Friday, May 2, 2014
With Great Budget Comes Too Much Responsibility
It's hard to remember now that we're at the fifth Spider-Man movie in 12 years, but when the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire came out in 2002, superhero films were actually quite rare. Bryan Singer's first X-Men film had shown their potential a year before, but the runaway success of Spider-Man meant that they would be showing up at movie theaters for a long time. Marvel Comics took things to the next level by producing movies themselves, introducing a slate of films featuring various characters that would all eventually join The Avengers. It was the cinematic equivalent of an interconnected comic book universe and audiences have been eating it up. If you're making superhero movies right now, you're either Marvel or you're trying to be Marvel. Warner Bros is certainly going that route with the DC characters - a few years from now, Ben Affleck's Batman will team up with Henry Cavill's Superman from Man of Steel, with a Justice League movie planned for a few years after that.
That leaves Sony in a bit of a strange position. The whole reason this reboot even happened was that they could retain the rights to the character but what will they do without any other superheroes in their stable? The answer seems clear after watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is stuffed with so many different aspects of the Spidey mythos that its massive two-and-a-half hour length just barely covers them all. In addition to the cast from last time, there are three new supervillains and an onslaught of various names familiar to those who know the comics. Lesser known characters like Felicia Hardy and Alistair Smythe have smaller roles which may or may not be developed in further sequels. The Ravencroft Institute, Marvel's kinder and gentler Arkham Asylum, appears in a few scenes, although the head psychologist Dr. Ashley Kafka has been inexplicably made into a male character with a stock Dr. Mengele-esque mania. J. Jonah Jameson, absent from the last film, appears here only in e-mail form and it's actually one of the movie's funniest bits. There were even plans for some scenes featuring Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson, but those reportedly were cut from the final film.
Enough of the nerdy tidbits...the main plot is busy enough. Still haunted by the death of Captain George Stacy in the previous film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) agonizes over whether or not it's responsible to be in a relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) when his double life puts him in so much danger all the time. Meanwhile, his long lost friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) has returned from abroad. DeHaan, who played a similar character in the underrated Chronicle, is the best part of the movie. There's a chilling scene early on featuring him and his father Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), who is dying from a mysterious illness that just happens to make him resemble a green-skinned goblin. The illness is hereditary, forcing Harry into increasingly desperate schemes which lead to his transformation into the Green Goblin. The reboot's greatest strength has been its casting and this is no exception. DeHaan gives a fantastic performance, although for the bulk of the movie, Spidey's main adversary is Electro (Jamie Foxx).
Meanwhile, Peter is also investigating the mystery left behind by his dead parents, which was briefly discussed in the last film. While it might seem like a burdensome subplot, it leads to most of the movie's most emotional moments. This is largely because of the acting from Campbell Scott as the stoic Richard Parker and Sally Field as Aunt May. In general, the human element of this film is stronger than its predecessor; I really liked how Spider-Man was constantly saving random pedestrians from the destruction wrought by his battles with supervillains. It was a nice contrast to Man of Steel and Superman's flagrant disregard for the tens of thousands of people who must have died during the final battle in Metropolis. During the climactic battle with Electro, director Mark Webb keeps cutting to a plane overhead that has been affected by all the electrical craziness going on. It's perplexing at first, but I was grateful that the movie was reminding its audience of all the ordinary lives in the balance. After all, those people are the reason a superhero does what he does.
And while we're on the subject of human moments, we should talk about Gwen Stacy. Ever since the fans knew she would have a major role in this series, we all wondered if the writers would do that storyline. Going into this movie, I still wasn't sure. But when I saw Emma Stone wearing that iconic green coat and purple skirt...and then the Green Goblin showed up...I felt that unique anxiety of knowing what's about to happen, like when Robb and Catelyn Stark went to a certain wedding to try and make amends with Walder Frey on Game of Thrones. Some of the details are different, but it's an absolutely wrenching moment that will really shock Spidey-newbs. Regardless of the movie's problems, any fan should check this out just to see this legendary storyline come to life.
With that in mind, it feels unusually crass when the script starts frantically setting up future sequels after Gwen's death. It illustrates the main issue with the movie, which has four different writers credited for the screenplay. It's not a story so much as a checklist. I guess when a movie has a huge nine-figure budget, the studio expects the tracks to be laid down for more content. Continuity is fun but in this case, it really got in the way. The film has such a hard time living in the moment that when a great moment like Gwen's death happens, it feels like the acting and direction working in spite of the script rather than because of it. At the beginning of the film, Spidey captures a Russian thug named Aleksei Sytsevich (a hilarious Paul Giamatti). At the very end, after two knock-down drag-out fights with Electro and the Green Goblin and Gwen's death, Sytsevich shows up again as The Rhino, a true B-list Spider-Man villain. You just want to shout "enough already!" as the movie heads towards yet another "final battle."
So what's next? Well, it's clear from the movie's ending scenes that the Rhino will eventually be part of the Sinister Six. The movie wisely kept Harry Osborn alive, so he is likely to lead the group of miscreants. Based on a few telltale shots in the laboratory scenes, it appears The Vulture and Doctor Octopus will be joining the team as well. Frankly, I'm more interested in what the series will do with Peter's personal story. With Gwen dead and Mary Jane still not introduced, it would be refreshing for the writers to explore one of his other romances. Will Felicia Hardy assume her Black Cat identity next time around? Will Electro find a way to return and menace Spidey further? There was no body and in soap operas and comics, if there's no body, they're not dead. Will we ever get to see someone play Mysterio? Man, I'd love that.
It's funny how I always have more fun speculating about what the next movie will be than I do actually watching them. I suppose when there are so many competing visions of the characters and the world, the most fun an old-school fan can have is just observing how each iteration sifts through the source material. Looking forward to more of that.