Control Nathan Rabin: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Welcome to latest edition of Control Nathan Rabin, the weekly column where I let patrons of this here website choose which of two deeply unappealing options I must watch, then write about. In the past, I have chosen turkeys that scream their awfulness proudly from the mountaintops, like whatever that piece of shit Dinesh D’Souza movie I wrote about was called, or 50 Shades of Black.
This time around, I’m doing something different. Instead of choosing from movies no one could possibly ever want to see of their own accord, I offered patrons a choice between two intensely flawed movies that do not have glowing critical reputations, but nevertheless collectively made over a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. That's like, third Transformers sequel money.
And in another crazy twist, I chose something timely. Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest reboot for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, was released in New York yesterday, and goes into wide domestic distribution on July 7th, so I thought it would be "fun" to travel back in time and revisit one of two wonderfully misconceived, over-reaching series-killers: Spiderman 3 or The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Of these Spider-Dead-Ends, patrons chose to travel back to the heady days of May 2014, when the moviegoing public was in thrall to the curious creature known as the “superhero” and Andrew Garfield swung into our hearts with his unique interpretation of Peter Parker not as a gawky, nerdy teen, but rather as a stalker with the physique and rugged good looks of a Stanford rugby star in a little movie called The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2 during the weird wasteland period between the end of my employment as a film critic and Lukewarm Takes, and my response was, “WTF?” Then, I thought about the movie more, and was all, “No, seriously? WTF? How did that movie happen? And why isn’t anyone talking about what a crazy shit show it is? Why aren’t people talking about Jamie Foxx’s Electro they do Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze? Why don’t they honor the terribleness and surreal miscalculation of his performance by elevating the character to the realm of camp icon? Doesn't a character like that deserves, no, demand our loving, sustained mockery?”
Before Foxx’s Max transforms into Electro he’s not just the proverbial 98 pound weakling: he’s the person the 98 pound weakling beats up to feel better about himself. Foxx is a very handsome man so he’s decided to mask that handsomeness with a child molester mustache, a particularly tragic combover, a prominent gap in his front teeth and nerd glasses. As Max, Foxx is like one of those show-business divas that put on giant sunglasses and a floppy hat when they go out, ostensibly to avoid being recognized, and only end up calling attention to themselves with their flamboyant “disguise.”
Considering what I’ve been writing about for this site as of late, it seems appropriate that Foxx’s vision for the character is essentially “Norbit meets the Lawnmower Man”, although unlike Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, Electro only realizes some of his enormous camp potential.
That is true of the film as well but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 flies fascinatingly off the rails enough for it to qualify for borderline camp classic status. The over-the-top, cartoon craziness begins with the wonderfully rando, “Now you see him, now you don’t” performance of the great Paul Giamatti as Aleksei Sytsevich, a deranged Russian super-criminal first seen running amok downtown.
For what is probably the first time in his career, Giamatti has more face tattoos than lines of dialogue as a wonderfully campy Russian who shouts his comic book taunts in a Russian accent thicker than Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. He’s a great actor having a blast playing a cartoonish stereotype for a big-ass paycheck and the possibility of even bigger paychecks down the road.
Giamatti’s deranged goon shouts, “This is not end, Spider!” after being pantsed by the title character. Then Aleksei Sytsevich is apprehended and the movie forgets about him for literally two hours. I was excited about Giamatti playing The Rhino but his appearance is both an elaborate bait and switch and a maddening sneak preview of what we will never have an opportunity to see: Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man and Giamatti’s Rhino squaring off again in a third Spider-Man movie in this series.
Giamatti’s appearance here only makes sense in a world where he reprises the role of Rhino in a sequel. Since that sequel will never be made, his appearance here makes as little sense as, well, everything else.
That extends to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 director Marc Webb (whose family was actually Marc Webb Spiderman before his parents had to change it at Ellis Island) somehow transforming his big, bloated blockbuster into a weird spiritual quasi-sequel to (500) Days of Summer, his directorial debut, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man.
When he’s not swinging into action to save his city, Peter Parker seems to spend an awful lot of time stalking Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, and following her around, and pining for her, and generally behaving in a way that would make me contemplate pursuing some manner of restraining order if I were her. Peter Parker’s attention is supposed to be flattering, but when the dude who can’t really accept that you’re going to England for school can crawl up walls and fly through the air, it adds a creepy new element to the whole "unwanted attention"
Garfield and Stone were an item when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was filmed and, like so many real-life couples, whatever chemistry brought them together as people is not evident onscreen. Instead of being endearing, Peter’s lovesickness makes him less sympathetic. There’s a goddamned city to be saved from robo-Urkel and your pasty little white sad sack buddy li’l Green Goblin, and you’re wasting your super time and super energy pining after a lost love. Sorry, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but feeling super-sorry for yourself is not an actual superpower.
Speaking of feeling super-sorry for yourself, the movie’s secondary villain is not Giamatti’s Rhino as I was led to believe, but rather Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn, the son of Chris Cooper’s Norman, an evil scientist and titan of industry with a secret identity as Green Goblin. Since all comic book characters must know, work and love each other, Peter’s scientist dad worked alongside Harry’s old man in the fertile fields of mad science, and Spider-Man and the Green Goblin are both consequences of their fathers' reckless experimentation.
