Monday, 9 March 2015

Beyond Redemption: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

After an extended hiatus, the Magnificent Tramp returns with a new series: Beyond Redemption. Once a month, I'll be posting extended reviews of films that are so absymal that they go beyond the levels of flawed, ascending to the nirvana of the irreedemable. In this first post, I'll be looking at The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which although currently has a rating of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of the most execrable examples of superhero cinema in recent memory. For my money, I thought the first Amazing Spider-Man was flawed but not unforgivably so. While unpopular with fanboys, I thought presenting Peter Parker as arrogant and self-involved was an interesting shift from Toby Maguire's whiny Peter and left opportunities for him to grow as a character. Consequently, I was looking forward to a flawed film that would hopefully have some interesting ideas, new interpretations, and if nothing else, some exciting web-slinging hi-jinks.

Oh, how I was wrong. So, terribly, terribly wrong. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 repeats all of its predecessor's vices and none of its virtues, presenting us with a perfect storm of schizophrenic characterisation, incoherent screenwriting and all the narrative direction of an overly long game of snakes and ladders. Of course, TASM2 is not unique in these flaws: The Dark Knight Rises suffers from pretty severe structural problems and plot-holes, Iron Man 2 exists mainly to set up future Marvel films, and Sam Raimi's much-derided Spider-Man 3 is an infuriating, overstuffed mess. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gives us something especially rank, far outstripping the failings of its forbears. It is a production so black of heart, so devoid of humanity, so profoundly lacking in any mirth, wit, or joie de vivre that while it may not be the worst superhero film ever made (that particular accolade still belongs de facto to Batman and Robin), it is certainly the most toxic.

Both Amazing Spider-Man films were directed by Marc Webb, of the bafflingly popular but assuredly dreadful 500 Days of Summer. Where 500 Days' eponymous heroine is an object of affection for Tom, an impossibly desirable pixie girl who refuses to settle down, dammit, TASM2's Gwen is an object to be bartered over between Peter and her father. Using a woman in jeopardy as the call to action for the male hero is a cliche as old as the hills, and one which has a specific precedent in comic books. The Dark Knight Trilogy, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Superman all make use of the trope to varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, there are several factors that make the cliche especially irksome in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not least because one of the few refreshing aspects to TASM1 was that Gwen was a far more proactive and resilient character than Mary Jane was in Raimi's films. In the second Amazing instalment, Gwen attempts to retain her agency by playing an active part in her and Peter's relationship, but doesn't count on her dead father getting between Peter's conscience and his libido. Peter is plagued by visions of Gwen's father, reminded of the promise that he made to stop seeing Gwen. Here, the film thinks that it is grappling with the same themes of power and responsibility that were at the heart of the Raimi films, but what Peter's conflict actually exposes is an unthinkingly paternalistic, and quite nasty core to the film's moral compass. Where Maguire's Peter was able to accept Mary Jane's informed decision to be with him, Garfield's hero interminably flip-flops on what he wants from Gwen in what can only be described as a calculated act of manipulation and emotional blackmail.

Squandered talent: Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy

For example, at the start of TASM2, Peter dumps Gwen because her dead father's stern-looking ghost reminds Peter of his promise to leave Gwen alone. She's understandably angered and hurt at Peter's decision, especially given that he has made no attempt to talk to her about it. Later, Peter decides that he still wants to be friends. No sooner does Gwen agree to this new arrangement than Peter immediately starts making flirtatious and emotionally manipulative comments along the lines of "if we're going to be friends you'll have to stop laughing like that because it's too damn sexy". Later, Gwen takes up a place at Oxford University and prepares to leave New York. Even though Peter has decided they can't be together, he still tries to stop Gwen from leaving by devising a stunt (webbing the words 'I love you' on to the Brooklyn Bridge) to persuade her to stay within his sticky grasp, apparently quite happy to destroy her once-in-a-lifetime chance of studying at one of the world's most prestigious universities. It's baffling to me that anyone could interpret his behaviour as emotionally responsible, let alone heroic.

