Previously on Movie Curiosities, I gave my thoughts about Marvel's current place in the ongoing superhero film wars. Now it's Sony's turn. Superhero team-ups have been all the rage since The Avengers. Marvel is prepping the Avengers for a second go-round, DC/WB are struggling to put the Justice League into play, Fox is working on the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Sony has... Spider-Man. Right now, he's all that's left of Sony's superhero holdings. And one superhero doesn't exactly make a team. But Sony does have other options.
With Spider-Man comes the most colorful, powerful, and iconic rogues gallery in the entire Marvel Universe. In fact, with the possible exception of Batman, I don't think there's been another superhero in all of comic book history with such a wide variety of fascinating villains who could be immediately recognized by most laypeople. As such, it seems logical that if Sony can't make a franchise around a superhero team-up, they could focus on building a franchise around a supervillain team-up instead.
Accordingly, the ads for Amazing Spider-Man 2 have been very heavy on the supervillains. Though Electro is reportedly the main villain, the commercials have not been shy with Green Goblin or Rhino, either. Hell, the trailers have blatantly foreshadowed Vulture and Doctor Octopus for future entries. The movie also features B.J. Novak as Alistair "Spider-Slayer" Smythe and Felicity Jones as Felicia "Black Cat" Hardy. And lest we forget, The Lizard is still alive and well after the last picture.
With this in mind, it's little surprise that Sony is building its franchise toward the Sinister Six. In fact, they've announced development on a Sinister Six spin-off film, as well as a spin-off film for Venom. And all of that is in addition to Amazing Spider-Man 3 and 4. A massive franchise extending far into the future, built on Webhead's greatest adversaries. In all honesty, it's not a bad plan. There is, however, one little problem. According to Box Office Mojo...
- Spider-Man: $403 million domestic
- Spider-Man 2: $373 million domestic
- Spider-Man 3: $336 million domestic
- The Amazing Spider-Man: $262 million domestic
(CORRECTION: This review was written under the assumption that these were the worldwide totals.)
Even without adjusting for inflation, that's a pretty clear pattern. Sure, $262 million may not sound like chump change, but try comparing that to the cost of making and promoting these movies and it's a different story. Still, Sony co-chairwoman Amy Pascal reportedly considers the Spider-Man franchise such a cornerstone accomplishment of her tenure that I expect she'd rather quit the business entirely than let the rights relapse to Marvel. However, she may be forced to do one or the other very soon if those returns keep diminishing.
Incidentally, I find it rather amusing that The Amazing Spider-Man -- the reboot that was supposed to revitalize the franchise -- led to the sharpest drop in ticket sales. Though I'm sure it didn't help that Sony very stupidly released that film smack in between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.
Getting back to the point, Sony desperately needs this film to be a hit. Actually, no, even being a hit doesn't cover it -- they need a success powerful enough to justify the grandiose, far-reaching plans that they have for this franchise. So they created a supervillain team-up to combat a superhero team-up. Which means that for this film to even meet its expectations, Sony needs a hit on par with The Avengers. Reminder: That's the third-highest grossing film in history, as of this writing.
With this in mind, it's little wonder why Sony advertised the living daylights out of this picture. From Super Bowl spots to viral campaigns to posters in every multiplex, Sony put an insane amount of effort into making sure that every person on God's green earth knew about this film. And then they released it right in between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. While the former film is still making money and advertising for the latter film is at its strongest. Some people just never learn.
In fact, that could be my nutshell description of Amazing Spider-Man 2: The folks at Sony just never learn. Either that or they're content to keep putting in the least amount of effort.
A lot of my praise and complaints for this film's prequel can be carried over to this film. For example, I praised the film's action and its inventive applications of the web-slinging concept. I'm pleased to say that both of those strengths are in full effect in the sequel. The previous film also did well to bring a kind of POV presentation to those scenes when Spidey is swinging his way through New York. There's only one such scene here in this movie, but it looks fantastic.
However, I had a number of issues with how the film presented Spider-Man's mechanical web-shooters, and the sequel adds another one. See, in the wake of Dr. Curt Connors going nanners and trying to turn all of Manhattan into giant reptiles, Oscorp decided to discontinue their projects with genetically engineered animals for the sake of preserving investor confidence. And we're told point-blank that this includes the genetically engineered spiders. The same ones that turned Peter Parker into a superhuman and produced his webbing, as was clearly shown in the previous film. So if the spiders are gone, and Oscorp isn't making any artificial webbing from them, then where is Spider-Man's webbing coming from now?
