Friday, May 23, 2014

Artificial Storytelling and The Amazing Spider-Man 2

A week ago I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in the theater.  For the second time in less than a year I was actually the only person there, which is kind of cool.  Unfortunately this was an older theater and I couldn't lift the armrests to sprawl out like on a couch or anything.  But I did put my feet up and grumble comments when I felt like it.

Probably anyone who'd read this has already seen the movies but just in case there are spoilers.  So there.

Anyway, maybe because I'd heard about Sony's plans for the franchise in advance the whole story felt pretty artificial to me.  It felt like the movie as it went along was just checking off bullet points the writers had written down.  It made the whole thing lack much impact for me, which is pretty much like the first one.

The most artificial thing was Gwen Stacey's death.  You knew it had to happen as soon as they announced Emma Stone would be playing Gwen not Mary Jane.  Even someone who had only read like one Spider-Man comic until recently knew that the Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacey.  So of course at some point she had to die.  Maybe they figured since Batman's girl died in the "The Dark Knight" they should kill Spidey's girl in the second movie too.  Except it was so dumb.  Why in the middle of this fancy new power grid is there an old-timey clock tower?  Is it so they could send DeLoreans back into the past?  I mean really what the hell?  I guess it was there to recreate the comic book; they needed something she could fall off of, so why not a clock tower that has no business being there!

Then they have to set up their Sinister Six franchise, which includes a largely pointless cameo by Paul Giamatti as the Rhino.  When he was lobbying for the part I wonder if he thought he'd get to be some big dude in a rhino costume like the comics?  Maybe they could have done that like the Hulk with CGI motion capture and such.  Instead he gets a mechanical contraption that looks like a rhino.  Why would anyone design that?  The Dr. Octopus arms and Vulture wings I can see, though really I think it dilutes the whole concept if Harry Osborn just gives these to Doc Ock and Vulture and tells them to go be bad guys.  Harry's transformation into the Goblin felt just as artificial and forced.  It took his father 60-some years to die of whatever weird disease and yet it starts killing Harry at 20?  The good thing about the previous incarnation of the franchise is that they took pretty much two entire movies to set Harry up as a bad guy.  (Oh, and way to squander someone as awesome as Chris Cooper in essentially a cameo.  Spidey franchise wise he would have been better cast as J Jonah Jameson; I think he could have nailed that.)

Another problem for me was most every main character seemed to have a creepy stalker vibe.  Max/Electro obsesses about being buddies with Spider-Man.  Harry obsesses about getting Spidey's blood.  Peter obsesses about Gwen to the point he stalks her in costume.  (Because what good are spider powers if you can't use them to stalk your ex-girlfriend?)  Even Aunt May sounds creepy when she starts talking crap about Peter's dad and says, "You're my boy!"

To be honest I didn't like much about the movie.  The points above, the cheesy Joel Schumacher-inspired way Electro is created, the cliche German mad scientist, how Electro can turn into electrical waves but somehow reappear in full costume like he's Dr. Manhattan.  (It really sounds like I hated Electro, but the idea of a guy flying around shooting lightning from his hands like Emperor Palpatine is pretty awesome.  Like most of the movie I don't think they really thought it through all the way.)  Even the music sucked.  I'd give it 2/5, which is probably too generous.

Anyway, to get back to my main point, there are a lot of times when a story can feel artificial or formulaic, when you know things are going to happen.  That really dulls the surprise, which in turn mutes the emotional response.  Instead of being moved by what happens it becomes more like, "Well FINALLY."  To use another movie for an example I was watching "Homefront" and you just know that at some point the bad guy (James Franco) is going to kidnap the good guy (Jason Statham)'s daughter.  And you know that then Statham is going to kick his ass.  So there's really no emotional resonance when it happens because that's been obvious the whole freaking time.

Or really in the 2002 version of Spider-Man I hated when the Goblin captures MJ and then offers Spidey the choice to save her or a bunch of people in an elevated car.  I mean you know he's going to save both because that's what always happens.  If the movie had ended there it would have sucked, but then was an epic throwdown between Spidey and the Goblin which was a lot better.

Prequel stories especially have this problem.  Like when I watched "The Clone Wars" on Netflix you know there are certain characters who can't die:  Anakin, Obi-Wan, and even Commander Cody because they're all in the third movie.  That's one reason prequels usually aren't very good because we already know what's going to happen.  That and they artificially add weight and symbolism to things that don't need it, like the secret origin of Wolverine's leather jacket.

Of course in any series it's hard to avoid some obvious things.  Like when you're in book 3 of an 8-book series, it's pretty clear the main character will survive.  But you still have to try to make things difficult for her and hopefully include some obstacles people won't see coming.  Like the main character losing her job or getting knocked up or having her baby kidnapped by Russian gangsters.  In the case of most authors it helps that your story hasn't been told and retold over about 50 years like Spider-Man with Gwen Stacey.


  1. Filmdrunk agreed with you in their review, about the 'checking things off a list thing.' I've gotten that feeling sometimes from books, too. I just read this one, "Brilliance," and although it was a clever enough setup, the book read as though it was following a standard storyline that was handed out. "Guy gets betrayed by boss," "Unlikely partners head west," etc. Really good writing can save that kind of stuff; in "Serenity" I was PRETTY sure what was going to happen but the characters and plot and stuff saved it, and being willing to kill off major characters (like George R R Martin is, I guess) helps.

    In your comic review the other day you mentioned some of the better storylines, like when Doc Ock became Spider-Man. Things like that help keep comics feeling more fresh than movies, where audiences I suppose don't always want to be challenged. If you make a movie that confronts their expectations, they may love it or may hate it, and no studio wants to risk hundreds of millions in merchandise, theme parks, etc., on a gamble. These tentpole movies are simply ads (sophisticated ones) for the merchandise stream.

  2. PS I might call my story today "The Secret Origin Of Wolverine's Leather Jacket."

  3. I was disappointed in Amazing Spider-Man 2 also.
    The action was great, but most of it was in the trailers.
    I have a thing for liking the baddies, I found myself wondering where are all the bad guys?
    You market a film with three, then sell me one with one and two quarters.

  4. I agree with you about the Harry Osborn thing. It was like because his father told him about it, he started getting sick.
    That would be kind of a cool super power, though, the ability to tell people they have some disease and they would instantly get it.
    They should have used Norman as the Goblin.

  5. The old timey clock, I suspect, is another Hollywood favorite. It shows up all the time.

  6. Spot on. Especially the point about Chris Cooper. I almost hope he finds a way to come back because he'd be a much better Green Goblin than that guy. It's probably tough to follow such an iconic series of films but there are better ways to do it.



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