The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Written by James Taylor.

Photo from the article One criticism has repeatedly been held against the decision to reboot Spider-Man a mere five years after Spider-Man 3 (2007); what’s the point? The simple answer, of course, is money, and the fact that Sony, who acquired the cinematic rights to Spider-Man when a somewhat desperate Marvel was facing bankruptcy, need to regularly produce films to avoid the rights reverting back to Marvel. However, one of the best ways for Sony to maximise returns on their money spider is to provide superhero thrills in a new way. In this Alternate Take I will explore whether The Amazing Spider-Man 2 adds anything, aesthetically or narratively, to the Spider-Man franchise and, more broadly, superhero cinema.

Contrary to the popular preconception that superhero films are homogenising Hollywood’s output, the range of styles that they offer is actually very varied. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy captures the vivid sensibility of Silver Age comics, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are swathed in a murky moral quagmire and Marvel’s films each deploy aspects of different genres, from mythological fantasy in Thor (2011) to political thriller in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) struggled to carve out its own identity, presenting a rather muted hybrid of different styles in which none really shone through. It’s not as vibrant as Raimi’s Spider-Man or as gritty as Nolan’s Batman, while attempts at providing monster movie thrills with the Lizard are all too tame. The sequel therefore had much to do to assert its individuality in the increasingly crowded market for cinematic superheroes.

Superhero films can distinguish themselves by envisioning superhuman movement in new ways. Superpowers grant characters unique ways of traversing cinematic space, which can be complemented by innovative cinematography and special effects. For instance, in Iron Man 3’s (2013) climactic battle suits of armour fly around catching, encasing and dropping different people, while Thor: The Dark World (2013) utilises portals that enable an inter-realm choreography as characters fall, fly and chase one another across realms.

Spider-Man’s spatial liberation as he swings through and above the streets of New York invites similarly liberated camera movements. The signature liveliness of Raimi’s cinematography hits a career peak in his Spider-Man films as the camera (or virtual camera, the majority of the shots’ contents are created digitally) circles and bounces around the hero. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 fails to top this. It features many giddying shots, one of its favourite tricks being to race after Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) as he leaps off skyscrapers and freefalls great heights before casting a web. However, the fixed perspective offered by these shots, following a few metres behind Spider-Man at all times and only providing a view of his back, is typical of the cinematography’s relative rigidly in comparison to Raimi’s elasticity. Rather than tumbling around the character and offering a range of views in fluid takes, Marc Webb’s camera primarily chooses an angle per shot and sticks with it as it follows Spider-Man.

Although the cinematography in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 fails to match the gymnastics of Spider-Man’s digitised body, which is animated similarly to its realisation in Raimi’s trilogy, Electro (Jamie Foxx) offers something more striking. Electro’s ability to atomise into electrically charged particles grants him an intangibility that enables space to be traversed in a range of visually exciting ways. His closest counterpart in superhero cinema is Watchmen’s (2009) Dr Manhattan, whose ability to manipulate particles is primarily represented through teleportation and expansions of his physical stature. Both Dr Manhattan and Electro’s teleportation is realised through vanishing and reappearing in bursts of blue particles. Differences are apparent in alterations to their form, with Dr Manhattan growing to great heights that make him all the more physically deadly, while Electro transcends physicality by embodying electrical charge. This enables him to loom large as his face forms from lights in windows down the side of a skyscraper, or shrink down to surge through electrical cables.

Electro’s intangibly makes him a formidable foe for a hero whose powers are based on strength, agility and the ability to fire sticky webs. This is brilliantly conveyed in a shot that follows Spider-Man swinging after Electro, who weaves through the air as a trail of blue and red sparks. Spider-Man’s swinging is juxtaposed against the ethereal gliding of Electro’s atomised form. There is a tension between these two kinds of movement that are distinct yet complementary due to shared trajectories, providing kinetic flair while emphasising the hopelessness of physically capturing Electro. Despite a lack of originality in solo displays of its hero’s movements, through pitting Spider-Man’s athletic body against a foe that has no fixed physical form The Amazing Spider-Man 2 succeeds in choreographing superhuman battles in dazzling new ways.

It’s not just in Spider-Man’s antagonistic interactions that the film distinguishes itself. In my short review I didn’t discuss Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey’s (Emma Stone) relationship to avoid even hinting at its fate. Now that I have the green light for spoilers I can happily say that Gwen dies. Not that this made me happy - far from it - but its build up and emotional payoff are among the film’s defining strengths.

Making Peter’s love interest Gwen Stacey, rather than the more widely familiar Mary Jane Watson, was a key way that The Amazing Spider-Man differentiated itself from Raimi’s films. However, the dynamic established was very similar, with Peter swaying incessantly between embracing and pushing away, through fear he’ll endanger her, the girl he loves. The Amazing-Spider Man 2 breaks the cycle through boldly and movingly adapting the (in)famous comic book arc in which Gwen dies. Gwen’s death not only distinguishes the film from Raimi’s trilogy, but other superhero films too. While The Dark Knight (2008) also kills its hero’s love interest, Rachel’s death is an outcome of Batman’s efforts to “become more than a man” and transcend his emotional desires by rescuing Harvey Dent instead. Conversely, Gwen dies due to Peter trying to maintain human relationships despite all the chaos in his life.

