I almost cried with joy during The Amazing Spider-Man 2. There’s been an evolution of Spider-Man on screen, with the evolving FX in each film bringing old Webhead closer and closer to the Ditko/Romita ideal that I had grown up with. Spider-Man swinging between buildings in this film - with his costume perfect, by the way - looked exactly as I had always imagined it. As a nerd on the streets of New York City I had dreamed of looking up and seeing this red and blue figure swing by, a barely audible quip being left behind as he sped off to stop an evildoer or rescue someone. And The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gave me that, and I was thankful and happy.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also gave me a Spider-Man who is truly Spider-Man in battle; he’s just as fast with the jokes as he is with the moves. His first scene, stopping a rampaging Rhino-to-be as he steals plutonium from Oscorp, is perfect - even if Paul Giamatti’s Russian gangster is a little too broad. But it’s early in the film, and this broadness could be excused because Andrew Garfield is perfect - the way he cocks his head, the way he uses his body to accentuate every word, the way his digital stunt double moves with gorgeous fluidity.
Except that broadness never goes away. And as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 lurches forward that broadness keeps coming back, again and again, in between scenes of Peter and Gwen and Peter and Aunt May and you start to wonder if director Marc Webb isn’t so much a fan of Spider-Man as he is a fan of the disastrous string of superhero movies in the 90s. There’s a bit in the final battle between Electro and Spider-Man where Electro smashes Spidey into power pylons and makes them play ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ and you literally cannot believe this is happening in a movie in the year 2014. Because what all of the superhero stuff in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like is nothing less than Batman Forever.
The good news is that it’s not as bad as Batman & Robin, although god knows some of the scenes really brush up against it. Jaime Foxx just doesn’t have the gleeful schlockiness that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to that film; he actually thinks he’s playing a character in Max Dillon, the unloved schlub who becomes Electro. Dane DeHaan might have been game for some really enthusiastic puns, though - his Harry Osborn begins the movie as an unhinged greaseball and gets slightly greasier from there. Both performances are disasters, made worse by the fact that neither character has a real role in the movie; all of Spider-Man’s actual story is separate from Electro and the Green Goblin. The villains are off in their own movie - which is big, and Schumacherian in tone - and they occasionally crash into Spider-Man’s smaller relationship film.
When I type it out like that I like it; I like the idea that Peter Parker’s life and Spider-Man’s duties interfere with each other because that’s how it should be, but that isn’t what comes across in the movie. What comes across in the movie is two disparate films colliding again and again, and every time they collide you get really irritated and take a few minutes to settle back into this tone… and then just as you’re rolling with the theatrically oversized mugging of DeHaan you’re back in the naturalistic world of Garfield and Emma Stone being all cute and your neck hurts and you think maybe it’s time to get a lawyer for this whiplash.
I liked the small moments in the film. Garfield and Stone have terrific chemistry, and while their scenes in the movie often feel like the film stalling out slightly they’re nice stalls. And there’s an underserved subplot with Aunt May taking nurses classes to send Peter to college that would be sweet if the movie did a single damn thing with it. Like everything that is not Gwen and Peter you could excise this subplot and have no impact on the film in any way, shape or form.
That’s the problem with the whole movie - it’s all these pieces that don’t fit together. Electro - who is terrible, by the way - could be removed completely and it would require almost no changes in the film. The two plus hour monstrosity would only get more manageable in length - and you’d lose the set pieces. But that is all Electro exists to do, to give the movie set pieces. It is some of the worst structural writing I have seen in a blockbuster. The film has no central story pulling it forward, and so it feels bloated and lumbering without any direction. Stuff just keeps happening from scene to scene, without any vision or theme tying them together.
But it’s an Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci joint, so what else do you expect? They’re the guys who write scripts as if they’re just adapting note cards on a cork board; they don’t care how they get from note card #1 to note card #2, and so there’s no connective tissue between each scene, and characters do not behave consistently from scene to scene. And that’s just the structure; the film is loaded with thudding dialogue and terrible, painful scenes of exposition. How bad is the exposition? I’m going to paragraph break here so this doesn’t get lost, because this is so bad:
After Spider-Man’s first battle with Electro, where he gets blasted by electricity a lot, the script has a guy - a bystander at the fight! - come on TV and explain that Spider-Man didn’t die because his costume must be rubberized in some way. How do you write a script where that’s how this information is imparted? I couldn’t believe I was watching a professional production.
That isn’t the only bad exposition bit. The film constantly has characters explain the plot and themselves to one another (they have to, because the movie feels like a sequel to a film that isn’t The Amazing Spider-Man half the time. Harry Osborn is suddenly Peter’s best friend, which is why we never heard about him before?). There’s a scene where science genius Peter Parker (remember what a big deal it was reclaiming Pete’s science skills in the reboot?) watches a YouTube video to find out the basic properties of batteries.
While the script is a fucking nightmare the film at least looks nice. There’s way too much CGI - the final battle between Electro and Spider-Man looks like a cartoon - but Webb has made a fine-looking film. If only the time he had spent on lighting and set-ups had been spent on fixing his screenplay or telling his actors how to modulate their amped up performances he might have ended up with a decent movie.
It’s the inability to work with actors that most shocks me here. Say whatever you like about his previous films - and I don’t particularly like them, but that’s me - Webb has always gotten strong performances. So what the hell is going on with all the villains and everyone in Oscorp? There’s a villainous Germanic scientist named Kafka whose performance is right out of a parody of a 1940s serial; even Sam Raimi, who leaned towards the silly, wouldn’t have included a ludicrous character like this. And forget poor DeHaan; this is the kind of performance that could close doors for him. He’s just thrashing about without a sense of how he’s coming across. There’s a bit where he’s questioning an Oscorp employee under duress and he whistles the Jeopardy theme and you’re wondering how you got transported back to some weird coke-fueled early 90s action film. Who told him to make this ridiculous choice? How was it allowed?
Maybe this is all Webb overcompensating for the fact that his first film felt uncomfortable with the comic book elements, but he’s skipped the comic book stuff and gone straight to cartoony. When we talk about how comic book movies suck we’re talking about The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that puts the Marvel Studios films into stark contrast and makes you thankful for them, because if they didn’t exist The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could possibly put a stake in the heart of superhero films.
Is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 worse than the first film? It’s hard to be sure. There’s lots of egregious stuff in here - Pete’s dad has a hydraulic hidden subway car lab that’s beyond stupid, the origin stuff gets expounded upon and it’s revealed that Peter Parker is the only person who could have become Spider-Man, thus betraying the basic premise of the character’s everyman aspect, all the stuff with the villains is horrible bullshit - but the film gets Spidey’s look and moves down perfectly. And Garfield and Stone are so good you mourn for them. Why are they forced to have their sweet scenes in this pile of crap? Why couldn’t they have a script that valued intelligence or characters or drama in any way?
This reboot franchise has hit a wall. Marc Webb, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have done what none of his villains have ever succeeded in doing - they’ve squashed Spider-Man.