Neither my expectations nor my standards were lowered.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a piece of quality filmmaking with actual attention to consistent coherent (and emotionally coherent) storytelling.
It’s a weird thing, comparing movies based on the major comic book heroes (as opposed to some really interesting work inspired by niche-y graphic novels). We have certainly reached the point where there are enough of these films to constitute a standalone genre. When the first Burton Batman came out in 1989, the points of reference were Superman: The Movie (and its offspring), Sam Jones’ Flash Gordon, the Batman TV series, and car wrecks like Supergirl, Sheena, and Howard The Duck (which I like to imagine being made without the baggage today with Patton Oswalt killing it as Howard and geeks loving it). Those first 3 Superman films really told the whole story… serious, mixed serious and campy, and wildly over-the-top hambone comedy. Ultimately, the three Batman variations have also turned out to be similar… mixed serious & campy from Burton, over-the-top hambone from Schumacher, and serious (even more serious than Donner) from Nolan.
Now we have the Marvel-made camp, the individual characters at other studios each with their own voice, and over at WB, DC characters trying to find the answer (yet again). My natural inclination – and perhaps yours – is to compare ASM 2 to the recently released Captain America 2… or even Iron Man 3 or Avengers. But after giving it another thought, I am going to avoid comparisons (although, for the record, Cap 2 can’t carry Peter Parker’s Spider-jock).
Marvel’s homemade content is the current king of the hill, just as WB’s Batman series with Nolan reigned from 2005 until the showdown between Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Before and – in some part – during Nolan, it was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trio.
The first $40 million opening in history was for Batman in 1989. The first $50 million opening in history was for Batman Forever in 1995. The first $100 million opening ever was for Spider-Man in 2002. The first $150 million opening in movie history was for The Dark Knight in 2008. The first $200 million opening was for Avengers in 2012.
There are other franchises on other landmarks along the way (Jurassic, Potter, Pirates), but these big-brand comic books have been box office leaders for 25 years now.
Getting back to my original point, the foundational intentions behind a movie like ASM 2 and Cap 2 are undeniably different. Marvel has, in their in-house product, focused on building an identity for the brand more than attempting to make films with a strong, unique voice. As a result, they have hired working film directors who do not bring a strong, dominant sensibility to their films. The top half of the 9-film catalog (Iron Man, Iron Man 3, Captain America, and Avengers) show a better-defined voice that still sticks to the big plan. Robert Downey, Jr, more so than Jon Favreau defined the universal voice as Iron Man. Joe Johnston did a period one-off for Cap’s origin story. And Joss Whedon found colors in the ensemble that were light and fun and especially entertaining.
Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films are quite unlike any of the major box office comic efforts so far. A lot of the same elements – dead parents, budding romance, identity confusion – are there. But like the old comics, Webb seems to be very interested in exploring what it would be like for an actual teenager to become a superhero. In some ways, Zack Snyder explored this more than any other filmmaker in this genre, with Man of Steel driven by a young Superman torn between the conflicting ideas of his two fathers about how to live in this world as a superhero. But there was almost no time focused on Superman as a person in that film.
Webb is also more interested in the physical properties of flying than any filmmaker since Superman: The Movie made audiences believe a man could fly. Not only does Webb manage – more so than on his first Spidey film – to draw the audience into the experience of flying around New York by web and the awkwardness and style of a skateboarding teen freed from the traditional constraints of gravity, he manages to make it feel so right that you stop being conscious of the oddity of web slinging as you watch him doing it.
Not coincidentally, there is a huge leap in webbing in this film. For the first time – aside from the comical first web experience (then biological webs) in the first Raimi film – audiences have a relationship with the webs. We can sense their weight, speed, stretch, and capability, even anticipating how they will connect and how they will respond under Spider-Man’s control during the film. The technical limitations of super powers, even with constant advances in CG, have always been there, challenging our willingness to believe what was not quite real. I noted this back on Transformers 3, when the technology finally caught up and was able to create transformers that could actually give a performance at a price (still high) that was viable.
But Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not just a technological marvel. It’s still a comic book movie. It embraces this. It never, for a moment, aspires to engage a bigger world issue than the issues of Spider-Man’s “friendly” neighborhood, his love life, his Aunt May, and whatever is going on at Oscorp. But within that world, it is as good a piece of filmmaking as we have seen in this genre and smarter, tougher, and more loyal to the darker traditions of comic books than any film outside of the Nolan trio. And dare I note that the most serious and worldly of the Nolan films. The Dark Knight Rises, was the least well received (at least in my perception).
