Friday, April 11, 2014

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' (2014) directed by Marc Webb

Just when I thought I was sick of superhero movies... I'd figured The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was going to be another in an endless parade of identikit blockbusters by numbers. All the signs were there; The Amazing Spider-Man was a largely bland experience with brief moments of enjoyment; Marc Webb was a relatively inexperienced director the studio could push around a bit and, worst of all, there's queasy behind-the-scenes knowledge that this new Spider-Man series is less artistic endeavour and more contractual obligation so Sony can keep the character rights. These aren't necessarily portents of certain doom, but let's just say it doesn't exactly build anticipation.

But probably 10 minutes into this sequel I was having the time of my life.  This is superhero action as it should be, a whirlwind of primary colours and intense kineticity. We've all seen Spider-Man swing around New York before, but Webb has captured the joy of the character's motion in a way that Raimi only hinted at.  The character moves with the grace, personality and precision of a Pixar character - the kind of action sequences that you want to pick through frame by frame to catch every tiny gag and movement.  With some great 3D effects they quickly bypasse your critical faculties and go straight for the adrenal gland.

There are several of these astonishingly well-constructed action sequences within the film, mixtures of long CG tracking shots, close-ups and crackling effects.  Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man - clad in a beautifully straightforward rendition of his comicbook costume - is never anything less than enjoyable to look at.  But the film's most remarkable achievement is Electro.  Played by Jaime Foxx as a low-rent pop-art Dr Manhattan it quickly transpires that his superpower isn't electricity. It's dubstep.

Drop the bass!
The first time he unleashes his powers there's a colossal bass drop and a grinding 'wubwubwub' that rattles the cinema (seriously, see this in a screen with impressive sound system).  This gives the film the perfect opportunity to transform every action sequence with him into it into a warped musical number.  The score and sound design fuse together, turning the fights into cut-up dance tracks.  This concept reaches its apotheosis late in the film in a gobsmacking fight in a power station where the characters striking pillars produces synth melodies.  Then the whole arena turns into a gigantic graphic equaliser!  

After the lacklustre Lizard-fighting action sequences of the first film I figured Marc Webb just didn't have this in him.  But here, with Electro pulsating to the beat like a walking glow-stick, curling tendrils of blue neon enveloping the characters and Spider-Man whipping through it all, I felt a sense of tripped out cinematic exhilaration that I'd last felt in the awesome climactic race of Speed Racer and the climactic battles of Pacific Rim. These are beautiful, imaginative action sequences that make this glut of superhero films worthwhile.

This is stunning in 3D motion on a big screen.
The action is so good that it's unfortunate that it's surrounded by drama that, while competently constructed, isn't exactly a shining example of plotting.  I admire simplicity in cinema, but there's a rather annoying tendency in both this and it's prequel to devolve into legacy-based storytelling with future sequels in mind.  Easily the low points of the film are when it expects us to care about the mystery of what Peter Parker's Dad was up to before he died, a story strand that's dull and peculiarly Harry Potterish.

It's not that these sequences are poorly put together, but they certainly drag on a bit. There's also the classic superhero pitfall of juggling a villain too many. Dane DeHaan is great as Harry Osborne, but his transformation into the Green Goblin doesn't just give him claws and jagged teeth, it turnis him from a charismatic, sympathetic antagonist into a 2D cartoon badguy.  His stuff isn't exactly awful per se, but it feels a bit redundant after the fascinating Electro sequences.

But for every duff bit of pacing and plotting the film more than makes up for it in sheer gumption.  Webb has pinpointed precisely the right tone for a Spider-Man movie - able to mix up cartoonish slapstick and ludicrous superscience with genuine emotion and character development.  There's a refreshingly gleeful disregard for 'realism' - I particularly love that Electro gets his superpowers simply by falling into a tank of electric eels and exploding.  In fact, with the whiff of camp, the neon colour palette and lots of enjoyably hammy over-acting (and Electro initially being pretty much the Riddler from Batman Forever), Webb begins to very faintly recall the 1990s Batman films of Joel Schumacher.

Fortunately Electro doesn't make quite as many crappy puns as Mr Freeze did.
Did you hear that faint wail over the horizon?  That was the sound of a thousand fanboys wailing in torment.  But this lighthearted style works for Spider-Man, presenting us with a sunny, optimistic, comedic universe that's light years from the po-faced and glib Marvel Studios films. There's a warm sense of community to New York, with lovely sequences of a a city in love with a Spider-Man to whom the description "friendly, neighbourhood" has never applied more.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn't a perfect summer blockbuster but it's damn close.  Some trimming of extraneous characters and excision of irrelevant plotlines and you'd have something genuinely amazing.  As it stands, this is a seriously impressive and thrilling superhero film that throws the po-faced greyness of Marvel's recent The Winter Soldier into sharp relief.  Highly recommended.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on general release in the UK from 16 April and in the US from 2nd May (ouch!)

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