Marvel: Are Franchises Electric… Where did it all go Wrong for the Amazing Spider-Man?

Whatever happened to the Amazing Spiderman?

Was it the adjective? A bit over the top? It worked on paper…

Moving on to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After The Amazing Spider-Man took over $750 million in 2012, it seemed that Sony’s top superhero franchise was back on track, even if not raking in quite as much as it had a decade before. Still, it was closer to the comics, was well kitted out in front and behind the camera and there was a city full of enemies to be explored… So, the inevitable sequel was just the tip of the iceberg. Or so it seemed.  It wasn’t a great start when the inimitable James Horner didn’t return to score a film he later described as “terrible”’… And it was all going so well, wasn’t it?

On with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – the swift end to Spidey’s last blockbuster life before he joins his friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL AFTER THE FIRST FILM. SPIDER-MAN ON FILM WAS NOW AS CONSUMED WITH TRAGEDY AS HE WAS ON PAPER. And a particular bell was tolling for Gwen Stacy. Jokerside previously took kindly to The Amazing Spider-Man (TAS), the first part of the Andrew Garfield starring Spidey franchise that came to an abrupt end this winter thanks to behind the scenes studio deals. Certainly, that film was too quick to re-spin the origin, and it was too bogged down by coincidence and a terribly bland villain with a very retro-plot. But… It was just about saved by excellent cast and crew. It was a beautifully and confidently shot film, but its release was unlucky, or silly, to coincide with the first Avengers film and the last of the Dark Knight trilogy. It featured a wonderful score by the late James Horner, while the chemistry between Garfield and the constantly impressing Emma Stone was a real highlight, elevating it beyond the gigantic Sam Raimi trilogy of ten years before as it left silly love triangle stuff to Superman films. Still, amid its quest for a convoluted background plot, it was clear TAS didn’t quite know whether to ignore or embrace its illustrious predecessor.

Amid all of that, TAS may have been lucky to fall just $70 million or so behind the nearest Raimi film. It was still considered, in whispered tones, a bit of a disappointment, but there was never a question of stalling the franchise. And when the sequel emerged two years later, the battleground of the superhero film had moved on still further. Now Spidey studio Sony couldn’t have anything other than the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its sights…

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Looking at the four colour page, it’s been mooted that only Spider-Man’s gallery of rogues can rival Batman’s. New York houses a huge and festering pile of madness for the web slinging one to crack jokes at. And while it’s not ostensibly as dark as in Gotham, it’s tinged with tragedy. And while Batman’s foes often take their lead from the world of fairy-tale and literature to deal melodrama, so Spider-Man’s often combine science with some kind of animal symbolism and human drama. You only have to take a look at the fan-baitingly cool scenes deep in the vaults of Oscorp Tower late on in this film to see that. The waiting tentacles of Doc Ock, the wings of the Vulture… They’re instantly recognisable.

Sam Raimi’s original trilogy had treated some of these villains well (Doc Ock), some middlingly (Goblins) and some appallingly (Venom). When it came to the reboot there were still plenty of untapped villains to choose from. But having taken on the rather flat Lizard in the first, there sadly wasn’t to be any Mysterio, Vulture, Morbius, Carnage or even Kraven this time round…

Flashback

It wasn’t just the score that set out the bigger and bolder agenda

TAS2 kicks off where the first film left, back at Oscorp and Peter’s father Richard Parker making his escape – there’s a tearful farewell and rather ridiculous plane tragedy. It’s a good job, this wasn’t the film to run against the end of the Dark Knight trilogy. That free pass away from the shadow of the Bat was most evident in a sheer act of Hollywood carpe diem when Hans Zimmer took the composing reigns from James Horner. In fact Zimmer formed what’s described a super group – the Magnificent Six featuring Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr among others – while Horner backed off describing the film, or perhaps more correctly its production, as “terrible”. A great shame, but the result was certainly bold, moving into a dance and electro soundtrack to reflect the blunt themes of the film. From the opening and rather majestic fanfare the score moves on to a various tempos of electronic thud. It has more than a hint of, well, Doctor Who incidental music at its darkest moments – specifically Dominic Glynn’s Trial of a Timelord theme and Murray Gold’s master themes from the late 2010s. A target observation, but it’s always worth remembering that Zimmer synthesized the ‘classic’ plea single Doctor in Distress in 1985. For the villain, the Electro Suite’s bizarre vocoded mantras pick, extend Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight Rises. The result sits somewhere between the 1970s Clockwork Orange remixes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and synapses firing between Blur and William Orbit when they worked on the album 13 in the late 1990s. For the most part the soundtrack’s relentless, much like the film, and unfortunately slightly hollow because of it. In short, it left not only the rising chords but almost all the subtlety of Horner’s score behind. Oh no, don’t let that be true of the story…

