Low expectations can be extremely helpful. I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 motivated, in great part, by the fact that it was my nephew’s 8th birthday. If an 8-year-old boy in a Spider-Man hoodie asks you to go to his birthday movie, you say yes—however painful you might anticipate the experience to be. But not only does Marc Webb’s (yes, Marc Webb’s) most recent installment of the Spider-Man reboot not suck, it’s actually enormously entertaining.
Context: I am not typically a fan of the superhero genre. I was a comic-book reader as a kid and I later even appreciated a small handful of the higher-profile graphic novels released in my adulthood. I recognize the serious artistry (visual and narrative) in the production of such, but with a very few sterling exceptions have not found them to rise to the level of what I would consider adult sophistication. (And, yes, actual friends of mine are now planning me abuse if not outright harm.) The best–those by Frank Miller, Allan Moore, a few others–were really stunning. The rest of the good were, in my opinion, merely diverting and entertaining. The translation of these works into film has been even more problematic.
A major hitch, for me, is casting. It’s always fun to imagine movies with different casts, but superhero movies seem consistently to make choices that irk me. Cases in point: Hugh Jackman is pretty good as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise. But he was also Bob Fosse and I can’t accept that. Robert Downey Jr. is much-loved in the Iron Man franchise, but he was a member of the shittiest Saturday Night Live cast in the history of that show, and I remember it. You know who’d have been an amazing Wolverine? Pre-Bane Tom Brady! You’d know who’d make a great Tony Stark? The somewhat lesser-known Sam Rockwell. Whatever . . .
And part of the problem is Hollywood’s fundamental, blunt simplemindedness applied to a form that sprawls. Some of these characters have existed for decades. They’ve been tweaked, reinterpreted, reinvented, occasionally resurrected by scores of artists and writers. Comic-book fans put up with an incredible amount of ambiguity, contradiction and plain structural impossibility as characters are picked up and dropped by creative teams over years and years. There is no soap opera more convoluted than a long-lived superhero story–not by a long shot. Paring these things down into 90-minute, archetypal hero’s stories tends to make for strikingly remedial, Lucas-like story lines.
So, what saved this one—for me? Surprise: the casting and the simplicity. First, stars Andrew Garfield, as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Emma Stone, as his love interest Gwen Stacey, were highly enjoyable. They are reported to be, last I knew, a real-life couple, and their easy chemistry made a world of difference. It grounded them as characters in what is, necessarily, a plot rife with preposterous developments and logical head-scratchers. This chemistry, in turn, creates a focus to the movie: As much as it was an action movie, the engine of the whole thing was the relationship of these two characters and the choices they faced. I hate to tell you this, guys, but this is a chick flick.
Well, except for the Rhino battle armor . . .
Yeah, the action scenes. Wow. We saw the IMAX 3D version, and if you have any interest in this movie, at all, that’s absolutely the way to go. If you’re taking your family, it’ll cost something like $11 grand, but do it. Webb wisely skimped on CGI characters, and instead augmented scenes with actors and stuntmen in old-fashioned harness rigs. Frankly, he and his team just killed it. The thrill and the danger of Spider-Man’s aerial navigation through Manhattan is really visceral. One particularly vertiginous scene had our hero rounding the peak of a skyscraper’s dome to peer over its edge down some hundreds of floors, and it twisted my $30-popcorn-stuffed gut as effectively as any amusement-park ride.
I am curious how younger fans are feeling about this one. There’s a lot—a lot—of relationship drama. There are some enjoyably hammy antagonists to ramp things up: Jaime Foxx is half-fun as a schlub who becomes, via an industrial accident, a powerful super villain (he’s fun as the schlub, but the super villain was wanting); Paul Giamatti chews some scenery around an over-the-top Russian accent in an energetic cameo; and Dane DeHaan, as Peter Parker’s one-time friend and eventual nemesis and torturer, brings what may be the creepiest evil grin in film, Nicholson notwithstanding. But there’s a lot of tear-jerking potential in the Peter-Gwen storyline, and no aspect of it is left alone. The romance drama takes a lot of this flick’s time (and at two hours and 20 minutes-plus overall, that’s something).
While this has hardly changed my mind about the studio-produced superhero genre in its entirety, I’m certainly willing to see the next installment in this franchise. It’s raised my expectation. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, at all.