Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review: Popcorn Fun in a Tangled Web

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

2012's reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was a generally entertaining film with some real sparks of promise within it, namely some palpable screen chemistry between its lead actors (no doubt helped by director Marc Webb, who previously helmed indie darling (500) Days of Summer, having a solid hand with character and dialogue scenes). Unfortunately it was held back by a series of stumbling blocks: a focus on a bland, at times outright clumsy retelling of the origin story we'd already seen before in 2002's original Spider-Man movie, a "mystery" plotline that doesn't really add up to much of anything, a version of Curt Connors/The Lizard that doesn't get to be as fleshed-out or interesting as it could have been (Rhys Ifans is good, but his character gradually gets dumbed down into generic mad scientist territory), competent but uninspired action scenes, occasionally iffy visual effects (for a movie that cost $230 million to make, you'd think they could afford better CG fire effects), and one of the most groan-inducing final lines of any big-budget movie I've seen in recent years.
Also, the costume kinda sucked.

Okay, after saying all that, it really sounds like I don't like the movie, doesn't it? Well I do... kind of.
Look, it's complicated... sort of.
The thing is, I recognize that The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't a very good movie. Hell, if you went so far as to say it was a weaksauce piece of crap, I wouldn't really have much to argue against you with. But it wasn't completely without merit, either. That promise of a fresh start, of better things to come was definitely there. And judging from the level of enthusiasm and charm from its cast and crew, combined with the endless barrage of marketing being plastered everywhere in sight for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it all seemed to be saying to the world: "those better things to come are here, honest!" Now that the sequel is here to kick off the summer movie season, it's time to see if Webb and company were right, or if the filmmakers were making promises they couldn't keep.
UGH... let's just move on, okay?

After a somewhat clunky (and kind of unnecessary) opening flashback/action scene involving Richard and Mary Parker, the film picks up proper with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) swinging high as his superhero alter-ego, becoming a symbol of hope for the citizens of New York. But his life outside of the costume is filled with hang-ups. He's just graduated from high school and has to work out what path his life will take. His relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is struggling as he is haunted by his promise to her dying father to keep her away and strained by her burgeoning prospects that would force her to move to England. Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) comes back into his life when he inherits control of Oscorp, only to find that he suffers from the same deadly disease his father died from, and Spider-Man's blood may be the only cure he has. All the while there's Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a lonely Oscorp electrical engineer who no one ever seems to notice. He becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after the wall-crawler saves his life, but a workplace accident turns him into the powerful supervillain Electro, who may prove to be Spider-Man's greatest threat yet...
Electro, doing his best pose for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Maybelline tie-in

If it seems like there's a lot going on in this movie, that's because there is: even at 140 minutes (the longest ever for a Spider-Man movie), there's a ton of plot being thrown into the film, with not enough connective tissue or time to make proper room for everything. It's much the same problem that Spider-Man 3 had years ago, with too many characters and plotlines to juggle all at once (not to mention all the setup for future sequels and spinoffs). Some of this turns out alright (Paul Giamatti's bookending scenes as the Rhino, for example), but there are many characters just thrown in the movie with not much of anything to do except let us know they exist, and might be important later in future movies, maybe. B.J. Novak appears for a minute tops as Alistair Smythe (aka Spider-Slayer), and Felicity Jones' Felicia (aka Black Cat) is crammed in with two rushed scenes, one of which has her just magically knowing stuff that move the plot along. Meanwhile subplots involving Peter seeing ghostly visions of Gwen's dead father and Aunt May working as a nurse are introduced only to be quickly forgotten about for most of the movie.
When the film focuses on quieter, more character-driven scenes it often proves funny and engaging, adequately establishing character even at its rushed pace. This is especially true of the romantic scenes between Peter and Gwen, with natural, easygoing chemistry between Garfield and Stone that shines brighter than ever before. Early moments between Peter and Harry are also good, despite the first film having written this one into a tight spot by not introducing the character right from the start. The Peter/Harry friendship has long been an important one in the comics, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 does the best it can to dig itself out of this hole left by the first movie's miscalculations. Garfield and DeHaan's scenes juuust pull off selling the "childhood friends who haven't seen each other in years" schtick, even though the film finds itself sprinting to turn Harry into the Green Goblin by the end of the movie.
The scenes between Peter and Gwen are bursting with chemistry and personality, even as other elements of the film struggle.

The soap-opera drama that often is Peter Parker's life is on full display here, which proves to be a double-edged sword for the movie. While it enhances the comic book tone and style of the film, it often feels akin to a Silver Age comic, and not in a particularly good way. Whether it's Electro's cheesy "let me introduce myself with my new villain name I just made up" monologue, the awkward pop-ups of ghost dad Denis Leary, or Harry Osborn's angry growls of "curse you, Spider-Man!", these moments offer silly, guilty-pleasure fun that feels more at home in a 90s comic book movie like Batman Forever than a superhero film from 2014. The real problem is how it tends to take away from the film when it does try to go for genuine drama- it's hard to feel for Aunt May breaking down to Peter when you just watched Electro deal with a stereotypical evil scientist (complete with over-the-top German accent).
"Dammit Jamie, I warned you about doing that Annie remake!"

