Friday, May 9, 2014

The amazing web of the spectacular Spider-Man unlimited, part V: Electro Max likes electro music

In celebration of his fifth cinematic iteration, this series of reviews is devoted to the only arachnid I wouldn't scream at and kill with poison.  Here comes the Spider-Man!  


Amazing 2 represents a return in many respects to the kitchen-sink narrative of Spider-Man 3and flawed it may be, deeply so, but there is true finesse here as well.  With an affecting climax that underlines exactly why this reconception of the franchise is so much more solid than the last, this film is also so stylistically insane that you could call it The Musically Audacious Spider-Man.  Its strengths are too strong to understate the matter, and I don't hesitate to go against the grain all the way: it's not only not the terrible movie you've no doubt heard it was, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the best Spider-Man film yet.

Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Alex Kurtzmann, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt
With Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Denis Leary (Capt. Stacy), Sally Field (May Parker), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon), and Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn) (for realsies this time)

Spoiler alert: high

Let us return briefly to 2012, the year of The Amazing Spider-Man.  That year also saw The Avengers climax with an arbitrary ticking time bomb, in the specific form of a nuclear weapon launched by the authorities to quell what turned out to be the most anemic alien invasion since the the Eye Creatures touched down outside Dallas.  If it weren't for Loki's inimitable presence, a touch of Thanos, and all the enjoyable Whedonisms, it would have come off in the moment exactly as it does two years later: wholly limp.

But this is now, and in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, if we were to cut to a cabal of shadowy decisionmakers opting to write off New York and all eight million souls within it, in the desperate hope they might put an end to the threat it contains, their wisdom would be unquestionable.

Amazing 2 is centered, or at least its advertising campaign was, around Electro.  Embodied, somewhat figuratively, by Jamie Foxx, he is neither the beneficiary of the best villainous performance nor does his characterization place him definitively in even the second tier of film supervillains; and yet he is amongst the best conceived of them all, taken very narrowly as an existential danger to every human on Earth.

Motivation for most supervillains ultimately boils down to a mental disorder, but until now it's always been a more or less narratively-friendly brand of sociopathy.  The Dark Knight's Joker is a useful comparison: he's "crazy."

Electro is crazy.

We meet Max before he is granted the power of a god through a physical transformation so lazy and uninspired it rivals his actual comic book origin.  Our first instinct is to call him a nerd, and perhaps give him a swirly.  He engages in typical movie nerd behavior: being unkempt and clumsy, dropping things on the street, being unable to carry a conversation unless he's talking to himself, uttering outrageous falsehoods when he's not, building a wall-sized shrine to his favorite superhero, falling into delusions, andmost importantlysuffering massive auditory hallucinations.

The exact DSM V criteria for clinical loserdom is still under discussion.

You see, Max isn't "socially awkward," he's schizophrenic.  But not very many people involved in this movie seem to realize it.  Jamie Foxx certainly doesn't, perhaps by design; and I simply assume that two of the sloppiest, stupidest writers working in Hollywood today don't.  I believe Marc Webb realizes it.

I know the composers do.

If you'd told me that the first candidate for the year's best score, let alone most innovative use of score, would come from a group whose number include the guy who sang "Happy," a song which makes me want to set children on fire, as well as the spirit of anti-music that possessed Hans Zimmer's body at the turn of the century and only left him to take a five-minute demon dump during the scoring of Inception, I would have called you crazy.  But that's exactly what Zimmer and the collection of musical misfits operating under the banner of the Magnificent Six have done.  And if one detects the influenceso to speakof Joseph Trapanese and Daft Punk, it's still difficult to blame them for such an appropriate homage to one of film's greatest sonic triumphs.

The way Marc Webb has employed their score is, as far I can tell, practically unprecedented.  It's de rigeur to use score or soundtrack to suggest to the audience what a character's feeling, but I have never seen a film that uses, to this extent, score and soundtrack as a form of direct address to tell the audience what the voices inside his head are feeling.  (In case you're wondering, it's "SPIDER-MAN IS MY ENEMY.")  And I am dead certain that no film, in the history of film, has used this device, then revealed that it's actually become diagetic music.  Not only do they visualize it, as a power station turned into a giant equalizer displaySpider-Man can hear the song and makes a quip about it.

Spider-Man hates Hans Zimmer too!  This movie is awesome!

In other words, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the first superhero musical.  At least, the first cinematic superhero musical: this is Ken Russell's Turn Off the Dark.  Reasonable minds may differ on whether this is alienating or engrossing, but one cannot deny that it is bold.  For my part, I found it absolutely enrapturing.

Combined with Electro's tremendously photogenic powers, that render whole scenes in an incandescing blue, almost ultraviolet color palette, Amazing 2 is a groundbreaking audiovisual spectacle, worth every penny it cost to make, and worth a few thousand pennies of your own.

Unfortunately, as noted, Amazing 2 was also written by hacks.  The result of this is a film that often digresses into completely pointless, shockingly uninteresting blind alleyshell, in following up on Peter's parents' death flight, it opens with one, which (in the creatively destitute ugliness of its Greengrass pretentions) is easily the film's worst sequence, not made an iota better by the visceral boredom the Parkers' adventures engender.