Contrast this with Maguire's personal moral conflict in the Raimi films. Admittedly, Maguire does his own share of annoying flip-flopping, and does keep MJ in the dark about his dual identity as Spider-Man, but when it comes down to it, Mary-Jane is able to make her own decision about what she wants, and Peter accepts this without intentionally trying to confuse and manipulate her. Crucially, when MJ learns the truth about Peter she makes an informed choice to be with him, fully aware of the risks involved. Spider-Man 2 comes with its own problems, and I'm not defending that film's conventional and somewhat tiresome gender politics, but what Spider-Man 2 definitely does not do is present an arrogant, emotionally manipulative brat as a hero with whom the audience is encouraged to identify. Maguire's Peter is filled with insecurity and self-doubt, but Garfield's iteration of Peter is a cocky wise-ass who piles all of the emotional responsibility on to Gwen, while craftily denying her any actual control over the kind of relationship they have. Maguire's Peter knows that the connection between power and responsibility is sacrifice. In contrast, Garfield's Peter singularly lacks the maturity and selflessness to walk away wholesale from Gwen, and when he does toy with the idea of leaving her, it is because of a misplaced sense of guilt over breaking an agreement with her father. Crucially, that guilt has nothing to do with Gwen's safety or future happiness. Instead, the central moral conflict of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 lies in the agreement between two men over what to do with their woman. When that woman attempts to exert her own autonomy she is punished in an act of retribution so staggeringly instantaneous, emotionally hollow and unintentionally silly that on witnessing it I was shocked into exasperated laughter. Her death, regardless of its fidelity to comic history, is a cynical plot device designed both to appease comics fanboys, and as a weird and unsettling continuation of the theme / exorcism of the 'girl that got away' demon that also informs Webb's debut feature, 500 Days of Summer.

A defence of Gwen's death as Peter's comeuppance for not letting her go is void: he mourns her for a few months and then, as shown by the final, tacked on scene, goes back to business as usual: showing off in front of New York's uniformly idiotic public. The final scene of the film is unsatisfying as a finale, but more importantly it robs Gwen's death of any emotional resonance that it might otherwise have had were its consequences explored properly. Moreover, her death has nothing to do with rebuking Peter for his selfishness or manipulative nature - it is the consequence both of the broken contract between he and Gwen's father, and of that damned foolish woman who keeps getting herself into trouble when the men aren't around to stop her. Other superhero movies are often guilty of representing women as fantasy damsels in distress, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 goes one step further by being aware of its heroine's capacity for autonomy, before punishing her for taking action and not doing what she is told. It is almost as if Gwen has wandered in from a better written film, and finds herself surrounded by two-dimensional, unpredictable weirdoes who are guided by the invisible hand of an inverse morality. The film likes the idea of a sassy, sexy girlfriend with a mind of her own, but in profoundly hating the reality of an autonomous woman, acts accordingly by eliminating her.

Electro: Just as confused as the rest of us
Superhero films offer modern parables about the values of society, and tend to be strongest when exploring the manichean concepts of good and evil. This kind of cinema does not need to provide glib, Aesop-esque morals, but I do think that it needs a moral centre - even if that centre is disrupted or challenged. The thematic politics of many superhero narratives are essentially conservative - the triumph of order over chaos (The Dark Knight); the inviolability of individual freedom (Iron Man); stability vs insecurity - but they at least offer moral compasses, the direction of which can generally be agreed upon. But what moral compass does The Amazing Spider-Man 2 offer? When Peter refuses to help his terminally-ill friend, in which direction is his compass pointing? When he emotionally manipulates his girlfriend into staying with him, what form of ethics is the film advocating? I'm fine with films that encourage us to relate to unlikeable or morally dubious characters; some of the greatest directors in history have made based entire careers on exploring unpalatable characters. But when you position your character as a hero, as an embodiment of goodness, and the cypher through which the audience experience a power fantasy - which, let's face it, is what most superhero narratives are - then making that character an alpha-male douchebag with borderline sociopathic traits is rather problematic for the core morality of your story. As I have said, I quite liked that in TASM1 Peter began the film as an immature, entitled brat, but that only works if he grows and changes as a character. By the end of the second film he categorically has learned nothing.  Sure, he mourns Gwen's death, but only insofar that he is upset that he doesn't get to play with his favourite toy anymore. The film shows us nothing of his own culpability or responsibility for Gwen's demise; he's just in a huff because his dream girl has been taking away by the bad man. At no point does Peter show any understanding that it was his refusal to help his friend Harry Osborn that led to Gwen's death. The film tacitly absolves Peter of any fault, robbing itself of any redemptive catharsis. If Peter learns nothing from Gwen's death, which he doesn't, then her death is dramatically meaningless.

