The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Eager to capitalise on the success of Marvel Studios’ superb run of superior comic book movies, Sony rebooted their own Marvel property, Spider-Man, with an eye on creating their own ‘team up’ movie to follow in the wake of The Avengers. Undaunted by average reviews for 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and a big drop in box office returns – the public perhaps wary of the reboot coming only five years after Sam Raimi’s threequel – Sony pressed on with The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
This latest instalment begins with an explosive expansion of the mystery surrounding young Peter Parker’s parents, and it picks up the story in present-day New York City as Spider-Man thwarts a Russian mobster’s brute-force attempt to steal some plutonium. From there on out Peter struggles with his conscience regarding his relationship with his high-school sweetheart Gwen Stacey, having promised her dying father that he’d keep away from her. Adding to Peter’s angst is the reappearance of his old friend Harry Osborn (son of Norman, the founder of Oscorp), who’s suffering from a degenerative disease which Harry thinks can only be cured with Spider-Man’s blood. And all the while he’s got to contend with the emergence of a new threat: Max Dillon, a nondescript employee of Oscorp who’s been transformed into the deranged Electro.
I thought the first film was okay but I’ve got a love/hate thing going on with director Marc Webb's second attempt. Certain things about it are fantastic. The real-life couple of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are wonderful as Peter and Gwen, they’re so at ease in each other’s company and the chemistry is palpable as their characters grapple with the different directions that their lives are heading in. Sally Field is also excellent as Aunt May; yes, she’s just playing Sally Field like she always does, but, as with Ms Stone, she has a tangible connection with Garfield which gives their scenes together (and Aunt May’s knowing references to “that Spider-Guy”) a real sense of emotional depth.
It’s a pity that the performances lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with the scenery-chewing excess of Paul Giamatti as Aleksei Sytsevich a.k.a. The Rhino, shouting and snarling every line, as well as the conspicuously kooky performance of Jamie Foxx as Max/Electro. I just don’t buy the chiselled Foxx as a put upon worker drone with a blatant comb-over, as it feels more like stunt-casting just to get a big name on the poster. That can’t be said of Dane DeHaan as Harry, whose indie cred is what landed him the role as Peter’s childhood friend, but he hams it up terribly nonetheless, especially when Harry initiates his own transformation into another one of Spider-Man’s mortal enemies. And because DeHaan already looks like a creepy hipster elf with his little pointed ears and Harry acts like a spoiled brat anyway, his change into the Goblin elicited little sympathy from me, lacking the duality that Willem Dafoe and even James Franco brought to their prior performances as the Goblin in Raimi's films.
Thankfully those shortcomings are partly glossed over with the faithful interpretation of Spidey himself. He’s the smart-mouthed wise-ass from the comics come to life, something which I felt was always lacking from the Raimi trilogy. As good as the first two were, they never really captured the cheeky arrogance that the character is famous for, and even though Amazing 1 steered closer to this direction they’ve gone all-out with the sequel, delivering a Spider-Man who reels off rapid-fire quips like a machine gun. The look of the character also hews closer to the funny books, moving away from the realism of Amazing 1 to this iconic large-eyed iteration. Combine that with the terrific visual effects, the filmmakers integrating several iconic poses into Spidey’s web slinging and creating an impressive level of realism (I love the way his costume ripples in the wind), and it's a genuine thrill to see this sensational Spider-Man doing whatever a spider can.
I also enjoyed the atypical music score by Hans Zimmer and ‘The Magnificent Six’ (a so-called ‘supergroup’ made up of folks including Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr and Junkie XL). It’s definitely an acquired taste, mixing grinding dubstep beats and spooky disembodied voices (hinting at Max's mental state, they blur the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound) with a stirring main theme that’s got more than a hint of John Williams' classically triumphant style about it. In some ways the schizophrenic score sums up the muddled identity of the movie, but in this case it works for me (being a fan of all things Zimmer) and I adore the main trumpet fanfare, especially when it seems to celebrate the uplifting finale of the film. Zimmer said that he wanted to give Spider-Man his own fanfare to bestow a sense of identity on the franchise, and I can only hope that it's retained for the next film.
