23 Apr 2014

Screen Time: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Campbell Scott
Director: Marc Webb
Runtime: 142 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: 16th April 2014 (UK) / 2nd May 2014 (US)

Stewart R: We’ve not even quite ticked over the two year mark since Sony launched the (then) unknown quantity that was The Amazing Spider-Man at the world stage. There was a fresh direction, a reasonably untested director at the helm and two new young actors in the lead roles with the weight of expectation upon all of their shoulders. And here we now sit with a sequel to 2012’s financially successful ($750m+ at the worldwide box office) and critically competent Summer blockbuster barrelling through the doors of cineplexes everywhere with a similar degree of skepticism and scrutiny initially suffered by the first film aimed squarely at its successor’s bulkier build.

‘Will this even be as good as the first Amazing film?’

‘Can it dream of getting close to the heady heights of sequel recognition heaped upon Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2?’

‘Oh, two or even three villains feature; well, we all know who that turned out for Spider-Man 3!’

Certainly the numerous trailers leading up to release seemed nearly unable to contain the action held within, venturing dangerously closely to saturation and spoiler point as we crawled into April, and this reviewer was fearful that much that made the first film wear its titular adjective so well would be swallowed up by the necessity of the Hollywood engine to go bigger and aim for better second time around. Thankfully, though there are bumps and potholes along the way, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 manages to deliver a stirring cinematic adventure that once again works primarily because it plays smaller in order to echo loudly.

Once the opening sequence, expanding on Peter’s parents’ disappearance, is out of the way we’re thrown gloriously into the web-swinging fun as Spider-Man is called into action with an exhilarating chase piece through the streets of New York as he tackles gun-wielding thieves. It’s an instant visual buzz to be whisked through the city’s iconic skyline at high speed, witnessing the ease with which our hero navigates the vertigo-inducing journey, trumping any of the first film’s webbed antics in a single stroke, and proving a great example of how far the effects and cinematography industries have come to allow such breathtaking sequences to appear mesmerising and effortless in the same breath.  This also highlights how Peter has grown into his powers, yet still remains the joking, cocky teenager who’s struggling to balance the many factors and responsibilities heaped upon his young shoulders as he reaches his graduating year from high school. While still madly in love, Peter and Gwen’s relationship is starting to feel the pressure of his continued heroism along with the burning guilt surrounding Captain Stacy’s death that Peter continues to carry and the so far ignored promise that he made to stay away from Gwen. Meanwhile, an inadvertent rescue of (hyper) nerdy and socially awkward Oscorp employee Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), sets off a sequence of events that leads Spider-Man to face his greatest challenge yet.

It’s fair to say that when particularly looking at Max Dillon, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in odd moments comes across as something of a slightly confused project. Max, during the first half of the film, is the epitome of cliched goofy awkwardness that Webb and the first film’s writers eschewed for Garfield’s more grounded Peter and the first film’s feel in entirety. There’s a pity-worthy edge to Foxx’s early performance that almost screams of a twisted, 21st Century poke at Stan Lee’s original vision of his pre-spider bite, bullied and ostracized protagonist until our next visit with Dillon pushes him over into ‘unhinged’ territory that arguably robs him of any audience empathy or sympathy. By the time his powers come to the fore he’s simply become a one-note weapon to be pushed around and into position by the far more interesting prospect of Harry Osborn.

Dane DeHaan excels as the better parallel to Peter here, the returning friend similarly straddled by a yoke passed down from the last generation. Both have been abandoned - relatively speaking - at the same stage in their lives and each left with a legacy neither of them yet fully understands. It’s when it becomes clear that despite his power, Harry has little control over that all important decision that steers his life, resorting to desperation and anger as a result, while Peter has all of the power to forge his own path, but finds it near impossible to choose from the many options available to him, that things really pick up. DeHaan’s performance is as removed from James Franco’s depiction of Harry Osborn as Garfield’s Peter is from Tobey Maguire’s take and the two actors share a convincing buddy chemistry which is a good thing because their screen time together is particularly limited by the needs of the plot.