But yes, it wasn’t just the score that set out the bigger and bolder agenda. The blockbuster season had moved on in two years, packed with superheroes and the fast mobilising assault of Marvel’s rapidly expanding machine. TAS2 used the first film’s lines of conspiracy and plot arc as it’s jumping off point – asking what could possibly have made Parker Sr call himself a monster and rip his family apart. But even as those plot points were picked up and reeled in TAS2 made it its business to prioritise new villains and put the cogs of the franchise Sony needed in place. Even with a franchise worth of characters packed into the rights, from Spider-Man’s isolated studio position that was a risky approach. There was no better illustration of the dangers than when Marvel followed the lean but excellent Iron Man with feature-length franchise trailer Iron Man 2. They bounced back, but then Marvel had a whole super team to fall back on.

Ground running

“What you got for me today New York?”

It’s a hi-octane start, that’s for sure. Zimmer’s Spidey fanfare brings us the arachnid in free-slinging and fully formed mode, just as we met him in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. The problem is that while Spidey may think he’s over his origin, we and the city’s criminal contingent know better. With Spidey in full swing comedy, silliness and even nods to silent film stars are chucked at us. As we see the web-slinger take down the soon to be Rhino after he nicked some plutonium, a bit too much time is spent branching into comedy. Taunting the criminal is one thing, but he also spends an extended amount of time saving Jamie Foxx’s “Nobody”.

To say it’s a more comedic film than the first is a bit misleading as it plumbs some pretty dark places. However this was clearly a film made under the shadows of The Avengers rather than The Dark Knight. Amid the opening broad comedy (and we haven’t reached the cloying peak of Peter’s comedy Spider-Man ringtone yet), there’s time to remind ourselves of the Spidey-curse – of Peter’s promise and his failure to keep it. What did Larkin say about parents? Those strong opening 10 minutes are riddled with a confidence as Parker suffers the pummelling of New York traffic, the need to keep the quips up and being haunted by the ghost of Dennis Leary’s Captain Stacy. Yes, this film has to make way for tragedy and romance. And despite Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy being very switched on, as the actress effortlessly recaptures the same chemistry with Garfield, she’s still the main source of anguish to drive the film forward. TAS2 is very fortunate to have such strong leads, but unfortunately that’s apparently not enough. Having dodged the Spidey versus Peter love triangle that the Raimi trilogy fell into. Soon there’s an inevitable and repetitive lurch into separation and reunion that tarnishes all their great work. That said, at least it doesn’t mean that Parker has to bump into Venom and go dancing.

City of justice

“Follow your own path”

There’s plenty of time to explore the concept of the Spider-Menace and the roles that vigilantes have to play in this in this brave new New York. That’s always a key part of the Spider myth. Unfortunately, away from the X Men, the Fantastic Four and the rest of the Marvel universe it’s a very different story. While the ending of the first film, for all the high stakes emotion, seemed like a throwback to the Schumacher Batman films of the 1990s, here that same unfortunate reference comes in the main villain’s origin. Those ‘90s films set the template for villain overload, and it’s a worry that easily pops up when any superhero casting call seems a little overstretched. And after Raimi’s third film Spider-Man had history.

