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Non-Review Review: The Amazing Spider-Man II

What is remarkable about Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man II is how much it resembles a comic book. Not a particular comic book – although there are numerous shout-outs to iconic Spider-Man moments, right down to the choice of costuming – but in general terms. It isn’t that Marc Webb tries to construct his film to evoke the look and feel of a comic book – this isn’t Ang Lee’s Hulk; in fact, Webb seems much more comfortable here than he was with The Amazing Spider-Man, making a movie that feels more playful and relaxed within its medium.

Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man II borrows the structure of a comic book. It offers its own story, but that story isn’t constructed particularly tightly. Instead, the story seems to have been fashioned as part of a greater – as if part of a larger serialised narrative that has yet to take form. It’s quite distinct from the approach taken with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, where the films feel more like blocks that fit together. Instead, this feels more like the second chapter in a larger story, without being dissolved completely into the larger narrative.

The Amazing Spider-Man II has its own themes and motifs, and it documents a pretty epic selection of events, but the emphasis isn’t so much on this one encounter as what this encounter says about its hero. It’s much more interested in what these events tell us about our hero than it is in documenting a single self-contained story. It’s a novel (and somewhat bold) attempt at a serialised superhero narrative, and the results are absolutely fascinating.

Electro-fying!

Electro-fying!

Note: The Amazing Spider-Man II is probably best seen absolutely blind, with no real information about its themes or the story beats that it might hit. I do try to keep the reviews as spoiler-light as possible (and we do have a spoiler-laden review available for your perusal), but if you are interested in seeing the film – I would recommend avoiding any discussion or review. It is good, if flawed; endearingly ambitious and engagingly bold; it does a lot of great things that excuse some cliché plotting, sacrificing novelty in some areas for storytelling efficiency.

Some of the problems with The Amazing Spider-Man carry over to the sequel. Most obviously, there’s a sense that the film has been very heavily influenced by the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Indeed, there’s even an opening action sequence featuring a scientific expert trying to escape on a private jet, only to encounter a foe with a master plan that involves crashing it.

Power to the people...

Power to the people…

More to the point, though, Peter Parker’s gifts are still portrayed as something of an inheritance from his parents – something that feels like an ill-fit for a character defined as a down-on-his-luck every man. With Richard Parker speaking about his “bloodline” and the gifts he bestows upon his biological son, along with the troubled relationship between Harry Osborn and his father, echoed through the tumultuous relationships between the Parkers and the Osborns, The Amazing Spider-Man II almost feels like a generational saga. It seems like a movie about the things passed from one generation to the next.

While this sort of theme fits well with Golden Age heroes like Batman and even Superman, both obsessed with the idea that strength is something bestowed from one generation to the next, it feels at odds with the more interesting aspects of Spider-Man. Indeed, despite some ludicrous comic book plots about how they were secretly spies, Richard and Mary Parker are conspicuous by their absence from the broader Spider-Man mythos.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

Peter Parker is a character who doesn’t have a mother and father in the conventional sense, who moved into the house of a (beloved but somewhat feeble) relative and had to make his own way in the world. He doesn’t have any hand-me-downs to help him do the right thing, which is part of what makes Spider-Man so fascinating. He was a character granted incredible powers by a quirk of fate, but who decided to put them to good use.

Still, The Amazing Spider-Man II doesn’t put quite as much stock in this as its predecessor. While Peter is still driven by curiosity about his parents, the plot is pushed largely to the background. Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man II puts much of its emphasis on the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. This is a shrewd move, given how well Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone play off one another.

Oh, Oscorp, how many supervillains must you create before you get decent health and safety regulations?

Oh, Oscorp, how many supervillains must you create before you get decent health and safety regulations?

Their scenes together seem engaging and playful, both actors working very hard to make stock romantic clichés and plot beats pay off. There’s a phenomenal amount of teenage angst in The Amazing Spider-Man II, but that’s precisely the point. What made Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation so absolutely fascinating was the way that Peter Parker’s world was driven by soap opera plotting – lots of difficult life choices, and horrible twists of fate.

Here, there are no less than three strands that seem to be pulling Peter and Gwen apart. There’s Peter’s solemn promise to the deceased Captain George Stacy to leave Gwen out of his life, to keep her out of the crossfire; there’s Gwen’s decisions about what to do following graduation from high school; there’s Peter’s own emotional insecurity and his reluctance to trust himself or Gwen. It’s beautifully overblown – just like every teenage love affair ever. There’s danger and excitement and everything at stake.

