The Powerless a review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2Written by Scott Powhatan Collins
© Words Scott Powhatan Collins
Dear readers, I have long mentioned to you that I am experiencing quite a hefty bout of comic book movie fatigue. But if you happen to be regular visitors to this site, you will also notice that despite my fatigue, I do tend to keep seeing these films so really, in some ways, I only have myself to blame. I guess what I am trying to say when I do mention my sense of comic book movie fatigue is that the presence of a new motion picture based around a comic book character does not inherently excite me or make me want to race to the movie theaters for three explicit reasons.
The first is that there are just so many of these types of movies right now and it seems that these are the only types of films that Hollywood is even remotely interested in making, thus creating a cinematic playing field that has no room or even interest for anything more idiosyncratic, or even original compared to the comic book movie which has a built-in audience and is more often than not a guaranteed money maker. The second reason is that too many of these big budget tentpole movies have grown to have such an over-reliance upon special effects and CGI technology at the expense of characters and stories that it is truly not going to get me excited to see yet another movie where the only thing that happens is cataclysm. I have seen explosions and the cinematic end of the world more times than I can count and seeing it all again has grown tiresome. The third reason is simple enough: a lot of those types of movies really aren't very good in the first place.
Even with all of that being said, we are living in a time when Director Christopher Nolan emerged with his triumphant, visionary and game changing "Dark Knight Trilogy," a trio of films that completely transcended their own genre masterfully. And yes, we do have the on-going series of films from the expanding Marvel Comics universe, which for the most part have proven themselves to be not only skillfully made but substantive in content, stories as well as sublimely well cast. Yet, over the past decade or so, there have been two comic book based series that have confounded me tremendously due to how indifferent to flat out disappointed I have been with the end results. The X-Men happened to be my favorite comic book series growing up and I have to say here and now that I am not a fan whatsoever of the films. I have only seen Director Bryan Singer's first two installments, "X-Men" (2000) and "X2: X-Men United" (2002) and Director Brett Ratner's third installment "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006), and I disliked all of them to increasing degrees. So regardless of what yo may say to me to convince me otherwise, I have not and will not see any of the subsequent "X-Men" films. They had their three strikes.
And then, there's Spider-Man...
Spider-Man has truly had a most difficult time achieving movie stardom despite the massive box office receipts all of the films have earned. As I have said many times in the past, and with no intended disrespect, I think that aside from the spectacular "Spider-Man 2" (2004), Director Sam Raimi fumbled the series more often than soared with it. For me, the first film, "Spider-Man" (2002), was only half of a good movie that was then fully derailed by all of the bloated CGI effects and that aforementioned summer movie cataclysm. And the third installment, "Spider-Man 3" (2007), was an overstuffed mess.
When it was first announced that the movie studio, still wanting those Spider-Man dollars regardless of quality, was ready to entirely reboot the series, it was just another moment when it felt that Hollywood lost all sense of even wanting to try any new ideas. And even so, I eventually found myself not only seeing but thoroughly enjoying Director Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012), as Webb seemed to grasp much more confidently what Raimi could not from having a tighter screenplay and story structure, a most consistent tonality, a greater sense of humanity and an emphasis of placing the more impressively seamless special effects as secondary to the characters and the film's overall emotional core.
With "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," I was prepared for that first film to just be a fluke and I would walk out of the theater shaking my head back and forth feeling that the "same old, same old" had done me in again. Furthermore, the wildly diverse nature of the reviews, many of them leaning towards the negative, certainly didn't provide me with any high hopes. So, imagine my surprise to discover that "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" was not only good, but Webb has markedly raised his game by making an even better, richer, darker and more emotionally turbulent film than his predecessor. And it is also a film that just nearly touches upon greatness. 2014 has already proven itself to be a fine cinematic year for me with the diversity of good to great films that I have already seen, and I am very excited to inform you that I am adding Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" to the list.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" opens as Peter Parker (a terrific Andrew Garfield) is simultaneously preparing to attend his high school graduation as well as attempt to save New York City for the umpteenth time as Spider-Man, in this case from the maniacal plutonium thief Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). During the melee, Spider-Man rescues OsCorp Industries employee/engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a shy, awkward, socially inept and mostly ignored individual from certain doom-an act that produces an unhealthy hero obsession towards Spider-Man within Max.
