Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Ostensibly a sequel to 2012's reboot of the series (which I hated), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is one of the most frustrating movie experiences I've ever had. I'm not even sure if it counts as a movie, considering its plot is incoherent, its characters poorly defined (or not at all), and its position as advertisement isn't even cogent. Let me say right from the beginning that this movie is awful. There is very little to recommend in it. However, this might actually work in its favour; in twenty years' time, this film might be a campy midnight show masterpiece in which the audience shouts gleefully and sardonically the atrocious dialogue alongside. At this point, thought, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is fucking awful.

Let us begin with a survey of the modern superhero film, the modern blockbuster, so that we might understand where the audience is in relation to the endless waves of production. In 2013, in an essay about blockbuster exhaustion, I wrote that within each blockbuster,
there comes a tease. This is the mechanism of which I meant by the endless waves of production. Once the film is complete, the audience is no longer excited by the film they just watched, but by the anticipation of the next film in the series. Their whole enjoyment is dependent on the promise of continuing adventures.
A blockbuster must be three films in one: 1) a self-contained adventure that depicts the emotional journey of the protagonist(s); 2) a story that picks up on points established by the teases of the previous film; 3) a story that establishes points to be picked up by the next film. The film must engender excitement for the next instalment in order to maintain or increase the box office revenues. In this logic, "each subsequent item in the endless series must somehow replace and better the previous item. The stakes in films get higher with each new release" as I wrote in 2013.

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we have the ghost of Captain Stacy haunting Peter, Peter's emotional journey in which he gets Gwen killed, and set-up for a Sinister Six film that hasn't even been written yet. Because the first film featured one villain, the inescapable paradigm of superhero films dictates that Marc Webb, the director, must include more villains. Thus, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features three underwritten and poorly defined villains that seek nebulously defined revenge on Peter Parker.

Jaime Foxx's Electro seeks revenge on Spider-Man because a cop shot at the villain while he was inadvertently holding Times Square hostage. Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn seeks revenge on Spider-Man because the hero wouldn't give up a sample of his irradiated blood which would somehow magically fix Harry's inexplicably accelerating degenerative disease (which seems to have only affected his father in his 50s but affects Harry in his 20s?). And Paul Giamatti's Rhino seeks revenge because Spider-Man thwarted his absolutely moronic theft of radioactive goo in broad daylight. None of these villains are fleshed out; none of these villains have stable or coherent motivations throughout the film.

However, Jaime Foxx and Dane DeHaan prove to be excellent actors stuck working with awful material. Foxx's Electro is quiet, slow to move, and thus all the more terrifying. His presence and ability to instil terror is based entirely on the villain's potentiality for power. It is the possibility of power that makes the city quake with fear. Part of Electro's motivation is to be seen, as his character, the only one of colour in the entire film, is constantly made invisible, ostensibly due to his race. In what can only be a masterful coincidence, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 echoes Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man. At FilmFreakCentral, Walter Chaw provides the connection, which I will quote at length:
"Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form," says the unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man as he sits in a room lit with 1,369 light bulbs, plotting to also wire his floor in a scheme to steal electricity from "Monopolated Light and Power." He listens to one record on a loop, Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue," which says, "My only in my skin/What did I be so black and blue"--explaining, I think, the character design for this Electro as a creature, initially and pointedly clad in a hoodie, who is all black and blue. Max refers to himself repeatedly as "invisible" and his tormentors at Oscorp do the same. Max declares at one point that what he really wants is to be "seen," and for a moment, in a delicious meta-statement in Times Square, he appears on every public viewscreen in Manhattan. The instant he turns is the instant Spider-Man's image replaces his own.
What Chaw does not pick up on, but alludes to, is the semiotics of the hoodie in the public imagination of the current era. It is absolutely not hard to link Electro's potentiality for violence, his garb, and the recent travesty of justice surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. At the risk of assigning any competency to the film-makers of this atrocious film, it seems that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 accidentally provides a smidge of social commentary in the form of Electro's hoodie. However, this is completely undone by positioning the black man in a hoodie as the true villain. Yes, in typical American film fashion, what often appears to be of the left turns out to be deeply conservative. It's almost as if the film is saying that without the white Spider-Man's vigilante intervention, Trayvon Martin could have gone on to be violent. This is, of course, despicable, but certainly not a surprise in this era of politically conservative blockbusters, interested only in the fervent preservation of the status quo.

In my review of the film adaptation of the YA novel, I wrote that Divergent expressed a rigidly Republican/Libertarian version of the Campbellian monomyth. In the film, there is literally a call to adventure, a movement across the threshold of known/unknown, a mentor, death and rebirth, transformation, and a return. However, like many other products in the blockbuster era, Divergent reveals a deeply held fear of the Academy, ie the university/college system that underpins most scientific discovery. Similarly, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Oscorp and its scientific division are revealed to be intensely evil. Science only has the potential to harm, these films posit. In typically predictable fashion, Oscorp is revealed to be working towards a post-human, one that combines the animal with the human, to transcend the Enlightened subject, the Cartesian man. This is, of course, deeply unnerving for the characters in the film and for the audience.

