Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marvel Enterprises, Avi Arad Productions, Columbia Pictures, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I ran the DVD I just got of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which turned out to be a reasonably entertaining even if sometimes leaden and overwrought superhero film in the modern manner. Incidentally, the box-office returns on this one were disappointing — it was still a major hit but its grosses fell considerably from those of the first Amazing Spider-Man movie in 2012 (and more recently the Los Angeles Times has run an article about how generally disappointing movie theatre box office has been this summer for everything — perhaps the superhero cycle is burning itself out at long last? Maybe not, given that another Marvel-based movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, attracted an audience the way Pavlov got his dogs to drool and shot to #1 at the current box office) — and I can see why audiences might not have taken too kindly to this one, aside from the consideration mentioned by some contributors that the film’s original trailer gave away even more of the plot than usual. Not that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has that much of a plot, though it isn’t the sort of “plotless” movie the Los Angeles Times critic recently described (in an article I can’t seem to find on their Web site — every time they reformat their page they make searching for things considerably more difficult) as if it were something new (does anyone out there think 1930’s audiences went to see Busby Berkeley’s movies for their storylines?) — if anything it has too many plots and it’s hard to keep them all sorted out as one’s watching it.

There’s Our Hero himself, nerdy little Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), who transforms into Spider-Man but remains a teenager (a newly minted high-school graduate but one with a still surprisingly immature attitude in both personae — indeed, Garfield seems to play him even more campily than Tobey Maguire did in the cycle of three Spider-Man movies from director Sam Raimi in the 2000’s), and his romantic complications with Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone, who’s apparently Garfield’s real-life squeeze and who’s scheduled to make two more movies in the Spider-Man series even though her character dies at the end of this one — oh, did I ruin it for you? — are they going to pull the old Lugosi trick and have her turn up as a previously unknown twin sister?). There’s the mysterious death of Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), who is about to leave his mega-corporation, OsCorp, to his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) but has also left him a much more dubious inheritance: a retroviral genetic disease similar to Parkinson’s that’s going to speed him to an early grave, too. (When Norman Osborn’s death is announced his dates, 1951-2014, are also those of recently deceased actor and comedian Robin Williams — a grim irony since this movie was made and released while Williams was still alive.) Harry is philosophical about the reputation his dad left behind — “You mean people are pissed off because he tried to turn everyone in New York City into giant lizards,” he tells the company’s business manager, Donald Menken (Colm Feore), who will eventually ace him out of control of it — but he’s also determined to re-start a research project that was supposed to extract venom from genetically altered spiders to create a serum that would cure the Osborn family’s disease. Only the project was shut down because of threatened lawsuits and Peter Parker’s father, Dr. Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) — the lead researcher on it — and his wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz) were killed in hopes that the secret would die with them. The only actual result of the project was to turn Peter Parker into Spider-Man in the first place — that famous genetically engineered spider that bit him and gave him spider-powers was a product of his dad’s research effort, though Peter doesn’t know (until he learns it in the course of this film) of the family connection — that and five vials of venom that were secretly extracted and saved by Norman Osborn (at least we think that’s who did it) which Harry Osborn stumbles on once Menken has thrown him out of the company and blocked his access to anything in OsCorp headquarters.

