“Amazing Spider-Man 2″ could be great — if it weren’t a superhero movie

Strip away the villains, and the stuntmen, and the whooshing 3-D effects, and "Spider-Man 2" is irresistible

Topics: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, dane dehaan, Movies, Action movies, Summer movies, Marvel Comics, Marvel, Sam Raimi, Marc Webb, Peter Parker, New York City, superhero movies, superheroes, Editor's Picks,

"Amazing Spider-Man 2" could be great -- if it weren't a superhero movieJamie Foxx and Andrew Garfield in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" (Credit: Columbia Pictures/Niko Tavernise)

I was all set to write about “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” purely as an epiphenomenon of late capitalism or whatever, an example of the tightening spiral of cultural refraction and the impermeable nature of the superhero movie, which keeps on generating huge returns even as it loses cultural traction. You know, one of those reviews where people write in to say, OK, Poindexter, you know a lot of big words, but what about the damn movie? Those people have a point, at least this time around. While those metatextual issues are still there, this reboot-sequel with not all that much reason to exist turns out to be about half of a pretty good movie, and generally entertaining throughout. The peculiar decision to entrust Spidey to Marc Webb, previously the director of the indie hit “(500) Days of Summer,” pays off much higher dividends this time around, and 30-year-old Andrew Garfield makes a surprisingly credible 21st-century New York City teenager.

On one level, it still makes no sense that Sony Pictures, Marvel Comics, and producer Avi Arad decided to reboot the Spider-Man movie franchise, just five years after Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, and Kirsten Dunst got done making “Spider-Man 3.” (As I understand things, Arad faced the possibility of losing the rights after negotiations for a fourth Raimi movie fell apart.) On another, it’s a question that answers itself: Webb’s 2012 “The Amazing Spider-Man” returned more than $750 million worldwide, a large majority of that overseas. That makes it slightly less profitable than the first two Raimi movies, and about on par with the third, but it’s a whole lot of money. My question now is why wait so long to do it all over again? Why not start building the next Spidey relaunch, aimed at today’s 8-year-olds and starring whoever the cutest member of One Direction is, and have the movie ready to shoot by 2018 or so?

I guarantee you can find learned Internet disquisitions on the finer points of distinction between the Raimi and Webb Spider-Man universes, and how both relate to the canonical comic-book web-slinger. That’s way above my level of expertise with this material, but I think we can say that Raimi’s movies were colorful, constructed illusions, set in a fantasy version of New York that bore little relationship to the original, whereas Webb’s have taken a step or two in the direction of realism. That’s a funny word to use in a movie about the ultimate nerd-boy fantasy character, I guess, and there are certain shots in this movie – of Spider-Man plummeting into space off the side of a skyscraper, for instance – so dense with CGI images they’re basically animation. (In fairness, Webb uses sets and stuntmen a lot of the time too.) But Garfield is a fine and versatile actor, and this time around he broadens and lightens his Holden Caulfield approach to the character of Peter Parker, a recognizable variety of wiseass kid who has a poster for “Dogtown and Z-Boys” on the wall, a copy of “Infinite Jest” on the desk (probably unread) and just a touch of hip-hop to his speech. (Garfield doesn’t go all the way to “A’ight,” but almost.)

In fact, I enjoyed Peter’s on-again, off-again romance with the feisty Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and his uneasy rapprochement with his old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), enough that I badly wanted “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” to remain in that vaguely naturalistic vein, and bag all the stuff involving stuntmen, villains in funny costumes and whooshing 3-D effects. Garfield and Stone are of course way too old to play high-school seniors (she’s 25), but they have terrific chemistry, and the forces pushing them together (love) and pulling them apart (life) never feel abstract or artificial. It’s as if there’s a New York rom-com – and a pretty good one! – in the middle of this movie trying to get out. DeHaan is a fast-rising star who plays James Dean in Anton Corbijn’s upcoming “Life,” and his portrayal of Harry as a lonely prep-school hipster with a big, not-quite-gay mancrush on Peter is one of this film’s great strengths. That’s meant to provide some depth to Harry’s transformation into the Spidey-hating Green Goblin, I suppose, but fundamentally the movie is a lot more boring when it defaults to comic-book archetypes.

Similarly, Jamie Foxx is more entertaining as a Spidey-obsessed systems engineer with a comb-over than as Electro, a supervillain who has cool transmutational properties but doesn’t make any sense, even by comic-book standards. Even the fact that “Amazing Spider-Man 2” has two dispensable villains instead of one, and throws in the suggestion of several more before it’s over, betrays the fact that Webb’s heart is not in the big action showdowns, which are rendered with high-tech sizzle and excitingly captured by cinematographer Daniel Mindel, but which I now have trouble remembering. If you see Spidey catch a flying cop car once, you really don’t need to see it three more times. Times Square is totally destroyed in this movie, and that was oddly gratifying to see, but superhero action flicks after “The Avengers” and “Man of Steel” and the collected works of Michael Bay have reached the level of cocaine overdose, where more is not more and only leaves you feeling disoriented and on the edge of migraine.

To speak of a studio product like this as reflecting the director’s work and vision is, of course, the ultimate auteurist fallacy. It looks to me as if Arad and the other producers sought to correct the forgettable, generic quality of “The Amazing Spider-Man” by bringing in the cavalry, in the form of co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Those two, who met in high school and rose to become writers for J.J. Abrams on “Alias,” comprise a peculiar cultural force; they’re the masters of the unnecessary revival. They wrote “Mission: Impossible III,” Bay’s first two “Transformers” movies and Abrams’ two “Star Trek” pictures (with at least one more to come), and preside over the “Sleepy Hollow” and “Hawaii Five-O” TV series. They plan to relaunch the “Mummy” movies and are supposedly making “Van Helsing,” with Tom Cruise playing Count Dracula’s nemesis. Their Documents folder is full, one assumes, of proposals to resuscitate everything else from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, whether or not it’s been tried before: “The Flying Nun,” with Elizabeth Olsen. Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks in “The Avengers” (you know what I mean; the other one). Every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, including “Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop,” remade with Channing Tatum.

Kurtzman and Orci have now been entrusted with Spider-Man into the indefinite future (Webb says he will only direct one more film) and, as usual, they’re trying to split the difference between nerd-ball loyalty to the canon and what they perceive as contemporary taste. Let me say this, carefully: “Amazing Spider-Man 2” tackles one of the most famous and memorable twists of fate in the Marvel Comics universe, and does so with some measure of genuine emotional force. It’s a character-shaping moment that Raimi’s films never wanted to go near, and one that should comfortably extend the half-life of Garfield’s brooding, Salinger-esque Spidey over a few more movies. Honestly, one can only wish that Hollywood made movies for non-teenagers and non-comics fans with this much care and reverence. Are superhero movies dying? Well sure, but you and I and the planet may die first.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...