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Turned Off by the Dark

Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures

It was a huge relief to many comic-book fans that Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” was such a charming, witty and enjoyable return to form, after the action-packed but plot-mangled mess that was “Spider-Man 3.”

It’s hard enough to reboot a series that is only five years old, but even harder to supply a worthy sequel. Much of the success of the first film was down to the on-screen chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, a sharp script and a few logistical changes (mechanical rather than genetic web slinging for example). The temptation would always be to go bigger and throw in everything in an attempt to stun the audience into submission, and this has resulted in some of the common problems that sequels always face.

The good news is that Mr. Webb delivers a cracking fingernails-in-the-armrests ride of swinging and sense-tingling action. From the opening sequence, where Paul Giamatti appears to be having the time of his life as the psychotic Russian gangster Aleksei Sytsevich, a k a Rhino; the slo-mo web-slinging action is all of a very high quality; and the visuals set a new benchmark for the series.

The plot is, to be fair, pretty formulaic. You could quite easily guess what’s coming without needing a Ph.D. in genetic science, or the resources of Oscorp. That’s not say that it fails to excite, or that some of the key moments are not handled well. Hats off to Mr. Webb for the sequence at the power station, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do something original in the world of comic-book heroes. All of the latest crop of Marvel movies seem to have ended with an aerial battle, the script structure being handed on to the next director with a note saying: “This worked for me.”

There is always a problem with character origin stories in these movies, and the same is unfortunately true for Max Dillon a k a Electro (a name he gives himself for no particular reason other than the obvious) played with enthusiasm and pathos by Jamie Foxx. Mr. Foxx has been short-changed here as he has been saddled with the actor’s motivation of wanting to be noticed. Although this may allow for a sense of tragedy and sympathy with the weak and ineffectual man that is Max, it leaves little room for development except into the realms of angry bitterness, which is where Mr. Foxx is forced to go once he is transformed into Electro.

He is also hamstrung by one of the worst soundtracks a film of this magnitude has had to suffer in many years. The usually reliable Hans Zimmer (alongside Pharrell Williams on this occasion) seems to have misunderstood the brief and thinks this is a comedy. Max’s light-hearted melody is almost appropriate when we first meet him, but jars horribly once he has become Electro. The music in general is clunky, heavy-handed and lacking in the lighter touch that James Horner brought to the first film. Johnny Marr also gets a credit for this score, but here’s hoping that was in a supporting role. The Smiths’ fans, cover your ears.

An actor of Mr. Foxx’s quality deserves more to work with. Feeling ignored can create deep-seated feelings of resentment, but doesn’t justify someone suddenly becoming destructively psychotic and power-hungry. It’s a massive leap that just doesn’t ring true, even in the midst of something so fantastical.

Dane DeHaan on the other hand gets something more tangible to work with: the sudden acceleration of his own mortality. Facing death at such a young age could drive a person to all sorts of extreme measures, and Harry Osborn’s predicament is one we can totally believe. Mr. DeHaan sizzles on screen with cold indifference and arrogant vanity. His Harry lacks the sexual charisma of James Franco’s performance, but this is a different Osborn junior, abandoned and deeply damaged by his father.

He and Peter Parker are shadows of each other, and this relationship is nicely played out by both actors. Mr. Garfield is on solid form throughout in fact, a little less cocky than before perhaps, but still delivering the odd one-liner with a wry smile (or a red mask).

His on-off relationship with Gwen Stacy (Ms. Stone) hits all the right cute and adorable notes, continues, but becomes a little tiresome in the third act. It does force Peter to make some difficult and important choices, however — even Spider-Man needs to grow up at some point.

Members of the supporting cast all do their jobs well; and nothing feels completely out of place (apart from that dreadful music, and a Germanic scientist so cliché he’s close to xenophobic). However, much of what happens is a pretext for a third installment: the film building in threads that will support the web of “The Amazing Spider-Man 3” no doubt. There have been rumors already about the possibility of Spider-Man facing a combined force of his enemies such as the Sinister Six. This movie certainly adds weight to that idea.

Overall, this is an enjoyable romp with some excellent action sequences directed with visual flair. It is frustrating to see another movie that concludes with lots of C.G.I. characters hitting each other, but this has to be expected with all the superhero powers on display. Let’s hope that “The Amazing Spider-Man 3” doesn’t feel that it must go bigger and crowd itself with too many characters and in doing so loses all sight of the story.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” we’ve seen the post-credit sting and we are watching you very closely. . .


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