Monday, April 21, 2014

Counting Up To Six: How The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro Loses Its Way. . .

The Good: Good performances, Pretext of character development
The Bad: Over-the-top special effects, Entirely derivative plot, Lack of spark
The Basics: The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro starts off remarkably well, but continues to add in elements until it is diluted into being Just Another Superhero Sequel.

I went into The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro with reasonably high expectations, despite having never been a fan of the Spider-Man franchise. I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man (reviewed here!), but found it largely to be an example of “better ingredients, better meal.” In other words, the reboot started out from an advantageous place considering that the actors in it were of a higher caliber than those who began in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy. So, bolstered by the success of the reboot a few years back, I turned to The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro ready to be solidly entertained.

Little did I know that Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci (the two who brought us the reboot of Star Trek, reviewed here!), and Jeff Pinkner were basically going to turn in a rewrite of Batman Forever (reviewed here!) for the Spider-Man franchise. Okay, it’s not quite that bad, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro has a primary villain who bears a striking resemblance in terms of character arc to the Edward Nigma character in Batman Forever and he is juggled clumsily between other budding villains so he never quite pops the way viewers might hope. In fact, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro is such a jumbled mess of elements that it would be more accurately subtitled (for those markets that include the subtitle): The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Set-Up For The Sequel.

Therein lies the fundamental problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro: the whole film has a grossly assembled feeling to it. Of course The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro is an assembled work: there was a writing team, a director, the actors add their own stuff, the studio comes in with notes, etc. Almost all films are collaborative works that start as a work cobbled together from ideas that writers hope will work together. The trick in moviemaking is that the film’s elements need to feel organic, not assembled. When the great moments of reversal come, the viewer should be able to say, “that makes sense” even if they did not see it coming. The best films make one stop looking for the tricks and get so engrossed that when the surprises pop up they truly are surprising. Unfortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro doesn’t do that. Instead, the film follows a troublingly rigid formula that cobbles together elements from The Amazing Spider-Man, Batman Forever and classic Spider-Man comic book storylines that are so well known that even non-fans like myself are entirely aware of them. In short, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro has no surprises for anyone who is awake and has seen any five comic book-based films over the last ten years; what’s worse is that it misuses the talent present in the film in a way The Amazing Spider-Man did not.

Opening with a ballsy rehash of Richard and Mary Parker fleeing Oscorp and New York City (which keeps the protagonist of the film off the screen for the first seven plus minutes!), Peter Parker’s parents meet an untimely end, this time on-screen. As their plane goes down, Richard sends his files to a secret Roosevelt facility using wi-fi technology I’m pretty sure we didn’t have during that time period. In the present day, New York City is besieged by deranged thief Aleksei Sytsevich, who has stolen some vials from Oscorp and is fleeing through downtown with his thugs when he runs into the New York City police department and Spider-Man. Spider-Man manages to foil the robbery, much to the chagrin of Detective Stacy, who – like Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s mundane alter-ego) is kept from the high school graduation by the chase. Parker makes it to graduation just in time (just in time for an awesome Stan Lee cameo!), but having seen Detective Stacy recently, he feels conflicted about actually taking Gwen Stacy up on her generous offer to join the Stacy family for dinner that night. Appearing at the restaurant, Peter tells Gwen he can’t really keep seeing her and Gwen breaks up with Peter for not having the balls to break the promise he made in the prior film to her father outright.

Following their break-up, Max Dillon, an Oscorp employee who has created a revolutionary new power grid for New York City, which is housed in Oscorp, finds himself alone and stepped on by everyone around him. Having been rescued by Spider-Man during the Sytsevich heist, he has a bit of hero worship for Spider-Man. On his birthday, the lonely engineer – who is stepped on by everyone around him, most notably an Oscorp employee who is many years his junior, but seems more outwardly ambitious and a bit of a jackass – meets Gwen Stacy and is thrilled by the simple fact that she remembers his name. Unfortunately, that is the day that Norman Osborn, the founder of Oscorp, dies. Norman dies after having recalled his son, Harry, from prep school and revealing to him that he has prolonged his life using terrible means which have mutated him into something not-quite-human. Harry inherits Oscorp and the employees are all sent home. Unfortunately for Max Dillon, that means his jack-ass superior is unwilling to turn the power off in the conduit he is fixing for the company and Dillon is electrocuted and falls into a tank of electric eels . . . which naturally turns him into a glowing blue man who resurrects in the company morgue hours later.

