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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Marvel Comics is known as The House Of Ideas. Many a memorable character lives at Marvel, and scores of writers and artists — of unquestioned eagerness but varying degrees of talent — are given cracks at bat with the company’s caped mascots, taking their stories further and carving new thrills while not ruffling the status quo too much. Naturally, this results in a wonderful unpredictability, with sub-par superheroes often lucking out and finding truly ingenious writers, and massively iconic heroes skulking around in poorly written and drawn panels. (For example, while there isn’t a single solid current comic featuring fan-favourite Wolverine, the adventures of the least interesting Avenger Hawkeye are top drawer right now.)

asm2And thus, for over 50 years of issues, we true Spider-Man believers have ridden the roulette wheel, knowing that for every fine writer and great story arc we’re also going to get some hacks who throw up clones and Faustian deals and the occasional illegitimate lovechild. We’re used to it, and like Peter Parker, that greatest of comic-book heroes, we take the rough with the smooth. And right this minute, while the Spidey comics are enjoying a significantly smashing streak, it is clear the Spider-Man movies have fallen into the wrong hands.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a drag. It pains me to say this, but Marc Webb’s film is a total downer, a film lacking in smarts, ambition or spirit. I began my career as a film critic ten years ago with this review of Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi’s excellent film that remains the gold standard for the superhero genre — and it hurts to cap a decade with a complaint about a sub-par reboot instead of a celebration of the spider.

This is an unforgivably boring film, and while it may not seem as instantly objectionable as Sam Raimi’s monstrous Spider-Man 3, it must be marked that at least the older film failed because of ambition, because of trying to do too much. Webb’s new film, on the other hand, is inexplicably slow and torpid, a haphazard and amateurish affair where the seams show all too glaringly. Save for a couple of relatively funny lines — and the devastating climax — there is nothing worth remembering in this painfully generic film.

I didn’t expect to be saying this, but a big part of the problem is Andrew Garfield. He’s a bright, gifted actor who certainly possesses a distinctive edgy charm, but for some reason he continues to play Peter Parker as elusive and sullen. There’s an angsty cockiness to him better suited to a tween vampire film, and while Garfield is disarmingly natural, he falls a far way from actually being likeable. It’s hard to relate to — not to mention root for — a Peter Parker so brusque, so easily irked by those he loves, and harder still not to yearn for his predecessor Tobey Maguire, who made Peter’s all-important earnestness come alive. Spidey’s a quip-flinging whippersnapper, sure, but that’s because Peter’s a good kid who pulls on an overcompensatory flamboyant persona along with that mask. In the (much better) first Garfield film, a lot could be chalked to the character’s confusion, but here Peter seems like a jerk all his own.

Things are worsened by the filmmaker’s constant indecision. Aided by a bombastic soundtrack — 80s TV cop-show style blare for the opening chase with Rhino, synth-heavy chanting for Electro later on — the film looks to be put together by a committee, eager to throw in something for every focus group. This means lots of heavy-handed flashbacks, constantly unclear motivations for the characters, action sequences that refuse to do anything cool, ghosts from the old films (literal spectres appearing now to confuse Parker, as well as feeble echoes of action setpieces from Raimi’s Spider-films) and an awful lot of melodramatic hokum.

Much time is spent, for example, on the villain’s origins, but they are handled so unimaginatively that we’d be (much) better off with a voiceover saying “Oh, that guy’s Electro. He can control electricity.” What we’re given are backstories from the mid-90s, say Batman Forever style… and if we’re invoking Joel Schumacher to describe a Spider-Man film — at a time when even Captain America can have a seriously good movie — then it’s clear that both power and responsibility have begun to grate.

asm2gWhat does work is the girl. Emma Stone is sensational as Gwen Stacy, seemingly as baffled as we are re: the ill-humoured Mr Parker. She’s smart, snappy,  knocks every line straight out of the park, and conjures up quite the chemistry, enough even to make up for her too-slack hero. In a deft touch, she invariably seems to sense Peter’s presence nearby — her own SpiderSense, if you will — and we can’t blame Parker for asking her to keep that irresistible laugh “off the table.”

