Friday, May 9, 2014

All the Living and the Dead: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Early into The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we’re treated to an action sequence in which the eponymous superhero chases down a madman (a barely-recognizable Paul Giamatti) driving a stolen truck containing vials of plutonium. It's a thrilling scene that spins airborne acrobatics and comic punches into pure cinematic gold. You can tell Andrew Garfield’s having the time of his life in the red and blue suit as he cartwheels down the canyons of Manhattan, and his All-American kid quality is infectious. I knew as soon as I saw this sequence that I was in for a treat. But I wasn’t ready for just how affecting the movie would be. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 continues to burrow deeper into its characters and their feelings than its parent trilogy, and while its narrative gets a bit messy at points, it's only a function of that same honest emotional mess.

When we last saw Peter Parker, he'd just saved New York from a mutant lizard that, while defeated, had mortally wounded police captain George Stacy—father of Peter's love-interest, Gwen. As the reptile returns to its human state as Dr. Curt Connors from Oscorp Industries, Capt. Stacy (Denis Leary) uses his dying breath to make Peter promise to keep clear of his daughter, lest Parker' crime-fighting exploits bring her harm. But when Gwen (Emma Stone) learns of it, she convinces Peter to trust in their love, despite the risks. The sequel picks up some time after this incident, as Gwen and Peter graduate from high school. But though Gwen's valedictory speech sends the graduates into the future with a spirit of hope, the movie charts the difficulty Peter has transitioning into adulthood. That's because he's haunted by visions of Gwen's dad, leaving him guilt-ridden and indecisive. He's a young man torn between his vocation and the love of his life.

We've seen this theme before. In the second installment of the Toby Maguire trilogy, Peter's likewise pulled in two directions—as Peter Parker, he pines for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). But he can't reveal his alter ego to her as he must keep her safe from its risks. This inner conflict causes all kinds of screw-ups in his daily life, and even the temporary loss of his spidey powers. His conflict gets worked out once his two goals—fighting supervillains and romancing MJ—line up: she gets kidnapped by Oculus, so Spider-Man can pursue both objectives simultaneously. Everything comes together: MJ learns Peter's true identity, and chooses him in full awareness. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 complicates these dynamics, as it does everything in the franchise. Here, Gwen already knows Peter's secret life and even helps him—she's practically his sidekick, his partner in both worlds. But the memory of her father hangs over Peter, troubling his conscience like a demanding deity. His calling doesn't need to be a barrier to their relationship; he's only made to think it does. She believes in him and their love, but he vacillates one too many times. She decides to break with him to spare herself more pain.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The movie takes a stab at making time its theme (one of its flaws, actually, is that it can't consciously figure out its theme), but it's really this idea of the ongoing influence of dead parents that holds it together. In that respect, it stays close to its previous installment, in which the teenaged-Peter's troubled by his parents' mysterious deaths after leaving him in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Their memory still dogs Peter in this sequel—the film opens with a flashback to the night his father, Richard, flees their home and disposes of Peter. We get more of the backstory: That he's running from Oscorps, the very company he's worked for, and his partner, Dr. Richard Osborn. Peter learns more of these details as well, and about how the past isn't just the past, but the present too. For the break between his father and Osborn carries on in his friendship with Harry (Dane DeHaan), Osborn's son and Peter's childhood friend. Harry's also haunted by his father—we're introduced to both of them at Norman's deathbed, in which the elder Osborn (Chris Cooper), reveals to his son that he's dying of an incurable genetic condition that Harry inherits. The disease drove Norman to pursue regenerative science—to the point of alienating Richard when it became dangerous. That same conflict continues in the next generation.

If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, it's because director Marc Webb and the screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner) develop the interior lives of the characters much more than Spider-Man 2 did. Sam Raimi's great movie was a marvel of symmetry and economy, keeping everything on the comic-book surface, including the precise performances of Maguire, Dunst, and James Franco as Harry. Webb's approach displays complicated naturalistic acting from his assembled cast. As Norman Osborn, Chris Cooper communicates an entire character and father-son relationship in just one scene yet again (he did it before as Ben Affleck's dad in The Town). He's at once horrifying and sympathetic in his bitterness and tough love toward Harry—he bequeaths to his son a legacy of scientific discovery that might save Harry, even as he denies him affection to his last breath. DeHaan, with those dark shadows under his eyes and sickly complexion, does well at conveying a good youth troubled by the psychic weight of his father (as he did in The Place Beyond the Pines). But this time he's got a plausible script and human language to play with, and he and Garfield work well together in getting at the complex feelings attending boyhood friendships that hit snags in adulthood. Sally Field gives another grounded, normative turn as Aunt May—she's been the consummate acting professional of late. Colm Feore, as head of the Oscorps board, has pretty much cornered the market on corporate villains at this point, for good reason. And Marton Csokas gives a hilarious riff off Dr. Strangelove in his brief scenes as the mad scientist, Dr. Kafka—it may be out of another movie, but its insanity somehow fits.