Scared and unsure of his own abilities, Max Dillon walks out into New York City where his thirst for electrical energy leads him to absorb massive amounts of electricity in Times Square. This makes Peter Parker’s spider-sense tingle (though not explicitly referenced) during his conversation with Gwen Stacy, with whom he is attempting a friendship. Spider-man arrives on the scene and, despite having one of his two web-slingers knocked out by the electrified Dillon, he is able to incapacitate Max Dillon (largely because conversation with Dillon was going remarkably well until one of the police snipers jumped the gun and shot at Dillon). While Peter Parker reaches out to the mourning Harry Osborn, Max Dillon is experimented upon at the secret Oscorp facility, Ravencroft Institute. But soon, Harry’s quest for a cure to the genetic disease that killed his father and whose first symptoms he is now experiencing hits dead ends and corporate intrigue. Following Kurt Connors’ experiments in The Amazing Spider-Man, Oscorp destroyed a number of experiments to avoid lawsuits, including the radioactive spiders that bit Peter Parker. Harry’s right hand man at the company, Donald Menken, is working against him to advance to the CEO position himself. So, when Harry realizes he needs Spider-Man’s blood, he asks Peter Parker for help (thinking Peter knows Spider-man because he has photographed the superhero). But Peter Parker’s own quest for answers has led him to discover the Roosevelt facility and, in the process, he has learned the circumstances under which his father fled. Peter knows that his blood cannot help Harry, but when he and Spider-man refuse to help Harry, Harry takes a different path. He breaks into Ravencroft to free Electro (Max Dillon’s now-villainous alter-ego) and set him upon Spider-man. With the power out in New York City and a determined Gwen Stacy insisting on helping him, Spider-Man must stop Max Dillon and an obsessed Harry Osborn before they destroy New York.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro juggles a lot and while it is not too much for a single film, it is too much for this particular film. The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro is an odd film as far as pacing goes. It starts out with an interminably long sequence with Peter Parker’s father, becomes engaging for the bits involving Peter, Gwen and the actual rise of Electro, but stumbles through the entire Harry Osborn plot. The Harry Osborn plot is good, but it feels like it is part of another movie entirely. And, in order to make it work and all come together, the writing team and director Marc Webb seem to have given up. Much the way Princess Leia in Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!) bears almost no resemblance to the character seen in the two films that precede it, Max Dillon/Electro bears no real resemblance to the character seen in the first two-thirds of the film. Harry Osborn gives Dillon the weakest argument for turning against his hero, Spider-man, ever conceived and Dillon just goes right along with it. In a film where the viewer knows so much of the mythos (Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies are not terribly old and it’s not like they were not popular!) (It’s hard to call Gwen Stacy’s fate a “spoiler” when it was the subject of a comic book FORTY-ONE YEARS AGO!), the team that assembled The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro takes all of the easiest possible ways out. Max Dillon spends the first two-thirds of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 being set up to be Spider-man’s sidekick. He’s a likable guy, stepped on by schmucks around him until he is given a series of powers he does not at all understand. Then, he’s tortured by the same people who screwed him over his whole life so . . . how is it we’re supposed to believe he goes after entirely the wrong guy in the last act?! Did the writing team learn nothing from Star Trek: Nemesis* (reviewed here!)?!