Readers of the comic are well aware that this film features a crucial scene with Gwen, and while Stone makes it pop, Webb and gang stretch it out way too much, and then proceeding to chicken out and completely reduce the stakes. Sheesh. (Not to spoil anything here, but if you’d really like to get a feel of Gwen and Peter, I suggest hunting up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s lovely “Spider-Man: Blue” and imagining what Stone could have done with that as a script.) Aargh. The scene itself might be half-decent in isolation, and its chilling to see Stone mirror precisely what Stacy wore in the books, but a film this mediocre simply doesn’t earn such a landmark moment from the Spidey mythos. (It seems to know it, too, which is why it tries to move past it very clumsily.)

This is malarkey, malarkey that bores for eighty minutes before coming to life somewhat during the last hour. There’s some very conveniently resolved nuttiness regarding Parker’s parents, Dane DeHaan — a dead ringer for a slimy Gilbert Grape — showboats hammily as Harry Osborn, and there are more than a few unsubtle teases regarding upcoming villains. (Meeting a woman called Felicia or seeing schematics of The Vulture’s wings leading up to the next installment would normally be a mouthwatering prospect, but right now they seem threats filled with more exhausting backstory.)

One kid holds out hope, though.

One adorable little runt with thin-framed glasses and a science project looks at Spider-Man as his hero and doesn’t care what people say about him; he knows he’ll be back and he knows he’ll be better than ever. And therein lies the lesson for us as summer cinegoers: it’s okay to prefer Tony Stark or Black Widow right now — till Spidey falls into the right hands, that is. For now we can go home, turn up the real Spider-Man 2 and watch Peter Parker try to deliver pizza.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, May 1, 2014

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The director you need to know

A brief introduction to the director of The Avengers. (And Firefly.)

 

Back in the winter of 2007 and stretching right into early 2008, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, crippling both Hollywood and American television. Films were halted mid-schedule, award shows were boycotted, and even the most successful TV shows were forced into a hiatus. It was at this time that writer and director Joss Whedon took a bunch of already successful television faces — Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother, Nathan Fillion from Castle (and Whedon’s own Firefly), Internet sensation Felicia Day, and Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory — and threw them into a bewilderingly bizarre musical cauldron called Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, an irresistible web series you should watch immediately if you haven’t yet.

This Friday, Whedon does almost exactly the same thing, save for a few vital differences: instead of a dinky web series he’s delivering a $200 million behemoth; each primary character in the film has had their own massive summer hits made largely only to make the existence of this mega-movie a possibility; oh, and his all-star lineup comprises of Earth’s mightiest superheroes. (Also, one doubts that The Hulk or Black Widow will break into song. But hey, it’s Whedon.)

Right now, with The Avengers due to release this week and Whedon’s indie feature Cabin In The Woods — hailed as a postmodern (and yet scary) love-letter to the horror film — having hit theatres just over a fortnight ago, the 47-year-old director could be excused for putting his feet up. Instead, we’ll soon see his deliciously cast version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, something he filmed in twelve days, mostly between breaks of Avengers filming. If the cult of Whedon grows and grows at this rate, we might even (cross your fingers as you read the next four words) see Firefly brought back.

It *still* hurts, you see. Along with Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development, Whedon’s Firefly was one of the smartest shows on television, and the cancellation of these two remarkable shows alone is basis for the compelling argument against this being America’s golden age of TV. A savagely sharp and immensely witty science-fiction ‘Western’, Firefly was snatched away from us after only 11 episodes. We got some closure with its movie spinoff Serenity, just as well-crafted, but the fanboy forearm calls for a more regular jab.

