By Alan Mattli
Away from the humdrum of the crowded Avengers and X-Men narratives, the cinema division of Marvel Comics has been cultivating a third figurehead franchise over the past decade or so. Focusing solely on troubled teenager Peter Parker, who gains superhuman reflex abilities after he is bitten by a mutated spider, the Spider-Man series has so far spawned three original entries, directed by Sam Raimi, whose run was effectively ended by the critical disaster that was Spider-Man 3 (2007), and one reboot that saw Raimi being replaced by Marc Webb, director of the acclaimed subversive romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, and former lead actor Tobey Maguire by Andrew Garfield.
When released in 2012, The Amazing Spider-Man was generally met with faint praise at best, with many critics highlighting the flaws of its storytelling and special effects. Others, however, which include this reviewer, admitted that Webb’s new take on the nerdy teenage superhero patrolling the streets of New York as a masked vigilante was at times campy to a fault, but also stressed that it succeeded in turning him into a relatable, within the realms of the possible even believable, protagonist, whose emotional story, also thanks to a director well-versed in cinematic history and language, was explored on screen utterly convincingly. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which in some markets is accompanied by the subheading Rise of Electro, in turn, while still directed by Webb, is clumsier in its attempt to address the star-crossed romance between Peter/Spider-Man and classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), broader in scope – exemplified by its 142-minute runtime –, and decidedly louder with its numerous roaring action sequences. But just as its predecessor, it’s a completely unpretentious comic adaptation that is, above all else, capital-f Fun.
That’s not to say that Webb’s third feature film is without its deficits, though. For one, most of the film seems to be preoccupied not so much with telling a story as with setting it up. As if to compensate for the presence of only one hero – The Avengers juggled the storylines of six protagonists, while the X-Men movies feature up to a dozen characters around which dramatic tension can be built –, Rise of Electro newly establishes a virtual plethora of villains and tertiary characters.
There’s Harry (Dane DeHaan hammily channeling Leonardo DiCaprio), a childhood friend of Peter’s and sole heir to the business empire of Oscorp CEO Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper in unabashedly corny green makeup), who wants to battle the lethal disease that runs in his family by injecting Spider-Man’s blood. There’s the socially awkward Oscorp technician Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who is turned into Electro, a being of pure electricity, by an accident involving high voltage power lines and a tank full of electric eels (sic) and who suffers from never being noticed by anyone. Deranged Russian gangster Aleksei Sytsevich aka The Rhino (Paul Giamatti) rounds off the platter of bad guys, even though his bearing on the plot is limited, to say the least. In comparison, the walk-on appearances of Marvel Comics stock characters Dr. Kafka (Marton Csokas), who has undergone the dubious transformation from woman in print to man on celluloid, Alistair Smythe aka Ultimate Spider-Slayer (B. J. Novak), and Felicia Hardy aka Black Cat (Felicity Jones) seem to be of more significance.
In short, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a mess in narrative terms. But this doesn’t stop the individual characters, and even the overall story, from working surprisingly well. Harry Osborn’s eventual descent into the insanity of the iconic Green Goblin, whilst still inviting laughs rather than being particularly threatening, is certainly a step up from Willem Dafoe’s disappointing stab at the character in Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). And Electro, even though his design is blatantly ripped off from Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan, is the centre of the movie’s liveliest action scenes, thanks to a tremendously entertaining set of powers and an eerily atmospheric electronic musical theme, courtesy of Hans Zimmer and The Magnificent Six featuring former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and current hit warrantor extraordinaire Pharrell Williams, that perfectly suits the mental trauma simmering beneath his brash, flashy exterior.
Indeed, if it was Marc Webb’s mature handling of emotion that sets apart The Amazing Spider-Man from Raimi’s more action-minded vision, it is the action that differentiates the sequel from the reboot. Webb may at times revel too much in the comic medium’s affinity with the ludicrous and compromise the otherwise refreshingly strong 3-D by resorting to bombard the screen with debris, but when Electro wreaks havoc in Times Square – a canny impression of what could have happened in 2010 when the NYPD discovered an unexploded car bomb in the fabled neon icon –, when the camera swoops through the gorges of New York’s angular streets as if it was mounted on Spider-Man’s shoulders, Webb’s achievement becomes undeniable.
Sadly, this comes at the expense of the raw emotion that dominated 2012’s part one. Because the franchise demands the entrance of token love interest Mary Jane Watson (Shailene Woodley was cast but her part, in a wise move, has been cut from the finished film) – Spider-Man’s Lois Lane – at some point, Gwen Stacy, Peter’s current girlfriend, is treated almost like an interference to the franchise’s due course: her role as feisty, involved partner in arms is gradually phased out and substituted by her becoming “the one that got away” – in every sense of the word. But Webb, working from a cobbled together but ultimately sound script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Jeff Pinkner, is an able enough director to balance out these deficiencies with graceful touches of often delightfully absurd character comedy designed to remind viewers of the immature teenage condition of the titular hero. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may lack the topical awareness, the cultural perceptiveness of Marvel’s concurrent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it, too, does what distinguishes Marvel from its DC rivals these days: movies don’t necessarily improve if seriousness is forced upon them. There is value in pure entertainment as well.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.