The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Dangers of World-Building

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 changes gears by becoming an advertisement for a shared universe. Should we care?

This article contains major spoilers in relation to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. You have been warned.

Chances are if you are like any proud, card-carrying geek, then you spent this past weekend watching, digesting…and arguing over Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. A movie two years in the making, the picture tried to give fans everything they seemed to want out of the first film: bigger battles, more jokes, brighter colors, and iconic comic book moments entirely separate from the web-slinger’s hallowed origin story (and a previous movie incarnation of 10 years ago). It also is intended to be Sony’s kickoff into bigger and better things with a shared universe in which all of Spidey’s rogue gallery and supporting cast have the potential to earn their own franchise treatment, interlocking into something as amazing as that other Marvel Cinematic Universe that doesn’t rely on nominal adjectives.

However, it could be fair to say that this dramatic shift of franchise tone in just one installment missed the skyscrapers for the city. There were plenty of easter eggs to chew on and potential character threads for internet forums to swing from for months. We are glimpsed spin-offs, sequels, and set-ups between the Sinister Six, Spider Slayers, Rhino (a walking advertisement for the Sinister Six movie if there ever was one), Black Cat, possibly Venom, and more shades of Goblin mischief to come. Yet, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s desire to build an entire world around the wall-crawler, did Sony sacrifice the ability to build an interesting movie about the character? Again?

The Amazing Spider-Man franchise has been borne and cultivated at a strange time for the superhero movie. For the first installment, coming out in the game-changing year of 2012—which saw the end of the Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight Trilogy and the culmination of Marvel’s first phase, The Avengers—had a major full-force impact on the web-head. Still very much a product of Sony’s Columbia Pictures that gave us two of the past decade’s definitive superhero movies, The Amazing Spider-Man was a project haunted by retreading familiar ground from those movies, awkwardly searching for a new voice.

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To be fair, three years ago when the last Spidey movie went into production, Marvel Studios had not established near total dominance in the genre. Before The Avengers’ multi-franchise approach appeared to be anything other than a huge studio gamble, all of the Phase One Marvel films were indeed origin flicks that were heavily informed by Sam Raimi’s own first Spider-Man picture. In fact, the only other origin movie of possible more importance in the last 25 years was the movie that more or less invented the word “reboot” in the modern studio lexicon: Batman Begins.

An entirely stripped down and unplugged rendering of the caped crusader after Joel Schumaucher’s glammed-out disco conclusion to the previous Batman franchise, Batman Begins took a back to basics approach on the character. Director Christopher Nolan drew inspiration from as many of his favorite crime movies as Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978). And Nolan had a novel approach to making his superhero movies—he treated their source material like great literature and realized his own pictures like the big screen spectacles that inspired him in his youth, with auteurs of such variance as David Lean, George Stevens, Ridley Scott, William Friedkin, and (eventually) Michael Mann, amongst others. Of course, the great take away from his reinvention of Batman for many moviegoers and studio executives was that it was dark and gritty, and realistic.

Granted, the irony in this is that Nolan was initially only following Donner’s playbook from that aforementioned Superman movie by grounding it in the buzzy word of verisimilitude. It just so happens that Batman is dark and gritty, at least in every popular interpretation since Frank Miller. Nevertheless, that “Nolan” approach has directly influenced many a franchise in its wake, including but not limited to James Bond (Casino Royale, Skyfall), Star Trek (Star Trek Into Darkness), Superman (Man of Steel), and, very briefly, even your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man returned to the origin well because other than Nolan’s own staggering The Dark Knight, the most financially successful superhero movies remained rooted in a story of discovery and powerful wish fulfillment. And circa 2012, that journey needed to appear melancholic, darkly lit, and wholly based on a son in search of his father because, at least in part, it worked so damn well for Bruce Wayne back in 2005. Before you contest this point, recall that Batman Begins opens with a childlike Bruce Wayne playing hide-and-seek with his best friend (who eventually is taken away from him) in a flashback that crescendos into a traumatic event and jarring jump-cut to the young hero now in a ruinous prison. Then rewatch how The Amazing Spider-Man also starts with a young boy playing hide-and-seek with a father whose end-of-sequence disappearance will act as a prelude into the son’s misery, a fact demonstrated when it cuts to teenage Peter Parker in an even worse imaginable hell: a grimly desaturated high school.

Of course that first film was more than just influenced by those elements and enjoyed several staples previously unseen in the Raimi movies, including a Spider-Man with a bigger mouth than Groucho Marx and an attitude that was authentically New York. Also, if Garfield’s Peter Parker brought about some of the wit his comic book counterpart was known for, Emma Stone brought one of the two biggest loves of Peter’s life to the big screen in a memorable and endearing way. Stone’s Gwen Stacy had more captivating energy with Garfield’s Peter than any CGI sequence involving giant lizards, and retroactively makes sense considering Garfield and Stone’s real-life relationship. Undeniably, this new Spidey franchise had two central leads that could certainly grow the series in new directions.

