Ten years ago, many of us excitedly awaited the DVD release of the first SPIDER-MAN 2 from the already legendary Sam Raimi. Although it somehow fell short of its predecessor's box-office, the movie opened to near-unanimous approval. Many heralded it as the best superhero sequel yet made, if not the best superhero movie yet made - at least since Donner's SUPERMAN in 1978 - a feat, I think, given the numerous scripts for this rushed production later delayed by injury.
Now, the most one can say about next month's "home entertainment" release of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: RISE OF ELECTRO from director Marc Webb (whose creative stamp seems buried under the new gimmicks and FX) is that anticipation normal at best. As with the 2004 sequel, this one's filmmakers wasted no time getting the band back together and the cameras rolling, but despite no real delays, this one opened to stateside skepticism and an overall reception boosted primarily by the onscreen chemistry of leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy. Though it has apparently hit big in the East (namely India & China), some recent news has people wondering if the producers' big plans for a cinematic Spider-Man universe revolving around the Sinister Six might not take shape as originally intended.
I'm mostly a DC guy DESPITE Warner Brothers' questionable franchise strategy. However, Spider-Man is probably tied with Superman as my second favorite superhero, so it occurs to me to critically compare the two famous and/or infamous sequels - breaking the comparisons down into seven categories over two articles: CINEMATIC CONCEPT, CASTING, ACTION, HEROISM, ROMANCE, STRUCTURE and LEGACY. After all, the first was considered by many the best superhero sequel and/or film ever made. By contrast, as many probably see this year's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: RISE AS ELECTRO as one of the worst.
CINEMATIC CONCEPT (And that is...?)
I'm referring to the way in which the material is adapted to the screen, particularly the changes and enhancements. Most of this applies to the overall franchise, but I think the sequels represent the differences well enough. Raimi's retains the beloved down to Earth quality of Peter Parker and his family, yet elevates the material to the status of a generally hopeful, almost innocent mythical romance between an unlikely knight and a maiden just out of reach. The 2004 sequel exemplifies this approach by contrasting both the lives and the motivations of its central hero and villain, with both being devoted scientists torn between their lives' work and the loves of those lives. While it has no shortage of thrilling action, it is in just the right amount and seems to occur organically within a story that otherwise takes a lot of time to develop Peter Parker's life and show how it is affected by the range of feelings between he and would-be girlfriend Mary Jane Watson.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is notable not only because it is decidedly different from 2004's SPIDER-MAN 2, but because - in some ways - it is surprisingly different from its predecessor THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from just two years ago. While it continues the approach of trying to root Spider-Man more firmly in "real world" of the here and now (whereas Raimi's films felt like faithful adaptations of the sixties' Ditko/Romita era), its creative focus seems to shift more towards developing and establishing what we now know for sure will be the group of super villains called the Sinister Six. Doing so, it arguably if only partially back-burners the franchise's most appealing element, and that is the chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.
This might be an even bigger problem since the Peter/Gwen romance is the one element that is clearly not meant to be carried any further!
Some of it may be that this is only director Marc Webb's third feature film, placing two-thirds of his feature film career in the Spider-Man world; but while 2002's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN feels like a genuine attempt at reintroducing and mildly, yet logically tweaking the Spider-Man saga, its sequel suggests that writers and producers simply cobbled together villain stereotypes, gimmicks and old back stories to create Max Dillon/Electro, recreate the Green Goblin and introduce the Rhino - all just to excuse almost 2.5 hours of mostly CG action and some mediocre comedy and character development (i.e., Electro). I realize these kinds of franchises are studios' bread and butter now, but I'm surprised that anyone would be as blunt and unapologetic about the whole affair as the architects of this alleged big screen "Spideyverse" seems to be.