Harry’s gotten in with the aid of Electro (Jamie Foxx), who used to be Max Dillon, a nerd who worked on the 71st floor of the OsCorp building and there invented a renewable system of generating electricity based on powering the entire New York City grid with giant-sized genetically modified electric eels. (Apparently someone in the writing committee — Alex Kurzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner and James Vanderbilt — had seen the Kenneth Branagh version of Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein hooks up his artificial creation to a tank full of electric eels so he can power it without either having to wait for a lightning storm à la the Universal movies or the huge battery piles the actual scientists who attempted revivification in Mary Shelley’s time were using.) Max also has a bromantic attachment to Spider-Man, who saved his life one time, which suddenly reverses when he’s caught on the floor with his electric-eel power generator and it explodes, spewing water and eels all over the floor and charging him with power to become an electrified super-villain sort of like the Lon Chaney, Jr. characters in Man-Made Monster and The Indestructible Man. The Electro of the Spider-Man comic books and the 1960’s cartoon series (referenced here by its theme song being used as the ring tone on Peter Parker’s cell phone) was dressed in a lightning-bolt costume but still had a recognizable human face, and when he debuted on the cartoon show he and Spider-Man confronted each other in a hall-of-mirrors sequence obviously ripped off from Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. Alas, this Electro is nowhere nearly as interesting; like all too many super-villains in today’s comic-book movies, he’s a barely motivated engine of destruction, his love for Spider-Man abruptly turning into hate when someone, either from the New York police or OsCorp’s private security, takes a pot-shot at him and for some reason he blames Spider-Man for it.

Add to that a mix of romantic plots that threatens to turn this into Spider-Man: The Soap Opera — notably the big conflict as to whether Spider-Man’s, I mean Peter Parker’s, girlfriend Gwen Stacy should take the Rhodes Scholarship she’s been offered and leave him to study in England (Parker talks her out of it, so she’s still in the U.S. when she’s killed in the final confrontation) — and almost terminally nerdy performances by Andrew Garfield and Dane DeHaan, both of whom adopt James Dean-style mumbles to convince us that they’re alienated young people, and we have a movie that’s considerably less entertaining than it could have been. On the plus side, the baroque action scenes deliver the goods (even though I long for the days when the stunt work was done by stunt people and not by computer-generated imagery— through most of his big scenes Spider-Man looks as phony as the CGI animals in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) and, surprise, surprise, the death of Gwen Stacy is actually beautiful, noble and moving, and had the movie ended there I’d have left The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with much better feelings about it. Alas, after she dies Harry Osborn returns, having injected the leftover spider-venom and, without any Parker genes in his genome, it’s turned him into another monstrous villain, identified in the publicity as the Green Goblin even though he’s never called that in the film itself. (In the Sam Raimi sequence of Spider-Man films it was Norman Osborn who turned himself into the Green Goblin and, after his death, his son Harry went through the same process to become the New Goblin.) Plus there’s another villain at the end, someone or something called Rhino who used to be either a Russian mobster or a Russian street thug until he donned an armor suit, started looking enough like one of the Transformers villains I’m surprised Paramount didn’t sue, and went around charging through the streets of New York City, upending police cars (if this film were to be believed the NYPD would be ordering an entirely new fleet of vehicles every other day) and, of course, challenging Spider-Man to come back after his five-month hiatus following his grief over the death of Gwen. “This film has more fake endings than Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’!” I joked to Charles.

I grant the makers of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — the writing committee and director Marc Webb — credit for the attempt to square the always difficult circle of the Spider-Man mythos, the duality between Spider-Man the superhero and Peter Parker the nerdy teenage kid, and though they don’t always get the balance right Sam Raimi and his writers didn’t either (after the second film in the Raimi sequence, Spider-Man 2, I joked that the writers had larded on Peter Parker’s miseries so much they might as well have called it It’s a Wonderful Life, Spider-Man) — and I liked Gwen Stacy’s line, “You’re Spider-Man, and I love that. But I love Peter Parker more.” “Hallelujah!,” I thought, comparing her attitude to Lois Lane’s fabled crush on Superman even as she dismisses Clark Kent as terminally nerdy, cowardly and not worth bothering with — though the comparison only owes how much Spider-Man owes to Superman: similar red-and-blue costume, similar aerobatics, similar careers (newspaper journalism) in their non-hero alternate identities, and similar relationships with a girlfriend/co-worker with an alliterative name (Lois Lane and Betty Brant). Also I wondered why everyone in the movie who used a computer used a VAIO brand until I found out that Sony, the parent company of producing studio Columbia Pictures, also owes VAIO — so in a sense this movie is a multi-million dollar ad for Sony’s computer division!