After the superb Spider-Man 2, the conflict between the studio, producers and Raimi saw a muddled mess of a third instalment. Those proved right, or more importantly seemed the obvious explanation for such a well-balanced set-up falling to villains that were damp, dark, sandy and flying squibs. TAS2’s pre-production triggered the same warning signs, amid Sony’s not so secret plans for a huge Spidey franchise. But still, as the sub-title in some territories suggested, Jaime Foxx’s Electro was the film’s main foe. And through his journey from nobody to master of electricity, it wanders heavily into Batman Forever territory. The brilliant, awkward scientist Max Dillon, this time a man prone to setting up a personal shrine to the web-slinger, and suffering comedy black outs on the way, may not have a fondness for riddles, but robs the film of any subtlety it has left.

Electric Spark

Heavy shades of Frankenstein…

Fortunately, Electro’s origin is mercifully quick and the tone makes a good stab at springing back into shape. His appearance is quite grim, with heavy shades of Frankenstein as he emerges like a golem or a Grendel… Yes, it’s a bit laboured, but we’ve got used to that in Spider-Man by now. Before Electro’s entrance TAS2 was already sketch-based and although he’s a villain who can bring a bit of colour, his advent sets that chopped up structure in stone. Multiple intertwining sketches see Electro walk the streets to Time Square, facing the same distrust and poor circumstance as Spider-Man, while the web-slinger’s alter-ego hears that Gwen’s heading to England. Good thing she’s not heading to Oxbridge Academy.

Time Square is a hell of a place for a showdown, and where the ‘nobody’ truly becomes the centre of attention. While the Lizard was at least a fine physical opponent, Electro’s demolition of Time Square shows how powerful he is. We’re far beyond the first film’s scope. Full to the brim with power and anger, that transition from confused introvert should be fascinating, that he can see himself become a villain with his own eyes irresistible… The film almost gets there, all the way to a great comic book resolution. There’s a fine showcase of Spidey-sense, something that had been a bit lacking in this series, as well as a reminder of the perils of man-made slingers. But this is only one of two main set-pieces for the electric villain, and that just isn’t enough to drag Electro into multiple dimensions as 3d as the screening may be. And there were more to come.

What went wrong with the Amazing Spiderman?

Web of life

Moving from genetics to electromagnetics and back again

As the quantity of villains suggests, TAS2 spends a lot of time setting down myth – a little too much considering the film’s run-time. Graduation pulls Peter Parker firmly out of school. He’s now working for the Daily Bugle, and while we don’t see the legendary editor, he complains that Jameson only pays him a fair wage for 1961. Surely it’s no coincidence that’s one year before Spider-Man was published. Once again, this story is pinned on Oscorp, although this time round it looks to have moved away from genetics to energy and electromagnetics. And that’s the hook that brings the two Oscorp employees Max and Gwen into contact with each other during a nice lift moment. Sure, coincidental, but it does reinforce the dominance of that company’s Tower in a New York without a Baxter Building or Stark Tower.

That said, genetics remain a key plot point. It’s the return of prodigal son Harry Osborn that brings Norman Osborn out from the shadows, played by Chris Cooper on vicious and denigrating form. And that brief, unsettling scene, puts Harry and Peter right at the centre of the whole franchise. Hiding under Harry’s skin is the Osborne Curse, a pronounced retroviral hyperplasia sitting in his genes, while we learn how engrained Parker Senior’s work is in his son’s abilities. The destiny of both boys is set by their family.

Going Green

Does a hero need to be so linked to the villain’s machinations?

While The Dark Knight tackled its revisiting Batman’s greatest foe head-on, TAS2 finds ways to dodge it, for a while. Perhaps it’s classic first film villain’s syndrome. Arguably the Green Goblin is Spidey’s greatest foe, but Norman Osborn’s demise doesn’t banish the glider from this universe. Harry discovers his father’s gift, and the film sets out measuring his journey as much as Peter’s. We’re not done with tragedy yet and TAS2’s take on Harry’s emergence as the Green Goblin is a more effective than 2006’s Spider-Man 3’s. As he crawls for his life onto a glider, we see the Green Goblin born with healing powers in an extraordinary scene that drips with sins of the father symbolism. But such arbitrary origins don’t help when it comes to the unravelling plot of Parker. The history that’s retconned onto Parker’s spider-biting episode, complete with metro line secret lab, can’t help but feel even more ridiculous and coincidental.

