Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) - Delicious Ham Boiled to Perfection

Two years ago, Sony took Sam Raimi's massively successful Spider-Man trilogy and rebooted it, placing the new series in the hands of Marc Webb, who had only a single previous film under his belt. As a huge fan of the Raimi films, I was hesitant about the reboot but ended up enjoying it, in spite of some pretty big issues I had. This takes us back to July 2012, when I'd just seen Webb's Amazing Spider-Man at the Weirs Beach Drive-In in New Hampshire.

A Look Back 

I wrote my review of the film the following week, with a few minor touch-ups later. That first Amazing Spider-Man review is an important one for me. It was the first legitimate film review I'd written, written a few months after launching this review blog in March 2012. At the time, I was going through a bit of an identity crisis as I struggled to find a new place to write after a few communities I'd previously been a part of had fallen to the wayside. Once I launched this blog, I tried a few different things; short form game reviews, focusing primarily on classic gaming, TV episode reviews that ended up being too much summary and not enough of value, and occasional nonsense written in character by Bob Surlaw, most of which I'd already done way better elsewhere.

I've always focused this blog mostly on video game reviews, but it's the movie reviews I'm most proud of, even though they're few in number. Amazing Spider-Man being the first one published means it will always hold a special place in my heart. I still think it's a pretty good review, unlike some of my game reviews from the same time period that feel really clunky. The Spider-Man review marked a turning point for me, and a shift in how I wanted to write. Since then, I've certainly written at a far slower pace and my word count has occasionally gotten out of control, but I feel that the quality of my work has steadily improved.

I still like the final parts of that review a lot, in which I try to dig some subtext out of the large pieces of content that were cut from the final film, but the first half does focus too heavily on plot summary. It's a well intentioned piece of writing with rather disjointed intentions, which honestly makes it the perfect way to write about Webb's Amazing Spider-Man, a film which suffers from a tonal identity crisis of its own.

A lot can change in two years, personally and professionally. I've grown since then, and I'm happy to say, so has Marc Webb. Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a better film than its predecessor in every way; it's funnier, it has better drama, it's got a great soundtrack, and it looks wonderful, especially the new costume, which is, ironically, more like the old Raimi costume than the one used in the first Amazing Spider-Man film. Both the film and Andrew Garfield's take on Peter Parker have answered the "Who am I?" question, allowing both to flourish in a way they couldn't previously. As a whole, the film is closer to the hammy melodrama found in Raimi's trilogy, which was something I really loved about those films and fully embrace here. I've seen plenty of others turned off by it, but to me, the cartoonish silliness mixed with a dark undercurrent and great cast chemistry makes Amazing Spider-Man 2 one of the best summer blockbusters I've seen in ages.

Ghost Dads

From this point on, I'll be discussion various degrees of plot spoilers, especially surrounding Peter Parker's parents and the film's villains. None of the major twists are spoiled, but if you want to go in totally fresh, come back later.

The film opens with a scene that runs parallel to the first film's. Both begin with young Peter Parker being dropped off at Aunt May and Uncle Ben's years earlier by Richard (Campbell Scott) and Mary Parker (Embeth Davidtz), who then vanish in a plane crash. The first film follows Peter's perspective of these events, while the new one follows Richard's. We get to see that the Parkers are involved in some shady dealings and we get the indication that maybe this time, their lingering plot from the first film will actually be resolved. An overly long action sequence follows, only important for a moment where Peter's dad learns that even if you try to do something heroic, you can't save everyone and sometimes the ones you love most are the ones you lose. It sets up Richard as a parallel figure to Peter trying his best, rather than the looming spectre of betrayal he served as in the first film.

Richard Parker's presence in the original Amazing Spider-Man was felt primarily by his absence and Peter's movement from one surrogate dad to the next; everyone from his own Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) to pre-dinosaur transformation Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans) to police chief Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) doles out fatherly advice to Peter before meeting terrible fates, and Richard's own death comes shortly after he tells Peter to "be good." It seems giving dadly advice puts you on the fast track to destruction in this world. Denis Leary's character does get to show up as a stern Ghost Dad this time around though, so he clearly knows what's going on.

When I saw the first film, I saw Richard as a darker character who potentially used his son in his genetic engineering experiments. This new film more or less exonerates Richard, and we instead learn that he used himself in these experiments, and the only reason the transformation to Spider-Man doesn't kill Peter is that he shares his father's DNA. I don't really think this is a better direction for the plot to go, and the Parker Parents backstory is the weakest element of the movie. Thankfully, the rest is pretty great. 

