Heartfelt heroics

Five minutes into The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and characters are already acting stupidly. Or at least not acting how you or I might act, were we placed in a similar situation.

Five minutes into The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and characters are already acting stupidly. Or at least not acting how you or I might act, were we placed in a similar situation. There’s this scientist on a plane, secreting away some high-clearance research data on his laptop. The plane is hijacked, but the scientist is able to overcome his attacker, and get back to securing the data. The hijacker wasn’t subdued enough, of course – no handcuffs, no incapacitating blow to the noggin – and he springs back up, attacking our beleaguered scientist. Chaos ensues.

There’s this strange, paradoxical dynamic to watching these expensive summer blockbusters. On one hand, you can expect to suspend your disbelief about all sorts of aspects: the laws of physics, say, or biochemistry (apparently when you tumble into a pool of electric eels, you’re granted prodigious electro-powers, along with a galvanic blue complexion). I’m ok with that, for the most part, but I often find I’m unable to suspend the same disbelief on the more ordinary, human aspects of the story. Man gets super powers from a radioactive spider bite? Cool! Man doesn’t make sure his attacker is properly subdued before distracting himself with other business? C’mon. Normal people just don’t act like that. Plausibility, in the Marvel Comics blockbuster universe, is a funny thing.

And so, five minutes in, I was really ready to write this whole Amazing Spider-Man 2 thing off. That was a hastily-formed thought, though, because this flick is actually a lot of fun, and once it gets up and running, there’s a compassionate humanity that comes to the fore.

A great deal of that fun and that substance come from the film’s co-stars Andrew Garfield, playing Peter Parker/Spidey, and Emma Stone, playing the young scientist/valedictorian/sweetheart, Gwen Stacey. Again, the suspension of disbelief: Garfield is 30, Stone is 25, yet they’re playing high school seniors. Their connection feels genuine, nonetheless; the way they canoodle and laugh together is refreshing and pulse-quickeningly authentic.

Peter has been reveling in his role as New York City’s web-slinging vigilante, cracking wise as he cracks the snarling, scenery chewing, low-level thugs’ heads together. Gwen has been working as an intern at the prestigious, 200-billion dollar Oscorp research company and seems to enjoy the superhero-dating life, though they do quarrel after Peter reflects on the way his avocation puts her life in jeopardy.

Peter’s old friend Harry Osborn, scion of Oscorp founder Norman, returns to Manhattan to pay his respects to his ailing father. He learns his father’s illness is hereditary, which cranks his glowering broodiness up to 11, and he connects with Peter – who always seems to be able snap a clear photo of Spidey – to see if he can get a vial of Spider-Man’s blood, which he’s sure holds the cure. This draws Peter, Gwen and Harry into the mysterious menace of Oscorp’s research facility, which eventually gives life to the Green Goblin, one of Spider-Man’s arch-enemies.

Oh, and Jamie Foxx is in the film too, he lately of the electric eel spa treatment, which mutates him into another arch-nemesis, Electro. I still can’t figure out how he’s essential to the plot, other than being a vehicle for a couple of the film’s elaborate, disorienting CGI set pieces.

All those set pieces would feel so empty, were they not balanced by ordinary, human-scaled themes. For instance, there’s an abiding sense of absence and loss in the film – fathers have died, or are dying, or have mysteriously vanished. Harry Osborn struggles with what it’ll take to live up to his father’s vocational, financial and genetic legacy. Peter wrestles with a promise he made to Gwen’s departed father in the previous film. And where many comic book movies are flippant about death and mass destruction – last summer’s execrable Man of Steel is exhibit A – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is actually quite tender-hearted, handling the passing of one of the main characters gracefully and gently.

This attentiveness to the human element makes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a welcome opening salvo in the summer movie season. Yes, it’s bloated. Yes, it’s noisy. That’s to be expected, and I guess even that aspect is welcome too. These sorts of movies – with their special effects, their simple good vs. evil stories – are often touted as “escapist fare,” but in this instance, that’s not completely accurate. There’s a healthy mix of spectacle and story in this installment of the Spider-Man franchise, and that provides a gentler, less-emotionally demanding way of brushing up against serious subjects. Exploring human connections doesn’t always require a ponderous, Scorsese-level character study. Sometimes it’s nice to sling across a glittering, vertiginous Manhattan, to see the wind ruffle the fabric on the costume of a watchful hero, perched up high, looking out for us regular folk.