So, Electro . . . utterly generic villain after one of the coolest super hero origin stories that could have been. That leaves The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro with two villains and a phantom antagonist. First, the villains. Aleksei Sytsevich is cartoonish in his original appearance and when he pops up at the climax of the film as the Rhino, it embodies a problem that has been present through the entire film: the special effects. The special effects in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro are just ridiculous. Gone is a sensible proportion, a realism of physics that was more apparent in The Amazing Spider-Man than in anything from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy. In fact, from his first moments on screen as a CG webslinger, the Spider-man in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro looks like a collection of b-roll from Sam Raimi’s trilogy. The attempt at spectacle is over-the-top, distracting and makes the film look like an animated film as opposed to a serious super hero work. But when the Rhino, in this incarnation a massive tank-like mech blasting through New York City, makes his appearance, it is much more worthy of a groan than a gasp.

Then there’s Harry Osborn. Harry is played by Dane DeHaan and he is, to be entirely fair to him, really good in the role. DeHaan holds his own opposite a heavily made-up Chris Cooper who plays the dying Norman Osborn and he has enough on-screen gravitas to be a compelling leader of Oscorp. DeHaan is as good in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro as Andrew Garfield was in The Amazing Spider-Man. And it’s not DeHaan’s fault that the character is written so thinly, cramped in between two other villains and manages to absurdly talk Max Dillon into completely betraying his established character. I can understand why the studio did not want to risk everything on Dane DeHaan and a Spider-Man film that focused on the Green Goblin as the villain . . . no, wait, they risked at least as much on a reboot of the franchise and won, so why wouldn’t they play to their known strengths for the mythos?! Yes, one of the big reasons The Amazing Spider-man 2 is likely to be released in the U.S. without the Rise Of Electro subtitle is because audiences will recognize the film to be equally the Rise Of The Green Goblin and wonder why the hell Sony isn’t touting that. If you’re going to turn the story on its ear from what fans of the Spider-Man film franchise know anyway, why not completely reinvent the origin of the Green Goblin and give him his own film?!

Then there’s the phantom antagonist. Detective Stacy has no real presence in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro. He pops up, glowers once or twice and disappears from the narrative. In fact, anyone who looks at basic movie structure will look at the film’s climax and wonder just where the hell Detective Stacy is. Peter Parker stands around at the same location for quite some time, a place where Detective Stacy would be bound to go, and yet there is no scene where the law and order cop who spent the entire first film loathing Spider-man’s vigilantism appears, sees Peter Parker and snaps just long enough to kick the kid’s ass. Detective Stacy is recharacterized in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro as a complete wuss. In fact, the only analogy I have is to my own life. When I met the woman who became my wife, we met online and for our first in-person meeting, we met at the restaurant at which she was working at the time. I was caught in a snowstorm and was late and her friends had been ragging on her and when I finally appeared (an hour and a half late), she was relieved and her friends were wary. Her friends, protective as they were, said to me, “If you hurt our girl, we’ll kill you.” Well, me being a pragmatist, bored, and wanting to spend time with the woman I had come to see, I said, “Didn’t you say that about the last guy she dated?” The answer from her friends were, “Well . . . yes.” So, I won some points with some and made some pretty freaked out when my response was, “Well, it’s hard to take your threat seriously when I know for a fact he’s still walking around above ground.” Detective Stacy, like my wife’s friends, talk a good game, but when confronted with everything he feared . . . the good detective completely disappears from the storyline. It’s impossible to take him seriously and I know if I ever go back and rewatch The Amazing Spider-Man, I’m going to laugh my ass off at Denis Leary’s over-the-top indignation as Detective Stacy.

That brings us to the big plot event that anyone who knows comic book history knows would eventually come to one of the key characters in the Spider-man cinematic stories. Without revealing that “spoiler” to those who are not so well-versed, it does happen in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro . . . in exactly the way it was done in the books (which I was surprised by because I thought it happened differently, but upon further research, yup, it was right on the mark!). That brings a decent tragic element into The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro.

Unfortunately, it comes too late and after so many other threads have been introduced and disappointed the viewers and quite a bit before the ultimate climax to the movie. Moreover, the impact on Spider-Man is not one of a vigilante hero. Spider-Man is given an arc that is pretty much the opposite of Batman in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro; in analogous terms, Spider-man’s arc here would be like if Batman were an established vigilante and the death of his parents led him to hang up the cowl, as opposed to hunt down the mobsters that killed them. That Spider-Man spends no time on-screen hunting the villain that instigates the tragedy that knocks Peter Parker off his game makes one wonder just who Spider-man was setting out to help when he put on the mask (it clearly wasn’t himself!).

