Friday, May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Diminishing returns

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for plenty of silly action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.2.14

Spidey’s losing his snap.

I was no fan of Sony’s numb-nuts decision to re-boot this franchise, which the studio announced shortly after the 2007 release of the previous trilogy’s final installment; it seemed the height of lunacy. Our interest is such characters derives, in part, from the way in which they respond — positively or negatively — to an ever-expanding series of events and adventures; look at the brilliantly interwoven strands that have made all the other Marvel characters (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) so much more interesting on the big screen.

Young gazillionaire Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), stricken with a hereditary disease
that will disfigure and then kill him, begs Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) for a blood
transfusion. But although the man beneath the mask regards Harry as a longtime
friend, Peter genuinely believes that complying with this request could kill Harry
much faster ... or do something even worse.
It’s no fun to see a character taken only so far — adolescent steps into a developing superhero career — and then slammed back into infancy.

The folks behind James Bond waited 44 years before re-telling his origin story, in 2006’s Casino Royale. Even characters as venerable and popular as Dumas’ D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers are gathered anew, with fresh young casts, only once per generation ... if that.

But only a decade later, as was the case between Tobey Maguire’s debut outing as Spidey in 2002, and Andrew Garfield’s introduction in 2012? Madness.

On top of which, Maguire set the bar VERY high with his second outing; I still rank 2004’s Spider-Man 2 as the best modern superhero epic yet made (yes, even better than The Avengers).

Granted, there’s an obvious problem when it comes to the way Peter Parker is time-locked somewhere between high school and college ... but if Sony had thought that one through, they wouldn’t have started with 27-year-old Maguire in the first place.

Come to think of it, starting anew with 29-year-old Garfield suggests that Sony hasn’t learned its lesson.

But OK; all this aside, individual films should be judged on their own merits, even when part of an ongoing series. And, in fairness, Garfield’s debut outing as the unwitting victim of a radioactive spider bite was quite entertaining. His take on the character is captivating in a slightly different way; he’s more of a klutzy nerd than Maguire’s insecure, angst-ridden nebbish.

Plus, Garfield had the benefit of an excellent supporting cast. Emma Stone’s blond and effervescent Gwen Stacy is a reasonable substitute for Kirsten Dunst’s red-headed Mary Jane Watson (although the latter will be immortalized forever, thanks to her sweet, sexy, rain-drenched, upside-down kiss with Spidey in that series’ first entry).

Sally Field was — and is — terrific as Peter’s Aunt May; Martin Sheen was just right as Uncle Ben, and Denis Leary was properly stern and intelligent as Gwen’s father. And while the Lizard wasn’t my idea of a proper origin-story villain, scripters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves — the latter two being Hollywood veterans with plenty of intelligent screenplays between them — delivered a thoroughly engrossing tale.

Which, for the most part, director Marc Webb managed not to screw up.

The same cannot be said for his handling of this overblown sequel.

This series always has spent too much time with Spidey’s smash-edit trapeze act through the canyons of New York City, as if the special-effects teams have been desperate to prove that yes, truly, a guy really could do this (!!!) ... when the CGI fakery has been blatant all along. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Webb devotes even more time to vertigo-inducing web-slinging in this flick.

That is, when he’s not wasting additional time destroying police cars and massive neon signs.

It could be argued that the road to wretched excess, with respect to the cinematic destruction of personal property, began back in 1980, when the Blues Brothers demolished an indoor shopping mall. Plenty of ham-fisted directors have imitated this cliché ever since, every one of them failing to realize that far more dramatic tension is created by a threat to small-scale targets.

Director Zack Snyder made this mistake in last summer’s Man of Steel, which concluded with a tasteless orgy of destruction that would have killed thousands of civilians (all off-camera, but still...). Webb does the same here, hurling cars, trucks and Manhattan’s famed jumbo-trons the way we’d discard Kleenex.

Perhaps that’s because his storyline isn’t very smart to begin with. I note the absence of Sargent and Kloves; this sequel is credited to Vanderbilt, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner. Collectively, the three newcomers have plenty of sharp TV and film work behind them, but their collaboration here simply doesn’t gel. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is something of a mess, and at 142 minutes, it rapidly becomes a tedious mess.

