May 4, 2014

“Fan Service” and Feeble Feminism: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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By SEAN DOOLITTLE and ZACHARY ZAHOS

The (hardly) new Spider-Man movie is out, and instead of writing a traditional review, current and former Arts and Entertainment Editors Sean Doolittle ’16 and Zachary Zahos ’15 just wanted to talk about it, informally. This dialogue covers major plot points of the film (so: SPOILERS) as it digs into the concept of “fan service,” director Marc Webb’s influences and the sorry state of the superhero movie.

ZACHARY ZAHOS: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bad movie that I don’t hate.

SEAN DOOLITTLE: It had a lot of promise — it could have been a good movie, a fine movie.

Z.Z.: There’s something sweet about the Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy relationship, you know.

S.D.: Spider-Man is just an inherently charming and funny character who connects to everybody, and it’s really hard to mess that up. And the film was full of moments like that. You can’t hate Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man. Although I think I preferred Tobey Maguire’s depiction; I think Maguire and Sam Raimi were truer to what Spider-Man is supposed to be.

Z.Z.: The only actually good scenes are Peter and Gwen just talking, with their very off-the-cuff style. Marc Webb, who did 500 Days of Summer, does a good job with that. That was the best part of the first one, too. You can enjoy those scenes but then you realize that the whole movie is rather empty and motivated by some of the most bold-faced capitalist bullshit this business has ever seen. It’s sort of ridiculous, in fact. How derivative it all is. When Harry Osborn meets Peter for the first time, you almost feel like it’s the beginning of another romantic comedy. It’s just people being so sarcastic in a meet-cute type of way.

S.D.: I really loved all the character interactions, especially between Peter and Harry. All of the conversation moments are all so good but when you try to stuff all these different character relationships into one movie it just feels really bloated. Any one of these relationships are so deep and complex, they could definitely warrant their own movie. There could be a whole movie about Peter and Gwen or Peter and Harry becoming the Green Goblin. You’re expected to sympathize with Harry Osborn but he becomes a sociopath and his one scene of personal character development is forgotten, because then he’s throwing pumpkin bombs around and he looks gross.

Z.Z.: And he’s doing his Joker laugh. The movie is very strange when you look at it’s narrative and its script and its almost like a television show’s worth of story. And that’s maybe why some parts are nice and the interactions are much more like a TV show, it’s just some people talking, there’s not a bomb that needs to be defused, nothing that needs to happen desperately at the time, some moments are quite genuine. A television show works because of that — because it has multiple hours and time to do all that. Here it’s just co-opting the most popular form of media nowadays, which might be television more than movies. They’re co-opting that style of cut to here, cut to there show this things happening but that doesn’t work.

S.D.: On a TV show you have a juggling act of different storylines. But in a movie it just seems sort of jammed in. Always setting up things, things being set in motion and it all seems very disingenuous when compared to the slower moments. All these characters trajectories get put together in ways that don’t always feel necessary or even right.

Z.Z.: The first one had the origin story that we’d already seen before. The first two-thirds of the movie only just following his growth and that’s affecting if it’s done right and it’s done okay in that movie. The screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have done Star Trek and Transformers and a lot of these big movies that just have bloated plots to them but they’re not really movies — they have some sense of three-act structure but they’re not really satisfying. Cutesy, precious montages — there are too many of them. And they give the false impression that we’re really digging into Peter Parker’s character. The rest of the movie is about corporate overthrow, the guy who is obsessed with Spider-Man and then wants to take him out. There might be a lot of themes going on but they’re not cohesive and they cloud each other.

S.D.: One of my biggest things with this movie was the huge misuse of Electro. They set him up as this kind of awkward, obsessive nerd who’s just been stepped on all his life and they want you to sympathize with him but then once he becomes Electro he becomes this attention-seeker and power-hungry maniac. You have this hilariously bad origin story for Electro and his motives remain unclear and confusing.

Z.Z.: The point of comic book movies now, to be true to the source material now is almost boring. If you just look at the trailer you know that Jamie Foxx is going to end up as this electric Dr. Manhattan. There’s a whole two-minute long sequence when he’s precariously climbing this catwalk to plug something in over the electric eel tank. It’s comical how long that scene goes on for because we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s nothing surprising about him falling in at the end. The movie is almost two and a half hours long — they’re wasting your time with a lot of laying tracks, you should have done that in the first one. The whole point of a sequel is to go from where you just left off.