As much as I still like Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker/Spider-Man and even have some affection for Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson (if in name-only), I have to give the real casting kudos to Marc Webb's reboot due to the phenomenal work and chemistry of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. While I admit that Garfield's realistic take on the teenage Peter Parker in the first film was at times and at first hard for me to connect with, I at least understood that a modern teenager might really be so tongue-tied and shifty, sometimes irritatingly-so. More than that, I feel that Garfield projects a wider range of emotions as both Parker and his heroic alter ego, particularly when it comes to the humor and the occasional grief. I also think the casting of Emma Stone balances Gwen Stacy's inherent glamour with an intelligence and underlying practicality that might not have come through even in all of Gwen Stacy's comic book appearances.
Oscar winner Sally Field is definitely a more high-profile Aunt May. Dennis Leary proved an inspired choice for Captain Stacy and I still feel that Rhys Ifans gives as credible and meaningful a performance as is likely possible as Doctor Curt Connors, AKA The Lizard. I say all that, though, only to contrast it with what I feel is the unfortunate, borderline disastrous casting of Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon/Electro.
Electro's appearance is straight out of the Ultimate series, but that's not remotely the problem. Instead, it's the back story of the nerdy and obsessive Spidey-fan pulled almost verbatim from BATMAN FOREVER, in which Jim Carrey played a similarly motivated Edward Nygma/Riddler. Even their employment status is the same at the beginning as they both work for the franchises' respective "big corporations" - Nygma for WayneTech and Dillon for Oscorp.
Though just a setup, the talented Paul Giamatti is virtually wasted in his Rhino appearance, with barely half of his Russian accented dialogue being coherent and not buried under sound effects. His 4 minutes ultimately have a purpose, but as first impressions of a future baddie go, mine were not the best here.
While there's not as much to compare and contrast with in the 2004 sequel, it does compensate for Maguire's limited range by focusing on his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to his overall life as it seems to be playing out. Even Dunst's performance as Mary Jane seems more acceptable, although in fairness, I think Raimi even admitted at one time that her character was meant to be more of an amalgam of Parker's love interests, all wrapped-up in the familiar Mary-Jane package... so to speak. As such, it fits the mythical, hero's journey approach.
The very memory of J.K. Simmons as the irascible Daily Bugle Editor J. Jonah Jameson is just another reminder of the list of "things missing" from Webb's current films. Though I understand that such a broadly realized character might not work given the current series' overall approach to things (given it doesn't change too radically - again), I can't help but think that Webb will need Jameson for Peter Parker to play off of while getting over Gwen and getting to know Mary Jane in the next film- in person next time. Still, how are they going to top Simmons in the role?
As the villain Doc Ock, Alfred Molina is appropriately menacing while not only still being a sympathetic and interesting parallel to Parker, but also a sane and focused as well as driven enough character to truly legitimize the threat he poses both to Spider-Man and to New York. In Webb's sequel, Electro would get nowhere after the first Times' Square encounter if not for Harry Osborn, whose plight is sympathetic with a decent enough performance backing it up, but whose general development is, well... rushed.
It's hard to distinguish anymore between what is truly "action" and what is merely spectacle and destruction porn. Visually, I think Webb's sequel delivers on all cylinders in its action sequences, but the action, itself, is a bit more limited. Whereas Raimi's sequel featured Spider-Man chasing Doc Ock all around New York and trading blows atop numerous buildings and even a train, the most Spider-Man does in his so-called fights with Electro is to strategically spin webs to intercept shocks and swing around to avoid more shocks.
For the most part, physical contact is out of the question with Electro, and Green Goblin isn't even in the movie long enough for there to be more than a single short, close quarters bout. The movie ends with the start of what looks like it could be a neat fight between Spider-Man and Rhino but, alas, that seems to be saved for future outings. What else is there to say, really?
In fairness, I think it depends upon what you enjoy watching more - genuine and professionally staged action sequences or glitzy CG effects arranged to give the kinetic impression of action. For me, Raimi's sequel is more satisfying because nowadays, inventive CG is everywhere. Good cinematic action is harder to come by.