Which leads me on to the morality of TASM2's villains, who, like Peter, also appear to be suffering from their personality disorders, swapping out their motivations and character traits according to the whims of the plot. I feel safe in saying that the first sequence with Electro in Times Square is one of the worst storytelling moments that I have ever endured in a motion picture. In the space of ten seconds, Electro turns from a confused and frightened victim into a glory-hunting mass murderer, but to the ultra-impatient screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, exploring Electro's psychology is too much work - it's easier for him just to get pissed off at a TV camera pointing at Spider-Man, right? How are we supposed to care about this guy when apparently the only reason he's being evil is because the plot demands it? Even notorious disasters like Schumacher's Batman films, with all their silliness and ultra-camp aesthetics, understood that to engage with the story, the audience needs characters with coherent internal psychologies. How has a film from 2014 mishandled something that even Batman Forever managed?

After abruptly dispensing with Electro by squirting him with a fire hose (because water and electricity don't mix, I suppose), the film introduces Harry Osborn, Peter's heretofore unmentioned best friend. Harry has a terminal genetic disease and thinks Spider-Man's magic blood holds the key to a cure (just like Orci and Kurtzman's Star Trek Into Darkness). He approaches Spider-Man and asks him to help, so Spider-Man says no, because 'it might not work'. This is literally the reason that Peter, scientific genius (who, by the way, watches YouTube videos on how batteries work because the Orci and Kurtzman can't be bothered to include properly integrated exposition) and best and oldest friend to Harry Osborn chooses to let him die from a horrific disease. How exactly are we supposed to buy into the relationship between Peter and Harry, or into Spider-Man as a heroic character when he refuses to help his friend in need? 
This leads us to a crucial aspect of Peter's character: he only ever acts when it will either directly benefit him, as with his emotional manipulation of Gwen, or in self-aggrandising posturing, such as when he fights Electro and Rhino to the slack-jawed adulation of braying morons who are too stupid to see that they are in mortal danger. Peter might save people in public displays of aerobatics, but in private he is selfish, arrogant, and prone to obsessive behaviour and temper tantrums. Peter's refusal to even try to help his friend leads us to invariably sympathise with Harry. When he goes to confront Spider-Man, post-Goblin transformation, are we really expected to side with Peter, a man who left his best friend to a dreadful fate? To fool us into thinking Spider-Man is a hero, Harry is transformed from a realistic, desperate victim into gurning pantomime villain in one costume change. Regardless of its fidelity to comic canon, Gwen's death is a cheap trick to make Harry seem evil: not only is this entirely out of character for Harry, it also does nothing to absolve Peter of his responsibility to Harry, nor does it nullify Harry's legitimate grievance with Peter. In any case, Gwen's death was written in the stars, as demonstrated by the heavy-handed foreshadowing throughout the film. Her death was as destined as Harry's illness and Peter's Spiderness (which, as has been pointed out time and again, totally misses the point of the accidental nature of Spider-Man). According to the film's internal screwy logic, Gwen's death was both unavoidable but also-sort-of Gwen's fault for not listening to Peter. Most egregious of all, however, is using Gwen as on object to make Harry appear evil and to give Peter a bogus final-act catastrophe before his triumphant return at the end.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a profound and irredeemable mess. It is two hour and twenty minutes of moving images and sound, which although technically qualifies it as a feature film, falls woefully short of anything resembling a story. The shifts in tone are amongst the most jarring I have ever seen, and the complete lack of connection between scenes, characters, and plot-points make Prometheus seem like a masterpiece in narrative form. Characters change personalities from moment to moment, and the considerable acting talents of Garfield, Stone, Sally Field, Dane Dehaan, Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti and Chris Cooper are squandered by what must surely be one of the worst screenplays ever written relative to a film's budget and profile. Singularly, these faults could be forgiven, ignored even. Collectively, they do not negate the film's positive qualities (like Prometheus, the film is very well shot and brimming with colour, and the opening shot of Spider-Man falling towards Manhattan is undeniably exhilarating. Unlike Prometheus, however, no performance in TASM2 comes close to Michael Fassbender's terrific portrayal of David). But the final nail in TASM2's coffin is its dearth of morality; it is a film that profoundly misunderstands the basic concepts of responsibility, sacrifice, and human relationships. Very few characters act like real human beings in the world of TASM2, but worse than this, the one character to whom we must relate for the film to work is manipulative, reckless and borderline sociopathic. It is this lack of any recognisably moral dimension to its hero that ultimately betrays the film: as entertainment it is unwatchable, as moral fable it is repellent, and as cinema it is unmitigated failure.  

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