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Thoughts on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (Spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 today. I only just happened to discover there’s a relatively new theater that’s a few miles closer to home than the ones I usually go to, although I wasn’t thrilled with the sound system there.

Anyway, I thought the movie was better than a lot of the reviews are saying, though it has some major flaws. The main problems are with the characterization of the villains. Max Dillon, before his transformation into Electro, is a very off-putting and cartoony caricature, reminding me of Gus Gorman from Superman III in a way. And the doctor (Marton Csokas) who examined him in Ravenscroft, named Ashley Kafka but bearing no resemblance to the sympathetic female character of that name in the comics, was an even more cartoony stereotype of a German mad scientist. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn, who was played up as a major threat in the first movie (and of course has been that and then some in the comics), had just one scene that tried to abruptly establish a whole history with his son Harry in retrospect before he dropped dead. It was an awkward infodump scene, and it felt too dependent on the viewers already knowing about Norman and Harry’s history from the comics, cartoons, or previous movies, rather than something that could really stand on its own. Harry himself was okay, but given a rather abrupt turn to the dark side.

But what worked marvelously well was Spider-Man. This is the most perfect live-action depiction of Spider-Man in action I’ve ever seen. They totally nailed it. Well, not totally — some of the action choreography was implausible, like the way Spidey just ignored the dozens of cars being smashed in the opening truck chase in order to save one pedestrian. I think the conceit the filmmakers were following was that anyone inside a car or bus was immune from being killed in a wreck, which would be really great if it were true, but since it isn’t, that didn’t work so well. Aside from that, though, Spidey was note-perfect — his methods, his attitude, his banter, his compassion for the little guy. And the costume looked great too. Not only that, but they actually let him keep the mask on for most of his scenes, really let him perform as Spider-Man, let him be Spider-Man, even in dramatic scenes. That embrace of his iconic design and silhouette, of Spider-Man as a character rather than just a disguise for Peter Parker, gave it an extra bit of authenticity. This is the real deal. It’s the best Spidey action ever, not because of the special effects, but because of Spidey himself.

The way Peter is portrayed out of costume is almost as good, although the thread about his search for answers about his parents doesn’t really feel that connected to the rest of the story. But his relationship with Gwen Stacy is really great, and Gwen is really great. Spidey here is basically like he is in the comics (at last), but Gwen is so much better a character in these movies than she ever was in the comics. I mean, sure, we all revere the memory of Gwen Stacy, but the most significant thing she really did in the comics was dying. Before that happened, she was just another superhero love interest, the Betty to Mary Jane Watson’s Veronica. Emma Stone’s Gwen is a hero in her own right, every bit as impressive as Spidey himself — probably more so, because she gets by on sheer brains and chutzpah. These films have their detractors, and not without reason, but I think their (and Stone’s) portrayal of Gwen Stacy will be remembered as one of the high points of superhero cinema.

But of course, what defines Gwen is the ending of her story, and even this more heroic Gwen couldn’t escape that, although I kind of wish she had. The film telegraphed it rather blatantly, first with Gwen’s graduation speech which was a valedictory in more ways than one, and then with Harry and Peter talking about Peter’s girlfriend with the Brooklyn Bridge looming ominously in the background. Of course, the bridge isn’t where her death scene happens in this version (though the fictional power station where the climax occurs is right next to it), but every comics fan in the audience probably knew at that moment that Gwen wouldn’t make it out of the movie alive. Still, I’ve been expecting all along that she’d die in the movie — as soon as I saw a shot in one of the commercials with a falling Gwen reflected in Spidey’s eyepiece, I knew. Mainly I’ve just been hoping that they’d get it right. Gwen’s death scene as scripted by Gerry Conway in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (the key pages of which are reproduced here) is very powerful and poignant to me, and what really hit me was the way Spidey initially believed he’d saved Gwen, boasting to himself of his prowess, and then was confused when she wouldn’t wake up because “I saved you, honey — don’t you see?” That was such beautiful writing, and it’s the key thing I always wanted to see preserved if the scene was ever adapted to the screen. (Which is something I wasn’t sure would ever happen, since every prior cartoon and movie that adapted it substituted MJ for Gwen and let her live — or in the case of the ’90s animated series, dropped her into an alternate dimension so Peter only thought she was dead.) Unfortunately, though, this movie left it out completely. More, the mechanism of her death is changed — rather than her neck snapping from the sudden deceleration, her head hits the ground just as the webbing snags her. I think that changes it, because it gives the impression that Spidey was just too late, rather than it being a case where he couldn’t have saved her because she was just falling too fast. (Oh, and the slow-motion shot of the webbing strands literally reaching for her like a hand was pretty silly.) So I feel they didn’t get it right, or at least they didn’t preserve the part that matters most to me.

Also, I’m not sure it was needed. Gwen Stacy is a classic example of a female character killed to motivate a male lead, but this Gwen was so strong and heroic in her own right that it feels wrong to force her back into the fridge, so to speak.

Let’s see, what else? The 3D wasn’t as impressive as it looked to me in the trailer. Not sure if that’s because of the different theater, or if it’s just that I’ve gotten more used to 3D movies since I saw that trailer. Still, there were some good moments, especially of Spidey’s webslinging and high-flying antics. As for the music, I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve found Hans Zimmer to be an occasionally excellent composer, doing interesting things in movies like the Sherlock Holmes duology, but his superhero work (with Batman and Superman) has been little more than atonal droning and blaring, so I wasn’t expecting to like the score here. But it was actually a really impressive score, very imaginative and rich, with an actual melodic theme for Spidey that was very heroic and satisfying. The most fascinating part, though, was the scoring for Max/Electro, the way his music included a relentless whispering voice part, almost subliminal at first, that represented the unstable Dillon’s internal monologue, or maybe the voices whispering in his head. I’m generally not a fan of anything in the vicinity of rap music, but this was subtle and intriguing and really helped make the character unsettling in a way the script failed to do. In the excellently done confrontation between Spidey and Electro in Times Square, the whispering gets louder as Dillon gets angrier, and you can finally make out the lyrics as it builds toward a rasping crescendo. It’s startlingly effective. I wouldn’t want to hear it done all the time, but I really admire the creativity of it.

So, in sum, it’s a more uneven movie than its predecessor, and where it fails, it fails badly (or at least isn’t what I wanted), but where it succeeds, it’s nearly perfect. The parts of this movie that work best are better than almost anything in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. I just wish those parts were a larger percentage of the whole.

(And don’t worry, fans of my Godzilla reviews. I’ll be seeing that movie before much longer. I just prefer to avoid the crowds of opening weekend.)

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