Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Review: Spidey's Lastest Outting Isn't The Train Wreck Most Were Expecting


2012's franchise reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was a mixed bag of bad intentions, last minute edits, better than expected execution, the looming shadow of the still recent Sam Raimi trilogy and some wildly uneven tones that switched between comic goofiness and hard hitting drama that never really meshed well together. To put it bluntly, the film reeked of a studio trying to keep a firm grasp on a franchise that they only see as a way to pay next month's electric bill.

Fans of the web-slinger were unsurprisingly mixed on how they felt about director Marc Webb's vision of Spider-Man, which didn't bode well with a sequel already underway with many of the same people at the helm. To make matters worse, when word spread that Sony was now trying to force a number of new characters into the second film many had visions of the unholy turd of superhero films, Batman and Robin. How did things turn out for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time:5:00 pm, May 2, 2014       
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: PG-13                 
Film Runtime: 2 hr 22 min    
Studio: Sony Pictures

Biases:  
Loves: Spider-Man 2, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan
Likes: Jamie Foxx, Andrew Garfield, Spider-Man
Neutral:  The Amazing Spider-Man reboot
Hates: That Sony just won't give in and work with Marvel already
There is hope yet: That future Spidey movies won't suck.


Picking up a number of years after the previous film, we find Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) on full time duty protecting New York from scumbags while his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), his Aunt May (Sally Field) and his entire graduating class prepare to get their diplomas. Peter meanwhile is busy trying to take down a criminal called Rhino (Paul Giamatti) who has stolen a truck full of bad stuff from Oscorp. Spidey of course puts a stop to his plans and swings in just in time to graduate High School. But despite how perfect everything seems, the haunting words of Gwen's father still linger with Peter and make him question his relationship with Gwen.

Elsewhere in the city there are a number of new faces popping up as we are introduced to Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a low level tech working at Oscorp who after a chance encounter with Spider-man becomes the web-head's number one fan until he has another chance encounter with some not-so-friendly electric eels. Also on tap are Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), the owner of Oscorp who is on his death bed thanks to a genetic disease that his only son and heir Harry (Dane DeHaan) also shares. Once his father passes away however, Harry rekindles an old friendship with Peter in hopes of gaining access to Spider-man's blood which he believes is the only cure for the disease that has plagued his family for generations.


At first glance it would seem that there is about 3 to 4 movies worth of stories and characters in those first two paragraphs, and that is exactly right. Sony, in its futile attempts to turn a single superhero franchise into an Avengers-sized behemoth, has jammed packed Amazing Spider-man 2 (henceforth known as ASM2) to the brim and used it to set up the building blocks for a number of other spin-offs in the near future. Spider-Man may get credit for being in the title, but he has to share the near two and a half hour runtime with not one, not two, but three villains while simultaneously creating character back stories from thin air (Peter and Harry's friendship), solving the mystery of his parents deaths (which is a bit underwhelming) and setting the stage for league of villains who will eventually get their own movie.

That is a whole lot of stuff to jam into one movie. Forget about too many characters, how about too many plotlines? There are so many different plots running at any given time that the film sometimes feels impossibly busy, but somehow Marc Webb finds a way to give each character just enough time to establish themselves before we move on to the next. This may come as a shock to you, but despite having the odds stacked against it, ASM2 miraculously juggles all its different stories and characters with a grace rarely seen. This comes in thanks mostly to the cast but also the editing department.


Now, don't go thinking this is the second coming of The Dark Knight, which still stands tall as the de facto example of how to include multiple characters and villains into a single film with perfection. But it is also nowhere near the atrocity that was Batman and Robin, or even the slightly better Batman Forever. Heck, it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to say that ASM2 is even better than Spider-Man 3. Yes, you read that right. ASM2 isn't the train wreck most expected and stands as a legitimately good film and a darn fun one at that.

Yes it has it share of problems which we will get to in a minute. But first lets go over what it got right first since that is what is really at the heart of the matter here. First of all the casting is spot on. Many groans of indifference plagued the internet when it was announced that Jamie Foxx would be playing Electro, this reviewer included, but the truth is that Foxx is pretty dam good in the role. Despite the character of Max Dillon having too close a resemblance to Jim Carey's Edward Nygma from Batman Forever in the beginning, when the lights go out and he charges up, Foxx delivers a performance that straddles that fine line between over the top camp and too serious with great ease while also giving the character some needed depth where there was likely none on the page. 

Dane DeHaan on the other hand was an inspired choice. Ever since his appearance in the indie flick Chronicle he has been on his way to stardom with each new role he got. He is one of the few actors in young Hollywood right now who shows the charisma and talent that a leading man needs which makes his future roles even more exciting. But as Harry Osborn he takes a underwritten and underdeveloped role, much like Foxx with Electro, and infuses so much depth and personality simply through looking into his eyes that it is impossible to imagine another actor doing anything even close to what he was able to do here. He even makes the forced friendship with Peter work, which is a miracle all its own.


