Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Rise of Electro (Film, 2014)

In which I rediscover my fear of heights and give away a spoiler. But just the one, and if you look at the film’s title, you’ll probably guess what it’s going to be anyway.

Above: Columbia Pictures’ official trailer

I recently started working my way through Neil Gaiman’s seminal Sandman graphic novel (i.e. ‘comic book’) series. I hadn’t picked up a comic since my late teens, and it has been I have to say a pleasure and a joy. Gaiman’s early writing (and a lot of his recent writing too actually) reminds me of teenage-hood — it is sometimes gangly, occasionally clumsy, often melodramatic. But it is compelling and passionate and memorable, and it is very hard to look away.

Successful comics and graphic novels are more often than not powerful allegories that pull apart and revel in some of life’s most fundamental questions and contradictions. Comic book characters wrestle with real world crises on a mythical scale, each embodying hard choices and wild alternatives with the most extreme of results. And much like real life, the right answer isn’t always clear and no choice truly provides the perfect outcome. That is, it seems to me, the purpose and enduring worth of their stories; not necessarily to see good triumph over evil — that would be too simplistic and polarising — but to explore the struggle to find the right answer, to explore what happens when different perspectives get their moment in the sun.

Good comics then are unsurprisingly fertile ground for adaptation; the sheer weight of their tales and enduring relevance is bottled temptation. And of course, it’s pretty cool to think you can make extraordinary super-human characters with their magical powers do all kinds of crazy magical stuff right there in front of you.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Rise of Electro is another in a long line of recent feature film adaptations of popular comic book myths. I have not seen the previous Amazing Spider-Man film, but I know enough of the various franchises and the Spider-Man character’s cultural cache to follow this reboot with relative ease (remember the ones with Tobey Macguire and Kirsten Dunst? Yeah, these are different, but the same…)

The plot of this film is sprawling yet tightly woven. At its heart is Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who’ve just graduated from university and are both sulking about the compromises one must make in a relationship between a super hero and intellectual over-achiever. Parker continues to wrestle with the memory of a mother and father who deserted him, leaving him to be raised by his Aunt May (Sally Field). A downtrodden and lonely engineer, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), develops an unhealthy obsession with Spider-Man that only magnifies in intensity when he is involved in a workplace accident and becomes Electro — a pulsing blue figure that feeds on electrical energy only to expel it with devastating force. Harry Osborn, the recently orphaned millionaire and former childhood friend of Parker discovers he has a degenerative disease and is fixated on acquiring Spider-Man’s blood in the hope he will be cured. The board of OsCorp (Osborn’s company left to him by his dead father) is intent on using any means necessary to forcibly remove the young Osborn from his post as head of the company. And that’s the set-up.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a technically spectacular film. The seemingly endless sequences of Spider-Man soaring about New York are breath-taking, and as someone who struggles with heights, there are certain shots in this film that made my stomach churn. And no, I wasn’t watching it in 3D. The transformation of Foxx into Electro is beyond successful — he is the most impressive looking ‘bad guy’ I’ve seen in ages, but in what I can only imagine was a mind-exploding visual effects organisational nightmare, the director clearly forget to remind the actors playing Electro’s would-be captors that they should at least try to look mildly troubled by his what-would-be-on-film extraordinary appearance.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone shine in this — in fact, most of the cast do. An unrecognisable Paul Giamatti is under-utilised (but it’s clear the franchise will be making up for that in the next instalment). Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon/Electro and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn are I think wonderful antagonists, and for the very short time they are on screen together, are a truly terrifying union of evil.

This film is striking for these and many other reasons — it is bold and spectacular, a wall-to-wall escapade of sound and colour and movement. You can’t look away as it pulls every string to get you amped up and involved at every single moment. And for that it is exhausting. Speeding forward with an intensity that is debilitating, and a soundtrack that seems to slap you in the face at every opportunity, the film’s hardline strategy of grabbing its audience by the throat and holding their emotions to ransom has the unintended effect of keeping that same audience at a distinct distance, removing emotion almost entirely from the equation.

For all it packs in (and it packs in a hell of a lot), there are gaping holes that leave you wondering what on earth the film is actually trying to say. For one, the social politics are questionable at best (sadly, when aren’t they questionable in these cinematic blockbusters?) How a character whose name is in the very title can be killed off, with no fleeting thought at all, only for the story to crack on as though he never existed is beyond me, and also just serves to show that the under-paid, under-appreciated minority character in this world is as forgettable and inconsequential in death as he is in life. The women, all two of them (sorry three — there is Parker’s mother who dies a few minutes into the film and is never mentioned again — turns out, Parker only needs to miss his dad), are seemingly fully formed beings with no flaws and no weaknesses. At least none that aren’t the usual acceptable weaknesses for female characters, which are caring too much and not wanting to see your family die, and therefore, those female characters have nowhere to actually move in these speeding, soaring kinds of stories. I learnt that women either live or they die and what they have to say or contribute has nothing to do with it.

The recurring theme of Spider-Man stories invariably revolves around identity; how we all walk along a knife’s edge between who we are and who we want to be, between wanting to be good and choosing to be evil. In this film, the set-up of intertwined relationships and loyalties are wonderful spaces to explore what identity really means. Electro is a fascinating figure because of where he comes from and who he was before he became Electro, not because he is Electro. Osborn is a fascinating figure because of his troubled allegiance to a harsh father and unmanageable family legacy. Parker is a fascinating and flawed figure because he can’t seem to keep his ego or his curiosity in check — he may be a super-hero, but he’s still only human. This is all tricky but wonderful territory to explore, and while I can’t speak on the other titles in the series or the many forms it has taken as an actual comic series, in this film, these questions of identity are left hugely untouched. In fact, any question asked is answered with sweeping, all-consuming slaps of plot. For all it’s colour and spectacle, this film works only in black and white and that is a tremendous waste.

On an emotional level, the film then of course left me cold. It’s unrelenting emotional, visual and aural intensity rocketed on long after I’d metaphorically kicked the door open and thrown myself from the moving vehicle, having lost any sense of connection to the story at the first point the plot brutally won out over the truth of a character. That isn’t to say the film isn’t worth watching; it is a magnificent visual feast with solid performances and is a blistering example of what a whole lot of money and star power can actually achieve. It’s just that for those of us who like our films to occasionally breathe, to occasionally speak interesting truths, do remember to bring along a small tank of oxygen. You will need it.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Rise of Electro was released theatrically in Australia on April 17, 2014. You can visit the official site here.

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