"What makes life precious is that it ends"

“What makes life precious is that it ends”

In one of the best scenes in the summer’s first blockbuster, Aunt May tells Peter Parker that the truth comes with a cost. The cost can be an extreme amount of self-doubt, a deep feeling of guilt, the knowledge that what you do will bring great pain to those you love…or worse, all of the above. The thing is, what makes one into a hero is the ability to use all of those feelings to tap into something greater. Heroes rise above those feelings, and find a way to become something more than human.

But what happens when the human part of their story is so much more interesting?

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 begins with Peter Parker fully embracing his role as New York City’s greatest hero. While public opinion of him remains mixed, there is no question that he saves the day in ways no mere mortal can. Meanwhile, underneath the mask, Peter (Andrew Garfield) feels a deep conflict around Gwen Stacy. They clearly love each other, but he worries about putting her in harm’s way for anyone who might discover his secret identity and use her as a way to get to him.

Meanwhile at Oscorp, a dweeby employee named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) feels neglected. Max is a gifted electrical engineer, but lacks the charisma and the breaks required at the corporation to parlay that into any professional success. What’s worse, a chance run-in with Spider-Man leaves him delusions of grandeur. One day Max’s fate is sealed when he falls into a tank of genetically engineered electric eels. They attack him and leave him for dead. Curiously, Max survives and essentially becomes a walking, talking embodiment of electricity. Unfortunately, that embodiment feels jilted by Spider-Man, and thus Electro is born.

Higher up the ladder at Oscorp, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) returns from boarding school to assume control of the company after the death of his father Norman (Chris Cooper). Unfortunately, control of the company isn’t all Norman passed down to his son. The disease that kills Norman is genetic, and unless Harry can find a cure, he isn’t long for the world. His research leads him to believe that the cure is in Spider-Man’s blood, thus he stops at nothing to get what he needs from the webslinger.

What is Spider-Man to do with two supervillains out to destroy him? And how is Peter going to be a part of Gwen’s life while still keeping her safe?

spidey

It’s sad to begin a critique this way, but the biggest flaw with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 – what ultimately prevents it from working as a cohesive narrative – is that it’s reach exceeds its grasp. It wishes so very dearly to be a superhuman story with a deeply human thrust. It wants so very badly to be the story that makes us care about the boy underneath the mask more than the hero epitomized by the mask. It’s a noble effort, and often the trail that allows cape-and-cowl stories to relate to us mere mortals on a deeper level. However, in order to for the story to take that path, it needs to have a keen sense of direction…and “Spidey 2” does not.

Judging by what we’ve been handed, this film wants to be “The Ballad of Gwen & Peter”. Young Parker spends much of the film haunted by the ghost of Captain Stacy. He is confronted time and again by his deathbed promise to keep away from Gwen. He is trying to be cruel to be kind in order to keep her safe, but the head and the heart do not always see eye-to-eye. When that is the crux of the story, it works relatively well. Garfield and Stone have amazing chemistry (no small shock since they are actually dating), and their complicated relationship is a joy to watch play out. If the filmmakers were allowed to keep the focus on them, this could have gone down as one of the greatest comic book movies ever. Unfortunately, it’s never that simple.

The story of a hero requires a villain – or villains in this instance. What we get as a result is not only a complete distraction from Peter and Gwen, but a distraction that never feels as fully fleshed-out. Where Max Dillon is concerned, it feels as if the storytellers rented BATMAN FOREVER and tore a page out of the Edward Nigma playbook. Dillon is isolated, delusional, and pathetic. There is no good reason for his turn to darkness, nor any good reason for Spider-Man to be the target of his angst. If anything, the story might have been better off just bringing him into New York City without preamble. It’s easier to accept a villain who shows up evil than it is to witness the descent. Unfortunately, even if Electro had shown up as big bad, there is nothing in his story that underlines or plays off Peter and Gwen. Therefore, his entire narrative feels tacked-on and distracting.

Next to Max, we’re pushed towards the story of Harry Osborne – who seems like a closer fit to compliment the story of Peter and Gwen considering he knew them both before coming into this chapter of their lives. Here we have potential, since there are themes of legacy at-hand, unrequited want, and being able to live up to expectations. Here agin though, the story cannot strike the balance. Harry’s plight needs to double-team Peter with that of Electro, and as such it is never given the proper space to develop or play off the star-cross’d-lovers. His descent into darkness is much more fleshed-out, and could have worked all on its own…but pushed into the corner the way it is, it only becomes a distraction. A weak distraction at that.

Seeing all of this unfold pains me deeply, since THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 actually goes somewhere good in its final act. It eschews expectations and delves into some genuine tragedy that is affecting and well-executed. Unfortunately, it isn’t given the weight it should come with because we’ve spent so much time being pulled in seven different directions. Besides everything I’ve already mentioned, there is Peter’s sleuthing into the truth behind his parents, and his hesitant relationship with Aunt May. It all becomes butter spread over too much bread.

Summertime superhero movies are all about icons, villains, and feats of daring-do. There is precious little space in that formula to explore human weakness, inner conflict, regret and remorse. Even if there is, it cannot be done while doing battle with two different villains. There was a great story to be told with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: the biggest shock is that the storytellers couldn’t even tell a good one.

Matineescore: ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.