With the narrative threads flailing around somewhat, Peter and Gwen’s relationship acts as the film’s, and Peter’s, anchor. The fact that their love offers a route out of the messiness of Peter’s life is demonstrated by a scene in which they hide from Oscorp’s security in a maintenance closet. The script has them summarising different aspects of the plot, gathering the disparate strands for themselves and the audience. However, their fear that the various nefarious events are holding them apart is conveyed by a longing as their eyes keep meeting, leading them to jettison words in favour of a snog. It’s a testament to the chemistry between Garfield and Stone that their performances as they reduce the space between them through connecting gazes and lips overcomes the clunky expositional dialogue. The sweet portrayal of their love makes it all the more devastating when it’s torn away. As such, Gwen’s death provides an emotional payoff that ensures the film has its own definite narrative arc, rather than simply setting up plots for future instalments.

Needless to say, plots are set up. While the film rightly doesn’t tease new love interests for Peter (apparently scenes with Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane were shot but not used), it takes ample time establishing villains, as discussed in my short review. Rather than writing another love letter to Dane DeHaan, here I want to concentrate on why this is a shrewd strategy, and how it offers something that is mostly lacking elsewhere in superhero cinema.

For all Marvel’s film’s achievements in crafting multifaceted superheroes with flaws that make us appreciate their heroic feats all the more, their villains, aside from Loki, generally have little more characterisation than evil-guy-wants-to-destroy-shit (e.g. Captain America’s (2011) the Red Skull and Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith). Meanwhile, over at DC, in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy villains function as symbols rather than characters (e.g. Joker = chaos to counter Batman’s order, Bane = raw muscle to usurp the decadent ruling classes). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 breaks away by exploring Harry Osborne’s complexities before his transformation into Green Goblin, thereby imbuing Goblin with all of Harry’s torments, hunger for power and antipathy for Spider-Man.

While Harry/Green Goblin provides the kind of villain Marvel’s own films need more, Marvel still have something Sony desperately want; a shared cinematic universe. Like in comic books, characters in Marvel’s films feature in their own titles, cross over into one another’s and team up in ensemble pieces. The narrative pleasures this offers audiences, and monetary pleasures it piles up for executives, has left every other studio with a superhero property hungry for piece of Marvel’s golden pie. While Warner Bros. are making cautionary first steps into founding a cinematic universe for DC’s superheroes, and Fox have figured out that their rights to Marvel’s beloved X-Men not only gives them access to innumerable mutants, but also their past and future incarnations, Sony seem a bit shorthanded with just one, albeit hugely lucrative, superhero.Luckily for Sony, Spider-Man has one of the richest, most colourful rogues’ galleries in superhero lore, meaning that although they can’t have a superhero ensemble, they can damn well assemble the first cinematic supervillain team.

Harry is a strong nexus around which Spider-Man’s ensemble of foes, the ‘Sinister Six’, can form. Hopefully future additions to the team will be granted the same depth of development, although there are warning signs that this could not be the case. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 teases many villains, with Harry’s assistant, Felicia (Felicity Jones), primed to become Black Cat, and the apparatus for Dr Octopus, Vulture and Rhino visible in Oscorp’s vaults. While these act as tantalising, if not very hidden, easter eggs to fuel fan excitement and debate, the expansion of Rhino into more than a glimpse is problematic. A generic villain apprehended early in the film, Aleksie Sytsevich’s (Paul Giamatti) characterisation doesn’t improve when he reappears in the final five minutes in full Rhino armour, becoming an exemplar of the evil-guy-wants-to-destroy-shit ilk of villain. Furthermore, shoehorning Rhino in at the end undermines the sealing of the narrative arc by Gwen’s death.

Rhino would have been better situated in a mid- or post-credit sequence, something that Marvel have practically made a convention of superhero films. Scenes placed as such are effectively permitted, and even expected, to tease future films in the series, and if well executed can achieve this without disrupting the narrative closure of the film to which they’re attached. However, Sony revealed Rhino not just before the credits rolled, but before the film was even released, with significant exposure of the character in promotional material. Previewing a character whose function in the film is essentially a preview for subsequent films disappoints audiences who then expect Rhino to have a bigger role, while denying any excitement that would otherwise be caused by his last-minute reveal.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s clumsy scramble to seed franchise expansion in moments such as its final scene doesn’t help Sony shake their image as Spider-Man’s greedy exploiters. This is a shame, since the film makes marked attempts to not just regurgitate what we’ve seen before, boasting inventive superhuman battles, tragic romance caught between adolescent love and superhero fantasy and a compelling villain in Harry/Green Goblin, who anticipates sequels far more successfully than Rhino’s coda. Sony have the components to build a distinct expanded universe, but need to properly nurture each of its aspects, and not just hurl everything at the wall in the hope that, like their wall-crawling hero, it’ll stick.

This Alternate Take was published on June 10, 2014.

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