Thanks to the necessity to offer something different to the preceding trilogy, writers Kurtzman, Orci and Pinker elect to carry on with the greater overarching plot involving Oscorp and the links between the fathers Osborn and Parker. It attempts to gain momentum with ongoing mystery and some reveals, tying these into Peter’s search for truth in his past and Harry’s search for a cure to his condition, but it all fails to step away from predictability, offers little in the way of truly interesting plot development and ultimately feels like stuffy padding in a runtime that edges the risk of being too long. When stacked alongside Peter and Gwen’s on/off relationship, Peter and Aunt May’s family life fun, Harry’s wrestling with Oscorp’s board and the origin of Foxx’s Electro, the fear of a return to Spider-Man 3’s ‘too many plot balls in the air’ problems starts to creep in.

So far, so reasonable and teetering towards negativity then? Well here’s the catch; thanks to the plot fumbles it becomes clear that the triumphs of The Amazing Spider-Man have been passed down wholesale to its offspring. It’s hard to say whether the scripting is the key, or Marc Webb’s apparent knack of plucking at heartstrings with pacing, timing comedy moments perfectly and getting the best from the cast when he needs it is the masterstroke, but there are several emotional highnotes through the course of two and a half hours that may resonate so hard as to shake salt water from your tear ducts. Whether it’s the stubborn, frightened position of Sally Field’s Aunt May fearing the pain or loss of her nephew, or one of many electrifying scenes involving Peter and Gwen’s breakups and make ups, not a single emotional beat misses its mark. Now a real life couple, Garfield and Stone have lost none of the chemistry that carried the first film soaring over its various pitfalls, and here it’s the push and pull of their unique relationship strain and dynamic that allows them to play their roles with greater breadth of emotion this time around.

Gwen is clearly no damsel in distress to the point where her involvement adds to and aids the heroics playing out, her quick thinking and intelligence clearly surpassing the man with the  proportionate reflexes of an arachnid at times. Webb plays the science card effectively and sparingly too, proving that Peter is a problem solver with a keen intellect and there’s great fun to be found as he tries to tackle the problem of an electrical opponent with home experimentation following a jarring initial confrontation.
It’s in that confrontation that my earlier comment about ‘playing small in order to echo loudly’ comes into play. The action sequences are bold, exciting and, for the most part, fun, each one showing how New York City is embracing a hero, cheering him on from the sidelines - even stupidly in the face of incoming ordnance at times it must be said - but these moments are fleeting, loud crescendos that rise up to stir the senses before returning to the engrossing, intimate, ground level drama that everyday Big Apple life allows these characters to walk through. Times Square is about as big as this film gets as a setting and by keeping the action fairly localised and concentrated it helps to maintain the focus of threat, keep the danger palpable and keep things from getting out of control. The film’s climax manages to find a strange middle path, the crowds nowhere to be seen, the stakes still high (if a tiny bit forced on the wider scale), the action breath-stealing and the major players all adding their a part as it unfolds.

Importantly, the minor plot flaws of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that niggle rather than plague the feature, actually allow it to avoid the trap of comic book movie sequels that have pushed the hero to the side in favour of bringing through colourful villains that flood and hog the screen time; there’s simply no space left here to do that and the studios plan is longer term when it comes to these antagonists in any case. We therefore witness Peter Parker growing as a man, learning as a hero, dealing with loss and pain and accepting the responsibility that his power provides as he stands front and center throughout. It's what Spider-Man has stood for and been through over 52 years of comic history and none of that is lost as this cinematic adaptation from Webb, Garfield and all involved continues. We’re with him every step of the way and we feel every celebratory high five and shaking moment of doubt. It’s clear that as Spidey’s skills and confidence grow, the threats lurking in the background are going to do the same and this is but a stepping stone to even greater challenges ahead. Never before have the web-slinging antics been so clearly depicted on screen in such varied and exciting fashion and with such detail and polish - enhanced it must be said by a viewing in 3D. Even then, they still don’t quite manage to eclipse the cinematic wonder that is the Peter/Gwen dynamic on the big screen and that alone ensures this is a must-watch, big screen experience of this summer, tiny warts and all. 8/10

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