Yet despite the adoration from the citizens of New York City, Peter Parker is indeed feeling the emotional strains of being a superhero, from the punishing physicality and life threatening situations, to hiding his identity from his loving Aunt May (Sally Field), discovering the truth about his long departed and deceased parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), and most certainly, the guilt and mourning over his deceased Uncle Ben. Finally, there exists the guilt and strains of trying to maintain a romantic relationship with Gwen Stacey (a lovely Emma Stone), despite the grave warnings from her now deceased Father (Denis Leary), whose image Parker sees throughout his journeys thus compounding his inner struggle. Additionally, there exists the large possibility that Gwen may leave New York and Peter Parker behind for England to attend school.
Meanwhile at OsCorp, Max Dillon suffers a devastating electrical accident via electric eels that transforms him into the electricity fueled and empowered Electro. Additionally, Peter Parker's longtime childhood friend Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) returns to New York to not only witness the death of his own terminally ill Father, the CEO of OsCorp, but to also discover that his Father's illness is hereditary and develops at Harry's age, a realization that forces Harry to take several drastic and tragic measures of his own to save himself.
Now, with all of what I have described to you, it would seem that "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" would suffer the same problems as Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3," as this new film certainly does have quite a full plate...or several full plates. But what Marc Webb has achieved that Raimi did not was to keep all of his conceptual plates not only spinning in the air simultaneously and with terrific confidence, but ensuring that all of the elements and story threads are meaningful, necessary and merge together seamlessly, which as far as I am concerned they do.
In its own way, the film is constructed as intricately as a spider's web. As I think back to "Spider-Man 3," for instance, I just bristle with the memory that the film, which already boasted essentially four villains, possessed one major character (The Sandman) that could have been completely stripped out of the film and it would not have made any difference whatsoever. There was just a massive amount of material that was superfluous and Sam Raimi just could not find a way to handle the overload at all. Not so with what Webb has accomplished with this new film. He has devised a strongly structured cinematic house of cards as "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" not only has its central storyline to deal with but also, a broader story that is progressively building and linking the films together. All of the elements have to converge tightly or else the entire film falls apart and Webb somehow makes the act of keeping seemingly disparate elements locked together look so easy unlike Raimi who showed obvious struggle over and again.
One criticism that I have seen with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," is that in some ways, it takes a step backwards from the larger and more allegorical themes as introduced in Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy" and even with Directors Anthony and Joe Russo's excellent, up-to-the-minute "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Well, for me, I do not feel that it is necessarily the job of a comic book themed film to always transcend the genre and shoulder a story that functions as an allegory for modern day society. When it happens and is done well, then that is better for us in the audience to be sure. But mainly, what I think the job of a comic book movie happens to be is essentially what you get from an actual comic book: just tell the story you are trying to tell as best as possible. With "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," Marc Webb and his team of screen writers have told their story very, very well.
What I found to be most consistent within all areas of this new film was the poignant emotional core and the provocative theme of power and powerlessness. The connective tissue of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is how Peter Parker, Max Dillon and Harry Osborn are all essentially mirror images of each other to some degree as they are each dealing with issues of being abandoned, ignored, forsaken, unappreciated, even unloved or undeserving of love and somehow all three figures find a new sense of perceived accomplishment and power once they fall into their respective alter-egos. Yet, and most importantly, we in the audience can witness how as their sense of power increases, so does their respective issues with powerlessness. They tragically discover that for each of them, the two states of being fall despairingly hand in hand.
For Peter Parker, what else is the identity and his actions as Spider-Man but a way for him to try and alleviate the sense of guilt he harbors over his Uncle Ben's murder as well as the anger and loss he feels over the mysterious absence of his parents? And yet, no matter how many times he saves New York City, his guilt, confusion and anger never dissipates and of course, nothing could ever bring his beloved family members back from the dead. His heroic actions almost serve as a compulsion and with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," with his fears of losing Gwen Stacey growing in intensity, Peter Parker's Spider-Man heroics begin to serve as actions of attaining a level of control that is impossible, thus fueling his anger, his sorrow, his insecurities and his demons. Despite his best intentions, Peter Parker is forever in a state of existential unrest.
