Thursday, May 8, 2014

Not So Amazing

People don't like to think about it, but the Spider-Man franchise NEEDED that reboot. After Sam Raimi's disastrous 2007 finale to his to-that-point beloved trilogy, Sony needed to get people excited about the franchise again, and reminders of "Emo Peter Parker" were not going to work. And so while the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was not universally loved for rehashing the character's origin story, it WAS a well-crafted, superbly-performed summer blockbuster that succeeded in washing away the stink of Raimi's failure. The question now was whether the first sequel in this reborn series could maintain that momentum, especially with at least two sequels and two spin-off films planned for the future. It's a lot to place in the lap of director Marc Webb, whose only experience before 2012 was the indie sleeper hit (500) Days of Summer. Could an inexperienced filmmaker with one monster hit under his belt be counted on for another slam dunk? If you read the title for this review, you have probably already guessed that no, he did not.
Suit up!
To be fair, not everything that is wrong with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is Webb's fault. In continuing the story of Andrew Garfield's maturing superhero and his relationships with those closest to him, there were bound to be hiccups along the way. The sequel sees our hero during the summer after his graduation from high school, unsure how to pursue romantic interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) without putting her in danger, as he has made a name for himself cleaning up the streets of New York City. But he's also dealing with the fallout of mega-company Oscorp, whose CEO has just passed away, leaving son (and Spidey's childhood friend) Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) in charge of the corporation, and also accidentally birthing supervillain Electro (Jamie Foxx), whose obsession with the superhero turns deadly. On top of that, there are dozens of additional characters, plot threads, foreshadowing and aimless cameos (Hi, Paul Giamatti! Bye, Chris Cooper!) that keep the plot rumbling forward. And if you used that last sentence to sum up what was wrong with this film, you would be pretty spot on.
The romance!
You see, Sony - who owns the film rights to the character of Spider-Man - is trying desperately to compete with the "cinematic universes" which have become trendy among those studios out there powerful enough to be in the business, with Disney (The Avengers), Fox (The X-Men and Fantastic Four) and Warner Brothers (The Justice League) banking on those continuous, interconnected stories to fuel their respective franchises for years, if not decades, to come. Sony however has less to work with; they own the rights to one hero, one or two anti-heroes and a slew of imaginative villains. While Spider-Man is already a cash cow for them, they would love to make a bundle off of Venom, Sinister Six and The Black Cat if it was at all possible. And The Amazing Spider-Man 2 definitely drops breadcrumbs in those diverging paths, setting up not only future sequels, but what they hope will become new franchises. But that's also what holds this sequel back, as the story itself suffers from a serious lack of focus due to all the clues that are cool on the surface, but detract from the primary plot.
The bro-mance!
So how does a film franchise transform from a refined storyteller to the rambling drunk down at your local pub? My money is on screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, who replaced the first movie's James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. Kurtzman and Orci are certainly talented scribes, however their projects seem to swing the divide between fun and exciting (the recent Star Trek films, TV show Sleepy Hollow) and terrible (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) with alarming regularity, and with little middle ground. Their strengths (and presumably Pinkner's, from working with them on Fringe) tend to be bombastic, action-filled sequences fitted around frenetic bursts of character development. While that in itself is fine, their style feels woefully inadequate to properly represent Peter Parker, a character who is not so much about macho action (though he's no slouch) as he is about inner turmoil and conflict. I hate comparing a sequel to the first movie, but Webb and his previous screenwriters had an EXCELLENT understanding of what made their characters tick, while here the new team seems more interested in fueling new franchises than allowing their movie to stand all on its own. The Peter/Gwen romance is hastily constructed, poorly written and painfully trite. The Harry Osborne character - while excellently acted by DeHaan - feels tacked on and undeveloped, not given enough time for non-comic fans to ascertain his motivations. There are WAY too many secondary characters with too many shallow, unfulfilled storylines, and Webb isn't even allowed to address the dangling threads he left open in the FIRST movie, such as the hunt for Uncle Ben's killer. But worst might be the way the film treats Jamie Foxx's villain, whose origins and rationale are about as cliched as comic book bad guys get. For a the sequel to a film that helped usher in a new age of superhero flicks, this followup is definitely a bit too safe and familiar for fans to rally behind.
No, wait, forget the bro-mance...
All this isn't Webb's fault, though he's hardly free from blame. His actors all acquit themselves nicely - which in addition to the ones I've already named also include Sally Field, Colm Fiore, Felicity Jones and Marton Csokas - lending to the fact that Webb is indeed an actor's director. Standing out, Garfield and Stone share some excellent chemistry, and even Garfield and DeHaan feel like genuine old buddies, despite the failings of the screenplay. And the action-packed fight scenes are well-done, though the special effects accompanying them don't look quite as impressive as they did two years ago. The 3D is especially disappointing - even by the low standards I've come to set - so I definitely don't recommend paying the extra cost to view it that way. But what Webb does most wrong is wilt under pressure, both from his corporate overseers (who doubtlessly demanded all the script's added nonsense) and from those who were disappointed in his work the last time out. While The Amazing Spider-Man carved its own image into the big screen, the sequel feels reminiscent and even derivative of Raimi's popular entries, from the bright colors to the cartoonish characterizations, diverting sharply from what we've seen before. And then he can't even get the pacing down, as whole storylines hinted at in the trailer are never even mentioned, no doubt edited out in a mad dash to meet deadlines and satisfy executives.
Explosions are much brighter this time around.
There are moments in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that live up to the pedigree that the first film afforded, but those are sadly few and far between. I'll give Webb some credit: this movie had lofty goals in mind, from its role as the catalyst to Sony's new cinematic universe to its adherence to the important Spidey stories fans grew up with. This man pulled his cast and crew together and collectively they did their best to turn a script with zero focus into something both entertaining and emotional. That they got as close as they did is primarily due to the talent in the director's chair. However, this is a spectacle that tries too hard to do too much and falls far short of even modest expectations, becoming easily the most disappointing superhero flick of the past decade. Whether this puts a hiccup in Sony's future plans of course cannot be known, but hopefully the next Spider-Man entry will be a step back up for a studio with their ambitions, because if The Amazing Spider-Man 3 is not a major step up from this mess, the future of the franchise is in serious trouble.

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