Another of the previous film's greatest strengths was in its two main leads. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are still an adorable couple (both on and off the screen), with incredible chemistry and taut comedic timing between them. Which is fortunate, because Gwen Stacy opens the movie with a graduation speech that telegraphs exactly where the Peter/Gwen relationship is going. That complete lack of suspense, plus competition from so many other subplots taking up screen time (we'll get back to that) means that the romance arc is about as thin and transparent as fishing line. Yet Garfield and Stone kept it watchable, because that's how good they are together.
I'm also glad to say that this version of Gwen Stacy is still a fine character in her own right. As with the last film, she's very proactive and intelligent, perfectly capable at what she does. She's not dumb enough to actively go seeking danger, but she never gets complacent and waits around for the hero when danger comes to her. At least until the climax, when she suddenly becomes stupid enough not to try running away at a critical moment.
Speaking of female characters, let's talk about Aunt May. I felt like Sally Field was wasted in the previous movie, and the filmmakers still seem to have a very hard time coming up with anything for Aunt May to do. However, we do at least get a nice scene when Aunt May expresses her frustration with being unable to really be there for Peter, especially now that Uncle Ben is out of the picture. We also see that May is putting herself through nursing school to try and get a better job, and she even gets a chance to help save some people in the climax. This film makes her into a proactive and independent woman who's capable of helping when things go bad, and that's great to see. I just wish that these movies didn't push her so far to the sidelines. Or that she didn't keep falling for Peter's woefully flimsy excuses.
This brings me to the hero himself. Spider-Man (of the comics, anyway) has always been known as a loudmouth who relentlessly spouts one-liners as he fights crime, and the filmmakers continue trying to play into that. And they keep failing. When Spider-Man gave sass to an armed robber in the previous film, it made him look like a bully. When he mouths off to a serial killer driving a massive truck through people and cars on a busy street, it begs the question of why Spider-Man is acting like a douchebag instead of doing more to stop the crime in progress. Which brings me to another point.
At some point in between The Avengers and Man of Steel, the moviegoing public apparently started holding cinematic superheroes to a higher standard. We saw Iron Man holding the alien invaders to a perimeter with Thor trying to bottleneck the portal, then we asked why Superman never tried to do something similar at Metropolis. When Superman and Zod completely trashed a city (killing millions of people in the process, assuming they weren't all evacuated), fans all over the internet lost their shit. Then Superman straight-up murdered Zod, and it was the neck-snap that started a million shouting matches that continue to this day.
Flash forward to Amazing Spider-Man 2. This is the film in which buildings all over Times Square are clearly seen toppling over, and we also witness Spider-Man committing flagrant murder. And in both cases, they dwell on the matter even less than Man of Steel did. In Man of Steel, killing Zod was presented as a terrible solution to an unsolvable problem, and it completely broke Superman (at least until the matter was forgotten in the next scene). Getting back to Spider-Man, for everything that Spider-Man 3 did wrong, it still showed abhorrence for the idea that Spider-Man would ever kill anyone. And this film treats it like no big thing. Bullshit.
(Side note: I also heard a lot of people complain about the product placement in Man of Steel. Well, I'm here to tell you that the product placement in this film is just as blatant.)
On the plus side, there are moments when we do see Spider-Man saving people, acting as a role model and a symbol of hope. These scenes show Spider-Man at his strongest, and I wish the whole movie had kept that level of optimism. But that would mean going against everything this character has come to mean.
Of all the morals that we associate with Spider-Man and Peter Parker, perhaps the most prominent is "with great power comes great responsibility." But this film instead focuses on the second-most prominent moral of Spider-Man: "You can't get everything you want." Not even a superhuman can get everything and save everyone. Peter Parker is emblematic of this, because he is the Job of the Marvel universe. Peter Parker has been made to suffer continuously through fifty years of comic book history, and any good thing that's ever happened to him has inevitably been smashed to pieces (making a deal with the devil to save Aunt May's life in return for retroactively erasing Peter's wedding to Mary Jane is perhaps the most notorious recent example from the comics).
The film explores this through various angles, particularly in his interactions with other characters. Gwen, for example, is given an opportunity to study abroad, forcing her to choose between her passion and her relationship as Peter does. And then we have Cpt. George Stacy, once again played by Denis Leary, who sometimes appears to Peter as a reminder of his promise to keep Gwen out of harm's way. This approach was stupid, especially since the end of the previous film seemed to clearly show that Peter and Gwen were disregarding that promise. Doubling-back on the character's death was stupid, using the character's ghost as motivation for something Peter should be trying to do of his own accord was stupid, and killing the character off in the first place was stupid.
And anyway, where was Uncle Ben's ghost? Was Martin Sheen not available or something?
