I recently, belatedly and quite impulsively decided to go see The Amazing Spider-Man 2, mostly because it was hot out, I figured the theatre would be cold, and nothing else playing looked appealing. From those basically nonexistent expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I liked this movie–and I keep liking it better the more I think about it! Some spoilers to follow (though the chief spoiler hit news stands in 1973, so it may be past its expiration date…)
The movie opens with life a bit rocky for Peter (Spider-Man) Parker (Andrew Garfield). His relationship with Gwen (Emma Stone) is “complicated,” he has unanswered questions about his deceased parents, and Oscorp, of course, is probably up to something they shouldn’t be. So it seems like a good thing when childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) comes back to New York to take over the company…until Harry tells Peter that he’s dying of a genetic disease, and believes only Spider-Man’s blood can help him. Meanwhile, Oscorp employee Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has an unfortunate accident involving electric eels, and morphs into Electro, a creature with power over electricity and a grudge against Spider-Man.
Firstly, there is a lot that is just fun in this movie. I’ve thought Andrew Garfield was wonderful ever since The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and here we see a real gift for making awkwardness seem adorable and somehow charming. And then he puts the suit on and is witty and clever, while still feeling like the same person. We get some great back-and-forths between Peter and Aunt May (Sally Field), Peter and Gwen, Spider-Man and various insane mega-villains…
It would be okay if this movie was only fun. But it does better than that by bringing real, serious moments too. There is real peril, and real cost (more on that in a bit). Superhero movies tend to involve great swathes of destruction in a metropolitan area, and this was no exception. Mostly the movie had your typical mayhem, with lots of cars flipping over and lights flashing and various explosions from not particularly clear sources…which tends to be pretty meaningless after a while.
But there was one aspect of the big showdown that I found much more genuinely tense, whether the filmmakers planned it or not (though it’s hard to believe they didn’t think about the undertones). Electro knocks out the power all over New York…including the air traffic towers. And we find ourselves on a jetliner, flying blind towards Manhattan. Suddenly it all got a lot more real–and I say that as someone with no personal connection to September 11th. I can watch the cars flip and eat my popcorn, but the planes put me on the edge of my seat.
Real tension impresses me…and real characters impress me even more. Spider-Man 2 was full of human moments. The plot and the action and all of that were good, but I loved all these little moments. One of my favorite scenes is Peter and Aunt May arguing about doing the laundry–Peter turned everything blue and red last time… There’s also a much more powerful scene affirming the relationship between them, when Aunt May realizes he’s looking for answers about his parents. It’s beautiful. There’s a lovely scene where Spider-Man rescues a little boy from some bullies–and better yet, tells him how awesome his wind-turbine is, then walks him home. Peter and Gwen are really cute together, and they feel the most real when they aren’t having a serious conversation (about a crisis or about their relationship!)
Even the chief villain feels human. Max Dillon wants desperately to be seen–for someone to notice him, and remember him, and need him. The filmmakers take Max to an extreme, but that root feeling is at the core of the human experience. We all want to be seen, and I think we’ve all felt at times that we aren’t.
Electro and Harry Osborn eventually join forces. Harry starts out trying to talk Electro into the idea, but it doesn’t really work–until guards try to drag Harry away, and he starts screaming to Electro, “I need you, I need you!” Then Electro takes action, with a power we didn’t even know he had previously. I feel like there’s a purity to the moment because there’s no previous relationship between these two characters. Electro is responding simply because someone needs him (and isn’t that kind of what superheroes do…?) It all ends extremely badly, but at the root there’s something meaningful there. Electro may be a super-villain…but I feel like he’s also a thwarted superhero.
Which brings me to the second half of my post title. Unlike The Avengers, this isn’t a movie about a crowd of superheroes. It’s about one superhero–and the crowd of ordinary, every-day heroes around him. There’s Aunt May, who’s going to nursing school, trying to make ends meet and put her nephew through college–and doing his laundry. There’s the police officer who approaches the crazy guy messing with the electric cables in Times Square, while the crowd of tourists pay no attention. There are the nurses and air traffic controllers and pilots who struggle to keep doing their jobs when electricity dies all around New York (and who keep the planes from colliding above Manhattan!) There’s the little boy who puts on a Spider-man suit and tries to face down a monster when Peter Parker doesn’t seem to be coming.
And there’s Gwen Stacy, who is an absolute revelation in superhero girlfriends. Throughout the movie she refuses to be sidelined or overshadowed or somehow less amazing than Peter Parker and his web-slinging. She doesn’t have any superpowers, but she’s class valedictorian and is making plans to study at Oxford. She’s also mostly the one calling the shots in the romantic relationship (I really would have liked her to be more upset with Peter for spying on her while they were officially broken-up, but I’ll take a deep breath and let that one go because the rest was so good).
And when chaos and mayhem descend on the city, Gwen’s not the superhero girlfriend who gives him a kiss and sends him into battle. Peter does everything in his power, including trying to physically stop her from getting involved, and she’s just not having any of it. Instead she has a glorious moment laying down the law and telling him that it’s her choice to put herself in danger or not–because she has as much right to fight the good fight as he does. And he needs her in the battle. Those planes would have collided without Gwen.
All of this then makes me so very, very sad that the end of Gwen’s story was written in 1973. Gwen’s death is beautifully done. It’s inevitable–I knew the ending when I walked into the movie–but they still create the illusion that if only… I am sad about it because Gwen had such an amazing future–and because she and Peter were so cute together–and because I want superhero girlfriends to be like this. So all I can say is that Mary Jane has some very big shoes to fill if she shows up in an Amazing Spider-Man 3.
I have to admit that I didn’t quite see why we needed new Spider-Man movies so soon after the Toby Maguire era. I’m thinking now that maybe it’s not really about needing more Spider-Man–we needed Aunt May, and Gwen, and all the other ordinary heroes who aren’t quite as flashy as the webslinger, but are still fighting the good fight.