The trailer for The Amazing Spiderman 2 is out. I want to talk about this film, or about this little series, this sub-franchise, reboot franchise, whatever we’re calling it. I just need to take a moment and get the taste of the word “franchise” out of my mouth. Is anyone else horrified that we use that term so commonly now? It’s awful.
First of all, these comments are based on this trailer and the first film. The Amazing Spiderman 2 could be a fantastic film, and I hope that is, not least because it’s a huge endeavor involving the hard work of a large amount of people. To hope for such a project to fail is not just churlish but downright cruel. The exception is if McG is directing a film. If you’re working on a film, in any capacity, with that talentless shill at the helm you should really see the writing on the wall.
That’s out of the way. My comments are also based on my experience as a man in his early 30s that likes genre movies and who, as commented upon yet again on this week’s podcast, has vivid memories of just how bad Hollywood used to be at the whole superhero/fantasy thing. Live action He-Man, anyone? A lot has happened since then, to the point that 2013 produced a film about giant mechs being piloted by two people sharing a neural connection combating enormous Godzilla-style (yes I know they are called kaiju but please bear with me) monsters and the public went “yeah, that looks pretty good.” This was mostly because the film was actually good. Travel back in time to teenage me and try and convince him of this. It’s not happening. If you’re a fan of comic books or of superheroes or just of extravagant action sci-fi, this is it, this is our golden age. Our Golden Age, even. On the one hand, it could be argued that we should be grateful for what we have. I am. That doesn’t exclude films that are getting things wrong from criticism though.
The film presented by the trailer is disappointing. Dane DeHaan is sporting a haircut that hints at Spiderman 3’s unfortunate attempts at characterization through sneering, wearing black and dancing. The film has three major enemies (this is by no means a guaranteed problem, but again, Spiderman 3). Andrew Garfield’s Parker is even more too cool for school than he was in the first film, which was already far too cool. I will not claim to be a particularly informed Spiderman fan but more informed fans than I will tell you: Parker is cool, but he’s not cool.
Then we have Peter Parker’s secret origin, which seems to exacerbate the issue, for me at least. The sense of wonder Parker experiences when first discovering his powers is a fairly major part of what makes the character, and something that Raimi’s first Spiderman film captured very well indeed. The term “everyman” is recklessly overused, but that is what Peter Parker is. Well, an every-teenager at least. Spiderman cracks wise, and he’s funny, largely because we know the guy under the mask and he’s a nice guy but not hugely impressive. He has an aggressive boss who doesn’t treat him very well and he has an unassuming private life. When Garfield’s Spiderman cracks wise (actually one of Garfield’s major strengths in the role) it comes off a little mean, because the guy under the mask is really deep and has feelings and charmed the pants off the prettiest girl in school. He’s still real though. Like really real. Like Maroon 5 real.
This current spate of Spiderman films seems to completely misunderstand how popular culture has evolved since the 1990s. Garfield’s Parker is, I imagine, intended to come across as someone that stumbles into a goofy persona worthy of affection. Instead he comes across as a cool guy trading in a fairly weak patina of self-deprecation, the ultimate poser making light of how he saves lives on a regular basis. A lot of people have (fairly) criticized this year’s Man of Steel for missing the point of Superman’s character somewhat, allowing him to become embroiled in personal contest while thousands died around him. At least he doesn’t hang out with Lois Lane afterwards and scoff at how embarrassed he is for being so fantastic. When Garfield’s Parker joshes with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey in this trailer about how fantastic he is, I feel like someone in props should have just handed him a Miller Lite mid-shot.
Garfield’s Parker is a poseur (see what I did there?) of the highest order, which is surprising given the actor’s talent and charisma. It becomes less surprising when taken in the context of the first Amazing Spiderman film and the trailer for this new one. This series is rocking it like it’s 1999. Which would be a good thing if they’d decided to hell with it and had Prince do the soundtrack and have Electro rock out in a different shade of purple. Well… a good thing in certain, specific ways. However, this film is offering audiences a retro experience when the current range of experiences on offer is vastly superior. Take what appears to be the central conceit of the new film: Peter Parker’s parents were brave geniuses taken out by an evil corporation that now keeps tabs on Parker himself. Parker isn’t just special because he’s handsome, good at skateboarding and saves innocent children from nine to five; he’s special because he’s… I don’t know, the inheritor of a special legacy of some kind of… I just don’t want to do it; I can’t finish this sentence because it’s bringing the 1990s back and I loved the 1990s but not all of it and before you know it we’ll have a Wolverine goes to Japan movie.
These films are giving us the ultimate villain of the 1990s: the handsome cool guy trying to make out that he has it hard. Everyone hates that guy! How could Peter Parker be that guy? How could the writers and producers of these films not understand we all hate that guy? I would argue that they live in some kind of isolated chamber where the last decade or so of popular culture hasn’t happened yet. It makes sense. The general audience has moved on from origin stories. In truth, we were ready for them to be done before the studios were finished making them. I went to the cinema a couple of weeks ago and watched a film about a Norse God battling Dark Elves that sought to invert the nature of existence and thus bring all human life to an end with references to another film that featured a mass alien invasion of New York. Characters walked around in full costume, swung magical weapons at their enemies and participated in a final set piece involving running around and creating vectors to transplant the enemies into alternate dimensions. It was a bit like that early-to-mid film set piece from Reign of Fire, except it was moderately interesting. Thor: The Dark World is a hit, critically and commercially. The next Captain America film looks fantastic and it features more flying aircraft carriers and a masked dude in eyeliner with a bionic arm. We’re good to go. Disbelief has been suspended on a wide scale.
I find this new trailer frustrating for this very reason. Electro looks great, in my opinion, but his threatening call to Spiderman evokes not the Marvel-led triumphs of the early 2010s but the overly self-conscious stumbles of the 1990s. This trailer starts to feel a little camp to me. We’ll get back to camp, guys; we will. Don’t rush it. One more time, I don’t want to damn this film before I’ve seen it, because that’s a supremely uncool thing to do. I can comment on the trailer however, and although the trailer may not represent what this film will be like, it represents what Sony want us to think it will be like. Is this really what Sony wants? A film that feels like a quantum leap past Burton’s Batman films but seems overly self-important in comparison to The Avengers? Peter Parker is here to help a world that’s already obsessed with him and Sony are looking to wring every last drop from a profound misreading of their film’s main character just as Marvel are reaching for the stars and grabbing us to turn around and follow them.