I guess everyone knew it was coming. That Robin’s-egg-blue outfit, the rumored appearance of a Goblin, the casting of Mary Jane—all signs said that this would be Emma Stone’s last Spider-Man film. I, for one, suspected otherwise. Perhaps naively (or perhaps giving the filmmakers too much credit), I thought there was a good chance that all those were breadcrumbs leading down a false trail; the opposite of fan service, if you will. I was wrong, and, to be honest, I’m a little bit irritated.
It’s not that killing Gwen Stacy was a bad idea in itself. It worked well enough when Gerry Conway did it back in 1974, and there’s no doubt it could have been translated to celluloid in an effective, coherent way. My problem is that it wasn’t done effectively or coherently here, and my suspicion is that the filmmakers would have been better off leaving that particular milestone in Spider-History alone for another movie.
Any fan of Spider-Man can tell you that he’s easily one of the most human superheroes. Peter Parker has relationship problems, money problems, and all the existential angst of the teenager. At the time of his creation, he was, in essence, his own target audience. More than that, though, Spider-Man is an emblem of the “little guy”: His own personal failings result in his uncle being killed, and, years later, he is a split second too late to save the love of his life from the Green Goblin. Spider-Man cannot win, and that makes him as relatable as any superhuman character could hope to be.
Or, at least, it’s supposed to.
In the context of the preceding movie-and-a-half, though, the death of Gwen Stacy doesn’t do that. The only thing it does do, in fact, is make the third act more of a convoluted mess than it already was. As I said earlier, the major problem behind Spider-Man 3 is also the major problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the film is simply overloaded with characters, especially villains, whose stories fail to connect in any meaningful way.
The Peter/Harry dynamic shows promise in the first half of the film, though it certainly feels like every bit the aside from the main through line of the plot that it is. A bit extraneous to the main conflict, sure, but a great setup for the next movie’s villain. So when Harry juices up with the Goblin serum and transforms, you know there’s something horribly wrong with this movie.
From there, anticlimax ensues. Electro is dispatched in an altogether too pat fashion, reminiscent of Whiplash’s speedy defeat in Iron Man 2. Max Dillon, built up to as the film’s main antagonist, turns out to be, in the end, the same loser he was in the beginning. We’ve seen Electro dissipate into thin air before, so the fact that his “defeat” results in his doing much the same thing leaves the tension wholly unresolved. When Harry comes swooping in, we’re still left wondering if Electro is going to reappear at any moment and interject himself into the Peter/Harry conflict.
That doesn’t happen, I should say, and that’s at least a minor saving grace for the film’s denouement, but that doesn’t make the conclusion good. The closest we’ll come to actually resolving Harry’s character arc is essentially crammed into a final rooftop battle whose sole purpose seems to be to get Gwen Stacy dead and Goblin out of the way so he can round up his supervillain posse (no doubt including the discorporate Electro) for Sony’s forthcoming Sinister Six release.
It’s bewildering that Webb and co. managed to turn a brilliant reboot of the franchise into the narratively confused mess that is this sequel. By splitting the film’s climactic battle into two battles, the filmmakers give the audience not two conclusions, but no real conclusion at all. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, like The Empire Strikes Back, very much a “middle” movie. The problem is, it’s a bad middle movie, and we’re not waiting for Return of the Jedi; we’re waiting for the ill-advised and blatantly unnecessary Sinister Six.
The result of the above-mentioned problems is that there is no resolution of dramatic tension. Harry flies off, and Peter evidently forgets that it was his own former friend who ended Gwen’s life. Gwen’s funeral takes place seemingly without any interest on Peter’s part to avenge her death. The plot line of Peter’s parents is abandoned and, by the end, nearly forgotten.
All of these problems were avoidable, to be sure, but it is finally Gwen’s death that results in the third act being beyond redemption. Much has been made of the issue of fidelity to the source material in superhero movies. Comic fans are notoriously nitpicky about changes to their beloved characters, but it should be kept in mind that change is sometimes good: Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Electro, so oblivious to social cues he’s almost like something out of a Shakespearean comedy, turns out to be a more dynamic, interesting character than almost anyone else in the movie, and certainly more interesting than a straight translation of the comic book character would have been.
Change can go wrong, too, as we saw in the downright offensive butchering of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, but fear of change on the filmmakers’ part can be just as harmful. To keep Gwen Stacy alive is, in many ways, to keep Mary Jane a relic of the past franchise, and to go against forty years of comic book history.
The Amazing Spider-Man introduced a Gwen Stacy who was a believable, three-dimensional character, and that element carried through to the first half of this follow-up. Almost Pepper Potts-esque, Gwen contributes in tangible ways to Spider-Man’s conflict with his villains, sneaking him around Oscorp headquarters and interjecting herself in a helpful, albeit unwelcome way into the fight with Electro. Harry killing Gwen brings the movies “up to date” with the comics (or, at least, with the comics of 1974); it makes room for Peter’s more well-known, redheaded bombshell girlfriend; and it might make him a more tragic, relatable character (though I think that’s debatable). Unfortunately, it also cuts short a character arc that made the reboot fundamentally different from its Raimi-directed predecessors, and differentiated the movies from the women-in-refrigerators trend slowly being exorcised from the superhero genre.
Before concluding, I want to touch on one other horrible aspect of this film. I’m talking, of course, about this:
It’s bizarre. It’s unnecessary. It’s… some weird, mechanical attempt to emulate the Iron Man movies? Whatever it is, it’s terrible, but the important thing is that it’s yet another setup for that Sinister Six movie. I went into The Amazing Spider-Man 2 willing to be convinced that a Sinister Six ensemble outing, minus Spider-Man, wasn’t a horrible idea. I left the theater convinced instead that it was exactly as horrible an idea as I had feared, concocted solely for merchandising purposes.
If you forget that Webb left the so-far useless plot thread of Peter’s parents hanging in the first film, utterly failing to follow up on it properly in this sequel, if you forget that Gwen Stacy had almost become a significant character, and if you forget that the filmmakers decided not to learn the lesson of Raimi’s ill-fated threequel, then Webb’s sequel is almost a decent movie. But with poor attention to character development, a mangled third act, and an atrocious anticlimax seemingly created solely for the purpose of a Sinister Six follow-up, this one misses the mark by miles.
Well, at least the action figures will be awesome.