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro is a good example of better casting than performances. Jamie Foxx is good as Max Dillon . . . unless one has seen him in The Soloist (reviewed here!) in which case he’s adequate and peaks at reprising his role from that film. Colm Feore is given too little to do in the underdeveloped role of Donald Menken (which would have been a much more effective role had the character appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man as an ambitious up-and-comer who was screwed over by Harry’s return in this film) and Felicity Jones (who has given some amazing performances in the past) could be replaced by a house plant for all that the role of Felicia offers her . . . or the film. Paul Giamatti’s role of Aleksei Sytsevich is presented with so much enthusiasm that viewers have to wonder how much is the character and how much is Giamatti laughing at the studio for paying him so much for such a ridiculous role (and the promise of future appearances as the Rhino!). Sally Field, Chris Cooper, and Marton Csokas (Dr. Kafka at Ravencroft) are all adequate in their roles, sometimes even good.

But The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro is headlined by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and for two performers who can usually do no wrong, they fall unfortunately flat in this film. Gone entirely is the on-screen chemistry between Garfield and Stone . . . and that has severe ramifications for the movie’s climax. The two have mediocre banter that is delivered adequately, but from Stone and Garfield, viewers expect sparks. Garfield’s initial voiceovers are quips as the CG Spider-Man flies around and Garfield sounds bored delivering the lines. Not to be outdone, Emma Stone’s valedictory speech for Gwen Stacy is delivered with such a lackluster quality that I was bored . . . and it wasn’t as long as a real graduation! Sadly, the pair reaches their peak for a scene in a maintenance closet where they almost break the fourth wall by acknowledging the cliché of hiding in the janitor’s closet whilst being pursued by company thugs (who, like Star Wars Stormtroopers see a closed door and assume that those they are hunting cannot possibly be on the other side of it). That banter is good, but subsequent scenes simply throw the pair together after months of being apart without any organic incidents to allow them to truly rethink the decisions that drove them apart. Could Garfield and Stone have sold it? It’s possible, but they don’t and that undermines The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro.

Despite the over-the-top web-related effects, Electro looks pretty awesome in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro. Sure, Marc Webb essentially resurrected Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen (reviewed here!) for Electro in the film, but the effects work better than almost anything else in the movie. Sadly, given that Doc Ock’s tentacles can be seen in the Oscorp lab and rumors have leaked for months that the Sinister Six (six villains from Spider-man who team up but never seem to quite be able to actually kill Spider-man once and for all) might well get their own film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro seems largely like a set-up film for that. The essential Spider-Man characters are present, they are doing their own things, but every opportunity to look back (for a dead character, Richard Parker spends a lot of time on-screen in this film!) and look forward is utilized to push those characters out of the way for painfully obvious foreshadowing moments. The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro is almost enough to make viewers wish for six stand-alone films featuring the rise of each of the Sinister Six . . . just so long as they bothered to develop each one well. As it stands, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro puts three potentials in play, but does so in such a way that the viewer doesn’t give a damn if they ever grace the screen again. At least Webb and his team were smart enough to not recast J. Jonah Jamison on-screen (Sam Raimi got him absolutely, perfectly right, with J.K. Simmons!).

If you feel you must watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise Of Electro, I’d say hold out for its appearance on DVD; this is one of those films that the more one contemplates, the more faults they see in it and I cannot imagine it will age any better.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Guardians Of The Galaxy
The Wolverine
The Avengers
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Spider-Man 3
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

*For those who don’t catch the reference, in Star Trek: Nemesis, the villain was tormented by Romulans, discarded and despised by Romulans, and when he assembled a massive military power that would have allowed him to actually get proper revenge on the Romulans, he instead turned his aggression toward the Federation, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Come to think of it, his whole mission in life was blood, too, so between Harry Osborn and Max Dillon, the writing team just picked all the worst aspects of villain motivations from Star Trek: Nemesis and ran with them!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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