Jamie Foxx as Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2
With Electro, the filmmakers have overcome the first film's problem and given Spider-Man a villain worthy of his powers. Jamie Foxx steps into the role of Max, a neurotic Oscorps technician who's anger over his social ostracism gets literally amplified when an eel accident turns him into a human lightning bolt. Foxx makes for curious casting; it's hard to believe him as a obsessive-compulsive loner only because he's one of the most hip, cool, and charismatic stars in the business. But he's a good enough actor that you accept his portrayal of disorder (as you do in The Soloist) and it ends up not really mattering once he becomes floating voltage, his translucent blue skin barley concealing the electric storms inside. Max's early run-in with Spider-Man leads to a celebrity obsession that turns pathological when he feels publicly betrayed by the hero. His first showdown with the titular character, in Times Square, features psychological states that shift as quickly and explosively as Webb's spinning points of view. The set-piece works off the dynamics of social comparison and envy, as well as the motivations of rampage killers, even as it showcases a camera that weaves and dodges as much as Spider-Man. And Webb keeps a comic levity in play throughout. The action sequences in this movie are spectacular.

That idea of misunderstanding Spider-Man is the film's other theme. Max misreads the hero's claim that he needs him. Harry mistakenly takes Peter's declaration that Spider-Man gives people hope as evidence that the masked crusader will fulfill his precise demands. The movie doesn't draw all the connections between the various plot lines; the filmmakers don't develop the way Peter's discovery about his parents, for example, motivates his behavior with Harry. Raimi's movie stayed on the up-and-up and was able to draw the disparate characters together in the narrative. By going deeper into each of them, Webb gives up some of those connections—Harry and Gwen don't have any kind of relationship, unlike Dunst and Franco in the other version. There are scenes that don't quite make narrative sense (like when Peter tries to build a battery). But it almost doesn't matter because the individual characters are drawn so convincingly and the movie never fails to entertain. And it all adds up to a final battle between the various parties that unleashes more visual gymnastics from Spider-Man and cinematographer Daniel Mindel.

It also doesn't matter because the heart of this movie, as in Webb's previous take, is the love story between Gwen and Peter. Once again, Garfield uses his lean musculature, ease before the camera, and scruffy bed-head look to convey the eager, bruised male adolescent ego. You can see him straining and working out the emotions inside him and those that pull him to others in a physically jerky, quirky manner so different from Maguire's geeky approach. And his comic timing is perfect—watch what he does in the scene where his aunt nearly walks in on him in his spidey suit. And once again, the chemistry he shares with Stone is palpable, no doubt fueled in part by their off-screen romance. I completely fell in love with her hard-boiled Gwen in the first movie, and after seeing her recent lip-synch routine on Jimmy Fallon, she can practically do no wrong in my book. She keeps up her quick-witted assistance to Peter in this film when fighting crime, and perky emotional intelligence when they're not. Their banter is worthy of the best romantic comedies. “I got a, 'He wants to kill me with electricity vibe,'” Peter says of Electro at one point, and her husky, throaty retort is immediate: “That's kind of what it's like to love you!”

Those amorous feelings bubble over even after she declares their breakup—they're the kind of couple that are just meant to be, so right are they together. When they reunite one evening, their teasing affection betrays their true feelings. He gives her tongue-in-cheek rules banning her from being so damn cute and pulling his heartstrings, but of course it's impossible: She's irrepressibly sassy, sexy, smart—a partner who's not only his equal, but who understands and loves him in a way that draws forth his greatness. He can't live without her, and when we see her face—with those oval turquoise eyes—framed by carnival lights, or the two of them embracing atop a bridge as the Manhattan skyline spins and twinkles behind them, it conjures memories of the same kind of love in your own life.

These have to be some of the most romantic images and feelings in American film in recent years—and they're in a freaking comic book movie. I can't tell you the last time a blockbuster brought me to tears. This one sure did, communicating the pain life gives good people in a way that Christopher Nolan couldn't begin to intuit. It asks you to believe in hope perhaps too quickly, but that hope—like all the film's emotions—appeals to our sense of innocence. There's a scene at one point in which a young boy dons a Spider-Man outfit and braves a villain singlehandedly. I swear I saw that kid wearing the same costume near the subway the other day, boisterously battling his friends. This Spider-Man carries the heart of a boy, accompanied by an annunciatory score from Hans Zimmer, Johnny Marr, and Pharrell Williams that channels the triumphant spirit superheroes signify. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has its imperfections, and who knows how its final installment will turn out. But it's already solidified the Spider-Man franchise as the best comic book saga in American movies.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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