Friends and Foes

The modern day parts of the film begin with Peter Parker late to his high school graduation, delayed by a rampaging truck full of stolen tubes of Deadly Science. Driving the truck is the always amazing Paul Giamatti, playing the role of a furiously angry Russian mobster who later becomes the villainous Rhino. In a franchise with a lot of scenery chewing, Giamatti's Rhino is almost unparalleled; his ridiculous body language and wild screams make him a dangerous but completely laughable threat, one that only appears in a couple of scenes but steals the show both times. Giamatti's played unhinged roles before, but here he's allowed to go so completely nuts that it's an incredible sight to behold. The Rhino is the most wonderful kind of cinematic stupid out there, and his short scenes in the film are exactly as much as we needed to see. On my second watch, I realized he was wearing rhino-print boxer shorts, and that's probably perfect.

Peter is soon reunited with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who graduates as class valedictorian. I liked Gwen in the first film, but she came off as more of a teacher than a student; here, with the high school stuff done, Stone seems more comfortable with the character and completely owns the role. Gwen was smart and resourceful in the first film, but still largely defined by her relationship with Peter. Here, as their on-again-off-again relationship continues to sway back and forth, Gwen very much becomes more of her own person. She has her own goals and ambitions that go beyond Peter, her engineering knowledge is essential to stopping the film's villain, and she has a clear arc of her own.

The Amazing Spider-Man films treat women pretty well in general and Gwen's handled much better here than she was in the first one. It's also great to see Aunt May (Sally Field) becoming a hero in her own right, taking on a job as an emergency room nurse, even if it's under tragic circumstances. Her relationship with Peter is incredibly authentic and is one of the most positive mother and son relationships in a summer blockbuster. As Stone does with Gwen, Field brings a lot more to her character in this film than was present in the previous film.

The film has two primary antagonists: Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a mentally unstable engineer who becomes the lightning-powered Electro, and the Osborne family. We first meet patriarch Norman Osborne (Chris Cooper), head of the Evil Science corporation Oscorp, on his death bed as he wastes away from a disease alluded to in the previous film. He never takes on the mantle of the Green Goblin in this version of the story, but whatever genetic disorder he has has started to transform him into a scaly, clawed beast that nonetheless looks pretty gobliny. Norman calls his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) back to New York to hand him control of the company as well as totally freak him out by telling him this disease is going to get him too. Harry does get to go full Goblin in this one, but the majority of his scenes are spent in board rooms or reminiscing with Peter, who he hasn't seen in almost a decade.

DeHaan plays a hurt and unhinged Harry completely differently from James Franco's portrayal in the Raimi trilogy, to the point that they're completely different characters. I like this, as it does a good job setting the films apart and allows Webb to take the character in a new direction while still maintaining some old familiarity; both the character and the Goblin persona work better if you're familiar with them already. DeHaan feels like a younger, angrier Leonardo DiCaprio at times and his role here definitely made me interested in checking out more of his work. Like Peter, Harry's got abandonment issues, being sent away to boarding school at a young age with little contact with his father over the years. Abandonment, whether it be by parents or by society, is a core theme of this film. 

Max Power

Jamie Foxx's eccentric Max Dillon is the most interesting part of the film for me, both visually and thematically. We first meet Max when Spider-Man swings to his rescue early in the film. Like Peter pre-Spider-Man, Max is an awkward, outcast genius. The two characters very much play as parallels to each other. They're both bumbling dorks when first introduced, and both open up to Gwen Stacy. Both men have their obsessions with abandonment; while Peter makes a web of photos and facts about his father's life, Max builds a visually similar web of photos of Spider-Man, who he at first loves but feels betrayed by after his transformation into Electro. After one of their break ups, Peter follows and watches Gwen from afar, while Max does his best to do the same with Spider-Man. Peter gets his powers from a genetically engineered spider bite in a restricted part of the Oscorp tower; Max gains his lightning powers and becomes Electro after falling into a tank and being bit by presumably specially engineered eels in another restricted zone in the same building.

The big difference, obviously, is that Peter becomes a hero when he becomes Spider-Man while Max becomes a villain as Electro. The question of why this happens to Max is what makes him interesting. The Amazing Spider-Man films have a running theme of fathers or father figures passing on their essence to the next generation, whether it's Uncle Ben or Dr. Connors or Norman Osborn; Max has no father figure. He lives in isolation, making himself his own birthday cake and card, celebrating alone with his pictures of Spider-Man yet looking mostly pleased with himself while in his lair. The power flickers; he knows exactly which circuit it was that just went bad. He's prone to violent fantasies against a coworker who bullies him and his attempts to be charming with Gwen come off as uncomfortable; if the same dialogue was given to Peter, it would be cute. Max, instead, is far enough detached from social norms that polite banter is beyond him.