Then you have the holdovers from the last film which include Garfield, Stone and Field. Let's just say that both Stone and Field deliver nothing less than what we expect of them, which is to say they are perfect and a simple joy to watch every time they are on screen. Garfield however has made a very nice and welcomed transformation, especially when it comes to his portrayal of Peter Parker. Where in the last film he felt a bit too awkward at times and a bit too confident at others, in ASM2 he finds that sweet spot and provides Peter with just the right amount of confidence and swagger when he is out of the Spidey suit.

In the suit he once again proves that he is without a doubt the best actor to put on the mask to date. His snark and witty remarks during his encounters with the films many villains are once again perfectly delivered and help give Spidey that winning attitude that has become a hallmark of his character. The actors are all top notch and deliver well beyond anything that anyone could have expected, but it is once again the relationship between Peter and Gwen that is at the heart of what makes ASM2 work as well as it does.


Their relationship was the only consistent part of the first ASM which was mostly in thanks to both Garfield and Stones natural on screen chemistry with one another (and the fact that they are an off-screen item). That chemistry comes through once again but to back them up this time is a script that may seem a bit clumsy with the rest of the characters (more on that in a minute) but absolutely nails their overall relationship and the hardships that threaten to keep them apart.

Looking at the film from the perspective of it being a love story between these two characters, it is near flawless. The scene between the two after they had been separated for a while was cute and sweet, but more importantly is showed how hopelessly in love these two are with one another. This is important to show not only because they are the central focus of the film, but also because of the looming shadow that is Gwen Stacy's fathers final words to Peter just before he died telling him to keep her safe by pushing her away.

Other improvements over the first ASM are its action sequences. Webb already knew how to make a successful on screen romance work (500 Days of Summer), but his inexperience with shooting action didn't do that first film any favors. Thankfully he is a quick learner though as just about every single action sequence in ASM2 is the type of spectacle we have come to expect from our modern day superhero movies. Extra Kudos go out to all involved for keeping Spidey's mask on during the action scenes which is a huge pet peeve of mine.


Spider-Man's first encounter with Electro as well as the opening car chase through the city are both highlights that show off Webb's continued understanding on how to shoot chaotic action scenes while keeping the audience informed as to what all is going on. This is especially true whenever we go into Spidey-sense mode and everything slows down as Spider-Man assesses the situation. The final confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro isn't nearly as exciting as those initial encounters sadly, but what it lacks in raw action it more than makes up for with some gorgeous visuals and interesting bits of humor (best rendition of itsy-bitsy spider ever!).

That unfortunately is where all the praise ends and where the films few crucial faults begin. Despite Foxx and DeHaan giving it their all and trying to imbue their characters with as much depth as possible, both Electro and Harry Osborn can't help but feel more like plot devices than actual characters. From the way they are introduced to the way they are shelved until needed to propel the story forward again, you never really get the sense that they are acting in a believable manner. Electro's hate towards Spider-Man is especially curious, with this idea that he suddenly wants people to see him everywhere and gets angry at Spidey simply because he is on TV at the moment. Would he have hated anyone if they were on TV instead of him?


Harry's motivations are also extremely questionable. The disease that has been part of his family for generations shows no signs of being an immediate danger to him (his father was very old when he died because of it). So it makes very little sense that such a smart individual as him would suddenly become so obsessed with curing himself that he would be led to committing multiple murders. The aforementioned friendship with Peter is even more of a mystery as in this new reboot they have never met on screen before, leaving the audience to pull from the previous trilogy for some needed backstory which is just strange in practice.

Peter's continued journey to discover the mystery behind his parents death is equally as baffling as all the character motivations. The opening scene of the film helps fill in gaps of what actually happened, but aside from being the most ridiculous fight for a lap top (and product placement) ever, none of it feels necessary. Leaving their deaths as a mystery would have been much more meaningful, and don't even get me started on that absurd hidden subway lab...sigh.


ASM2 feels hopelessly bloated most of the time. Characters are shifted around to help allow the next part of the story to unfold, but never do any of the decisions that lead them there feel plausible. If not for the outstanding cast, kinetic and fun action sequences and the impeccable on-screen chemistry between Garfield and Stone, ASM2 would have crashed and burned with no possible hope of emerging from the debris. But as it stands, ASM2 is a much better film than it has any right to be and a much better film than ASM mostly in thanks to its cast and crew who worked a miracle so that Sony can continue to hold its vice grip lock on the franchise and keep fanboys everywhere loaded with hate in their favorite forums.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

This is the film we should have got two years ago when they decided to keep the franchise going. It has all the required elements to make it a summer blockbuster, a great cast, great action, great visuals which all combine to make for a very fun time at the movies. Despite having negative feelings towards the reasoning behind the reboot, this is a solid entry into the franchise that hopefully heralds some more great Spidey adventures in the near future.

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