The Amazing Spider-Man 2

April 26, 2014
Jamie Foxx in 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' (2014)
Jamie Foxx in 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' (2014)

To go from the cultish Only Lovers Left Alive to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, is to leave the would-be sublime for the out-and-out ridiculous. The latest blockbuster is always referred to as “eagerly-awaited”, but at last week’s preview, audiences had to wait more than an hour and a half because of problems with a digital security key in Los Angeles. The big studios’ paranoia about piracy has now reached the point where films can’t even be shown at previews without having to unlock defences that would stump a comic book superhero. As we sat around in a darkened cinema waiting for something to happen, the film was probably already being hawked on the streets of Beijing.

If you thought that Man of Steel was the ultimate compendium of big monsters, big robots, mass destruction and navel-gazing angst on behalf of the hero, you may have to revise that opinion after seeing The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

This is actually the fifth Spider-Man movie since Sam Rami brought the Marvel comics character to the screen in 2002. After three movies simply called Spider-Man, the franchise died a well-earned death in 2007, the third film having been judged a failure. According to the International Movie Data Base it has managed to earned only US$336,530,303 so far.

After this disappointingly small return the studio decided, a few years later, to add the word “Amazing” and have another go. They probably felt they couldn’t go wrong with a director named Marc Webb, whose C.V. consisted mainly of rock videos.

As a piece of cinema, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a great rock video. The story, cobbled together from 1970s comic books, is risible. Alex Garfield’s Peter Parker – high school student and part-time superhero – takes on a new menace named Electro (Jamie Foxx), who goes from being a supernerd to a supervillain through a freak accident. Our wise-cracking hero also confronts his old school friend Harry Osborn (Dean DeHaan), who just happens to be the son of former Spider-Man nemesis, The Green Goblin.

While all this is unfolding Peter is grappling with feelings of guilt that stand in the way of his romance with dishy Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is also the brainiest girl in the class this time round. Please note the feminist moment.

As usual, the movie is a US$200 million showcase for the wonders of CGI. More wondrous still is how audiences can keep lapping up these overheated orgies of carnage when they are virtually identical from one movie to the next. Is there anyone else out there who feels their eyes glazing over when they see another villain hopping into a massive cyborg suit?

I read Spider-Man comics when I was 12, and that seems to be the appropriate mental age to get the most out of this film. The moment one begins to think in terms of plausibility the illusion is destroyed. We simply have to accept that Spider-Man can absorb the entire New York power grid, thrown at him by Electro, and come through unscathed. The idea that we should empathise with Peter Parker’s soul-searching and share his pain, is comical. When the story tries to be tragic it induces new levels of incredulity.

We have seen directors such as Tim Burton or Ang Lee inject a spark of humour or vitality into the superhero film, but it’s hard to find redeeming features in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s pure pulp wrapped in electrically-charged special effects that takes itself just seriously enough to give a vague impersonation of drama. Yet with characters like these it would have been better to abandon any suggestion of a third dimension.

There is always a wholesome message in these films and this time it is “Spider-Man brings hope”. If it sounds a bit like “Coke adds life”, that’s an accurate comparison because we are talking about nothing more than a commodity. These characters had a lot more charm when they were drawings by Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. In the transition to the big screen they don’t become more human, they become cardboard.

None of this will make the slightest difference to the film’s barnstorming success at the box office, or the inevitable sequels. It would be futile to complain that the plot is a mess or the dialogue banal. The Hollywood studios have spent most of the past century churning out big, stupid movies aimed at the lowest common denominator. What’s distressing is the increasingly formulaic nature of this cinema of excess, and the use of rookie directors who may be relied upon to do the producers’ bidding. Where the cartoon superheroes have let us down has been their inability to grapple with the real source of evil: the supervillains who pour money into these films.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
USA, rated M
142 mins
Directed by Marc Webb; screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & Jeff Pinkner; starring Alex Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx, Sally Field, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26 April, 2014.