It’s a shame, then, that the movie doesn’t have the story to back up the stunning visuals and music, as they can only carry the movie so far when faced with a typically lunk-headed script from Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman (with Jeff Pinkner also involved). Plot points are mentioned several times over only to be resolved in ridiculously simple ways, there's some dreadfully clunky exposition which forgets that Peter is supposed to be a very smart kid (does he really need to look up youtube to find out how batteries work?) and Electro’s powers in particular don’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason, he simply does what he does when the scriptwriters need him to do it (he can absorb electricity to become more powerful but they also use it to torture him when he’s incarcerated in Ravencroft, how’s that go again? And since when does water ‘put out’ electricity?)
As always with Orci and Kurtzman, the characters never learn from their mistakes because they operate in this borderline sociopathic world where no-one is held accountable for the effects that their actions have on others. (Something which is a chronic distraction in Star Trek Into Darkness, also written by these two gentlemen) There is a heartbreaking moment of dramatic finality in the film, but it’s in there because it’s a legendary scene from the comic books and it works so well due to the aforementioned performances, so Orci and Kurtzman deserve precisely zero credit for it. And it doesn't help that the film has been stuffed full of villains (four, if you count Norman Osborn) in order to expedite the Sinister Six team-up movie, Sony wanting to cut to the chase instead of taking the time to it right. Add to that a complicated post-production process where several subplots were abandoned and the character of Mary Jane Watson (played by Shailene Woodley) was left on the cutting room floor, and it's easy to see why the finished product is so uneven.
It’s fair to say that Sony had a lot riding on this movie, but with a huge $60 million dollar drop in domestic box office revenues against the previous film they've put their plans for standalone Spider-Man adventures on hold. The Sinister Six team-up is still on the slate for 2016, featuring several villains both seen and hinted at in this latest movie, but Amazing 3 has been bumped to 2018. What’s intriguing is that they have announced a completely new project to fill the gap in 2017 which will have a female lead from the Spidey-verse. It’s a bold move by Sony but not unsurprising; it’s fair to say that audiences could be getting tired of the character, having had five Spider-Man pictures in a mere twelve years, and the poor critical response to Amazing 2 may have also forced the filmmakers to re-evaluate their thinking and lay off the tinkering (that means YOU Avi Arad).
Advancing the cinematic Spider-Man franchise without Spider-Man as the central character might seem self-defeating, but it could be just what he needs. Let’s move away from the teen angst for a while and have a straight shot of Spidey doing what he does best: swinging through the streets and cracking wise as he tackles some of comic-dom’s most famous villains, then we can get a fresh take with this mysterious 2017 project. Follow that up with Amazing 3 in 2018, by which time audiences may well be baying for another solo Spider-Man adventure. As it is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying experience.
For this 3D version Sony UK have put the film on two Blu-ray discs, one for the 2D and one for the 3D along with a digital UV copy, all housed in a smart embossed slipcase. This release is part of Sony’s continuing line of ‘Mastered in 4K’ Blu-ray releases, meaning that the 2D version has been mastered from the 4K original with extra colour information intended to be taken advantage of by the company’s range of 4K televisions. But this is still very much a 1080p Blu-ray Disc so it will play on ANY Blu-ray player.
Amazing 2’s photography represented a significant departure from the first film. That one was shot in native stereo on digital using a dual rig of RED Epic cameras, but for this follow-up Marc Webb decided to shoot in anamorphic on 35mm which would then be post-converted to 3D. Webb made such a drastic switch from one film to the next (from spherical to anamorphic, digital to film, native to post-conversion) because of the bulk and heft of the 3D rigs which didn't allow him to shoot as loosely and dynamically as he wanted, and it must be said that Amazing 1 was a rather drab looking film, in terms of both the unadventurous 3D and also the muted colour and contrast.
Second time around the aesthetic differences could not be more obvious. It's got an organic filmic sheen as opposed to the anodyne digital cleanliness of the first film, and it's got a lovely contrasty look, director of photography Dan Mindel playing with light and shade which gives way to sumptuous black levels. The colour is richly saturated without ever adversely affecting things like skin tones, and fine detail is crisp with no overblown sharpening on display, though it still preserves that classically shallow depth of field inherent to anamorphic. The 2D encode is utterly gorgeous, and I'd expect nothing less from Sony so it scores a perfect 10/10, reflected in the score at the end of the review.
