The Amazing Spider-Man 2, existing as it does in the genre you could call The Gigantic Summer Film That Cannot Fail to Make Billions of Dollars, is the kind of movie that's resistant to reviews.
“Oh no, it’s only at [X]% on Rotten Tomatoes?” you didn't gasp. “I guess I shouldn’t go see it. The critics have spoken," you didn't say. Because it just doesn’t matter. If you saw the four other movies about Spider-Man, you’ll go see this movie about Spider-Man. If you didn’t see those, you may still find yourself buying a ticket to this movie about Spider-Man. You may not even care that you bought the ticket. Your companions voted and this is the movie you’re all seeing. You’ll have a reasonably good time and then you’ll be done with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Nobody bothers to check the critic round-up chart in Entertainment Weekly or Film Comment. Again, this is because it just doesn’t matter.
And because it doesn’t matter, this is as good a time as any to discuss the Spider-Man franchise – and, by extension, all hugely successful franchises involving superheroes or car-robots or whatever -- for what it is: a product as streamlined and as inoffensive as possible, one designed to appeal to the largest number of potential buyers. But you knew that already, too.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 exists in a way that’s too big for any one person to alter. It’s an enormous steel vault filled with money; it features just enough frantic action balanced with almost enough human contact; it will be easily translatable into other languages; it critiques and challenges nothing; it provides Happy Meal toys and other revenue opportunities. You could get aesthetically angry about that kind of filmmaking or about Hollywood’s brokenness. Maybe somebody should. But this is the way the movie business perpetuates itself. It will keep doing it this way for the foreseeable future. The Amazing Spider-Man 3 depends on this model.
Some plot: Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) is back. He’s on-again/off-again with Gwen (Emma Stone) and Facebooky explanations like “it’s complicated” are thrown around a lot. More villains show up. He fights them because that’s what Spider-Man does. The world must be saved. How’s that for no spoilers?
This all takes a lot of time, almost two and a half hours’ worth, and it’s packed with the same dizzying, 3D web-swinging effects as the previous films. I won’t say they’ve run out of new ways to make Spider-Man’s signature trick look interesting on film or new ways to freak you out with the repeated destruction of New York City, but it appears that they’re fairly content with what they’ve delivered up to this point. It’s as pristine a digital soaring experience as it’s ever been and viewers prone to motion sickness might choose something other than the visually overwhelming IMAX option. Again, you knew this after watching The Amazing Spider-Man. Or the other Spider-Man movies. Or the Avengers-related films.
Sometimes I fantasize about a world where Spider-Man is an unknown quantity. And along comes an idiosyncratic, oddball filmmaker to tell the first version of his story. And that story is extremely personal and strange because there are no expectations, no limits for what can be done, no demand to saturate the Chinese market. It would be about a guy who's also a spider. What would that be like?
We’ll never know. The Corporations aren’t moving in that direction. So I’ll live with this Spider-Man and have an enjoyable enough time with our semi-regular visits together at the movie theater. And I’ll watch the products as they each try (or don't try) to downplay the nagging tension between human storytelling and superhuman storytelling and money-driven storytelling.
Every once in an odd moment during the Amazing Spider-Man 2, it feels like director Marc Webb wants to push that humanity forward, especially in the ways Peter/Garfield and Gwen/Stone fumble around one another. It’s clear they’re in love, as characters and as actors, their entanglement is that attractive to witness. Jamie Foxx, whose attention-starved stalker becomes a problem for Spider-man, embodies a kind of nerd rage that feels like an emotional in-joke for longtime fans. And Sally Field as Aunt May remains this franchise’s secret weapon of crying. When the director gives his actors a chance to breathe on screen you remember that at least some moments of this weren't created inside a supercomputer controlled by Johnny Depp’s uploaded brain. That matters.