 Early scenes with Harry Osborn and Max Dillon/Electro show real promise and personality, which makes it more disappointing when the two central villains have to fight each other for screentime. Despite a lot of setup and development early on, Electro is absent for long stretches of the film after his first major setpiece showdown with Spider-Man. Meanwhile Harry is forced to go to the dark side due to his plot contrivance- er, I mean illness, which still can't help but feel hurried when it's crammed in between Peter and Gwen's relationship complications and the (not really much of a) "mystery" plotline carried over from the first film (which these movies thankfully seem to be done with now... I hope). Even once the two baddies ally with each other the film can't seem to strike a good balance: Electro takes over the film again for much of its third act, only for Harry/Green Goblin to swoop in at the last minute and extend the climax even further.

Visually the film is a serious step up from the first Amazing Spider-Man, with Webb showing more confidence and prowess behind the camera. It helps that the director lobbied to have this movie shot on 35mm film, rather than the digital cameras used on the first one. Gone is the clean, drab and bland look of the first film; here to stay is something far more dynamic in look and style, with a real comic book "pop" to the colours and settings. Moments in the film portraying our hero's trademark "spider-sense" are very impressive, slowing down time as Peter is alerted to all the sources of potential danger around him. The web-swinging looks fantastic, with top-down and POV shots that make great use of 3D. Action scenes in general are much better this time around, aided by some great visual effects work. While some have found it a bit cartoony at times, it seems to fit the comic book vibe of the film, aptly displaying Spider-Man's superhuman acrobatics as he swings, leaps and bends around Electro's relentless attacks in the climax. The score is also much better this time, with Hans Zimmer and "The Magnificent Six" (ha ha, I see what you did there) delivering something much more varied, exciting and stirring to accompany the action. The new theme for Spider-Man here instills exactly the kind of triumphant, heroic vibe that such an iconic character deserves.
And of the many things this movie improves on, perhaps the biggest one is Spider-Man himself. With the awkward origin story stuff out of the way, Andrew Garfield can finally stop playing the hero-in-the-making and just start playing Spider-Man as we know him: confident, jokey, playful, and carefree on the outside with a good heart and strong sense of responsibility and self-doubt underneath. Donning the best Spider-Man costume ever put to live-action film, Garfield truly embodies the character, as if he jumped right out of the comics we've been reading for years now. It helps that the character's penchant for quips, a vital element to the character that the prior films never really captured, finally makes it over to this one in full-force. A montage early in the film of Spidey's various actions around New York best showcases Garfield's energy, charm and heart, whether it's standing up for a bullied kid or having to take out a mugger in a convenience store.
And can I just say again how awesome the costume looks now?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a movie that proves both very easy and considerably difficult for me to judge. Is it an improvement over the first Amazing Spider-Man? Unquestionably. Did I enjoy it as a popcorn summer blockbuster, and adaptation of the Spider-Man comics? Definitely. Is it actually a good movie per se? Well, parts of it are. Does it have some major problems, some of which unavoidably stem from missteps made in its predecessor? Absolutely. But was the good stuff in there enough to outweigh those problems? Well I doubt everyone will agree on this, but in my book? Sure, at least enough of the time to keep me interested for things to come from this new reboot series.

Final Score: 7 / 10

+ Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone's screen chemistry is even stronger than before, keeping the film swinging even when it trips up
+ The cast is generally great, and the dialogue scenes play better to director Marc Webb's strengths
+ The film really pops visually with a colourful comic book vibe and great visual effects
+ The action scenes are far better than the previous outing, with a lot more creativity and style
+ The film has a good sense of humour, and the series finally seem to have a handle on Spidey's jokiness from the comics
+ The score by Hans Zimmer is a big improvement over the more generic, forgettable music of the first ASM
+ The Spider-Man costume in this movie is perfect. Just putting that out there...

- Even at a long 140 minutes the film feels too crowded with plotlines and characters, with the middle section in particular struggling to juggle numerous story threads
- Jamie Foxx's Electro and Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn fight for screentime as the film's villains, and as a result Electro gets lost in the shuffle
- A somewhat clunky opening sequence involving Peter's parents goes on too long and gets things started on the wrong foot
- The film's often broad, soap opera drama can feel like it's pulled from a Silver Age comic book (but not in a particularly good way)
- One tiny bit of cheese during the film's climax almost completely derails the film's most major emotional moment (you'll definitely know it when you see it)
- That shoehorned, contractually-obligated X-Men advertisement during the end credits (long story how it got there) played out even worse than I thought it might.