The 3D version is a bit of a mixed bag. The colour is even more vivid than it is on the 2D edition, though skin tones are still pleasingly consistent for the most part. It's brighter too, which when combined with the boosted colour gives the daytime scenes an eye-poppingly intense apppearance. The price they've paid is that the black levels sometimes resemble more of a dark grey due to the boosted brightness, which dilutes the wonderfully contrasty photography somewhat. The 3D itself isn’t as expressive as I was hoping it would be, as there’s some attentive layering during the whole show but it only really comes alive during the action scenes, with characters zooming in and out of frame, tendrils of electricity and webbing reaching out of the screen and some nice particle effects. There's some banding on the final shot of the Spider-Man logo at the end of the 3D film, but apart from that there are no other visible encoding problems with either version. (You can see a random 2D/3D comparison shot below, enlarge them to full size for the best effect.)
The audio is very impressive. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a sonic delight, in which the score is a key component. As mentioned above, Hans Zimmer’s inventive music incorporates a lot of spoken words to highlight Max’s growing paranoia, the whispering voices emanating from the rear speakers and seamlessly panning around the room as if we’re inside his head. The effect is very creepy and almost subliminal to begin with, then the voices get louder and angrier as Max loses control and goes full Electro. The dialogue is mostly clear but the occasional line sounded just a touch indistinct to me; this was also true of the theatrical presentation that I saw earlier in the year, so it’s either down to the mix or my cloth ears (probably the latter).
Discrete rear effects and general ambience are plentiful, producing a nuanced and articulate 360-degree sound field that's constantly reminding the viewer of their surroundings. If there’s one minor grumble it’s that the bass lacks a certain amount of slam. There certainly is bass in the lowest registers, especially in support of the throbbing dubstep-style music cues, but during the action scenes it’s missing that extra touch of bombastic mid-range which I’ve come to expect from the average blockbuster, especially during the opening truck chase in NYC. It’s still an absolutely top-drawer mix, however.
The extras are headlined by a 103-minute 'making of' documentary and 23 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, supported by an audio commentary, an Alicia Keys music video and an 8-minute piece of Marc Webb talking about the score for Vanity Fair. The documentary, titled The Wages of Heroism and playable in six parts or as a whole, was made by DVD producer extraordinaire Charlie de Lauzirika and it's another fine piece of work, taking us through each phase of production with lots of behind the scenes footage, raw camera takes and interviews with all of the key principals. It's not as candid as some of his other efforts but it's very informative nonetheless, and I had to shake my head when they started talking about needing another villain for the movie because the Goblin storyline alone just wouldn't cut it. That's funny, because it worked perfectly well in Raimi's original Spider-Man...
The audio commentary features writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinker, along with producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach, and while you quickly lose track of who's who (aside from Arad, identifiable by his accent) they cover a lot of ground. Arad gives up some titbits about his involvement with Marvel in general and the rest of the guys talk about various aspects, like what was cut and/or changed in the edit, why they chose 3D conversion and so on. The deleted scenes (with or without director commentary) are also very interesting, featuring some of the story strands which were cut from the film, including the reappearance of Peter's father (which is scored with a piece of temp music pilfered from Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King!). The music video is what it is, and the short piece about the score is a nice extension to what's said about it in the main documentary. (FYI all of the video extras are on the 2D disc, while the audio commentary is available on both the 2D and 3D platters.)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has some entertainment value thanks to the central duo of Garfield and Stone and the glorious evocation of the motormouthed comic book Spider-Man but it’s empty at its core, burdened with an uneven script and hamstrung by Sony’s constant dithering over what to do with the story. Truth be told, it’s simply not good enough when compared to the likes of Marvel’s most recent output. Sony has once again provided a sterling Blu-ray release, with peerless 2D picture quality (though the 3D version isn't perfect), striking sound design and some excellent bonus features.
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