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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.



Note: This is a spoiler-filled review of The Amazing Spider-Man II. You can find a spoiler-lite version here. Continue reading for more in-depth thoughts on the film, with the knowledge that absolutely everything is up for discussion. Continue at your own peril!

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. The fact that movie is the middle instalment of a superhero trilogy that decides to kill of the protagonist’s love interest doesn’t help.

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.

And yet, despite all this, the climax of The Amazing Spider-Man II is a conscious rejection of the story logic of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of The Dark Knight, the loss of Rachel Dawes is enough to force Bruce Wayne into retirement, turning him into a bitter recluse living off the fantasy of the life he might have had. The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years later with Bruce still in retirement, still mourning.

The kid who collected Spider-Man...

The kid who collected Spider-Man…

The Amazing Spider-Man II continues about a quarter-of-an-hour past its obvious endpoint. The death of Gwen Stacey is the obvious point at which to end The Amazing Spider-Man II, from a structural point of view. This is the second instalment of a trilogy, so it’s fitting to close on a somewhat meloncholy and reflective note – to show the worst moment of Spider-Man’s career before heading into what (presumably) must be his best.

It’s to the credit of Marc Webb and all involved that The Amazing Spider-Man II rejects this. The result is an ending that feels rather jarring, as the movie takes the time to assure us that everything is okay. Spider-Man is a bona fides hero. The story isn’t about how the loss of his love defined the character, but how he responded to that loss. The Amazing Spider-Man II ends with the optimistic suggestion that true heroism is the ability to endure; to work through the suffering and the hurt and the loss.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

And so The Amazing Spider-Man II moves past the obvious comparison to Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, even offering an alternative. While Peter is still driven by curiosity about his parents, the plot is pushed largely to the background. (In fact, the movie subtly suggests that Peter is using his quest for answers as something of a security blanket – a way to avoid dealing with more pressing and immediate problems.) 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.

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.

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?

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.

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 kinda 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.

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 kinda 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…

(Despite fears of over-crowding the film, prompted by posters showcasing three classic comic book baddies, The Amazing Spider-Man II is amicably restrained with its foes. The Rhino appears for about five minutes at total book-ending the film. He doesn’t have a character arc. It’s just Paul Giametti chewing on scenery. However, there’s something great about how casually the film can introduce a character in an armour suit shouting “I AM RHINO!” in a questionable Russian accent. It’s almost a shame that Sony made a point to include him in all the promotional material. He would have been a wonderful surprise.)

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.

Charging up...

Charging up…

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.

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.

Living life to the Max...

Living life to the Max…

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.

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, the Rhino just shows up in several tonnes of high-tech armour. The film teases a warehouse full of super-villain equipment prêt-à-porter. The movie relishes 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.

A driving force...

A driving force…

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. If you question that, you’re in the wrong film. (A nice touch about Electro’s origin here: the character is dunked into a tank full of electric eels, reinforcing the classic animal motif of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery.)

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.

"If Batman gets Robin..."

“If Batman gets Robin…”

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. Spider-Man has lost as much as any of his adversaries, but he remains a hero.

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,” Gwen suggests in her somewhat on-the-nose valedictorian speech – 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.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

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.

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.

What a tangled web...

What a tangled web…

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.

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.

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…

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.

When Peter goes angtsy, she is the one who makes the decision to end their relationship, not him. When Peter tries to sideline her at the climax 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.

Sticking with it...

Sticking with it…

Of course, this empowerment is a practical decision. Gwen Stacey dies at the climax of The Amazing Spider-Man II, in a stunningly realised sequence by director Marc Webb. This was always going to be a controversial decision. Gwen Stacey’s status in Spider-Man lore was cemented by her death in the classic comic The Night Gwen Stacey Died. A way out of a creative rut for a comic book that had struggled since the departure of writer Stan Lee, and casting aside a character the new creative teams were struggling to write, The Night Gwen Stacey Died was a massively important moment for Spider-Man comics.

The reasons for killing Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spider-Man II are different than the reasons in The Night Gwen Stacey Died. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine too many fans complaining that Emma Stone was holding back the films. Rather than killing her to get her out of the way, it provides a wonderful opportunity to upset audience expectations. It’s worth noting that – outside of obligatory “origin story” deaths – the only superhero film to kill off a returning love interest was The Dark Knight. There’s very much an expectation in summer blockbuster fare that when the female lead is in danger, the hero will save them.

A bolt from the blue...

A bolt from the blue…

It’s hard to imagine Iron Man 3 killing off Pepper Potts, as much as it might tease us with the possibility. In Thor: The Dark World, Jane Foster never feels like she is really in danger. Given that Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man riffed on Gwen Stacey’s infamous fall by having the wall-crawling wonder save Mary Jane from such a plunge, it’s clear that there are expectations. The fact that there was so much debate about whether the film could kill off Gwen Stacey despite all the evidence pointing to that eventuality speaks to how much the “save the girl” trope is taken for granted.