I don't see Max as a fool character that you're meant to laugh at; I see him as a mentally ill man who society has rejected. He has no one in his life to teach him about responsibility after the accident transforms him into Electro, though Spider-Man initially tries to help him out. Max is a desperately depressed man on the verge of a breakdown, and if he hadn't become Electro, he seems like someone who may have one day snapped and gone on a shooting spree. All he wants is to be noticed, to not be forgotten and wiped away.

Max is a victim of society's failures from the start: He's a man who continuously asks for help and is shot down. At work, he asks for help with a dangerous task and is laughed at and ignored by his coworkers, leading to his "death." No one mourns him and the accident is covered up. After his rebirth as Electro, he asks for help from New York at large and is literally shot by the cops while Spider-Man tries to calm him down, so of course he's going to violently lash out. He's then thrown in prison and tortured instead of being given any form of therapy. Another interesting thing here is that the film turns against the theme of "New York City as the Hero" that's shown up everywhere from Spider-Man 1's New Yorkers pelting the Green Goblin with trash to Amazing Spider-Man 1's crane scene. Here, trigger happy cops gun down a minority and lead to a city wide panic.

Race and class play a big part in what makes Max such a tragic figure. In a better society, Max could have lived a normal life. Peter is bullied, but has the good fortune to be living among loving family members who raise him well and help him deal with his problems at school. The Parkers aren't rich, but they're well enough off that Peter never seems to struggle there (there's nothing in Amazing Spider-Man like Peter's practically bombed out one-room apartment in the Raimi films) and he's handsome and charming enough to attract the smartest, prettiest girl in school.

Max lives alone in a cold, dark apartment with no family to speak of. He's left entirely alone, as the people in his life do their best to ignore him in spite of the fact that he's an essential cog in the Oscorp machine. He's endured decades more bullying than Peter has, on top of whatever medical disorders he has. Peter's awakening as Spider-Man is an effective puberty metaphor; if Electro's awakening is taken as much the same, he's developmentally stunted, with his puberty not kicking in until his late 30's/early 40's.

By the time of Amazing Spider-Man 2, nearly everyone in New York loves Spider-Man, emblazoned in bright, shining red, white and blue. Electro crawls out of the gutters wearing a dirty hooded sweatshirt and is fired on by an overzealous sniper over a misunderstanding, while the people of New York scorn him. Casting a black man in this role just highlights the horrible discrimination at play here; whether it's class, race, or mental illness, New York violently attempts to purge Max Dillion and all he represents from its lifeblood. A police force that now not only tolerates but celebrates Spider-Man's vigilante justice cheers as he fights it out with a mentally damaged minority figure whose transformation makes him a minority of one; it's hard not to see this as a reflection of America today, and it's not a pretty one. Max is not born a monster, and it's not the Electro accident that turns him into one. Society shapes him into the role of the monster.

Aside from his well developed thematic values, Electro's a really great character for both sight and sound. There are moments where the movie's electronic-based score pulses to the beat of Electro's energy beams, incorporating the score physically into the film in a visceral way that the previous Amazing Spider-Man utterly failed to even try. With his glowing blue skin, his sometimes ethereal movement, his shifting between physical matter and the incorporeal, and his rebirth scene, Electro recalls Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan. Like Manhattan, a terrible lab accident transforms Max, who later pulls his "dead" body back together after everyone assumes he's gone for good. Before becoming Manhattan, Jon Osterman had training as a watch-maker; Amazing Spider-Man 2 is filled with clock images, which both open and close the film's action.

Separating Electro and Manhattan is their judgment of humanity; Manhattan becomes disinterested in the affairs of men and detached from society, while Electro is forcibly ejected from society and regards it with hatred. Electro is too passionate and too emotional to ever be a Dr. Manhattan, even as his powers begin to grow in that godly direction. Anyone who's seen or read Watchmen knows that Manhattan's got nothing to hide and happily hangs out in the nude, at least as far as the film's R rating allows him to. Electro immediately gains a pair of black shorts. He's a neutered Dr. Manhattan. 

Final Thoughts

I've seen a lot of critical and audience disagreement, but in my eyes Amazing Spider-Man 2 is leagues beyond the previous film. I don't feel any real desire to rank the franchise's films overall, and I'm a fan of all five movies, even the ones with some ugly blemishes. Like the last Amazing Spider-Man, this one ends with a teaser of what's to come in the sequel, but this time, I didn't mind, since Amazing Spider-Man 2 did a great job wrapping up its themes, from those of abandonment to society's rejection to time running out, and I felt completely satisfied. The growth from the first movie to this one is huge, and if this trend can continue Marc Webb's got a great future ahead of him.

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