However, something else of note happened in 2012 beyond this big screen pairing that would drive the series’ direction: The Avengers became the first superhero movie to make $1.5 billion. And what a superhero movie it was. Out-grossing that summer’s Dickensian, economic paranoia opus in tights that ended Nolan’s tenure in the genre, The Avengers marked a new kind of superhero model. These movies no longer had to be about beginnings, explanations, or “realism.” They needed to be part of an overarching movie universe where no single film tells a complete story; they only had to tell half of the story, or even a quarter of it. As part of a larger multi-franchise universe, these movies would cross-pollinate into something better than any advertising campaign, because the movies are their own advertising. Each picture acts as a complete marketing bombardment for the next product that can be dropped as early as that same summer if the studio is ambitious enough.

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And if there is one thing The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s story became, it is ambitious. Throwing away the drab colors and haunted tone of the first movie, the Marc Webb sequel brings back the bright shimmer and gee-whiz bang of previous Spidey movies. But unlike any other Spider-Man flick, it has its eye on more than the next one. Despite Sony only holding the rights to one Marvel property, the studio is determined to make the most out of what is fairly a deep, if specific, bench. By the end of the decade we’re getting The Amazing Spider-Man 3, Sinister Six, Venom, and The Amazing Spider-Man 4. This weekend, we also got an idea about what they’d look like.

If you study the above picture, it is a kaleidoscope of goodies for comic book faithful that know their Ravencrofts from their Morbius files. It also surmises the entirety of this movie, which is a whole lot of comic-based winks that are intended to make fans as giddy as when Samuel L. Jackson first showed up in Tony Stark’s mansion while wearing an eye-patch. But this is not unique.

There are currently four comic book movie universes vying for your hard earned dollars, three of them in some shape or form coming from Marvel. Further, studios are trying to create interconnected movie universes out of anything else, such as G.I. Joe and Transformers. Perhaps, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 should then stand as a warning about where this new kind of blockbuster-building madness lies; the antithesis of Joss Whedon’s sparkling Avengers. Because in all its teasing for what is to come, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 directly failed to deliver on the moments at hand, especially in one of the Spidey comic mythos’ greatest events.

Nominally, one could say The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is about “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” as she does indeed make her fateful fall here. You could also say that it is about Spider-Man discovering the truth that cost the lives of his parents. Or you could suggest that it is about Peter Parker getting his first taste of the Sinister Six since likely three members have their origins in this movie with Electro, Rhino, and the Green Goblin all debuting. The problem is that it’s about none of these aspects. It is about marketing their roles to come.

Indeed, it separates itself from Sam Raimi’s three-ring circus that spilled into the crowd, Spider-Man 3, by not worrying about how it can service its overstuffed plots. In The Amazing Spdier-Man 2, none are serviced beyond surface level. Despite the winsome pairing of Garfield and Stone, as well as Webb’s keen interest in showcasing them, the movie ultimately belongs to Sony’s marketing plan of world and multi-franchise building. It is a self-consuming product line that feeds into the next, but this time, it left nothing for the audience to savor, except maybe frustration.

This is entirely best demonstrated in the most pivotal sequence of the whole movie involving the wall-crawler, darling Gwen, and an inadequate amount of webbing. Like in the comics, Gwen Stacy is thrown from a high place by a cackling Osborn, and like in the comic books, Spider-Man’s web-line fails to save her in time, instead (probably) snapping her neck with a whiplash effect. It is brutal, tragic, and entirely inconsequential to the movie’s true purpose.

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The event is built out of coincidence and half-hearted writing, because it was determined to squeeze in this death, if only to check off another box in the universe before clearing the deck for the next phase, even at the expense of the franchise’s most charismatic lead. In the comics, Gwen’s death comes at the hands of Norman Osborn, the original literary Green Goblin, after years of escalating rivalry with the web-head. Changing the murderer to Harry Osborn (and the location from the Brooklyn Bridge to a clocktower) has a certain utilitarian logic to it, thereby differentiating the film from Sam Raimi’s original 2002 picture. However, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has no interest in building any sort of rivalry between Harry and Peter or storytelling compulsion to the two’s relationship. Like the subplot about Peter’s father having a posthumous secret that plays a role in his origin, Harry’s motivations, and thus Gwen’s death, serves no purpose other than to muddle the story and facilitate more franchise-building to come in a movie that is ostensibly about Spidey versus Electro.

Instead, of old Sparky, the film focuses on Peter spending multiple, lethargic scenes in the subway working on dear old dad’s research. These scenes are momentum killers that must be endured only because they tease that Richard Parker created special spider Venom, juicily leaving enough of an easter egg to build an “Ultimate Spider-Man” styled origin and spin-off around for the already announced Venom movie. It also feeds back into Harry’s awkwardly positioned story, which replaces Electro’s as the central conflict for the second half of the movie.

Once Electro is easily defeated by Spider-Man in an admittedly great sequence in Times Square, the movie ungracefully shifts to Peter’s “best friend,” who he shared all of two scenes with. Based on the research of Peter’s father, Harry thinks he has found a cure for an Osborn disease, though it ultimately leads to him becoming the Green Goblin. This motivation makes little sense, supposing that because Harry might die in 35 years from a genetic disease he will want to kill Spider-Man today, but it is a terrific excuse to set-up a slew of movies.