Yes, this is a movie that runs well over two hours but can't begin to quite fit everything it wanted to do into ityou can practically see the "SCENE MISSING" intertitle between the climax and the epilogue.  Simultaneously, it's not even economical about it: there are an awful lot of scenes where two characters, each of whom we have just seen learn important information, meet up and exposit that information again, in some of the least efficient dialogues seen in human film.

(It's also a movie that clearly half bled-out on the cutting room floor, given that entire scenesseen in the trailerare not in the finished product, so perhaps I'm being a touch too hard on the old boys.)

But the fact is, wearying though it might be, Amazing 2 is perhaps Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann's most logical script to date.  I am tempted to assume this is thanks to the returning, less-supremely untalented James Vanderbilt.

Take this assertion with a grain of salt anyway, since I've been immunized to mere contrivance by four Spider-Man movies in a row.  Still, I think it's a real possibility that Amazing 2, while by no means possessed of a perfect screenplay, is also the least-flawed of the whole lot after the 2002 original.

I have always conceded that the poor souls really do have a way with character-building dialogue that comes close to matching their inability to craft a coherent storyline.  It made Star Trek worth watching despite the consummate idiocy of its plotting; even Star Trek Into Darkness, very close to last year's worst picture, crackles in its dialogue, at least before it degenerates into a long, soul-killing reference joke.

The single skill they've ever shown is doubly essential here, because the patience for which I had previously praised Webb, Vanderbilt, and especially Sony now seems to have run out.  Amazing 2, in addition to being a monumentally effective Electro film, must also be a functioning Green Goblin movie.

Norman Osborn himself is almost offscreened.  Chris Cooper cameos only briefly to let his son know that the Connex-Killen/Oscorp merger has been approved, and (incidentally) that he's passed down a rare, debilitating, and deadly genetic disease, which is presently killing the elder Osborn right about... hmm, now.

Thus the seeds are planted for one of the many subplots of Amazing 2, that of Harry Osborn seeing the possibility of a cure in Spider-Man's superhuman blood; unfortunately, these seeds must be grown into a full-grown damned tree by the end of two hours and twenty minutes.

Yet despite the awful rush Sony is in to get to their forthcoming Sinister Six film with a Goblin in the lead, it works.  We can grudgingly thank the effortless hang-out dialogueand, more vital and more surprisingly, the instant rapport generated between Andrew Garfield as Peter and Dane DeHaan as his long-lost billionaire pal.  Their chemistry is so bubbly that if they had insisted on rehashing the love triangle from the Raimi films with a progressive twist, it would have been entirely believable.

But Spider-Man denies him his essence.

While Foxx is being tricked by Webb into giving a performance on an entirely different plane of reality, DeHaan is fully extant in this one.  He's the real star of this Spider-Man movie, operating perfectly in every mode required of him, from infinite chumminess, to epic brattiness, to finally an ecstatic supervillainy so pleased with its own evil that, for the first time in twelve years, someone in these movies is finally approaching, and maybe matching, Willem Dafoe.

However, you can make a case that turning Dane DeHaan into a young, thin version of Baron Harkonnen from Dune is not the best possible thing.

Oh, and there's also Paul Giamatti as the Rhino.  He's an afterthought in the film, basically a superpowered version of a generic thug for Spider-Man to beat up, whichdespite some complaints from the peanut galleryreally is the best and highest use of the Rhino, whose modern conception is based on the fact that he is a shitty, generic supervillain.

Finally, there's the webhead himself.  Now armed with a script that's willing to feed him the lines and a Garfield that seems a little more refined in his comic sensibilities, Spider-Man is, for the first time, genuinely funny in combat.

As for his secret identitywell, let's just accept that this Peter Parker is Ferris Bueller, and move on... though I think everyone must have felt as gratified and vindicated as I did when Aunt May finally called him on his preoccupation with his biological parents that has left her wounded and isolated in the wake of her husband and Peter's real father's death.

Emma Stone is naturally back as Gwen Stacy, and other than an annoying retreat back into will-they-won't-they boilerplate, courtesy Peter's visions of a digitally-inserted Denis Leary glowering at him, they are as great together as they were in Amazing 1.  More is the pity, then, isn't it?

It really does seem that Sony's willingness to play the long game with Gwen and the Goblin was exhausted by the prospect of an easy, early payoff, and that is a shame.  The inevitable does happen here, and it is too soon, especially for a film too devoted to Electro to tell the fullest possible expression of this seminal, far more important story.

But it is affecting, even arresting, in its execution: Webb knows, by the third act, that we know.  He seems to take a perverse glee in toying with us in terms of exactly when and how, rather than if.  His denouement works utterly.  Suffice it to say that by the end of his second chapter, Marc Webb has made this reboot matter.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not just a formal achievement, then, and it's not just an indication that even creators I sort of despise can still have great work in them.  It is, ultimately, a worthier adaptation than the Raimi films, in their fundamentally flawed conception, could ever hope to be.  One may as well admit that it's two whole films jammed into one insufficient running time.  But the damned thing isthey are still the two best Spider-Man films of them all.

And, maybe, I should add so far.  I know I stand lonely on this: but I can't wait to see what they'll do next.

Score: 8/10

Other reviews in this series:
Spider-Man: "Do what you need to with her, then broom her fast!"
Spider-Man 2: Not the superior Spider-Man
Spider-Man 3: "Dear God... kill Peter Parker"
The Amazing Spider-Man: The clone saga

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