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‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ Series: What Went Wrong?

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Sony

A beloved superhero. A promising young director. A perfect pair of romantic leads. A dream supporting cast. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost everything, apparently.

When that familiar red-and-blue-costumed wall-crawler showed up at the end of the Civil War trailer and stole Captain America’s shield, he pounded the final nail into the coffin of one of the most promising and confounding franchises in recent Hollywood history: The Amazing Spider-Man. With an impressive roster of talent in front of and behind the camera working with an enormous budget, the series seemed destined to replace the original Spider-Man trilogy in the hearts and minds of Web-Head fans everywhere. Somehow, it never happened. And in the years since, its reputation has only gotten worse.

When Sally Field, who played Aunt May in the two Amazing Spider-Man films, appeared on The Howard Stern Show earlier this week, she confessed her distaste for the series and admitted that she hadn’t spent much time or mental effort thinking about her role. “It’s really hard to find a three-dimensional character in it,” she told Stern. “You can’t put ten pounds of s— in a five pound bag.” Field was talking specifically about Aunt May, but she’d inadvertently described the key problem with the whole franchise: A bunch of artists trying to shove way too much stuff into too small a container. And a lot of what they were trying to shove in that container was s— anyway.

The Amazing franchise almost never happened at all. Sony had every intention of continuing the original Spider-Man movie series, and spent years developing Spider-Man 4 with director Sam Raimi. Months before Spider-Man 3 even opened in theaters, Sony entered negotiations with David Koepp to work on a new Spidey screenplay; eventually James Vanderbilt came aboard to write the first draft. Subsequent revisions were handled by Rabbit Hole’s David Lindsay-Abaire and Gary Ross, while Vanderbilt sketched out plans for a two-part story that would stretch across Spider-Man 5 and 6.

Both Spider-Man stars, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, were ready to return for a movie that would have seen Spidey square off against Vulture (John Malkovich), while Anne Hathaway would have played Felicia Hardy, a Spider-Man villain (and later ally and love interest). Although the Felicia of Marvel Comics moonlights as a burglar known as Black Cat, early reports claimed she would instead become “a brand-new super-powered figure called the Vulturess.”

If that sounds like a terrible idea to you, you’re not alone; Sam Raimi thought so too, and he officially left Spider-Man 4 in January of 2010. Raimi later told Vulture he agreed to make a fourth Spidey because he had been so disappointed by Spider-Man 3 and wanted to end his tenure “on a very high note, the best Spider-Man of them all.” But with the start of production looming, and the realization that the screenplay wasn’t up to snuff, Raimi backed out. He had too much creative integrity to make a movie he knew would be bad just to hit a predetermined release date.

Which brings us to the overstuffed bag of s—. The director’s chair vacancy was swiftly filled by Marc Webb, whose debut feature, (500) Days of Summer, became a major indie hit in 2009. He chose British actor Andrew Garfield to play Spider-Man, and cast Emma Stone as his love interest, Gwen Stacy. Sony returned to Vanderbilt’s screenplay — and returned Peter Parker to high school for a full-fledged reboot. Although Raimi’s first Spider-Man had told the character’s origin just ten years earlier, the filmmakers decided to retell that origin from a slightly new perspective. And I mean very slightly.

Although Webb insisted in interviews that The Amazing Spider-Man was not a remake, the finished product hewed surprisingly closely to Raimi’s interpretation. Shy loner Peter Parker gets bitten by a scientifically augmented spider, gains super powers, loses his beloved uncle (Martin Sheen), fights crime, and comes to realize that his responsibilities as a hero will keep him from being with the woman he loves. Even the new characters felt like stand-ins for old ones; Amazing’s Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is basically just a re-skin of Spider-Man’s Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Both work as scientists at Oscorp and make the unwise decision to test experimental chemicals on themselves. Both are initially presented as flawed geniuses; both become consumed by their quest for power. And in the end, both become deranged green-colored monsters.

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Webb’s one major addition to the story was Spider-Man’s parents, Richard (Campbell Scott) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz), who, in the film’s first scene, leave a young Peter with his aunt and uncle while they go on the run for unexplained reasons. As a teenager, Peter discovers his father’s briefcase in Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s basement, and its contents lead him to Oscorp where he meets Connors, gets bitten by a super bug, and becomes Spider-Man. That’s where his parents’ trail ends; Peter gets sidetracked by Connors’ new alter ego, the Lizard, and his search for answers is quietly abandoned and barely mentioned until the sequel. I guess when marketing materials referred to The Amazing Spider-Man asThe Untold Story” of Spider-Man’s earliest days, they meant that literally there were big chunks of this plot that would remain completely untold.

The whole movie is like that. The entire story revolves around two characters who barely appear in it: Richard Parker and Norman Osborn — who, in Webb’s film is dying of “retroviral hyperplasia.” The viewer never sees that, though; instead an Osborn flunky, Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan), keeps popping up to deliver exposition and pester Connors about his lack of progress. Why would anyone care whether a character they’ve never seen lives or dies? The movie never offers a suitable reason.

Then a few scenes later, Dr. Ratha disappears too; after Spider-Man rescues him from the Lizard, he vanishes from the franchise, never to be heard from again. And Peter is so obsessed with these missing characters he barely pays attention to the people who are still in his life, like Field’s Aunt May, who only appears in a few minor scenes in each film. No wonder she was so annoyed by the whole process.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a movie (and really a franchise) of absences. The people onscreen obsess over people who are offscreen; characters suddenly disappear like the Rapture just happened and no one told Spider-Man. No one even says Spidey’s iconic credo, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s like making a Star Wars movie where no one says “May the Force be with you.”