Son and grandson to screenwriting men, Whedon kicked things off with the highly blonde (entertaining but daft) Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a movie that went nowhere until he changed its spirit and made it into a highly successful television show with a fanatical following. And then he wrote comic books.

But not just any comic books. Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men showed magnificient narrative dexterity, and his later work on The Runaways was just as incisive. We comic fans often dream of a great comic writer being given a comic book movie — someone let Jeph Loeb write Batman, or just look at Frank Miller co-creating the Sin City film — but Marvel was the first to generate a fanboy hallelujah just by announcing that Whedon will hold the reins.

I haven’t seen the film yet — a statement that will be untrue by the time you read this column — but I don’t need to read rapturous reviews to know that Whedon will deliver something special. Go this weekend.

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First published Mumbai Mirror, April 25, 2012

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Will Priyanka be the next Batgirl?

And are comic books turning too sexy for their own good?

 

The first two panels of Catwoman #1.

The latest issue of Catwoman takes a while to show us her face. First we meet her breasts, nearly tumbling out of a lacy scarlet bra as she yanks on her tight leather suit. As she dons said costume, she’s in no rush to zip up the front. A trio of thugs breaks into her home and as she fights back, we see her butt, in painted-on leather. It’s not until page three of DC Comics’ new Catwoman #1 that we actually see her face, smirking upside down as she flings herself through a high window. The catsuit is inexplicably still unzipped, half her bosom braving cold Gotham air and bullets.

That issue — which ends in a startlingly explicit spread featuring comic-book sex at its most gratuitous and tasteless — is one of several new DC Comics releases sparking off impassioned debate about the hypersexualisation of mainstream comic-books, superhero comics ostensibly written for all-ages. The Internet is abuzz — as those of you going to Mumbai’s upcoming comic-convention are surely well aware — with comics writers explaining how characters need to be written gender-neutrally, how it’s embarrassing when a character is made to ‘pose’ for the seduction of the reader rather then for her fellow page-inmates, how some female characters are meant to be overt in their sexuality and some aren’t — except everyone looks Power-Girl pneumatic nowadays — and how far too many female characters are being turned into mere totty.

(Sigh. My kingdom for the strikingly cool girl: like Neil Gaiman’s Death. Or Ramona Flowers.)

And while I agree with most of the points being made, here’s what I think: women in comics are being turned cartoonishly sexy simply because a lot of mainstream comic characters are now being written with big-screen feasibility in mind.

And if the character is caricaturedly sexy to begin with, as part of the source material, then Hollywood is not whipped by the fanboys when they cast some massively bosomed bimbette in a fishnet costume looking like her primary superpower is Mega Cleavage, because all they’re doing is staying l-o-y-a-l: to comics that start out wanting to be movies.

I’m a hardcore fanboy, and I love superhero movies, but comics being written a certain way merely so they’ll make for more commercially bankable movies? Man, that sounds positively LexLuthorian in both cunning and shamelessness.

And it isn’t just the girls. Nick Fury, leader of superhero-employing world-saving organisation SHIELD (so Caucasian he was once played laughably by David Hasselhoff) started looking exactly like Samuel L Jackson when Marvel rebooted him in its Ultimates line, and who plays him in the movies these days? Voila, that man with the expletives on his wallet.

The new Barbara Gordon looks very, very familiar

The other way you can tell comics are being written keeping the screen in mind is in the overt need for diverse ethnicities. The overcompensation is the kind we see in revolving-ensemble TV shows like Law & Order and CSI. Everyone’s in the audience, and they all need to be represented. So we have Bruce Wayne hit on by some girl whose mother was a Bollywood actress, a half-Black half-Hispanic teenager getting spider-powers, and, in the panel above, the new Barbara Gordon looking quite uncannily like Priyanka Chopra, which could bode quite well for the actress’s future if the look catches on.

Piggy Chops as Batgirl? Way to make Ra One jealous, babe.

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First published Mumbai Mirror, October 19, 2011

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