While the two sometime friends are forced apart by their genes, it’s quite satisfyingly that a heart-to-heart with Peter’s Aunt May that furthers the plot. But putting so many eggs in one giant origin in a film otherwise so concerned with accelerating the franchise can be dangerous. Of course, Osborn Senior is the overarching villain in both Harry and Peter’s lives – and when we learn the truth of Peter’s blood he becomes even more important. Does a hero need to be so linked to the villain’s machinations? “You created me first and all that” doesn’t usually carry very well on film. In fact, it can often rip motivation from a character, as batman discovered in 1989. It may have been better for the franchise if Spider-Man had been left distinct from this web. Rumour has it that Norman Osborn would have resurfaced in a third film. It would have been interesting to see that unravel, we can see where it was heading. It all ties into TAS2’s main objective.

Special projects

“The future”

The Ravenscroft Institute finally makes it onto film, but it’s a touch to Arkham for this universe. Instead, it’s the hidden away Special Projects department of the Oscorp Tower that provides the true money shot.  In the vaults we see the flash-forward to what the Mr Fiers, the Gentleman, would call “The future”. Of course, this reach forward to the long mooted Sinister Six film now seems to be a future in doubt.

A pause for what’s probably the best scene of this short franchise, and also one of the most inevitable. As soon as Gwen Stacy was announced as the replacement love interest for Mary Jane, her death in the comics had been hanging over her celluloid life. Amid all the love and closure, there’s little time for Electro to make his brief reappearance, but he typically falls foul of Gwen and Peter working together. Almost in response to my earlier criticism of New York’s portrayal in the first film, here Electro is the catalyst to turn the city itself into the villain. It’s nice, and incredibly fortunate that ‘Nobody’ Dillon designed the power grid in the first place. While a plane adds some nice background tension, Spidey’s combat with Electro is shot in wonderful a series of ‘captured’ comic book covers and pinball ricochets. The electric villain may be all too easily taken down (though not necessarily killed) but Captain Stacy’s appearance like the ghost of Hamlet’s father may as write a few choice phrases on the wall for comic fans.

And the immediate appearance of Goblin, all identity issues removed, brings the real ominous Spider-Man stuff at last. While Gwen’s danger borders on comical, the return to clockwork that oddly started the film reminds us that there’s been a countdown all along. Gwen’s death is affecting and really well shot – that small hand of the web is particularly moving… It’s a reach too far. And little did we know, that this meant The Amazing Spider-Man had achieved everything it needed to do.

It puts the franchise quest into sharp relief. There’s another funeral, of course. And another grave vigil in all weather. And later, it’s her words ringing in his ears that makes him don the suit for the first time in five months, and take on the first of the Sinister Six, a very tank like, mech version of Rhino. But really, “That future” was already looking

Inevitability

“A piece of each other”

So TAS2 turned out not to be a film bogged down with villains as much as one that doesn’t give any villain enough screen time. It’s film happy to pick up the heavy arc points set by its predecessor, but then eager to settle them quickly so the franchise can move on to the main course. Typical of the first film, distinct parts of TAS2 stands up incredibly well, sustained by confidence and sheer force of film-making. But there are more cracks in the thinner paste of this second iteration. Having just about powered through the re-origin, it was a folly to get dragged into franchise building so quickly. True, it a mistake Marvel fell into as well, but it robbed this particular version of the web-slinger of its Spider-Man 2 moment. And that really is a shame. It’s almost like it knew it, as the Gwen Stacy resolution adds a real sense of ‘job done’. Combined with its haul of £709 million, an excellent gross for many other blockbuster films, but making this instalment the lowest earning of the franchise, things were clearly not as bright as Sony’s ambition suggested.

Now we know that the future has changed and looks to be bright as Tom Holland takes the character on… The destiny of The Amazing Spider-Man therefore, is to be banished from memory. Felicia Hardy would never become the Black Cat, the Rhino would do little fighting, the Vulture’s wings would never take off… And despite that final pounding that was set to explode into the Sinister Six, there was tellingly no post-credit coda. Somewhere, Spidey sense must have been tingling.

Next Time: Where next? How can it all go right for the New Spider-Man?

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