The success of the superhero formula—both in comics and on film—rests on the utterly fantastic premise of the hero’s invincibility. Freakishly evil enemies may be plotting to undo them in diabolical ways, but it’s an immutable law of this genre that the hero, untainted by the faintest wisp of self-doubt, always triumphs. Tinker with that elemental simplicity, and you mess with the minds of our caped superheroes and show them up to be all too fallible. Like the rest of us lesser mortals, in fact.
In the latest edition of the Spider-Man franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, director Marc Webb advances that cardinal error—so manifest in a few earlier outings too—and ‘humanises’ the masked do-gooder to the point where, for all his superhero swagger, he effectively stands de-iconised and perhaps in serious need of psychological counselling to redress his existential, schizoid, arachnid angst.
Worse, Webb overreaches himself and packs in way too many sub-plots and villainous characters, so that he becomes hopelessly ensnared in the elaborate web of his own narrative. The plotline, at its simplest, would have sustained sufficient interest. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) relishes his Spider-Man call of duty, but it’s murder on his relationship with Gwen Stacy (an adorable Emma Stone). Added to which, he’s anxious to unearth the back story of why his parents abandoned him as a child.
These and other strands — including the re-entry into Parker’s life of old friend-turned-foe Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and the advent of new ‘friend’ Max Dillon (a sub-par performance by Jamie Foxx) who, after an encounter with electric eels (I’ll say no more), metamorphoses into the villainous, ‘power-hungry’ Electro — bind Parker fatefully to Oscorp Industries, the evil corporate empire.
But Webb’s treatment of that plotline doesn’t quite have the tautness and tensile strength of, say, Spidey’s web. Perhaps some of this is born of the nature of the medium: whereas comic books lend themselves to episodic treatment where the narrative can (and does oftentimes) stretch for years, Webb has to condense them into two-hours-plus of non-stop action. But because he over-ambitiously appears to have gone all in, the appeal is less than spectacular.
Which is a pity, because The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is in many ways a lavish and technically splendid production. The CGI special effects are so stunningly real that when Spider-Man leans over a skyscraper ledge or swings through Manhattan, you feel vicariously vertiginous. And the scene in which Electro blacks out Times Square is masterful in milking its mayhem quotient. And although Webb occasionally takes permissible liberties with the plotline, he remains faithful to the comic book effect, right down to Spider-Man’s classical bug-eye contours.
But while there’s enough and more in the film to keep confirmed Spidey fanboys gushing with adoration, it is unlikely to net a new following.
In the final analysis, it may not be Spider-Man, torn though he is by searing internal conflicts, who needs counselling. It’s the franchise itself that needs to be put on the couch.
Genre: Superhero action
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field
Storyline: Spider-Man battles the baddies, goes through more existential angst, and proves that even superheroes have limits
Bottomline: By humanising Spidey overmuch, they’re killing his superhero soul