For example, Harry’s Oscorp assistant in this matter is the very lovely Felicity Jones, completely wasted in her three scenes as Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, another Spider-Man love interest for down the road. Also conveniently, one of Harry’s employees is the pre-destined spider slayer inventor Alistair Smythe (B.J. Novak). But they all exist merely to point Harry and the audience toward a room filled with the arms of Doctor Octopus, the wings of the Vulture, and the armor of the Rhino. Surely some geeks found it giggle-inducing, but it is all so much that it overpowers and supplants an end result that comes to very little: Harry turns into the Green Goblin. Rather than being a central story conflict, it curtails into an afterthought in service for the larger film universe. And so too does Harry’s actions.

Which brings us back to that ending. The movie spends so much time laying the groundwork for more movies to come that when Harry shows up on a glider for the first time ever following Spidey’s supposedly climactic duel with Electro, it is obligatory and awkward–even more rushed than Venom’s storyline in the previous Spider-Man franchise. This is supposed to be this series’ interpretation of Spidey’s absolutely greatest foe, and his inclusion, as well as helping Peter accidentally off Gwen, feels entirely pointless. Much like last summer’s blockbuster disappointment Star Trek Into Darkness, also written in part by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, including a famous scene from the source material (be it comics or Wrath of Khan) will be entirely meaningless if the context is so aimlessly trivial.

Ironically, this might have been one time where paying attention to Nolan again could have served this new Spidey series well. While Rachel Dawes, in either incarnation, is one of the weakest aspects of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, her death at the hands of the Joker in The Dark Knight felt sudden, but shockingly powerful and merited. For over 90 minutes, that film built up a rising tension between Batman and Joker, as well as Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes. When she is ripped away, it comes at an unexpected moment after the Joker plays a trick on the heroes and the audience. The searing agony is then wallowed in not just for the grieving hero who lost a girlfriend, but for the story which is making a point. The chaos it ushers in for the next sunrise while Heath Ledger’s villain howls into the dawn from a stolen cop car, and the Batman grieves at the location of her demise with more than a hint of Ground Zero imagery, drives the message of this story about the costs of order in a chaotic (and for those off-screen, post-9/11) world.

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In comparison, Gwen Stacy, who is a much more captivating character played with genuine appeal by Stone, is robbed of the narrative context for her death that made it so memorable and tragic in the comics. The filmmakers even place the onerous blame on Gwen for ignoring Peter’s warnings about staying away from the battle (how else would Harry’s arbitrary appearance know to target her?). When so much of the rest of the movie is about building up four more movies, this singular story had no actual time to develop into what should have been one of the most defining moments in superhero cinema. Instead, it is just another scene randomly occurring in a movie completely devoid of pace or narrative rhythm, leaving the audience as confused and wounded as the impressively heartbroken Garfield.

Of course, this moment cannot be lingered on for Peter to learn anything. As soon as the funeral and grief montage is over, the picture must move immediately to Harry in prison with absolutely no explanation as to how Peter reacted to Harry, or the world to the death of Gwen Stacy. Rather, Harry is preparing with the shadowy Gustav Fliers (hey look another obscure comic book reference!) to unleash the Sinister Six, dovetailing into another set-up for a future movie when the equally pointless character of Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) becomes the Rhino, forcing a final teasing duel between himself and the web-slinger, a promise of things to come. It is almost a metaphor for the entire film. The approachably pitch perfect Andrew Garfield, whose fast-talking taunts to the Rhino via a cop’s megaphone are pure Spider-Man, must struggle mightily and with all his might against franchise and studio mandates to make something worthwhile. But like the scene, it always appears to be cut short.

I appreciate fan service and the need to sow the seeds for more to come. But nobody wants to see a movie simply about marketing team planters in the field for two hours. Film is not television. Expecting audiences to wait two, three, or four years for a pay-off to your current story is the antithesis of cinema. It is also perhaps the greatest hurdle for any blockbuster film in the post-Avengers world. When studios’ film slates look more akin to multi-year TV show bibles, no project is allowed to be exceptional, lest they all be held to that standard. Indeed, they sometimes can get bogged down in their own mythological self-satisfaction.

Honestly, the narrative muddle of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is no less jumbled than Marvel’s own Iron Man 2, which could be described as a 30-minute story with an extra 90-minute tap dance until The Avengers. But that wasn’t Marvel’s first foray into franchise-building, and the entire system was chugging along well enough to skip over that early stumble. Since this second Marc Webb Spidey movie is in many ways another re-do after 2012’s modestly received “dark” reboot, TASM2 needed to actually make audiences excited about this expanding world. Instead, it will leave many more infuriated that there was barely a point to the last two hours they spent in it.

At this point, I would not be very surprised if 2016’s The Amazing Spider-Man 3 changes the look, approach, and franchise plan yet again.

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