It’s also a movie of baffling sloppiness. There’s a scene in the first Amazing where Peter Parker goes to ask Dr. Connors for help catching the Lizard. (Connors IS the Lizard, but Peter doesn’t know that yet because some genius science prodigies are also really stupid.) Connors is in a foul mood because he’s slowly becoming a 10-foot-tall hellbeast, and he tells Peter he doesn’t have time for him. He’s got a “new project” he’s working on and he needs “to be alone.” “If you’ll excuse me,” Connors continues, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

He holds the door of his office to let Peter out, but then Connors is the one who actually leaves. He lets Peter stay behind in his lab; he snoops around and finds the evidence that reveals Connors is the Lizard. So, to sum up, Dr. Connors tells Peter to leave, then Dr. Connors leaves and so that Peter can snoop around.

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Sadly, this is par for the course at Oscorp when it comes to security. Peter first gets into Connors’ lab by posing as an intern — except he doesn’t. A security guard assumes he’s an intern, and lets him in without asking for his name or ID.

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Then Peter sneaks into the ultra-top-secret area where they keep the genetically modified spiders by watching Dr. Ratha tap a fancy keypad and then copying his movements. No one sees him and apparently Oscorp — which, we’ll eventually learn, is owned by a deranged madman who wants to create a serum for eternal life that he can then sell to the highest bidder — doesn’t have a single security camera. You couldn’t get into ScreenCrush’s offices this easily, and we’re not secretly engineering the most valuable chemical substance ever devised so we can sell it to terrorists.

Oh and there’s also a scene where Peter Parker inspirationally skateboards to Coldplay.

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Whether these choices were Webb’s alone or made by people above his pay grade, the result was a deeply confused product. Is this a modern Spider-Man (who inspirationally skateboards to Coldplay like all the cool kids do these days) or some kind of old fashioned throwback (Peter Parker takes pictures with an ancient film camera instead of his phone)? Is it a retread of the same old Spider-Man origin or is it really going to do bold new things with the character? Is Peter Parker a wisecracking dork or a James Dean-style (or, if you’re feeling less generous, Luke Perry-style) introverted brooder? The answers to all these questions shift from scene to scene.

The same can be said of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which doesn’t even seem to know whether it’s a sequel or another soft reboot. The strikingly different costume from the previous film was replaced by one much closer to the comics; Andrew Garfield’s performance as Peter got less mopey and more exuberant. And while Amazing Spider-Man was a darker and more grounded interpretation of the character, Amazing 2 was bright and colorful, with three different outlandish villains: Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and Electro (Jamie Foxx).

Unfortunately, the three villains have almost nothing to do with one another, and Webb’s feeble attempts to draw them together feel even less organic than Andrew Garfield’s web-shooters. DeHaan’s Harry Osborn breaks into a maximum security prison to free Foxx’s Electro, so Electro can help him break into Oscorp. But if he can break into a heavily guarded prison, why does he need help breaking into an office tower — particularly one with as lax security as Oscorp?

There are way too many subplots and not enough screen time. Additional threads include Peter and Gwen’s on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again-on-again-no-seriously-they-break-up-and-get-back-together-so-many-times relationship, the lingering mystery around Richard and Mary Parker’s disappearance, the death of Norman Osborn (now played by Chris Cooper), a hereditary disease that requires Spider-Man’s blood to cure, a vague indication that Harry Osborn’s assistant Felicia (Felicity Jones) might be the Black Cat (or maybe the Vulturess!), and a whole thing about how Harry and Peter are supposedly best friends, even though Harry was never seen or mentioned in the first movie, and the two haven’t spoken in eight years.

Worst of all, there’s lots of dialogue, and even entire scenes, designed to set up a bunch of spinoff films (like Venom and Sinister Six) that Sony planned to make to compete with Marvel. But now all of those projects are shelved, and all of that time that could have been used to deepen the characters (particularly Electro, who goes from misunderstood victim to cackling mega-baddie in the span of a single scene) was totally wasted.

(Wait, I take it back: The montage where Peter Parker creates a crazy conspiracy theory wall to the sounds of Phillip Phillips’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” is the worst of all.)

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Amazing Spider-Man 2 is marginally better than its predecessor, largely because it has a few more highlights (like the thrilling opening chase through New York), but it’s still a deeply confused movie. It can’t decide whether it’s a colorful popcorn blockbuster or a bleak refutation of colorful popcorn blockbusters. At least Webb had the good sense not to conclude the movie with its original ending, where Richard Parker randomly shows up after decades in hiding to give Peter a rambling pep talk.

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(Come to think of it, why don’t Richard and Mary take Peter with them in the first place? Amazing 2 reveals they left because Richard put his DNA into his super-spiders, and he knew that without his DNA they could never be weaponized against his will. But he leaves Peter behind, and his DNA is compatible with the spiders. Once Norman Osborn figures that out, wouldn’t that put Peter in danger? Whatever; these movies are dumb.)

Now that the second sequel is dead and the spinoffs are all cancelled, it’s clear that while The Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t the worst superhero franchise of this era, it was probably most emblematic. It was a needless reboot written by committee that desperately chased trends from other movies (the first feels like Batman Begins, the second wants to be The Avengers) and Frankensteined a bunch of different tones and styles together in a desperate attempt to be every kind of superhero movie the audience could possibly want.

In Amazing 1’s very first scene, young Peter looks for his dad as part of a game of hide-and-go-seek. That initial image then becomes the series’ central metaphor, as the teenage Spider-Man searches for Richard in the hope that understanding who he was then will explain who he is now. It’s fitting that Peter never quite figures that out — and neither does either Amazing movie. This franchise didn’t tell a great story, but it was one hell of a cautionary tale.

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