As always, there are spoilers all over this thing, so be warned as you dive into the post.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is less of a filmmaker's labor of love and more of a naked business plan for IP exploitation in perpetuity.
As much as I'm immersed in the business end of filmmaking out here in L.A.. I always do my best to put that perspective out of my head while I'm watching a film for the first time. It's unavoidable that at some point down the line, one will be compelled to look at the work from a more corporate standpoint, but the last things I should be thinking about during my initial viewing are spinoff potential and franchise vitality. And yet, here we are.
ASM2 goes to great lengths to establish tendrils that will likely not only connect to the two (yes, TWO!) already-announced sequels, but also the VENOM and SINISTER SIX spinoffs. And unfortunately this comes at the expense of its own story. The reason for these spinoffs is clear: Sony's rights to Spider-Man will last only so long as they continue to produce films set in that universe. If they ever stop producing films for a specific length of time (I believe it's five or six years, but don't quote me on that) the rights to the character revert back to Marvel, who is itching to exploit the property.
Thus, Sony finds itself in a very literal case of "use it or lose it." This is what motivated the entire reboot in the first place. The first three SPIDER-MAN films took in nearly $2.5 billion worldwide, with the third film actually being the most successful. This is a valuable property and it would have been an impeachable offense for ANY studio head to let that windfall revert back to Marvel as a result of disuse. Fans may bitch, but that's the reality of the situation. There is no scenario sort of brain damage where anyone at Sony should consider letting Marvel have Spidey back.
Every now and then, I see some fans bitching that Sony should just sell Spider-Man back to Marvel. Again, there's probably no sum that Marvel would be willing to pay that would make such a transaction profitable. Let's forget the fact that Marvel is dirt cheap - why would they lay out a large sum of cash for Spider-Man when if Sony was really THAT disinterested in making further movies, the rights would revert to Marvel for nothing. I lay this out mostly to make the case that Marvel's not going to pay for Spidey, and Sony's not gonna sell.
I hate the term "cash grab," which is what annoyed fans fling too often at franchise films. "They only made this movie to *gasp* MAKE MONEY!" they cry. I don't know many movies that don't have some financial incentive behind them. Studios aren't in the business of trying to burn cash. Despite all the financial motivations I laid out above, I'm sure all of the creatives involved are genuinely trying to make a good movie.
That said, the intention to build a long-term franchise too often override organic storytelling here. In particular, some late developments in the story are rushed so that we can get a taste of Oscorp basically being a villain factory from which the SINISTER SIX will spring. I feel like the final action sequence with the Rhino is misplaced and may have worked better as an introduction to the third film. By dictating that the film ends with this point, it may have also accelerated Harry Osborn's story too much, given that his fall from grace has to share time with another villain.
Basically, this plays less like a major chapter in an ongoing epic and more like a midseason episode of a television series. Though some major revelations are tossed into the light and a significant character dies, it lacks the emotional engagement of Raimi's work.
Raimi's own films did their fair share of developing plotlines across several films. The most notable of these was Harry Osborn's arc, which saw him blaming Spider-Man for his father's death in the first film, learning Peter was Spider-Man and finding out the truth about his own father by the end of the second film, and finally acting upon his revenge in the third film. This slow-burn approach worked because it was surrounded by other material that played as self-contained. There's a sense of resolution in each of Raimi's first films that we don't get here. More than that, there's a strong unity of plot and theme in those films.
ASM2 feels incredibly disconnected in places. The villain this time around is Jamie Foxx's Electro, an Oscorp scientist who's mutated in a lab accident and gains powers that allow him to channel and control electricity. I don't read the Spider-Man comics, save for the first dozen or so volumes of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, so I have no idea how accurate Electro's depiction is when compared to the source material. Here all you really need to know is he's a nerdy guy who stars off as a mega Spider-Man fan. When his powers bring him into conflict with Spider-Man, he's convinced the webslinger is jealous and feeling betrayed, he swears vengeance.
It's a pretty simple arc and it's biggest crime is that it doesn't add up to anything larger. It doesn't contribute thematically to any other plotline in the film. It feels like Electro could have been swapped with any villain in the rogues gallery and as long as their presence led to action sequences, the net effect would have been the same.
Even when Electro teams up with a villainous Harry Osborn it seems more like a case of that character being the muscle most easily accessible to Harry - not because there's anything really tying the characters together. Of course, this conjurs memories of one of the weakest points of SPIDER-MAN 3 which has the exact. same. "You hate him? I hate him too! We should work together!" motivation for the team-up. That's not a good thing.
