Zapping Webs, Containing Trouble
Spiderman 2, the middle adventure in Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking trilogy, begins with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) racing through jammed Manhattan streets with Pizza strapped to his bicycle in a failing rush to deliver. Watching from a billboard is Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), his burdened love interest, her face gazing down from a perfume advertisement. The narrative stakes are set out very clear for our hero. His struggle will be balancing Spiderman’s responsibility with Peter Parker’s: making rent, making love, making it to customer’s doors in time. It’s a calm reflective passage that propels the film’s existential tone. The Amazing Spiderman 2 begins inside a nose-diving private jet where Peter’s father Richard Parker desperately, comically, fights off a government agent with a gun. Before the plane’s fiery end, he continues to upload an extremely important file regarding his scientific research. His keyboard dexterity in burning free-fall is its own superhuman feat.
It’s not necessarily a fair comparison, but it’s a nice juxtaposition, and it points to some of the fundamental differences between the two franchises, and contemporary superhero movies in general. Where Raimi made sure to keep his movies’ foundations at a humanistic, ground level, the reboot’s director Marc Webb, likely under his studio’s demands, ensures Spiderman is just as much about free-swinging action through the sky. The next scene after this jet failure is another free-fall, this time by the man’s son, donning his red and blue tights and mask. It’s a point of view shot above his back, parachuting into Manhattan before he slings his saving webs around Park Avenue. Webb wants you inside Spiderman like Raimi wanted you inside Peter Parker. Many times in Amazing 2, we don’t see Spiderman from below, we’re right there with him, and Webb consistently slows down time like in the Matrix, suggesting the spider sense and giving the audience a chance to feel its ability.
Spiderman as public hero and Peter Parker as hopeless romantic created a dichotomy that was eventually broken when Mary Jane got swept into the personal villainous mess. The slow burning tension of hidden identity allowed Raimi’s second film an erotic sendoff. In the Amazing series the female romance is a vivacious, much more competent Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. She knows Peter’s masked identity, but her safety is still the primary concern. In this second film Dennis Leary’s ghost, Gwen’s fallen father, haunts Peter into changing his crime stopping to a completely solo act. Gwen is valedictorian of their high school class and still works at Oscorp. She is the head to her boyfriend’s confident heart, but usually the latter gets all of the attention.
That’s the dilemma that fuels Spiderman’s first foe. Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx, is the mastermind behind New York City’s electrical grid but Oscorp treats him like a janitor, partly because he looks like one. He’s also got an unhealthy obsession with Spiderman and desire to be needed and appreciated. During some late night electrical repairing he’s unintentionally shocked and falls into a tank of swimming eels and Jamie Foxx turns into a blue visual effect. “Electro” is his comic book name and most of Foxx’s quirky personality evaporates once the electrocuted hooded figure starts terrorizing the city’s power circuits. Somehow bolts of lightning disrupting the populated city block isn’t enough to convince people they’re in danger.
Meanwhile foundations for another antagonist are taking shape. Harry Osborne, Peter’s estranged friend, emerges from the dark to hear his dying father (a sickly Chris Cooper) one last time, taking the keys as CEO of Oscorp. Dane DeHaan takes over playing Harry, whose character’s arc you’ll know if you’re familiar with James Franco’s interpretation. DeHaan is mostly right for this role, chosen likely because of his maniacal transformation in Josh Trank’s Chronicle. Harry’s slowly dying from a genetic virus and wants Spiderman’s blood to preserve himself, especially to quiet the group of frustrated senior Oscorp board members. The tension between the old friends thrives off each others’ personal secrets.
These scenes between the two are what the Amazing series as a whole has lacked. Maybe my nostalgic childhood invokes a larger distinction, but in Raimi’s original, the blockbuster stock imagery is consistently countered with moments of real horror. The Thanksgiving scene always fascinates me. The Green Goblin has just fought Spiderman and cut his forearm badly. Peter, still wearing his suit, swings back to his room to change clothes but sticks to his ceiling as Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne, quickly de-greened, inspects his whereabouts. A drop of blood slowly dribbles down Peter’s arm and splashes to the floor, a miniscule sound felt with ferocity by Norman who spins to look up, greeted by just the ceiling as Peter has deftly moved beneath the balcony in split-second fashion. The suspense builds based on the growing conflation of personal and professional, human and super.
That’s something that Webb, along with writers Alex Kurtzman and Alex Orci, has had trouble finding. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this sequel. It’s an aesthetic masterpiece and romantically inclined, with scenes proportionately and carefully managed, likely due to Webb’s previous rom-com experience directing (500) Days of Summer. But it still lacks a flavor. Raimi made sure his superhero embodied New York City, stretching him on elevated trains and maneuvering Roosevelt Island cable cars over barges. The large action sequences in Amazing 2 take place in Times Square and by the Brooklyn Bridge. The crowd awes at Spiderman their savior behind metal gates. But these aren’t New Yorkers, they’re tourists. It’s like asking someone for authentic New York pizza and getting directed towards Papa John’s.
It’s not fatigue I feel from this franchise. It’s the reminder that it’s not fresh. One franchise finished and the reboot began five years later. Sony is practically inviting comparison. Peter Parker is relatable. He’s a nerd. That’s why I thought Tobey Maguire embodies him better than Andrew Garfield, who has better looks, hair, and confidence. With Garfield you get more tang and cocky wit, but also the feeling that he has no problem getting the girl. With Garfield’s Peter, it’s not a matter of “if” but “should.” The Maguire and Dunst relationship had an added layer of doubt because you were never sure if Mary Jane really fell for Peter, or if Peter really deserved her. He stumbled over words and often couldn’t get them out. Garfield has the opposite problem. He has so much to say he often says too much.
But it’s clear he’s having fun in the patriotic spandex. Part of this fact is because his character never appears even partly vulnerable in the face of immense danger but for a moment in a sinister, abbreviated ending. Spiderman isn’t a wimp, but he is a lanky teenager with hormones and susceptibilities. Peter’s problems are more cerebral this time around. Still discontent with his Aunt May’s (Sally Field) family cover-up, Peter becomes Carrie Mathieson, manically plastering his walls with maps, photos, and newspaper clippings, forever in search of his father’s scientific intentions. It’s a lot for a recent graduate to deal with.
And at two hours and twenty minutes long, it’s a lot for the movie to handle as well. The brief introduction of Paul Giamatti as a Russian mobster sets the third film’s wheels in motion, as do a couple of other impersonally shortened plot points. Amazing 2 could have ended more somberly, but, in the Marvel moneymaking machine, that might have been too big of a risk. When comics are canon, narrative creativity often cancels out. Plot and theme are unbalanced; they’re just crammed with as much story filling as possible. Watching the Amazing series has turned into binge watching: you don’t care to reflect on an individual episode, you just want to get to the next one!