Room for another Spider-Man trilogy?

Room for another Spider-Man trilogy?

After Gwen off-handedly mentions that super villain Max Dillon loved Spider-Man, Peter replies that Max actually tried to fry him to a crisp. “That’s what loving you feels like,” Gwen replies. It’s a line that is incredibly cheesy, but one that Emma Stone manages to carry off perfectly. There’s a sense that Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Marc Webb are all entirely committed making this work, and so the relationship between Peter and Gwen has a wonderful (almost electrical) charm to it.

Part of what’s endearing about The Amazing Spider-Man II is how Marc Webb populates it with dysfunctional characters. These are truly damaged individuals, all carrying their own scars and their own burdens. The movie features no less than three super villains, along with a number of other minor antagonists. That’s a lot to juggle, but Webb does it shrewdly. He cleverly avoids letting the villains steal focus from Gwen and Peter, but he also makes an effort to thematically connect them.

Atomic age...

Atomic age…

Spider-Man has one of the most iconic and memorable rogues’ galleries in comic book history. It’s easy to rhyme off any number of iconic adversaries: the Green Goblin; Doctor Octopus; Venom; the Lizard; the Rhino; the Vulture; the Sandman; the Kingpin. There are any number of reasons why these characters endure more than the foes of Iron Man or Captain America. Their designs (by Steve Ditko and John Romita) are instantly iconic. However, their motivations are typically easy to grasp and clever constructed to mirror those of Spider-Man.

In the last couple of years, the trend has been towards larger-than-life super villains with bold philosophical motivations. Christopher Nolan’s films are undoubtedly a large part of this – the fact that the Scarecrow just wants money is what makes him a recurring pest rather than a true foil to the hero. So movies like Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier are built around the idea of villains who want to re-shape the world in their own philosophy; to prove a point.

Charging up...

Charging up…

What’s remarkable about The Amazing Spider-Man II is how intimate it all feels. The villains aren’t anti-heroes with the nuanced back story of Magneto or villains with the philosophical underpinnings of the Joker. Instead, these are just damaged and broken individuals – characters who have been chewed up and spit out by the world around them. They are people who have been bullied and picked on, marginalised and ignored.

At one point, Harry Osborn tries to appeal to Max Dillon; to find some common ground. “I know what it’s like to be thrown away!” Osborn screams, undoubtedly recalling his father’s curt dismissal (“how could you understand that your childhood had to be sacrificed for something greater?”) or the cynical political manoeuvring of a corrupt corporate executive (“urchin!”). These are broken toys; that’s all that we need to know about them.

Living life to the Max...

Living life to the Max…

The Amazing Spider-Man II trusts that its audience are familiar enough with superhero clichés that it doesn’t need to do a nuts-and-bolts origin for any of its villains. The movie gleefully glosses over the “how” of any of the transformations. At one point towards the end of the film, a forgotten supporting character just shows up in several tonnes of high-tech armour. The movie seems to relish these comic book touches – with Harry Osborn enjoying the absurdity of articulating Curt Connors’ plan from the climax of The Amazing Spider-Man to turn everybody in New York into giant lizards.

Movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have already embraced the idea of throwing crazy and pulpy comic book imagery at the audience and expecting them to keep up. The Amazing Spider-Man II pushes the trend a little further; the movie takes for granted the comic book logic that if you inject characters with something or dunk them into something else, you will give them superpowers. After all, if you question that, you’re in the wrong film.

A driving force...

A driving force…

It’s more interested in why these characters act the way that they do once they get these powers. The best Spider-Man villains are those that serve as a contrast to Peter Parker; the characters who get the power, but can’t handle the responsibility. If The Amazing Spider-Man II has a weakness, it’s that it’s not interested in the villains beyond how they reflect back on the film’s protagonist. The character arcs for Max Dillon and Harry Osborn are not in anyway original, and their arcs are so intuitive that the film often feels like it’s skipping over some of the beats to get to where it wants to be.

Dillon and Osborn are only really useful to The Amazing Spider-Man II as counterpoints to our hero. After all, Peter Parker’s life is just one long string of tragedies chained together; the character has endured almost too much loss for any one person to bear. It’s the fact that Spider-Man endures that makes him so fascinating and so compelling; the fact that his moral fibre has more tensile strength than even his webbing.

"If Batman gets Robin..."

