Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Amazing Spider-Man 2

Without symbolism, superheroes really don't have any meaning.  After The Dark Knight came out, people crowed about Heath Ledger's acting and the setting and the drama, but there were also a lot of discussions about how it connected to the politics of today's world (is tapping every cell phone in Gotham justifiable?).  Iron Man symbolizes the dangers of excess, whether alcohol or technology, if people aren't aware of how they're being used.  Spider-Man, of course, represents both the awkwardness of puberty (he hits his teen years and suddenly has strange things happening to his body) and of the importance of responsibility when there's great power involved.

Of course, the fact that they omitted that quote from the first movie should have been a warning sign, but I went in to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at least hoping for a sensible story and a few cute moments of character development.  Did I get them?

Well, yes and no.

Let's get the acting out of the way first.  Andrew Garfield makes a pretty good Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  I'd like a little bit more of the "nerdy, shy" side of him to come out more often, since often as Peter he tends to lack the shyness and meekness you'd expect from him.  Most of the actors are, for the most part, pretty adequate at what they do.  Jamie Foxx's character shows some deep emotional issues from the moment we first see him, and while Sally Field does just fine as Aunt May, most of the rest of the cast leaves something to be desired.  Jamie Foxx isn't even immune to this, as his natural charisma keeps trying to shine through as he plays Max Dillon, and I think it would have worked a lot better had he originally been a regular, everyday guy who has his whole life taken from him rather than someone who, after the fact, you'd say "yeah...I always knew something was wrong with that guy."

If this wasn't a superhero movie, Max Dillon would be the guy that the neighbors later described as "so quiet, kept to himself."

Emma Stone is naturally great as Gwen Stacy, and if I had to highlight the best praise I could give the film, it would be that the movie finally made me care about a character that the comics repeatedly failed to get me invested in.  Her Gwen is dynamic, charismatic, and fun.  She's the valedictorian of her high school and is in interviews to attend Oxford.  She has a good job at Oscorp, and her on again/off again boyfriend is not just a superhero, but a superhero who swore to her dead father to stay away if that's what it takes to keep her safe.

Honestly, and I'm as stunned as anybody to say this, I would have much preferred the superheroism be entirely in the background of the film and have the rest be some strange, Sundance-esque relationship story between the two.  Tell the whole thing from Gwen's point of view, so we have to see her pick up Peter's things when he suddenly has to bolt and be a hero, leaving his coat and shoes behind.  Let us see her watching the news as he fights some new villain and grip a pillow tightly each time, even if it's just a mugger on the street.  Every scene where Stone and Garfield are walking and talking together makes you smile, and I think it's where the symbolism is at its strongest as Peter struggles to find his way in life while his girlfriend has hers mapped out to a goal that might not include him.

However, the movie feels the need to shovel in an awful lot of story, with three villains, the romance sub-plot, and possibly the most boring part of the series so far: the mystery of Peter's parents.  I don't mind his father being a researcher instead of a super-spy, but having some deep secrets be revealed that show that Peter is "special" instead of just another everyday guy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances takes away from the character.

Captain America was just a guy who wanted to help his country, there's no big reveal that his father was actually injected with a blood transfusion from "Uncle Sam" or anything.  With Spider-Man and Captain America, some of their best moments are where they reflect on the sudden turn their life has taken and how it can never be the same, not "well, I guess I was fated for this anyway, may as well do something with it."

Spider-Man 3 (how weird is it I can be reviewing a Spider-Man "2" movie while referencing a third one?) suffered a similar complication in having "too much plot," and there's no real time to get attached to any character introduced this time.  We're supposed to believe Harry and Peter used to be good friends, but we really only get two scenes of them interacting as Peter and Harry, and one of them is catching up after not seeing each other after many years.  Electro keeps making casual mention of things like "I had ideas but didn't get credit for them" or "not a lot of people remember who I am" but they get overshadowed by him not getting to leave on time on his birthday and a sudden (very sudden) fixation on Spider-Man.

The special effects are okay, and if you're just going to the movie for that, you won't be disappointed.  I actually really liked a scene where Electro takes control of the power grid and you see a building's lights form his face as he looks at Spider-Man.  It does eventually reach a point where you realize that Andrew Garfield and Jamie Foxx were probably never at the locations the movie shot them at and were just sitting in a voice-over booth doing all the dialogue by themselves into a microphone, but it isn't jarring.

Mostly, the problem I have with the movie is that he wanted to incorporate a lot of fresh ideas (Peter's sense of responsibility to someone who's just as capable in her life without him, his needing to weigh helping a friend versus possibly hurting them, watching hero worship go wrong) but doesn't have enough time to flesh any of them out into a truly good movie, and instead you get a pretty standard superhero formula with a few really good emotional moments.  I want more of that, not just another slug-fest between two CGI models of people.

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