At long last, we now come to the villains. The primary villain is Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx, a dweeby little nobody who eventually becomes Electro. I get what the filmmakers were going for with Max: In theory, he's like an inverse Spider-Man. Like Peter, Max was a dorky non-entity who got treated like crap by everyone in spite of how brilliant he was. And then he gets superpowers. But since Max never gained a sense of responsibility to go with those god-like powers, his pent-up anger and need for attention lead Electro to be a supervillain.
In theory, it's a good idea. In practice, Foxx looks and acts like Jim Carrey in Batman Forever. Both characters are unappreciated geniuses, Max Dillon worships Spider-Man as Edward Nygma did Bruce Wayne, and both characters are presented in such an over-the-top goofy manner that any sympathy for them would be impossible. I'm sorry, maybe it's just me, but when I see a character celebrate his birthday by pretending to talk with Spider-Man, my first reaction is to back away slowly.
What makes matters even worse is that Max's treatment at the hands of other people is eerily reminiscent of Peter Parker's treatment at the hands of Sam Raimi. In fact, Electro is eventually tortured by a mad scientist who could just as easily have been a character in one of Raimi's films. Again, maybe it's just me, but I think that embracing Raimi's style is taking a step backward for this franchise. I had a lot of problems with the previous film, but "it isn't enough like Raimi's movies" wasn't one of them. Frankly, I take much bigger issue with a weak villain who wreaks havoc on New York by way of a massive plot device conveniently provided by Oscorp and telegraphed two hours ahead of time (see also: The Lizard).
Moving on, I find it strangely fitting that Oscorp is acting as the glue for this franchise in much the same way that SHIELD is (or was) the linchpin of the MCU. With that in mind, of course we have to meet Norman and Harry Osborn (now respectively played by Chris Cooper and Dane DeHaan). Norman has slowly been dying of a degenerative disease with a name so mind-blowingly awful to any student of biology that I can't bring myself to repeat it. The point is that Harry was sent away to boarding school while his father wasted away, and Norman calls Harry back to say that the condition is hereditary. Then Norman dies, but whether he'll stay dead is of course anyone's guess.
Harry gives Peter someone to relate with in regard to his daddy issues. Harry and Peter were both more or less abandoned by their fathers, they're both orphans, and neither of them wants to be like their father (and yes, we learn a lot more about Richard Parker in this sequel, hopefully for the last time). Harry is also someone who Spider-Man can't save, which puts the character in an interesting place. As for DeHaan's performance, I personally thought that his slide to villainy was so much more satisfying than that of James Franco. Of course, it helps that DeHaan had more of an opportunity to chew the scenery, since Green Goblin is one of those roles you can't underplay.
As for Paul Giamatti -- who plays the Rhino -- he's barely worth talking about because he's barely in the movie. Ditto for B.J. Novak, though at least they both look like they're having fun. That's more than I can say for Felicity Jones, who doesn't seem to have much of any idea why she's in this picture.
Finally, the question that this whole franchise hinges on: Does having more villains make the movie better? In my estimation, the answer is a flat "no." Though this movie does a far better job of juggling its villains than Spider-Man 3 did, it still runs into the problem of too many storylines in too little screen time. Even at two and a half hours, this film still had to juggle the Richard Parker revelations, the Peter/Gwen romance, Electro, Oscorp, and everything else going on. Naturally, this results in plotlines that strain credulity because they aren't established well enough and themes that don't get developed beyond a superficial level.
Perhaps more importantly, this supervillain team-up was made in competition with superhero team-ups, and they're entirely different beasts. Superheroes literally compete with each other when they compete for screen time, which makes it satisfying when they set aside their differences and work toward a common goal. But when supervillains compete for screen time, they only create more plotlines to juggle as the hero goes this way and that to put out fires. Also, the theme of cooperation doesn't work nearly as well when its the villains who work together to take out a solitary hero.
Weighing everything out, I'll give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 the same verdict I gave to its prequel: "Good enough." The film is good enough to justify its own existence, it's good enough to warrant a movie ticket without any of the premiums for 3D or IMAX, and it's good enough to merit another sequel. It's passable, but it's not extraordinary, and that's an important distinction.
"Extraordinary" is what gets people to buy premium tickets. "Extraordinary" is why people rave about a movie to anyone who will listen. "Extraordinary" is what compels people to go see a movie for a second, third, or fourth time. In short, "extraordinary" is what made The Avengers the third-highest box-office earner of all time. That's the level of quality Sony is shooting for, and it's the level of quality that Sony needs, but they're never going to get there if they keep making Spider-Man films that settle for a passing grade.
Getting rid of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman would be a good first step. Just saying.