The Amazing Spider-Man 2 review: black and white and web all over

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yellow light

Suffers badly by comparison with the cogent, witty Avengers flicks. This feels like a campy Saturday-morning cartoon left over from the 1970s.
I’m “biast” (pro): like the cast

I’m “biast” (con): wasn’t a huge fan of the first one; the trailer looked generic

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Two years on from the first pointless reboot of the Spider-Man story — a mere five years after the previous version had wrapped up — the pointless sequel has arrived. Except now we’ve had two more years of cogent, witty Avengers flicks, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers badly by comparison. This looks like a throwback to a time when comic book movies were kiddie stuff and nothing else. This feels like a campy Saturday-morning cartoon left over from the 1970s, and not the smart, relevant science-fiction action drama the genre has matured into on the big screen.

Sorry, Spidey: you’re just not that amazing anymore.

There’s nothing wrong with a movie that’s only for the little ones, and this one is fine for them. As long as they can tolerate the nearly two-and-half-hour runtime, that is. Returning director Marc Webb and his too-many-screenwriters — Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (the hit-and-miss team behind Star Trek Into Darkness and Cowboys & Aliens, among many others), and Jeff Pinkner and James Vanderbilt (who wrote the first film) — clearly would like for this to be taken as serious drama, at least in part, so around the cartoonish action they crammed in some angst for Peter Parker over the mystery of his parents’ fate. This gives us one truly moving scene between Peter (Andrew Garfield: The Social Network, Never Let Me Go) and Aunt May (Sally Field: Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde, Forrest Gump) that pains both of them over their strong but still tenuous relationship: she doesn’t want to hurt him by sharing the truth as she knows it, or lose the boy she has come to think of as her own son, and he has to reassure her that this has nothing to do with him wanting to run from her. It nearly brought me to tears: Field is of course a cinematic goddess with a deeply sympathetic screen presence, and Garfield is the sort of actor who doesn’t sublimate emotion; it’s all out there on his face all the time.

It’s easy enough to pretend that the 30something Garfield isn’t too old to be playing the teenaged Peter, or that that scene, and a few others, don’t demonstrate more emotional maturity than we should expect from a 17-year-old boy. What isn’t easy to ignore is how at odds the few dramatic moments are with everything around them: it’s like they’ve been imported from another film. That Peter does not feel like the same one who engages in vaudevillian antics with caricatures of bad guys. (And he barely is the same guy: instead he’s a CGI construct who does not move in realistic ways, even for a mutant, with Garfield’s voice spouting some clownish jests from somewhere in the vicinity.) They’re the kind of cartoon villains who will pause in their evildoing for a warm moment between Spidey and a little kid from the crowd of onlookers… and Spider-Man’s coup de grace after defeating a bad guy will be to pull down the criminal’s trousers to reveal a pair of “funny” boxer shorts. Groucho Marx might approve, but who else?

And clearly there was no concern on anyone’s part to ensure that Peter’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone [The Croods, Gangster Squad], shamefully misused), is anything more than a caricature, either. Her only job seems to be standing around in her gorgeous wardrobe looking “amazing” and being “adorable” for Peter’s pleasure — and for that of the presumed straight male audience, of course — to the point where she dresses completely inappropriately for an interview for a coveted scholarship spot at Oxford University. (Hint: A flirty schoolgirl look is not the sort of thing you want to impress them with, Gwen.) Even after some extreme buffeting during the film’s climactic battle — in which she is naturally put in jeopardy in order to torment Peter — she doesn’t even have a run in her very expensive stockings. The only other things she gets to do is suddenly have secret, apparently impossible-to-come-by knowledge just when it might benefit Peter, and can move the plot along.

Hint to Hollywood: Using The Girlfriend as a pawn of the plot is not what we mean by “strong female character.”

Look: this is the sort of movie in which a mad scientist (Marton Csokas: Noah, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is wearing actual lipstick and eyeliner; perhaps he’s channeling Dr. Frank-N-Furter. It’s the sort of movie in which the employees of world-class scientific operation Oscorp have to be so insanely undedicated to their work that they knowingly endanger the actual physical structure of their Manhattan skyscraper… because that’s funny, and because it’s needed to set up the Rube Goldberg situation that will create a new supervillain. This is the sort of movie in which both supervillains — nerdy engineer and Spider-Man fan Max Dillion, who becomes the electrifying Electro (Jamie Foxx: Rio 2, White House Down), and Peter’s friend Harry Osborn, who becomes the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan: The Place Beyond the Pines, Lawless) — turn on a dime from loving Peter and/or Spidey to hating him.

The bad guys are just bad, okay? The hero can crack wise in life-and-death situations not out of bitterness or cynicism or anger (like, say, Tony Stark does) but simply because he’s the good guy and neither he nor the story itself has any doubts whatsoever that he will prevail. Simplistic tales of good and evil may satisfy little kids, but those of us who’ve come to expect more of our mutants and caped crusaders demand more.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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