We catch up with Peter and his alter-ego as he makes short work of a dim-bulb Russian gangster named Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti ... and don’t worry; we’ll see him again). His super-heroics aside, Peter can’t come to terms with his relationship with Gwen; they truly adore each other, but there’s the matter of Peter’s promise to her father, as he died in the previous film.

The elder Stacy’s request wasn’t unreasonable: that Peter stop seeing Gwen, given the obvious dangers presented by an expanding roster of super-villains. But does Peter love her enough to leave her? And can Gwen, in turn, tolerate his doing so?

Elsewhere, under-appreciated OsCorp electrical genius Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has been a company doormat for years. Despite having developed the revolutionary power grid that lights up the entire city, reaping untold profits for OsCorp, poor Max is forever ignored and belittled. The opportunity for revenge comes after an unlikely accident transforms him into Electro, a being able to absorb and then “throw” huge bolts of electricity.

And still elsewhere, Peter’s long-unseen childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns to town, just in time to witness a dying declaration from his insane father (Chris Cooper). Young Harry winds up as head of OsCorp, a surprise that causes no end of grief to Donald Menken (Colm Feore, properly sinister), the nasty board member actually running the corporation’s quite nefarious “special projects” section.

The film’s quiet second act is reasonably engaging, with its focus on down-to-earth matters. Garfield and Stone share some nice chemistry; their wistful performances, as Peter and Gwen try to sort things out, can’t help evoking familiar feelings in any couples who’ve tried to navigate the divide of separate career paths. (Peter’s path just happens to be, well, rather unusual.)

Similarly, we get some solid pathos in Peter’s reunion with Harry, who confesses that he has the same hereditary disease that killed his father. Harry believes that a blood transfusion from Spider-Man might save him; Peter finds this unlikely, even potentially dangerous ... and, of course, he’s not in a position to admit that Harry’s actually talking to Spider-Man.

DeHaan does a nice job as Harry, initially eliciting our sympathy before slowly turning into a very, very creepy guy.

Indeed, he’s a much better villain than Foxx, who’s completely wasted in this film: as capriciously abused as Max Dillon is by OsCorp. Foxx’s early scenes as the “normal” Max overplay the man’s anxieties to the point of laughable camp; later, as Electro, there isn’t enough Jamie Foxx to even give a performance. The character is pure CGI.

More to the point, this Electro is stupidly powerful: far more so than his comic book counterpart. Even Thor would have trouble dealing with an opponent who can literally travel through power lines, appear and dissolve into thin air, drain an entire city’s power and hurl lightning bolts without warning ... and Spider-Man ain’t no Thor. At least, he shouldn’t be ... but in this film’s handling, he displays an upgrade that makes him seem more like a cross between Superman and the Flash.

This series has made a mantra of Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben’s sage observation: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I can supply a corollary: With absurd power, comes lack of interest.

Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man got believably battered and nearly killed, during his climactic battle with the Green Goblin in the 2002 film. Aside from incurring a few bruises, Garfield’s Spider-Man seems invulnerable ... and that’s not the Spidey I know and love. It’s also ridiculous.

So is Marton Csokas’ performance as an ill-advised character dubbed Dr. Ashley Kafka, who oversees the torture — ah, treatment — of the super-powered lunatics incarcerated at the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane (Marvel’s answer to Batman’s Arkham Asylum). Kafka is a sniggering burlesque, possibly suggested by Peter Sellers’ long-ago performance as Dr. Strangelove. The essential point is that Kafka’s presence eradicates any notion that we should take this film seriously, just as Richard Pryor completely ruined Christopher Reeve’s earnest work in 1983’s Superman III.

It’s a fatal mistake: merely one of many made by Webb and his collaborators.

Credit where due, this scripting team does concoct a clever back-story for Peter’s mysteriously vanished parents, along with a savvy explanation for why that radioactive spider bite had such a specific impact on Peter himself. I also appreciate the faithful nod toward Marvel Comics lore, and longtime fans will know whereof I speak, when a particular incident occurs.

Marvel guru Stan Lee makes his usual cameo, early on, but I can’t imagine he’s very happy with the results here. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is far from amazing; it’s actually a sad example of sophomore slump, some poignant work by Garfield, Stone and Field notwithstanding.

I see that Garfield already is attached to Spidey’s next epic, due in 2016. Let’s hope Sony surrounds him with better production talent.

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