DeHaan plays Harry Osborn as a foppish son of privilege, an emo super-villain. Watching him sulk and pout and preen his way through the film with an excess of effete menace, it was impossible not to think about real-life super-villain Martin Shkreli. Shkreli probably rented out a whole theater so he could watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2 by himself and found DeHaan’s character to be an aspirational, inspirational figure who really shows what a guy like himself is capable of if he really applies himself and doesn’t follow the rules. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shkreli gets thrown out of court for trying to throw pumpkin bombs at the jury during his upcoming trial.
Harry is sad because daddy didn’t hug him enough but he’s also sad because he’s dying of some weird family disease that can only be cured by transforming into the Green Goblin. But before he discovers his secret identity, Harry thinks he needs a blood transfusion from Spider-Man, who he does not know is the alter-ego of his best friend Peter Parker.
This leads to a wonderfully misconceived scene where Spider-Man, in full costume, soberly informs Harry that while he thinks he needs a blood transfusion from him, Spider-Man, specifically, that won’t actually cure him. The two friends turned enemies are supposed to be having a conversation of tremendous seriousness, even solemnity, yet one of the two characters earnestly expressing his emotions is a superhero inside a red and blue spandex costume that completely obscures his face. Yet the film asks us to take this exchange and relationship seriously all the same.
At one point, the pouty Harry tries to buy off Spider-Man with money or cars or power, apparently forgetting that the dude whose blood he wants is, you know, a superhero. I’m not sure what about Spider-Man’s whole deal says, “I can be bought for the right price” but Harry seriously seems to have seriously miscalculated in his appeals to Spider-Man.
The screenwriters don’t help DeHaan by giving him lines like, “You’ve got to admit things have gotten crazy around here. Giant lizards. And spider guys.” Incidentally, Giant Lizards and Spider Guys was the original title of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps before Marvel made him change it.
Harry is angry at Spider-Man and Peter Parker, to the point where he’s probably going to unfriend both on Facebook. But his anger goes beyond that. In the grand tradition of super-villains, and insanely bloated superhero sequels, opposites attract. So Harry teams up with Jamie Foxx's Electro after Max Dillon goes from geek to malevolent God when when he’s electrocuted by genetically modified eels (which might sound far-fetched but is totally medically accurate) and trades in a wardrobe that is essentially a “Nerd” Halloween costume for first a hoodie and later a skin-tight body-hugging number like Jeff Fahey in The Lawnmower Man.
Before he makes the dramatic evolution from geek to bad guy, Max hero-worships Spider-Man even before Spider-Man saves his life. There’s a subtle but unmistakable homoerotic element to Max’s obsession with Spider-Man. He’s a Spider-Man Stan, and when he decides that he cannot trust Spider-Man, and that Spider-Man is not truly his friend, he responds with the vengeance of a spurned lover/angry nerd.
Just as there’s a disconnect between hunky, human Peter Parker and the CGI blur swinging around in a Spider-Man costume, there’s a real disconnect between Foxx as a put-upon Poindexter who can barely speak and Electro, the deep-voiced malevolent force who communicates in comic book one-liners.
I wished we’d had more of an opportunity to get to know Max Dillon, a man so nerdy that even in his violent fantasies he says things like, “You’re no Spiderman! You’re a Leo and he’s a Sagittarius. Besmirch him again and I’m gonna rip your well-groomed head off!”
Electro does more than just besmirch Spider-Man’s good name. Heck, after joining forces with the twerp emo version of Green Goblin he tries to rip Spider-Man’s head off himself in a giant set-piece that I will remember forever because it prominently features what sounds like a dubstep version of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” on the score. I would like to repeat that. The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s climax prominently features a dubstep version of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Spider-Man, with some help from his scientific genius of an on-again, off-again girlfriend Gwen defeat Electro just in time for additional bad guys (I’ve literally mentioned fewer than half the bad guys and extraneous characters in the film, because I want this to be under 5000 words long) to spring Aleksei Sytsevich from jail. The character ends the film in a crazy, super-rhino metallic battle suit that’s at once incredibly cheesy, clunky and old-school and kind of fucking awesome because it’s Paul Giamatti screaming his head off and cackling with joy at the ridiculousness of the situation.
And then, just when Spider-Man and Rhino clash, the credits begin. No!!!! I waited 141 minutes for a little Spider-on-Rhino action, and vice-versa and then fade to black. As you might remember, very early in the film, Giamatti yells “This is not end, Spider!” A mere two hours later he’s back, and ready to rumble.
Alas, the surreally bloated and campy Amazing Spider-Man 2 unmistakably marked an end for this iteration of the iconic superhero. The movie is a bloated, overreaching, misconceived, overpopulated, tonally incoherent, campy goddamned mess, but it possesses what Malcolm Gladwell calls “stickiness”, that ineffable quality that makes some things resonate and endure long after others are forgotten. If nothing else, I will remember the movie every time I look at the light-up Electro head that sits on a shelf in my son’s room, and remember, with some fondness, how some very smart, very talented people came together to create something singularly misguided, yet weirdly irresistible all the same.
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