“If Batman gets Robin…”

In that regard, The Amazing Spider-Man II plays almost perfectly. Indeed, while the movie is plotted rather clumsily (feeling less like one single story than a collection of meditations on a theme), it feels like it understands its central character. “We must be greater than our suffering,” one character suggests – and it’s an idea that The Amazing Spider-Man II takes to heart. At it’s core, The Amazing Spider-Man II seems like an unapologetically romantic ode to the type of good-old-fashioned heroism that Spider-Man embodies.

Asked what he thinks of Spider-Man, Peter Parker suggests, “I think he gives people hope.” This is a version of Spider-Man who stops in the middle of a high-stakes hijacking of a shipment of plutonium to make sure that a bystander is okay. “You’re my eyes and ears out here,” he takes the time to assure the anonymous citizen. At another point, he stops some bullying in an alleyway, pausing to note at the skill with which the victim has constructed his own wind-turbine.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

The Amazing Spider-Man II presents our hero as a Spider-Man for all seasons. When a suddenly superpowered Max Dillon starts causing chaos in Times Square, Spider-Man doesn’t rush in to start a fight; he tries to calm everybody down and resolve the situation peacefully. There’s a sense that Spider-Man isn’t a morally ambiguous or conflicted anti-hero; he’s a decent guy trying to do the right thing for the right reasons.

Sure, Spider-Man might be a little snarky and cheeky, but he’s also romantic in a way that very few on-screen superheroes are any more; Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man feels like the spiritual successor to Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Indeed, he seems even more idealistic (albeit also more street smart) than Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. There’s something charming in how Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield approach the character’s heroism.

What a tangled web...

What a tangled web…

It’s also impressive how Webb works to integrate New York into the film. Spider-Man is an iconic New York character – he is associated with the city in a way that few other figures are. So The Amazing Spider-Man II soaks in the city, with Peter even exploring secret subway stations, writing messages on the city’s bridges and even squaring off against foes in the middle of Times’ Square.

And then there’s Gwen Stacy. The relationship between Peter and Gwen forms the backbone of the film, and so it’s interesting to see how Webb portrays that. As with The Amazing Spider-Man, there’s a sense that Webb is playing with popular conceptions of teenage romance – indeed, there are several points where The Amazing Spider-Man II seems to be consciously evoking the Twilight films.

Catching up...

Catching up…

After all, this is the story of an angst superpowered hero with a secret engaging in a forbidden romance with a mere mortal teenager. Twilight is the obvious point of comparison. So Webb plays with some of the more awkward aspects of romance as portrayed in Twilight. Peter is – like Edward Cullen – prone to obsessive behaviour and uncomfortable expressing himself to his love. There’s the same angsty self-restraint at play, with both Peter and Edward believing that they must maintain a distance to protect the woman they love. At one point, Gwen even discovers that Peter is stalking her.

However, what is different – and it’s a big difference – is that The Amazing Spider-Man II allows Gwen her own agency. She is allowed to be her own character, standing on her own two feet. She is smarter than Peter; graduating valedictorian of her class. She is the one who figures out how to to deal with Electro using the power of physics. More than that, she refuses to let Peter (or her deceased father) dictate her life for her.

Ticking over...

Ticking over…

When Peter goes angtsy, she is the one who makes the decision about their relationship, not him. When Peter tries to sideline her for what he deems to be her own safety, she has none of that. “What are you a caveman? Tying me up so you can go off to war?” she demands, entirely justifiably. “I make my choices,” she insists. The movie respects her decision to do so. The Amazing Spider-Man II empowers its heroine in a way that very few contemporary superhero films have done, and it makes the movie all the more effective.

Marc Webb also seems more confident this time around. The Amazing Spider-Man II is a visual feast, with a sense that Webb has grown more comfortable with Spider-Man than he was before. While the character of Max Dillon isn’t particularly novel – feeling like a collection of super villain stereotypes brought to life with a certain charm by Jamie Foxx and efficiency by the film’s screenplay – Electro does give the film a chance to play with its special effects. In fact, Electro feels like a spiritual companion to Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, right down to the way that he materialises from the inside out.

Spider-Man's pal, Max Dillon...

Spider-Man’s pal, Max Dillon…

As with The Amazing Spider-Man, Webb is shrewd enough to portray the movie’s monstrous transformations in the same style as Sam Raimi; as if Electro and one of the movie’s other villains are the product of atomic age science gone horribly wrong. In fact, Electro’s creation sequence is wonderfully charming – the character forming a literal chrysalis that he breaks to complete his transformation; viewing the city as a collection of pulsing energy streams. We even get a German mad scientist at one point, one of the elements (along with “hijacked plutonium in Manhattan”) that helps The Amazing Spider-Man II feel like a living comic book.