I went in with my expectations knocked way down after hearing some early bad reactions. Naively, I thought this would be an asset and that I'd walk out saying, "That wasn't nearly as bad as it was made out to be. I'll say this, after having spent the last month watching some of the worst superhero movies ever made (for some forthcoming posts on Film School Rejects), I feel obligated to say we don't have a debacle here on the level of CATWOMAN, WOLVERINE or X3. That said, this film is a disappointment and probably is the weakest SPIDER-MAN film yet.
Yes, even weaker than SPIDER-MAN 3. I'm not saying that film is any kind of unappreciated gem, but I think most of the people still calling it out as terrible haven't revisited it since its release. The memory of its flaws has likely eclipsed some of the more enjoyable moments of the film. Five years from now, when people revisit SPIDER-MAN 3 and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 with fresh eyes, I wouldn't be shocked if most people realized they enjoyed SPIDEY 3 more.
That's not to say that there are high points. In fact, Electro-related stuff aside, the first 2/3 of the film have a fair number of high points, including a nifty over-the-top sequence of Spider-Man stopping a plutonium theft on the way to his graduation. The film's not a total loss, even if the third act's sins overshadow much of the film's virtues as you depart the theatre.
Chief among the highpoints are Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. I'm not sure if their storyline is really as good as Garfield and Stone make it play. Basically, Peter feels guilty about seeing Gwen because he promised her dying father he'd stay away from her to keep her safe from his enemies. Yes, it's the old "I love you, but we can't be together because noble reasons" plot, but these two have such sharp chemistry in their scenes together that most of the time you won't care.
This is one case where the script knows the thematic payoff it's going for. So much is made of Peter's conflict and guilt that it's pretty clear we're going to get some version of "The Night Gwen Stacy Died." Unfortunately, we get a rushed execution of the idea that almost feels tacked on. Harry's screentime is limited due to the Electro storyline. While the second act sets up his degeneration and his desperation to find a cure - a quest that eventually ends up turning him into the Green Goblin - the third act seems to reach its climax with Electro's defeat.
Thus, when Harry comes swooping in on a Goblin Glider (though I'm pretty sure it's never named as such) it almost feels like an afterthought. There's a real sense of "Let's get on with this. There's only 15 minutes left and we've gotta kill Gwen off." Because of this, there's barely any effective build-up to Gwen's murder. Frankly, had Raimi's first movie decided to kill Mary Jane at the bridge, there would have been more set-up and emotional groundwork laid.
But here, his rage at Peter was rushed and his decision to punish him by taking away the love of his life feels too spur-of-the-moment. You'd never know the comics consider this confrontation one of the most defining moments in Spider-Man history. Something about the execution feels limper than Gwen's corpse and it's only later during a replay of Gwen's graduation speech that the loss and sorrow really kick in. Peter watching that speech, mourning and making peace with her loss would have been a great way to end the film, perhaps with him picking up his Spidey costume. The brief fight with the Rhino really mangles the tone there, though.
I like that Gwen gets her heroic moment before she dies, but it really bothers me how tossed off her death is. Electro should have been a distraction that Spidey dispatched relatively quickly and then the REAL fight should have been between him and Harry. The Harry/Peter battle doesn't feel nearly as mythic as the franchise demands. Dane DeHaan does what he can with Harry as written, but he's not really given a character who's allowed to make sense.
I've spent so much time talking about other issues, that I haven't found a place for another big misstep - the need to make Peter's connection to the genetically engineered spiders more than just a coincidence. We find out Peter's father was involved in the research at Oscorp that produced those spiders and we learn that thanks to some "fun with DNA" science, Dr. Parker implanted those spiders with his own DNA so that the only compatible test subject would be him or anyone who shares his DNA. Gee, so I guess it's really convenient that the one person the spiders bite would affect happened to wander into their range one day.
I don't like this idea. It makes Peter's superhero career almost too pre-ordained. Not every hero needs to be some sort of child of destiny. It's not the worst application of the "Chosen One" syndrome I've seen, but it springs from the same mentality. In trying to explain away the source of Peter's powers, the result is a convoluted series of circumstances that ultimately seems to depend MORE on coincidence than the original happenstance. And to be blunt, as crowded as this script is anyway, the LAST thing we needed was to get bogged down in a retcon of Spidey's origins.
This movie leaves me concerned about the future of the SPIDER-MAN franchise. The best thing this series had going for it is no longer possible after the events of this film. If the next film isn't able to replace the Peter/Gwen chemistry with something equally compelling, this installment will be remembered as the one that tarnished the franchise.