This post discusses the plot of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which arrives in theaters today.
One of the best things to happen to fans of genre films, comics and novels in recent years has been the steady dispelling of the idea that cartoons and live-action adaptations of them are necessarily un-serious. But that does not mean that all science fiction, fantasy and superhero stories are necessarily literature. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which arrives in theaters today, is the perfect example of a movie that is coasting on the promise of a big pay-day.
What makes it worse is that the movie is the second in the franchise to waste a good opportunity to tell a story not just about New York’s flashiest villains, but its deepest injustices. Superhero movies do not always have to be about big issues, but I would almost rather they leave off trying if the people involved with them want the credit for relevance, without taking responsibility for handling ideas with substance and seriousness.
The writing and plotting in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” are awful in a way that gives “cartoonish” a bad name. Characters are constantly leaving for England on a moment’s notice because plot mechanics demand it, or telling people not to get things “twisted,” because that is apparently what the kids say these days. Relationships that have lapsed for decades suddenly bind characters together like chains of fire.
The movie’s lead writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci announced last week that they would be going their separate ways on movie projects, though they will continue to make television together. It is unfortunate that they did not recognize the diminution of their creative partnership before subjecting us to “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
But in one respect, the movie has a problem that transcends Kurtzman and Orci’s script and the silliness of its special effects. Like “Spider-Man 3,” released in 2007, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” loads up on super-villains at the expense of its most interesting ideas and story lines.
The Spider-Man franchise has always been less political and more personal than Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or the Marvel movies overseen by Joss Whedon. But that doesn’t mean it lacks a very specific perspective on New York. Peter Parker’s modest upbringing is a contrast to Harry Osborn’s wealth. Blue-collar heroes like crane operators and air traffic controllers have a tendency to show up in big climaxes.
In “Spider-Man 3,” Peter (at the time Tobey Maguire) had a reckoning with Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), the man who killed his Uncle Ben, and subsequently acquired superpowers. Towards the end of the movie, we and Peter learned that Marko robbed Ben out of financial desperation, driven by his difficulties finding a steady job after a term in prison, and the shooting was an accident. But “Spider-Man 3” had no time to explore those ideas, in between Peter’s match-ups with the Green Goblin and Venom. It was worse as a superhero moment, and as a New York movie, as a result.
The pattern repeats in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” The most promising antagonist in the film is Max (Jamie Foxx), a put-upon Oscorp engineer. His life is transformed by an accidental encounter with Spider-Man (now Andrew Garfield), who saves him from an incoming car, and tells Max, “You’re not nobody. You’re somebody.” For Spider-Man, it is patter. For Max, it is a talisman against the anger he feels about Oscorp stealing his generator designs, a boss (B.J. Novak) who disrespects him and his crushing loneliness.
Max’s journey from nobody to super-villain could have been an intriguing exploration of race in New York. Before his transformation, Max is exploited by a large corporation. After he is changed, Max staggers out into the streets of New York in a hoodie, looking either physically or mentally ill. And when he is captured, he is turned into a medical research subject by an unscrupulous doctor. Any one of these situations might have been an interesting way into how black New Yorkers are treated by big companies when they are employees, the police when they are homeless or ill, or the medical establishment when they are sick.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” gestures at these ideas occasionally. Max, who is fascinated by the prospect of being recognized and acknowledged, is wonderstruck when a news camera projects his image on Times Square screens. He dreams of destroying the power grid that was built with his designs, but without credit or financial reward. And Max tells the doctor who imprisons him that “Everyone’s going to know what it’s like to live in my world, a world without power. A world without Spider-Man.”
The idea is clankingly obvious, both in its connection to Max’s job and his lack of social capital. But give the movie as a whole, the presence of any sort of idea at all counts for a lot. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has two other antagonists to deal with, as well as a back story for Peter’s father, and a romantic subplot that turns Peter into a stalker and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) into a flibbertigibbet. It is so crowded that one of the most iconic moments in comics [[major spoiler on that link]], translated onto what ought to have been a grand scale, barely has room to breathe. Everything in the movie suffocates.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” exists mostly to keep the rights to the character from reverting to Marvel. But in a media environment where Marvel and DC have both intermittently set stronger standards for superhero movies, even a commercial play like this one ought to try to swing higher. Peter Parker and his city both deserve better.