Webb has some fun with the film’s soundtrack. He plays with the audience and the characters. At certain points, it seems like Electro can hear the movie’s pulsing soundtrack – telling the disembodied choir voicing his insecurities to stop singing. At another point, Electro’s powers play into the movie’s orchestral score, causing Spider-Man to lament “I hate this song!” Along with little touches like transitioning from Peter’s diegetic iPod to a non-diegetic montage music, there’s a sense that Webb is enjoying himself. It’s infectious. (Similarly, there’s a lovely sequence where’s Spider-Man’s web shoots in slow motion, reaching like a small hand.)

All tied up...

All tied up…

However, perhaps the most endearing aspect of The Amazing Spider-Man II is the way that it feels decidedly open-ended. This isn’t a self-contained narrative. In fact, the movie pushes past the logical plot end point to follow through on its central character themes. Instead, this feels like a piece of a much larger and more ambitious jigsaw puzzle – a commitment to serialised storytelling that movies like The Wolverine and The Avengers have sort of played with, but to which none have fully committed.

The Amazing Spider-Man II is a self-contained character arc, but the movie stresses that the story is still to be completed. It is very much a live-action comic book.

18 Responses

  1. I love your reviews especially when they are about the super block busters which I would never see if not for you.

  2. Interesting review.

    I have to say I didn’t like Gwen Stacy and unfortunately for many of the reasons you do seem to like her. I’m definitately a fan of giving the love interest agency (I’m a huge Lois Lane fan who even at her worst has never been merely a damsel) but I think the filmakers made Gwen just a little too perfect, largely at the expense of Spider-Man.

    As you mention Gwen is smarter than Peter… but isn’t Peter meant to be very smart anyway? Making Gwen the genius diminishes part of Peter’s identity because – and I admit I’m not the biggest Spider-Man fan – he was also meant to be intelligent. An everyman yes, but one with book learning.

    Aside from her smarts though Gwen is also presented as the more mature one in the relationship. At times it almost felt like watching a Judd Apatow film, and that isn’t what I want from my superhero films… or even my comedies.

    I do think Emma Stone’s sheer charisma soften a lot of these issues, but I also think her character is written and pictured far more probleatically and only the abilities and chemistry of the actress disguise what comes uncomfortably close to be a Mary Sue.

    • It’s a fair point.

      SPOILERS

      On the other hand, given what they do with Gwen, I think it’s important that she’s not cast in the role of the girlfriend or the damsel. She does need to be proactive and self-motivated (and accomplished) so that the decision to kill her off doesn’t feel like it’s an easy decision. I love The Dark Knight, the only other non-origin-story involving the death of a superhero’s love I can think of, but even there Rachel feels like she only exists to die.

      (Which is part of the reason I love The Dark Knight Rises more than most seem to, with both Selina and Miranda existing as the most fully-formed female characters written by Nolan to date – they retroactively soften Rachel’s status as “dead girlfriend waiting to happen.”)

      The Amazing Spider-Man 2 lays the foreshadowing on a little too hard at times. (Okay, her father died, but that’s still a pretty morbid valedictorian speech.) However, I think that the movie works hard to make it feel like Gwen’s death is the end of her own character arc and not just another point on Peter’s character arc. She made choices that were risky, and they cost her her life, but she made them herself.

      If you killed off Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane or The Wolverine’s Mariko, it would seem like a very cynical case of “fridging.” I think that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 really earns Gwen’s death by giving her the focus.

      As for Peter’s emotional intelligence… I like Spider-Man, but the character is not the most emotionally mature character. He has a massive blind spot when it comes to responsibility; EVERYTHING is his responsibility. You get the sense he’d have a nervous breakdown if the Avengers ran out of milk at breakfast when it was his turn to do the shopping.

      That’s part of the character’s charm, at least for me – his innate ability to generate angst about things that normal people would deal with better. Nobody in their right mind would hold him accountable for Uncle Ben’s death, but he blames himself. Similarly, I think that making it clear that Gwen is more mature than Peter is a smart move, particularly if you’re going at ask the audience to accept both (a.) Gwen making the decision to join Peter that leads to her death, which is necessary to make it feel like she’s more than emotional leverage on Peter; and (b.) Peter feeling responsible for her death in spite of (a.)

