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‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ and the generic state of the comic-book blockbuster

It’s unclear where the lines of heresy are drawn in the relationship between comic-book movies and comic-book fans. Is there nothing we aren’t expected to be desperate to see? Is nothing sacred about how these movies are developed? If you happen to have enjoyed some, if not all three, of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, you at least remember they were made. It’s been only seven years since the last one. But that appears to be enough time for a studio and some producers to shake the Etch A Sketch and have another go.

This is how you wind up with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Like its 2012 predecessor, the movie is competent but dull. It’s not desperation you feel, spending two more hours with Peter Parker and his computer-enhanced crime-fighting self. It’s indolent thrift. Amazing 2 is the financial equivalent of swishing water around in a mostly empty jar of tomato sauce to make sure you get it all.

The Raimi films are not only fresh in our memories, they’re fresh in the filmmakers’, too. Peter (Andrew Garfield) is still a chipper geek with a crush on a sweet, spiky girl whom he moves in and out of dating. For this reboot, the girl is Gwen Stacy. She’s played by Emma Stone, whose misapplied stardom appears to have demanded that Gwen now do more than be Peter’s girl. When she isn’t busy being imperiled, she gives her high school’s graduation speech, does some sleuthing at her new job at Oscorp Industries, and cracks a couple jokes. Gwen is smarter than Peter. So much so that she’s applied to Oxford, which would certainly free her from the franchise. But she isn’t more fun. Stone doesn’t get to bring much to this part. Why cast an actress when you could have hired a can of V8?

Apparently, there are still important secrets to unpack. The film opens in the past, with Peter’s endangered parents, Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), leaving their young son with Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen) so they can hightail it out of New York. On a private jet, Richard is in the middle of uploading some critical data when Bond-level mayhem breaks out. But he remains absurdly on task. Nothing. Will stop him. From reopening. His laptop.

What Peter’s dad was determined to share has something to do with Oscorp, which becomes the plot’s hub. Not only does Gwen work there, but Peter’s estranged best friend and the company’s heir, Harry Osborn (Dane DaHaan), also returns to Manhattan as a wispy, sickly vision of designer affluence. He’s come to see his ailing father (Chris Cooper, looking wonderfully spent) and winds up becoming CEO. The best thing about these early scenes is Jamie Foxx, who plays Max Dillon, an Oscorp engineer who tumbles into a tub of eels — literal eels! — that turn him into the power freak Electro. Initially, he gives the performance a soft, lisping neediness — a Jamie Foxx cartoon elevated by Jamie Foxx acting. Spider-Man saves Max during a Manhattan-wide police chase, and Max reacts the way Kirsten Dunst did in Raimi’s first installment: He turns into a Toni Braxton record. Max is desperate for affection and attention. Eventually he gets it, not from Spider-Man but from Harry.

The nerd-to-supervillain cliché never gets old. It’s a fantasy that still speaks to some of us. But the villainy has to mean something to the superhero. There has to be some tension in the story, and it can’t lean on simplistic good guy–versus–bad guy expectations. What you’re asking when Harry turns vicious and Dillon goes electric is, “What’s different this time?” It doesn’t feel like much. Once Foxx undergoes the transformation, he’s essentially out of the movie. He’s much better unplugged. This Electro isn’t the jester with lightning bolts on his tights he started out as in 1964. He’s closer to the bald giant who appeared in the comic book’s 2008 “The Gauntlet” stretch. It was a fine makeover on the page. But it doesn’t work in the movie.

For one thing, Electro’s glowing, pulsating blue body bears a messy-looking resemblance to Dr. Manhattan from the Watchmen film, another promising comic-book epic torpedoed by ponderousness. For another, the character change forces what’s left of Foxx to go dead and servile. A line delivered mid-destruction such as “It’s my birthday — time for me to light my candles!” is harmless on the pages of a comic book. But as Electro, Foxx has to drone his dialogue, because all of Max’s compelling insecurity and narcissism are rerouted toward the inevitable action sequences. Ultimately, there’s no character for an actor to play.

DeHaan is better off in James Franco’s old part. He’s a tightly wound, high-strung blond: Leonardo DiCaprio doing James Dean in a school play. Eventually, he, too, is cranked through the action-movie grinder. If you’ve seen the Raimi movies, you know which villain Harry’s meant to become. And given all the masking and mutation, it’s not one I’d choose for DeHaan, who makes insinuating faces and speaks with prep-school fatigue. He’s an actor you need to be seeing.

It’s possible to watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2 amused by this latest episode of Accidental Male Attraction. For instance, Harry hasn’t seen Peter in years, but DeHaan puts a glint in his eye whenever he’s near his old friend, and the glint makes you laugh. But this movie isn’t for laughers. It’s for the dozens of people who clapped at the end and remained seated in order to behold what awaits in a future sequel. (That coda is now a pre–closing credits affair; Felicity Jones and Paul Giamatti also appear for a scene or two as characters to be developed later.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is for people who don’t have great fealty toward their protagonists and villains or toward the films made about them. They have loose loyalties to no particular franchise. It’s for people who’ll just go. To anything.

Spidey-2-HP

It doesn’t matter that only 10 years ago, nearly to the day, there was a Spider-Man 2 and it tripled the B-movie fun of its 2002 predecessor by heightening Raimi’s loopy cinematic personality and building toward real stakes that an audience — almost any audience — could care about. Each of Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies achieved that with a carefully measured mix of the zany and the scary.