S.D.: They still leave us learning things about Peter Parker’s parents. We don’t care about this, it should have been covered earlier.

Z.Z.: The beginning scene with his parents on the plane borrows liberally from The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane sequence at the beginning. But then it puts a nice soundtrack and a theme of sacrifice and family on top of that to make it very reminiscent of 2009’s Star Trek. The scene maybe works a little bit in its moment but then you scale back you realize it’s been done before in those big big movies you saw last year and the year before that and it’s done better there. You just sort of wonder why they throw these scenes in, we’ve seen these things before. Is all we want to see the same things over and over again? That’s sort of almost the big question behind the whole movie. Why are we seeing this? We paid money to see this by the way, we’re part of the problem potentially. Is there no room for even new set pieces? New action sequences? It’s not even homages, that’s not what they’re doing. It’s ripping off a lot of properties that are still on our minds.

S.D.: This is our second set of Spider-Man movies in our own lifetime. How much can you add to Spider-Man without either alienating fans of the first series by leaving stuff out or outright stealing from it?

Z.Z.: Mark Webb is a good director but there’s only so much he can do to make this movie special. He does a few things. I liked seeing the Blow-Up poster that Peter Parker has in his room. That’s a hardcore cinephile reference that he’s just trying to do, and you’re like “Okay, you put a famous art movie in your big blockbuster movie, that’s not a big accomplishment on its own.”

S.D.: He’s trying to show that he knows more about film than he’s letting on.

Z.Z.: When Peter’s at Oscorp there’s this part where he tries to protect Gwen by doing a whole balletic Charlie Chaplin bit and at the end he does a Chaplin-esque kick in the hallway. I say, “Cool, he’s saying Chaplin or he’s saying film noir in that closet with the shades on their eyes. So he’s calling on these things, but all it is is trivia.” Perhaps I appreciate that he’s doing it more than if he didn’t do it, but it sort of shows how much he can actually do, which is not much. He cannot stop there from being a part where he has to blow up Times Square. He still needs to blow up Times Square. He can try to make the rest of it okay.

S.D.: As many times as we’ve seen Times Square blow up, this was a pretty nice portrayal of that. In terms of visual effects that was one of the greatest parts of the movie. Everything looked very nice. The visual effects were stunning, seeing electricity crackle across the air. It was all very bright and the CGI was excellent throughout.

Z.Z.: I guess I can give it credit for being a brighter CGI movie, whereas Man of Steel is pretty dark. So, the beginning, the intro with Spider-Man where he’s fighting criminals on the streets, that’s sort of a side of how I hoped the movie would go which is over the top and hammy. They got the best, most overqualified actor to do that, which is Paul Giamatti playing the Russian, huge machine gun-toting bad guy, Rhino.

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S.D.: Yeah, you could just tell that that’s the sort of role that Paul Giamatti has a lot of fun with. You can tell he lobbied for the part himself, he must have begged to do that. They essentially revealed that he’s going to have a starring villain role in the next Spider-Man movie. And it’s nice to see that we have a lot of other famous actors lining up to be a part of the superhero movies.

­­­Z.Z.: But they’re not expecting an Oscar from that.

S.D.: No, they make a movie for the Academy and then they make one for themselves, a movie they can show their kids.

Z.Z.: The people who made this movie got the memo that empowered female characters are in so they had those little moments of turning the tables on Peter by having Gwen say “I’m breaking up with you.” And near the end she decides to help. Basically, “You’re not telling me what to do, I have agency here.” She potentially has the ability to say “Oh, I’m doing this,” but it’s the same result in the end. Her character has one line here, one line there, to say okay, she’s a human being potentially but it’s still a 1940s comic book plot.

S.D.: For everything she does, she ends up being wrong in the end. Peter’s saying “Stay, it’s not safe” and then she ends up being the damsel in distress. It’s kind of a conservative movie in that it’s giving the audience this strong female character but it turns out that she doesn’t know what she wants, she’s always second guessing herself and she dies, she never gets to do those things that she says.

Can we talk about the film’s relationship to the source material? Something that I like about the Spider-Man movies and a lot of recent superhero movies is how audiences who are familiar with the comics go in and they know what’s going to happen and they know the iconic story arcs and directors have to find this balance between what is expected while throwing enough curve balls that it’s going to surprise them. This movie did an alright job with this, there were enough homages to the original Spider-Man comics, with the whole Gwen Stacy death arc. People knew that was going to happen but it was finally adapted — that was a nice sequence, too — and it was done faithfully enough that it would both shock audiences that weren’t expecting it and have a feeling of “About time we saw this happen!” for comic fans.  They were also, just in the background, setting up this whole Sinister Six thing, you see Dr. Octopus’ tentacles and Vulture’s wings and Rhino’s suit.