      • Good points. 🙂

        I guess my concern is that ’emotionally hapless guy and mature girlfriend’ is such a grindingly common overused cliche in modern movies that I’m disappointed to see it pop up in another franchise – haven’t we seen the exact same set up in the ‘Iron Man’ films? It makes it harder to see Gwen’s personality as refreshing in the same way – she’s a smarter, more proactive version of Pepper Potts and a less dreary version of Rachel Dawes.

        The other part of my problem is that Garfield frankly comes across as sort of an airhead. He’s a very likable guy onscreen but he’s not someone who comes across as believably smart. At times it felt a lot more like I was watching Johnny Storm than Peter Parker.

        I suppose I could buy Peter has more immature than Gwen or less intelligent (though as I noted I have problems with this) but to go with both feels too much.

        For the record my favourite of the superhero movie love interests is Jane Foster, who is very smart but manages to escape the suffocating trap of perfection.

      • I can definitely see your point of view.

        That said, I like “every man” Peter over “bad luck genius” Peter, which is jsut a matter of personal preference – but it’s probably why I like Garfield. (And, arguably, prefer him to Maguire, who I did like as a stylised version of Peter Parker – there’s no superhero except Sam Raimi/Maguire’s Spider-Man who could do “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and make it work.)

        I do like Jane, though I wonder how much of that is my affection for Natalie Portman shining through. She’s grand as a character, but the best thing about The Dark World was that it gave her something to do – and even then, it felt like it didn’t QUITE commit to the idea. (Which is really The Dark World in a nutsell – lots of individual great ideas that don’t necessarily work well together, so the movie tries not to commit to any of them. Let’s keep it light, but not too light; let’s make it personal, but not too personal; let’s bring Loki’s character arc on, but let’s not actually bring his character arc on.)

  3. Reblogged this on moviesutra.

  4. Terrible film

  5. Love this review. I enjoyed the relationship and awesome chemistry displayed by Peter and Gwen. I didn’t leave the movie feeling the “Toby,” Spiderman/Mary Jane overemotional and oddly annoying relationship. Anyways, keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kashia! I didn’t mind Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, though I prefer Garfield’s. I think Maguire’s was a stylised performance for a stylised film, which is something I like – there is a tendency for quite a few modern superhero films to sort of blur together, but I think Raimi’s vision is distinct and unique. (Much like Burton’s Batman, which I know I’m in a minority of loving.)

  6. I agree with pretty much all your points on this movie. i think it’s a big shame it wasn’t received particularly well from audiences and critics. I think its the best Spidey movie made. Your review is insightful, and detailed. I particularly liked your mention of the way music was utilised in the film as it is definitely one of the more creative and unique aspects of the film, but I was bit disappointed that you didn’t mention Hanz Zimmer and Pharrell as the main composers. There’s a few stock phrases that you repeat in the article, and it might be something to watch just so that you improve in future articles.

    I write a blog myself and review for Broadway Baby in Edinburgh. If you are looking for contributors I would love to get involved in the future as I think you’ve got a cracking site and I like your reviews. If you think you might be interested in getting me involved have a look at my blog (I’ve recently written a review/rant on the new Planet of the Apes film). Apologies to shamelessly advertise myself in the message feed, but if you are looking for any contributors give me a nod. Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Dave.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Dave. And glad somebody agrees! I feel I’m in the minority in enjoying “Spider-Man 2 2” as much as I did.

      I do appreciate the offer very much, but the blog is very much a small and personal odyssey for me. But I’ll keep you in mind if I do expand the pool out.

  7. I totally agree, nice movie, superb execution, I wouldn’t want to spoiler if anyone’s here who did not see this, but there seems to be a bit more slow-mo than necessary, but is makes sense in a way Peter (or spidey) senses the world around himself (spider-sense), and makes immediate and complicated decisions in action, but is strange to struggle to make just as fast decisions in his life, however it’s a nice, charming picture and I’ve almost dropped a tear or two…
    Anyway, Peter does not have an iPod, he has a Sony phone, like in the first movie, however it’s not as pictured as before (and watch and see, how many Sony gadgets out there, oh and watch for commercials!)

    Oh and look for the freemason sign on Norman Osborne’s death bed!

    This is as far I can get in short for my first view, but I’ll definitely come back and watch this amazing movie again! (see what I did there?)

    • Glad to see I’m not alone in my appreciation of the film, even if I am in the minority. I didn’t see the freemason sign, but I’ll keep an eye out for it!

  8. Reblogged this on Fabiano G. Souza’s Blog.

  9. Kirsten Dunst is bellisima and great artist.

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