I’ll never forget one moment near the climax of the first installment. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) has kneeled at her bed and is reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She’s just in the middle of saying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us … ” when a side of her Queens home explodes in flame. There hovers and hisses the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). The frail look of horror Harris conjures as she recoils and moans just moves you. Dafoe’s sibilance goes from 6-year-old to serpent. He knows he’s interrupted her. “Finish it!” he screams, and so, weepingly, she says, “ … from evil.” It’s a schlocky but terrifying moment in a film that, until then, had been a summer-movie joyride.

The best scene in the 2004 Spider-Man 2 features religiosity more evocatively. Spider-Man has almost killed himself to stop a runaway el train. The passengers — men and women of different races and classes and ages — pull him inside the train car. He’s lifted, maskless, above everyone and passed from one end of the car to the other. His arms are outstretched, there’s a gash on the right side of his stomach. An aerial shot milks the scene for all its messianic worth. The worshippers are touching the tatters of his garment.

That sequence had already been remarkable for being the first since the original Superman movies to make a showcase of the grueling physicality of superherodom. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man tries to stop the train first with his feet, then with not enough webbing, then with enough webbing but barely enough train track. The exertion is exhausting. He’s turned into a figure of holiness because he’s earned it. That he does so unmasked only heightens the humanness of his heroism. Raimi shows Maguire screaming and straining and passing out, almost dying. For us.

It’s a shame that comic-book movies are now where a lot of the Hollywood action genre resides. That emphasis on action misses the point of what else is great about comic books — the narrative trapdoors, the allegories, the shadings of these characters that take place over 30 illustrated pages. Raimi’s films are just as guilty of marching to the beat of a blockbuster. But he and his crew were able to make those inevitabilities memorable — they’ve got the humor, the surprise, the illustration.

A moment like that runaway-train sequence is what we want from a comic-book movie — state-of-the-art effects, anti-physics physics, and some conflation of character, circumstance, and city. (Raimi’s most inspired bid for authenticity was to let New York City play a character in them.) That scene also managed to capture the glory a certain comic-book fan might feel, that relatable, innocent confusion between Spidey and Jesus, between those web-spraying wrist holes and stigmata.

Spidey-3-HP


Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a great comic-book film. Its makers seemed to understand that what endeared comic books to their readers was their voice, their point of view. I’m not talking about subtext, per se, just story and its advancement. A comic book could take you anywhere, and the good ones always did — sometimes until, with the change in creative personnel, they leapt off a cliff. However, if they had you, then over the cliff you went, too. That’s the story with Spider-Man 3, one of the strangest and cleverest of the Marvel movies. The whole thing is built on doubling and brings Maguire as close to classic Nicolas Cage lunacy as any actor playing super has come. Spider-Man 3 is just like what certain issues of comic books were: stuffed with randomness and quirks that were the product of either inspiration or inertia. I like that movie. It’s not serious but takes the enterprise of making a $250 million movie seriously enough. Raimi will give you a showdown with Sandman, but he’ll also take Peter to a jazz club and let him do Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.

Nothing about Amazing 2 portends jazz clubs in Amazing 3. But Andrew Garfield seems ready to go there if necessary. He gives Peter an appealing virginal energy. After The Social Network and his matching Philip Seymour Hoffman onstage in Death of a Salesman, it feels a little anticlimactic seeing him locked down in franchise work, but he’s committed to the adolescence of these movies. He’s enjoying himself. We still haven’t gotten the neurotic, ethically challenged Peter Parker of the comic books — maybe once he’s rebooted for the fourth or fifth time. Garfield could certainly be playing that right now.

But the producers seem OK with these superficial action-adventures. Working from a screenplay credited to Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner, director Marc Webb has a good handle on the rhythms of story and action. The movie has some nice physical comedy in and around Oscorp, and Spider-Man swooshing around New York is presented in close-ups and long-enough takes that are more exciting than in the previous Amazing movie — not enough to justify 3-D glasses, but you can’t have it all.

Webb has directed a dozen music videos and one long one — his only non-Spider-Man movie, the “Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a crush on Zooey Deschanel” lollipop (500) Days of Summer. I didn’t leave that film with the belief that whoever made it had something to say. He just liked fun and motion and girls (a type of girl, anyway). That pretty much qualifies Webb for a studio’s unambitious remounting of Spider-Man. (Amazing 2 is wall-to-wall crushes.) The movie can’t muster the drama and mourning you need for the bad news that befalls some of these characters. Sally Field still gets to play a bereft widow (with secrets!), but no one else gets to partake in the ache of loss. Not really. The number of children desperate to see this movie makes wallowing in death suboptimal.

Families went to Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, in 1989 and 1992, thinking they were getting Richard Donner’s Superman films. They left covered in shadows and perversion. In the intervening years, cartoons based on comic books proliferated during kids’ TV-watching blocks; the major live-action movie franchises are now also accompanied by popular cartoon TV series. And it’s changed the way movies adapt comic books, which don’t have to please everybody. But a movie that costs a quarter of a billion dollars does. Sometimes you get an exception like Christopher Nolan’s grim Batman movies, the banter in the Iron Man films and Joss Whedon’s perfectly sitcommy The Avengers — or The Wolverine, which is the opposite of this new round of Spider-Man. It’s all physical pain and post-traumatic stress. The violence and demise in Amazing 2 should be more disturbing than they are. But Webb practically bruises you with pluck. It’s the way it is now. The studios and the producers have to split the difference — between excellence and adequacy, between darkness and light, between seriousness and fun. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 might have been split too far. It doesn’t taste like anything. 

Filed Under: Movies, Marvel, Comic Books, Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx

Welsey!

Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

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