If I might detour slightly, I would offer that the Cartesian man, the Enlightened subject is one defined by what it is not. The subject is defined by the rigid borders that separate man from nature. Man is not an animal, man is not the countryside. This liberal humanism provides ideological justification for, among other things, ecological colonization (nature must be controlled and brought from chaos into order). The Enlightened subject is under ethical obligation to spread the Enlightenment, and uplift those that do not subscribe to the intractable distinction between man and nature (ie racialized subjects who engage in "primitivism").

Subjects that do not respect the boundaries between man and nature are deeply troubling. The vampire, the Wolf-Man, Donna Haraway's cyborg are all examples of the subject that is "between" states, yet "between" is not specific enough for our purposes. Rather than oscillating between states ("man" and "animal"), the non-Cartesian subject is moving through the states. Temporally speaking, there is no subjectivity that comes first. The non-Cartesian subject is always already blurring the boundaries. To recall Kristeva, parameters are established between body and not-body. It is the model for the bounded system. Though, the very idea that the body has limits means those limits can be transgressed. The transgression of the body, either by nature or animal, is unsettling and psychically disarraying.

Thus, we have in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, subjects with porous bodies, bodies that move through states and break down limits between "that" and "this." And of course, in the current political climate, the process by which this Cartesian subject is broken down is through the "evil" of science. Rather than point to magical possibilities, films ostensibly in the realist mode, look to the potentiality of science as the mechanism for terror.

Electro, the Green Goblin, and the Rhino are monstrous in the sense that their bodies break down rigid borders between self and other. In the Rhino's case, the mechanical suit he operates becomes a cybernetic prosthesis. His subjectivity is no longer contained within his body but extends to include the technological. He is a cyborg, and thus worthy of fear. Similarly, Harry Osborn injects himself with irradiated spider venom (he is penetrated by science in the form of a futuristic looking needle) and finds his undefined degenerative disease accelerating even more, turning him monstrous. In order to exact revenge on Spider-Man, he dons a mechanical suit that allows him to function. He is able to fly. His ability-enhancing suit literally becomes prosthesis as without it, he is unable to walk. Again, his subjectivity extends past the materiality of the body. In the case of Electro, the materiality of his body no longer has rigid borders. He is able to turn into electricity, able to teleport himself through the air. His body and the environment literally blur together. He is the epitome of the breakdown of the Cartesian subject. He is made of nature, of a force known as electricity. Additionally, Electro wears a containment suit with undefined apparatuses that measure his voltage. Thus, we have three cyborg villains that blur subjectivity. And always, we must bear in mind, the mechanism for this breakdown of materiality in all three cases is science.

But what of Spider-Man, one might reasonably object. Does his body not also blur the lines between "man" and "animal"? Why yes of course. However, the key to understanding Spider-Man's categorical stability within this framework is the famous refrain that "with great power comes great responsibility." Unlike the three villains who are motivated by profit and selfish motivations, Peter grounds himself in tragedy and responsibility. He obeys the traditional capitalist paradigm by doing honest work for pay. It is his adherence to the traditional social systems of family, work, and school (ideological state apparatuses) that contain his porous body. His race and gender help of course. In the film, Peter upholds the law, assists the police, graduates from high school, makes money in the honest fashion, and helps to overthrow Oscorp's monopoly on energy in the city of New York. Yes, he is pretty much the conservative fantasy.

Most heinously in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter's girlfriend, the pseudo-feminist Gwen Stacy, is punished for her expression of agency and movement through space. Gwen makes choices for herself, and announces it loudly to the audience and Peter (like every other character, exposition is simply shouted at the audience or relayed through the clumsy method of TV news anchors). She decides to go to Oxford, she decides to help Peter defeat Electro, she decides to steal a police vehicle, she decides where to go and what to do. And what fate does the film hold for this expression of feminine agency? Death of course. Superhero films just have no fucking clue when it comes to "dealing" with the female subjects. Either they are masculine badasses (like the undefined and empty Black Widow) or they are damsels in distress. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 puts itself into an awkward position: Gwen is feminine and demands to make her own choices, yet she is unable to defend herself when she puts herself in harm's way. By the logic of the film, Gwen deserves to die because she needs Spider-Man to save her but wants to express her own agency. In order words, protagonists in this new Spider-Universe that come remotely close to social radicalism (ie women choosing their own destiny) will die.

Ugh I hated this movie. I hated it so much. One of the two women of the film is killed for no reason other than she made her own choices, and this is the whitest New York since the sitcom Friends. The only person of colour in the entire film is Electro. I hated the dialogue that is egregiously didactic and I hated the endless lack of logic in the plot's construction. Film Crit Hulk wrote an essay that contains 237 questions about the script, demonstrating that nobody involved in this film really knew what they were doing.

Recalling how I finished my review of the previous instalment, fuck this movie.

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