Max Dillon or Curt Conners could never dream of.

Is it ballsy for the movies to abandon the only thing about them that everyone seemed to agree was working? Looked upon kindly, it’s big-slap-in-the-face filmmaking that pays tribute to one of comics most enduringly powerful storylines and could, as it did in the comics, pay dividends years down the line. It could also be seen as the opposite of brave – ignoring everything about your movies that make them good movies and making a potentially devastating decision as a treat for the portion of your audience that needs to see comics adapted faithfully. The future of this franchise is unsure. The only thing sure about it is that Sony will continue milking it until long after Emma Stone has moved on to better things.

One thing that is sure is that the scene which closes out the first chapter of this new Spider-Man saga and opens a new one is devastating in its own right. A bit too cluttered, maybe, a bit too slo-mo, but as Peter cradles Gwen, unable to believe she’s gone, and as the seasons change around him as he sits graveside, the results are undeniable. An essential piece of superhero mythology delivered with Webb’s signature flair for relationship dynamics and the prowess of Andrew Garfield, rendered meaningful by great work from Stone across two films.

Once again, a few moments of profound competence save a Marc Webb Spider-Man film from being inessential, in spite of this reboot being a clear business decision meant to keep the Spider-Man license in house and not much more. Webb’s style and loose performances create truly relateable young heroes that pop off the screen in ways Raimi, wrangling McGuire and Kirsten Dunst, could have never dreamed of. Superhero plots continue to overwhelm the director, turning the ongoing saga of Peter Parker in a world of genetic freaks into a tonally incompetent mush. Peter may be seeing his world expand as the conspiracy (and franchise) around him grows, but his audience may shrink in the years to come as it longs for the simple days when the only fireworks needed were those given off when Emma Stone looked into Andrew Garfield’s eyes and chuckled that deep, raspy chuckle.