For the film's primary villains, Webb wisely keeps us riveted to the very same emotional core as he wants us to always witness the men that live inside of the monsters they eventually become, thus increasing the operatic drama and overall sense of tragedy. This precise approach certainly justifies the film nearly epic 2 1/2 hour running time as Webb wants us to understand these characters as human beings and not as evils that we are pounding our theater seats to be vanquished. Both Max Dillon and Harry Osborn are fragile souls driven to desperate measures through events that began as not of their own making, but their subsequent actions threaten to unravel them just as much as Peter Parker's.
With Max Dillon, and especially with how Jamie Foxx portrays him, we are witnessing a fiercely intelligent individual who is also more than a little unhinged. In fact, before his transformation, Max Dillon could be cut from a cloth that is most similar to Robert DeNiro's classic talk show superfan Rupet Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's "The King Of Comedy" (1983). Yet, after his transformation, Foxx never forgets the man inside, thus creating a movingly misunderstood creature like Frankenstein.
The connections between Harry Osborn and Peter Parker are even stronger as we view their friendship as being forged through the devastating losses of each of their families. Yet, where Peter Parker demonstrates a greater empathy, Harry Osborn is the figure Parker could have become if he allowed his spirit to fall into bitterness and recrimination, even though we fully understand how Harry arrived at that state of being. Harry's eventual transformation into...well, you can figure that one out for yourselves if you have not already done so...fully represents the traumatic consequences of attempting to control what cannot be controlled.
All of these issues for the men within "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" also gives the film's sole female character a greater sense of purpose. While she is still seriously underwritten, Emma Stone certainly makes yet another terrific impression upon the screen as Gwen Stacey. Her chemistry with Andrew Garfield remains as strong and as frisky as with the first installment yet this time, the character of Gwen Stacey represents a powerful counterpoint to Parker, Dillon and Osborn. Gwen Stacey is the one major character within the film who knows, understands and accepts the fact that failure is an essential part of the life cycle and how one's relationship to failure can shape a person's soul and perception of what life is and can be. Not everything can be controlled. Conflict and desolation are evident, especially if you are in love with a superhero. And this particular push-pull aspect of her relationship with Peter Parker gives "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" a decidedly stronger romantic story as it feels legitimately urgent and painful.
Webb and his screenwriters have not delivered the standard "will they/won't they" plot device. With Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, we are seeing two individuals with completely different comprehensions about life and how those differences affect their behaviors with themselves as well as each other. In all of the character elements that I have described, I feel that this is all credit to Webb's independent film roots as found within his debut feature film "(500) Days Of Summer" (2009), which despite its faults did illustrate a wise and lived-in perspective about the precarious nature of perceptions within a romantic relationship. It is a quality that I felt seriously grounded the film emotionally giving us an experience where we actually give a damn about what happens instead of being flattened by the sound and light show. And I have to say that by the film's conclusion, I would not be surprised if some of you are moved in ways that you did not expect to be.
Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" goes the distance in justifying its own existence in a time where we are just overrun with caped and costumed figures running around or movie theaters and multiplexes. While the film provides all of the requisite razzle dazzle, Webb has crafted a smarter, sadder, more solemn, emotionally deeper and psychologically traumatic film than I think that it is even being given credit.
Yes, I am truly within the throes of comic book movie fatigue but when the comic book movies are as strong as this one, I am not ready to hang up the cape, or in this case, the web shooters just yet.
Scott Powhatan Collins was born and raised in Chicago, IL and is a current resident of Madison, WI .He is a lifelong enthusiast of music, books and films. Hisbrain is filled with DJ dreams, filmmaking fantasies, literary luxuries and all manner of useless information. He chronicles his thoughts and reviews on his two blog sites Synesthesia (http://www savagejukebox.blogspot.co.uk) and Savage Cinema (http://wwwspcsavage.blogspot.co.uk), and is always on the lookout for the next piece of art to blow his mind and capture his heart.