So killing Gwen Stacey works as a massive twist. In fact, the death of a likeable and engaging love interest is such a shocking beat for a family-friendly mid-summer superhero movie that even Gwen Stacey’s foreshadowing graduation speech (about how death gives life meaning) doesn’t spoil her death. Even knowing Gwen’s fate in the comic, there’s a fantastic tension to “will Marc Webb and company actually follow through with it?” And it works. The death of Gwen Stacey is a massive jolt.

A bit of a wash...

A bit of a wash…

It’s to the credit of the screenplay that Gwen Stacey is so effectively and carefully defined. There is an unfortunate tendency in comic books to kill off or injure female characters in order to generate angst for male leads – the term is “women in refrigerators”, named for a particularly infamous incident from Green Lantern in the nineties. In lesser hands – particularly with the weight of adaptation bearing down on it – the death of Gwen Stacey could seem like “fridging”, the death of a female character to motive a male hero. Thanks to the work of all involved, that isn’t the case here.

Gwen is very much given her own agency. More than Peter, she is the character who makes choices about their relationship. Peter is cast as the more passive and indecisive member of the couple, the one more likely to follow than to lead. So Gwen decides to stay involved with Peter, and to go to the power plant. Gwen makes the choices that lead to her death, and she makes them because they are right – her presence at the climax saves lives, including Peter. Her death feels like the end of her own arc, rather than simply existing as a beat in Peter’s life.

"I'll call you the amazing spider-boy!"

“I’ll call you the amazing spider-boy!”

The film manages to have its cake and eat it, too. Peter is repeatedly defined as less emotionally mature than Gwen. He can’t even properly break up with her, and the movie suggests that his fixation on his biological parents is a way of working through his difficulty explaining himself to her. Similarly, it’s clear that Aunt May knows exactly who Peter Parker is, even if Peter himself can’t bring himself to admit it. The women in Peter’s life are arguably far more insightful and alert (and engaged) than Peter gives them credit for.

As such, the film is able to make Gwen’s death an event that revolves around Gwen and the choices that she made, while still allowing Peter room for angst and guilt. It’s quite similar to the death of Uncle Ben in The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter may not have stopped the crook, but Uncle Ben made the conscious decision to try and stop the guy. Like Gwen, Ben chose to do the right thing – and he paid the price for it. The film acknowledges that these things aren’t Peter’s fault, while allowing that Peter doesn’t necessarily have the emotional intelligence to realise that.

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

Spider-Man’s pal, Max Dillon…

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.

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. The birth of the Green Goblin is shot with strobe lighting to give the impression of stop-motion special effects.

Time out in Time Square...

Time out in Time Square…

There’s an endearing pulpy vibe to all this. The Amazing Spider-Man II even takes time to visit Ravencroft, which one character ironically describes as a “time-worn institution dedicated to mental betterment”, but is really just a comic book prison – complete with a German mad scientist with a taste for classical music on staff. Along with “hijacked plutonium in Manhattan”, these elements all help to make 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.

17 Responses

  1. Great review!

    While I still think Gwen was given too much of a boost and Peter left far too passive and unintelligent I think I do appreciate the film more after reading this.

  2. Can’t wait for this movie to open here next week! Great write up.

  3. Have you heard the soundtrack to this movie? I think it’s unbelievable! I love The Neighbourhood’s song, Honest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqXjt5WFPgc

  4. Great review. I loved the film and thought the new lighter more comic book feel of the film made Spider-man finally feel like Spider-man.

    Very much looking forward to the next one, BRING ON SINISTER SIX! 😀

  5. Epic review but you give it some fresh thought. Great post!

  6. I’m seeking something of ‘amazing spiderman2 ost’.
    Could you help me? If you knew that…

    In your post (‘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.’ )…

    I want to know this song’s name : Spider-Man to lament “I hate this song!”.

  7. I remember what you said in the Transformers: Dark of the Moon review bout trimming all three movies into a single action film and I wonder if it’s possible to do a similar fan edit with both Amazing Spider-Man films so it can focus on the love story of Peter and Gwen. Maybe even as a sort of adaptation of Spider Man Blue.

    • I seem to be the only person in the world who really liked the Andrew Garfield take on Spider-Man, despite really hating the first film. (But, in my defense, I also seem to be the only guy who liked the second film.)

      • Not really. I love Andrew Garfield as Spider Man. In fact I thought it was better than Tobey Maguire’s take on him. I enjoyed both Amazing Spider Man films, flawed as they may be. In particular I really liked the romance between Peter and Gwen, which I think that if they stuck to that the movies would’ve been better received. Still, no more ASM films and Spider Man’s gonna be in Civil War. I can only hope for the future.

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