Z.Z.: Are you saying this is all just in fan service?

S.D.: There was enough fan service that it still feels like a superhero movie. The Dark Knight had no fan service.

Z.Z.: Yeah, sure, but my problem with fan service is, because the comic book universe is so large, it’s sort of a way to keep saying we’re going to keep doing these movies. Now, at the end you’re spending the last 10 minutes of the movie not wrapping up these horribly frayed plot lines, you’re just trying to forget all that because you didn’t have any way to put it all together, you’re just saying “Here’s the next movie.” You have a shadowy Gustav Fiers walking around going to Harry Osborne saying “This isn’t over yet!” We’re gonna have another movie now, because we gotta, because the studio’s going to make a lot of money. I guess it’s all fan service but it’s a little depressing to have your movie end in a way that’s an advertisement for the next one.

S.D.: That’s true, but I think that’s more of a criticism of a comic book genre than the film in general. It might not make for a satisfying movie when only taken as a movie, but when taken as a part of an existing universe, it’s nice to see that it’s an adaptation first and foremost. If they were to forsake all these elements that make an iconic comic book to make a good movie, it really wouldn’t be a Spider-Man movie.

Z.Z.: You just sometimes wonder if the story is strong enough to be so sacrosanct. The Gwen death is a moving moment because it’s one of the few points where they seemed like they took a risk, but they actually just followed the story, and that’s good. But I feel that making the priority respecting the source material is often not the best priority. That’s why I liked The Dark Knight series because they took the character and they made a whole new thing. I wonder what a comic book fan gets out of seeing the story translated.

The whole story is conservative, it’s very wholesome. The plane crash during the power outage is so artificial. The whole proliferation of story lines I almost feel is a way for them to just generate suspense or generate a certain emotion at one scene and then forget about it. It’s not a true story it’s just scenes that are trying to shake you in that one second.

S.D.: It’s a lot of jolts between tone.

Z.Z.: I think that’s the most egregious when you don’t have any character that you saw before involved in this. The power goes out in New York City and then two planes are going to crash into each other because the air towers go down and the air traffic controllers can’t direct them. So, it’s totally manufactured tension and I realize that that’s sort of point of film is to do that but usually you want to tie it to a certain character or to something that you’re going for. But in the middle of the fight scene with Electro you have these two planes that are going to crash into each other and of course they don’t. They do their crazy maneuver that saves both planes and you cut to the traffic controller room where the music swells and they throw their fists in the hand and it’s a great success but we didn’t hear these people before, we didn’t hear them later.

S.D.: Spider-Man, his character, is very tied to this idea of New York City. They always try to make New York City its own character. Spider-Man always interacts with a police man or a firefighter and they always have this very stereotypical Brooklyn accent, he’s always this average guy. There’s always a post-9/11 vibe, especially seeing the two planes almost crash over the city. They make you feel like Spider-Man’s this embodiment of this everyman hero but then it feels so fake.

Z.Z.: Aunt May in the hospital doing her nursing gig, and the airplane stuff. It’s very generic, not really tied to the city. Just these obvious sets that they cut to for a second, that’s not the on-location New York City vibe that I liked. The tone of the whole thing seemed very safe to me. It’s quite P.C., a little bit boring. Because Spider-Man is a vigilante, but there’s no conflict with the cops, the cops like him.

S.D.: The Dark Knight did that very well. We had this whole Gwen Stacy’s father was what sort of tied us to this police thing, in this movie everyone is pretty much in agreement that Spider-Man is a great person and it’s just him versus these two villains and you know he’s going to win. In the first one there’s this tension about whether he’s doing the right thing, is he doing this for selfish reasons?

Z.Z.: The whole middle act of Spider-Man 2 was him doubting himself and then the backlash, and it’s perhaps a bit of melodrama, but it at least acknowledges the fact that superhero movies can be a bit of a soap opera at times. And this one doesn’t even have any personal conflict.

S.D.: There’s a lot of destruction, he’s wise-cracking the entire time. Times Square gets destroyed and everyone’s laughing about it like “Yay, Spiderman saved the day,” but did he?

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