In the last decade, comic book adaptations have dominated the action movie genre, becoming behemoth science fiction enterprises with monumental budgets and nearly guaranteed financial success—it’s no wonder they keep making them when films like Iron Man 3 net upwards of $1 billion in box office profits. The formula has been honed to a clichéd art: the first film is an origin story with our hero standing up against some great evil, while the second pits him (and it almost always is a him—where’s Wonder Woman anyway?) against some challenge that seems to cut to his very core. Whether this challenge is the superhero’s conscience, a duplicitous ally, a hateful and suspicious populace, or some new psychotic villain, the formula is the same. After a couple of altercations, our superhero and villain face off in a monolithic, abandoned, space and our hero emerges triumphant, though often emotionally damaged. One need only look at the list of writers (The Amazing Spider-Man 2 credits six different people) to see how industrial the process has become. After dozens of these nearly identical works, the genre is getting formally tired, and the films all begin to mush together into a mass of CGI explosions and toned biceps.
Director: Marc Webb
Producers: Avi Arad, Alex Kurtzman, Stan Lee, Roberto Orci, Beatriz Sequeira, Matthew Tolmach, E. Bennett Walsh
Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt, Stan Lee (comic), Steve Ditko (comic)
Cinematographer: Daniel Mindel
Music: Johnny Marr, Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak
US Theatrical Release: May 2, 2014
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Yet The Amazing Spider-Man 2 offers something rather different; it isn’t an innovation in the genre, in any sense, nor is it wildly new in its characters or structure. It isn’t unique in its approach or its formal. The fundamental difference is its attitude; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 approaches the comic book movie as if it’s never been made before. Even from its opening shots of Spiderman hurtling through the city, swinging himself to safety at the last possible second, it’s apparent that this is a film that delights in its possibilities rather than fearing it limitations. It carries a pure unbridled joy, not the tired melodrama with which we are familiar. Spider-Man’s attacks in the media, for example, appear here not as a hindrance but as a triviality—why should he care about such nonsense when he can fly through the city swinging on wrist-mounted webs?
Part of that is due to the Spider-Man character itself. Always the most teen-friendly of the major superhero franchises, Spider-Man’s powers are about the joy of discovery and the delight in strength. Batman is brooding and mysterious, focused more on his troubled past and troubling politics than the jouissance one can find flying through the rooftops. Superman is all-powerful and philosophical, dealing with his own otherworldly background and his alienation from all inferior humans, but Spider-Man is at heart just Peter Parker, a nerdy high school kid who develops superhuman abilities; he is immature and silly, but from his youth comes true glee, and this film captures it perfectly. From the goofy one-liners he offers villains (before acrobatically dispatching them) to the excitement he displays in the simplest swings and leaps, this Spider-Man is really having fun.
The film centers on Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) as he struggles with his feelings for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whose father’s death (Dennis Leary) in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) still haunts him. Peter/Spider-Man spends the film waffling on whether he should be with her because he loves her or leave her to protect her from the danger of being Spiderman’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, new super villains are popping up left and right to screw up the city. Electro (Jamie Foxx) makes an appearance—his powers vary nearly as much as his mushy character motivations. From absorbing and discharging electricity to becoming completely immaterial and traveling as lightning through the electrical grid, Electro is maniacally and psychotically determined to destroy New York and Spider-Man. Why is never clear, but his pre-villainous character (before the accident that granted his powers) is an Invisible Man-esque electrical engineer who is put down and dismissed by everyone around him, particularly his asshole boss (B.J. Novak). The abuse he suffers could send anyone off their rocker, but why he goes in this particular destructive and murderous direction is never clear.
The film’s other major villains are less enigmatic and more disappointing. Paul Giamatti plays one of the worst characters of his storied career—a poorly accented Russian mobster who bellows and punches, but does little else of note. Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan taking over for the role formerly played by James Franco) is more nuanced: obscenely rich, friendly, and beautiful, yet dying, Harry approaches his friend Peter to try to get in touch with Spider-Man. With Spider-Man’s blood, Harry thinks, he can stop the genetic disease that is carrying him to an early grave. But when he is denied what he wants, he becomes violent, rash, and heartless, willing to destroy his only friendship for meaningless vengeance. If we are supposed to pity this character for his unfortunate disease, DeHaan has played the role wrong. He is annoying, mean, harsh, and selfish—a real villain, just not a believable human. Why can’t he come to terms with his mortality like all of the people with terminal illnesses who don’t inherit multibillion-dollar empires?
Still the film’s heart, the relationship between Peter/Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy, is surprisingly genuine. When the two interact, they feel like a couple, caring about each other, yet struggling with different expectations. And Gwen is a real person: competent, driven, and emotionally involved. Her goals in life are just important as Peter/Spider-Man’s. Garfield, for his part, exudes an awkward, gawky charm—his general vibe making for a Peter Parker that, unlike Tobey Maguire, actually looks like he could be from New York City. And they are funny too. Both Garfield and Stone demonstrate good comedic timing, turning simple gags into belly laughs. Their real-life relationship (or as real as any Hollywood couple can be) adds a little punch to their interactions as well.
But what is most entertaining and exciting about the film may actually be its camerawork. Otherwise bland scenes are made exciting and surreal by odd, tilts and pans, as if the camera is dreamily floating through a world it doesn’t quite understand. The action sequences are the opposite, with camera movements choreographed as tightly as the actors and explosives, but those scenes are gripping and beautiful, making full use of their CGI potential, not to cover up for sloppy filmmaking (as is so often the case), but to enhance skillful work. The final climactic action sequence is genuinely affecting, especially as the fight goes from a dancelike back and forth to genuine, gut-wrenching violence. While the film falls into nearly every genre trap—too many villains, no clear motivations, no rules for how superhuman abilities work—it is so impressively crafted that it almost doesn’t matter. It would be wonderful to see more from the film’s director Marc Webb, maybe something with a smaller budget and bigger goals. Until then, this is impressive work in a weary genre.