‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’: a love story and Paul Giamatti in a giant, mechanical rhinoceros

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a really nice story about two kids in love that some Sony executive must have seen and said, “This needs a giant mechanical rhinoceros.”

As a concept, I am enthusiastically pro giant mechanical rhinoceros, especially when it’s piloted by Paul Giamatti, who is clearly having a lot of fun yelling in Russian with a tattoo on his face. It reminds me of the first time I saw the trailer for the first Ghost Rider movie and thought: A flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle up the side of a building? This plot is infallible.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, like just about everything else that has or will exist, better than Ghost Rider 1 and better than Ghost Rider 2, but not because Paul Giamatti is playing Voltron in a robot rhinoceros. It’s because of the same reason I like the first Amazing Spider-Man movie more than most: the relationship between two kids in love.

The movies are disappointing for the same reason.

The best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are the love parts, but the movie isn’t about love parts. It’s about Paul Giamatti in a giant, mechanical rhinoceros.

Giamatti is there, bookending the movie with an armored-car heist and then the rhino bit that is the coitus interruptus of superhero fights, to sell Sony’s billion-dollar version (Jesus God, they hope) of the Spider-Man brand. And everything today is about branding — selling a product, regardless of worth or utility, that keeps the lording castes rich and happy and their shills loyal. For Sony, this includes however many sequels and spinoffs about men in full-body pantyhose and animal-themed cybernetics it can foist upon the Earth before us groundlings get tired of giving The Man $15 each every other summer.

Of note: I saw this movie and am aware of my hypocrisy. I have appropriate levels of self-loathing. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spoilers to follow.

If you know about Spider-Man, you know that Gwen Stacy died in 1973 when a man in a Halloween costume throws her off a bridge. Forty-one years later in a movie, a boy in a Halloween costume throws her off a clock so she can die again.

This is very sad because you, at least I did, believe Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) love each other. This has nothing to do with Peter’s spider superpowers, which The Man clearly wants to be the movie’s main thrust to sell more action figures. But director Marc Webb, who has the heart of a softy (you know if you saw 500 Days of Summer), sneaks in real, actual emotion and humanity under all the explosions and battle-damaged Lyrca.

The scenes between Garfield and Stone are so well done that Spider-Man seems unnecessary. It felt as if Webb was rebelling. You forget that those scenes are there only because destroying New York via CGI  is expensive, and the movie already cost more than $200 million. So Webb, as the genre mandates, makes stuff blow up and has three negligibly developed villains, but between all that, he makes sure there is love.

But this is not the director’s movie. This is not even really a movie. It’s commercial. It is a product. It is intended only to sell Spider-Man, and there is a formula for that.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a commodity, and that’s why Paul Giamatti is a rhinoceros. He shows up in the last of the 142 minutes after a movie-long absence. The plot reason for his comeback is so Spider-Man can dramatically return after quitting his tights, broken by grief following his girlfriend’s death. The moment is kind of cheap, but I fell for it because I really wanted to and because Webb did it well enough to compensate for The Man holding him down.

Again, the movie skips the love part to set Midtown on fire. Peter Parker’s grief is condensed to a montage and a short conversation with the ever-haggard Sally Field. The whole bit has a Do we have to? feel, but Webb, again sneaky, does what he can while still honoring the fiefdom of Sony.

And even though these moments that should be the most emotionally sating of the film are rushed to make room for Paul Giamatti’s giant, mechanical rhinoceros, they still hit. The worst part is wondering what kind of movie this would have been if it didn’t have to sell XBox games, extra-value meals and Amazing Spider-Mans 3 through 17.

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