I don’t want to get into spoilers, but ASM 2 is a movie that takes its time with its more serious side. It does an infinitely better job than any “why I can’t be with you” angle I have seen in any of these films. The inevitable “what a coincidence” moments are pretty much cleared out in the case. (I was really afraid that we were going to have one when Aunt May ended up at a hospital at one point… but it didn’t turn out to be too significant.) And the central relationships felt reasonably real, not just in nice moments, but in the overall story.
I have heard some complaints about “too much story,” but I think those folks have been a little ruined by the truly simplistic A-story, small B-story nature of most of these films. The villains, who have always been a weakness in the genre, particularly in the Spider-Man films, make completely sense to me here. And they aren’t “look at the star doing something we haven’t seen” moments… which makes any comparison to the Schumacher Batman films seem complete specious to me.
Jamie Foxx gives a nice, solid performance as Max Dillon/Electro. Others could have done it, but he does well by it. And unlike most of the villains in these movies, he is not so over the top as to be unbelievable. And there is no mysterious reason why his powers ebb and flow. He makes sense… as much as a human who becomes living electricity can be.
Likewise, Harry Osborn and his eventual evil form, who is named in the credits, but not in the movie. The screenplay for this film not only gives us a truly great sequence with Chris Cooper as Harry’s dad, Norman Osborn, but has both the confidence not to give it a name and to keep it pretty brief. Did I mention how great the scene between Dane DeHaan and Chris Cooper is? Not only well written and well acted, but so beautifully directed and creatively executed… right down to the color of Norman Osborn’s eyes.
Some may feel a little fatigue as the film makes a real effort to connect all the pieces and to explain things like the science behind some ideas. But I loved all of that. The connection between Harry Osborn and Peter Parker is very real – given that it is a movie – and the film doesn’t feel compelled to over-explain. They were very close friends when they were kids under 10. No flashback. Yay. I bought it. The shared science information between Peter and Gwen… terrific… and I bought it without having to make a big leap or feeling stupid.
I am not the world’s biggest fan of Orci & Kurtzman writing these big movies. But this is one of those where I completely went with them and Jeff Pinkner, who helped drive the train on “Fringe.” I don’t know if everything I liked was theirs or not. But the speeches are good. The story is solid. And the characters are really well considered, when it would be so easy for them to be silly. The film feels a bit like it was 20 minutes longer and then pared down to just what they all felt was needed. The movie has about 5 minutes where it drags a little, but there are some big, quiet, lengthy beats that are some of the best things in the film. So, huzzah.
There is another villain, who you’ve surely seen in the ads. I don’t want to spoil his involvement, but I don’t see it as a weight on the “amount of story” in the film at all. His use makes perfect sense. And my unbridled pleasure at seeing Paul Giamatti show up with a Frankenstein-looking head and a wild accent from the start can’t be measured.
Also worth noting at this juncture is a great character performance by Marton Csokas, who has not been lucky since hitting a triple with LOTR: Return of The King, The Bourne Supremacy, and Kingdom of Heaven. Hopefully, this film, Sin City 2, and Denzel/Fuqua’s The Equalizer will bring him back to the top of casting lists.
I kinda loved The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It has the best Times Square action sequence that anyone has done. It has great character performances. I bought the villain sequencing completely. I love Webb’s soft heart and his willingness to let everyone know that family love matters. I think Andrew Garfield, who is really beginning to look his age, makes a great Spider-Man. Emma Stone remains lovely and smart and every bit her super-boyfriend’s equal. (And I can’t wait for her to get back to her real career. Seeing her in this film reminded me that she has true greatness in her reach and we need movie stars. Perhaps Cannes & Crowe will get her right back to speed this very year.)
Speaking of movie stars, I am convinced that Sarah Gadon, in a small role here, is about to blow up… big. I saw her in three different things in the last week and am now looking forward to her in the new Cronenberg at Cannes. But a short time I had interviewing her and her co-star and her director in a film a couple of years ago really convinced me as much as the performances. She has an energy and an intelligence in a room that tells me a lot. it is not unlike some of the energy I felt from Emma Stone in an Easy A sit. Or Jenn Lawrence. It’s not about attraction. It is an energy that a person can push through the camera and to the audience. Gadon has that… even in a tiny role here. Definitely in support in Belle.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will not be my favorite film of the year. It probably won’t be my favorite film in May (as Cannes will no doubt offer some true delights.) But as these kinds of films go, there is so much that I like, above and beyond others, that it stands above. The wrinkles in the back of the suit, man. That is what separates this film from all the rest. The wrinkles in the back of the suit.
As Roger Ebert said, no good movie is too long… no bad movie is short enough. I connect to the flavor, the artistry, and the detail of Marc Webb’s vision of Spider-Man. I’ll be happy to go again… and again. Hell, even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t irritate me. And special thanks for not tagging the film with a sneak peek of the next film. It’s a superhero movie that feels and thinks. Excelsior.