There’s this strange, paradoxical dynamic to watching these expensive summer blockbusters. On one hand, you can expect to suspend your disbelief about all sorts of aspects: the laws of physics, say, or biochemistry (apparently when you tumble into a pool of electric eels, you’re granted prodigious electro-powers, along with a galvanic blue complexion). I’m ok with that, for the most part, but I often find I’m unable to suspend the same disbelief on the more ordinary, human aspects of the story. Man gets super powers from a radioactive spider bite? Cool! Man doesn’t make sure his attacker is properly subdued before distracting himself with other business? C’mon. Normal people just don’t act like that. Plausibility, in the Marvel Comics blockbuster universe, is a funny thing.

And so, five minutes in, I was really ready to write this whole Amazing Spider-Man 2 thing off. That was a hastily-formed thought, though, because this flick is actually a lot of fun, and once it gets up and running, there’s a compassionate humanity that comes to the fore.

A great deal of that fun and that substance come from the film’s co-stars Andrew Garfield, playing Peter Parker/Spidey, and Emma Stone, playing the young scientist/valedictorian/sweetheart, Gwen Stacey. Again, the suspension of disbelief: Garfield is 30, Stone is 25, yet they’re playing high school seniors. Their connection feels genuine, nonetheless; the way they canoodle and laugh together is refreshing and pulse-quickeningly authentic.

Peter has been reveling in his role as New York City’s web-slinging vigilante, cracking wise as he cracks the snarling, scenery chewing, low-level thugs’ heads together. Gwen has been working as an intern at the prestigious, 200-billion dollar Oscorp research company and seems to enjoy the superhero-dating life, though they do quarrel after Peter reflects on the way his avocation puts her life in jeopardy.

Peter’s old friend Harry Osborn, scion of Oscorp founder Norman, returns to Manhattan to pay his respects to his ailing father. He learns his father’s illness is hereditary, which cranks his glowering broodiness up to 11, and he connects with Peter – who always seems to be able snap a clear photo of Spidey – to see if he can get a vial of Spider-Man’s blood, which he’s sure holds the cure. This draws Peter, Gwen and Harry into the mysterious menace of Oscorp’s research facility, which eventually gives life to the Green Goblin, one of Spider-Man’s arch-enemies.

Oh, and Jamie Foxx is in the film too, he lately of the electric eel spa treatment, which mutates him into another arch-nemesis, Electro. I still can’t figure out how he’s essential to the plot, other than being a vehicle for a couple of the film’s elaborate, disorienting CGI set pieces.

All those set pieces would feel so empty, were they not balanced by ordinary, human-scaled themes. For instance, there’s an abiding sense of absence and loss in the film – fathers have died, or are dying, or have mysteriously vanished. Harry Osborn struggles with what it’ll take to live up to his father’s vocational, financial and genetic legacy. Peter wrestles with a promise he made to Gwen’s departed father in the previous film. And where many comic book movies are flippant about death and mass destruction – last summer’s execrable Man of Steel is exhibit A – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is actually quite tender-hearted, handling the passing of one of the main characters gracefully and gently.

This attentiveness to the human element makes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a welcome opening salvo in the summer movie season. Yes, it’s bloated. Yes, it’s noisy. That’s to be expected, and I guess even that aspect is welcome too. These sorts of movies – with their special effects, their simple good vs. evil stories – are often touted as “escapist fare,” but in this instance, that’s not completely accurate. There’s a healthy mix of spectacle and story in this installment of the Spider-Man franchise, and that provides a gentler, less-emotionally demanding way of brushing up against serious subjects. Exploring human connections doesn’t always require a ponderous, Scorsese-level character study. Sometimes it’s nice to sling across a glittering, vertiginous Manhattan, to see the wind ruffle the fabric on the costume of a watchful hero, perched up high, looking out for us regular folk.

Author

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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