Marc’s Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which opened in theaters across the country yesterday, is a bold achievement in big budget cinematic mediocrity. The $200+ million, two hour and twenty two minute film isn’t terrible in the way that most bad superhero movies are. It’s not convoluted to the point of incoherence like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” or bland and silly like Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern.” And despite its obvious purpose as the loadstone for a trio of forthcoming films, only one of which features Spider-Man as a protagonist, the film doesn’t feel particularly meandering. But it is a dull, uninspired slog of a movie nevertheless.
Usually with franchise building films, it’s the allusions to other properties (Jeremy Renner’s disruptive appearance in Thor and the Easter egg hunt that is Iron Man 2) that make a superhero film feel unfocused and overstuffed. That’s not the case here. A shorter cut of this film centered on Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) conflict with Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) or admirer turned enemy Electro (Jamie Foxx) wouldn’t have made this movie any better. It’s fundamentally broken on a storytelling level and an additional edit wouldn’t have fixed the problem.
The film’s characters are all thinly sketched and elliptically motivated but at this point that’s more of a genre hallmark than a storytelling failure. We know that Jamie Foxx’s erratic weirdo and DeHaan’s spoiled brat will eventually transform from bad people into absolute monsters the second they acquire the power they so cravenly desire. The obviousness of the villain’s journey wouldn’t have been so tedious if Webb and his writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner and James Vanderbilt bothered to make either character even remotely interesting.
There are hints that racial and economic inequity drive Electro’s bitterness and misanthropy and that Osborn’s megalomania is rooted in a lifetime of rejection and loneliness but the character’s inner lives are only given lip service. And neither character has any redeeming idiosyncrasies a la Tom Hardy’s Bane or Tom Huddleston’s Loki. Foxx, who was so exciting in Django Unchained, is flat and obvious and DeHaan, aside from speaking with a strange Brad Pitt influenced affect, let his snotty hair cut do all the acting for him.
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone come off better, largely because their characters are allowed some space to breathe. They flirt and fight and resolve to stop super villains together but their dynamic never feels frantic or overwrought. Even when the script contrives to turn Spider-Man into a stalker and Gwen Stacy into a plot device, the couple’s scenes together feel naturalistic and warm. And when the film concludes its tragic final act – which is somewhat undercut by the fact that in Stone’s first appearance in the film has her giving a portentous speech about the inevitability of finality – it is appropriately painful because of Garfield and Stone’s palpable affection for each other. Unfortunately, that relationship is the only part of the film that works.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is so plot heavy it feels more like watching a list being crossed off than story being told. The film’s three main plot lines – Peter and Gwen’s relationship, the origin of Electro and Harry Osborn’s descent into villainy – all feel bloated and empty, like a meal from McDonalds. Since the plot is so by the numbers, the film has no intrigue or urgency and as a result, almost every scene feels overlong and unnecessary.
Marc Webb’s direction lacks aesthetic cohesion. His elaborate and sometimes embarrassingly rote CGI set pieces – Webb seems to be the last director in Hollywood to still find bullet time enchanting – are visually untethered from the rest of the film, which looks indistinguishable from a middling network TV drama. And Webb, who at least tried to ground his first Spider-Man film in reality by using practical effects in place of SFX whenever possible, now seems content to have large stretches of his film look like video game cut scenes. And the film is as sonically uninteresting as it is visually.
Whereas many superhero film scores are thrilling if distractingly bombastic, Amazing Spider-Man 2’s soundtrack vacillates between being awful – Peter Parker has an mp3 full of dreadful MOR pop music and Electro has an ugly dubstep theme song – and anodyne – composer Hans Zimmer seems to have produced a score full of placeholder tracks. And without an attractive visual aesthetic or lush musical score, the film’s flatness stands out even more.
Superhero movies only work when their overwrought interpersonal conflicts and larger than life spectacle are sensational enough to ameliorate the clichéd plotting and trite characterization. Without appealing performances, thrilling set pieces or even the suggestion that the people who made the film are interested in anything other than keeping the rights to a lucrative intellectual property, superhero movies are vacuous and insubstantial to point of being an utter waste of time. And The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is most definitely that.