Friday, May 2, 2014

Caught in a Web: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2


What makes Spider-Man fundamentally engaging and enjoyable is his relatable humanity. Peter Parker is just a normal young guy with real problems with family, school, girls, and employment. That provides a ground-level rooting interest that’s a more direct emotional appeal in all his action sequences than in all the boring climactic near-apocalyptic scenarios that pervade the superhero genre. That’s what I found most charming about The Amazing Spider-Man. With Andrew Garfield the reboot’s filmmakers found, like Sam Raimi found in Tobey Maguire for their superior films, a likable guy. Even if Peter didn’t always do the right thing, you knew the decisions pile up and weigh on him without getting in the way of the high-flying fun of being Spider-Man. What was most refreshing about that retelling of Spidey’s origin story was its relatively self-contained narrative. It didn’t seem to be spending too much of its time teasing future installments or leaving storylines conspicuously hanging at loose ends like so many superhero movies do these days. It simply found good performers in a narrative that had a beginning, middle, and end.

But when it comes to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the charm of a complete story has been entirely thrown out. It consists of 142 minutes of scenes – some better than others – that never cohere. The whole production exists for the moment, chasing a this-happens-then-this-happens high where everything is pitched at a consistent level of spectacle and import. I thought of Ebert’s criticism of Michael Bay’s Armageddon as a feature-length trailer. The problem is, this Spider-Man isn’t just cut together like its own highlights. It’s cut together like a teaser for its own sequel. It’s all color, noise, and shapeless plot, stuffed full of subplots and character introductions foreshadowing and previewing where the studio would like to take this franchise in the future. As a result, the movie plays out busily with much happening, but little impact. There’s no clear through-line. Narrative, character, theme, and style exist in a haze, constantly threatening to take shape, but never getting there.

To even briefly summarize the plot seems a losing proposition. Instead I’ll describe some of the variables bouncing around. Peter (Garfield) is on-again-off-again with the lovable Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, continuing her appealing performance from the first movie). He’s also trying to hide his superhero identity from sweet Aunt May (Sally Field). Meanwhile, the heir to the CEO throne of the omnipresent and obviously menacing Oscorp Industries, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), skulks about looking to cure his mysterious hereditary ailment. A dweeby and unjustly ignored scientist (Jamie Foxx) gets electrocuted and then falls into a tank of genetically altered eels, an experience that leaves him blue, translucent, able to manipulate energy, and has rattled his brain in a way that leads him to decide he’s a supervillain and take the name Electro. He must know he’s in a superhero movie. The rest of the movie is filled with bit parts for the likes of Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Felicity Jones, and Sarah Gadon, all clearly sitting around hoping they get to play more important roles in a future installment.

Director Marc Webb, with cinematographer Dan Mindel, shoots it all clearly and colorfully, juggling the plotlines as best he can. It’s all broad and comic-booky, with cartoony fluidity to the bright special effects and shots of action that twist gymnastically around Spidey in sometimes-exciting ways. But it is when Webb gets the chance to narrow in on the human relationships that the movie works best. The scenes are not particularly well written, but Garfield and Stone continue to have nice chemistry and manage to have a believable romantic spark as they juggle their lives individually and together. He’s a freelance photographer and Spider-Man. She’s an Oscorp intern and wants to go to Oxford in the fall. The question of what their future looks like, and whether they’re a couple beyond the present, is treated with some gravity. It works only because the performances are convincing.

Garfield is enjoying himself, creating a Peter Parker who is having so much fun being Spider-Man, swinging down New York City skyscrapers and wisecracking with bad guys, that darker shadings of grief and mystery almost don’t have room to stretch out comfortably. Stone, for her part, is even better. Not just a prop or an object to be rescued, she holds her own. Smart, she helps think Spidey’s way out of a number of predicaments, and is her own independent-minded person. It’s a shame that she has to reenact one of the source material’s most famous plot developments, a decision that turns her into yet another female character we’re only supposed to care about because of how what happens to her makes the male lead feel.

But it’s not just her. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s screenplay makes the wrong moves by having every character and event become simply an overtly reverential and referential signpost on the way to the next spectacle, moving the pieces and gears into place for the next installment instead of becoming a wholly satisfying story of its own. (That Kurtzman/Orci scripts have sometimes made this a bad habit is not encouraging. I went into the film unaware of its writers and when their credit appeared I groaned and thought “makes sense.”) If I’m being charitable, the movie is an accidental post-narrative experiment. If I’m not being charitable, it’s desperately laying track just ahead of a franchise barreling down a route-in-progress. Either way, the flop sweat starts to show. It leads to a wobbly tone and confused plot.

Take Jamie Foxx for example. He’s delivering an amused big, campy performance that appears to belong in a different movie. Electro is a jumble of shifting personalities, goofy jealousies, and legitimate complaints, not to mention some serious-minded hints of metaphoric marginalization that remain largely inactive, all mixed into one convincingly weird persona. His scenes rise to match his nutty intensity and scattered evolution. I thoroughly enjoyed his scene opposite the exquisitely named Dr. Ashley Kafka (Marton Csokas), a man with a thick German accent who captures Electro in an Oscorp-funded insane asylum’s contraption that looks like a rubber body suit welded into a giant circuit board suspended over a hot tub. (Why would such a thing even exist other than to accommodate the plot of a superhero movie?) It’s a scene that feels one or two notches away from pure comedy.

But it is hard to square that tone with what we see elsewhere. We get straining emotional scenes of Dane DeHaan brooding with intensity in a heightened sickly torment that nearly breaks past the quick and dirty token characterization given to him. There is light relationship comedy, intimations of fatherly secrets for Spidey and Osborne alike, an opening phony-baloney plane crash flashback, a concluding manipulative little-kid-in-danger scene, a perilous blackout, a couple of winking references to the sadly still-unseen J. Jonah Jameson (the best of all Spider-Man supporting characters), and a funeral. It’s a sequel that does so much, it ends up feeling like nothing at all. I didn’t exactly have a bad time, but its diverting qualities are fleeting and its frustrations linger.

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