Thankfully, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is a Superhero who gets a rush out of his powers. After a flashback prologue, the film opens with a wonderful sequence, shot partly POV in 3D, where we and SM fly and acrobatically plunge, tumble and hurtle high up through the skyscrapers that set out the city streets, in the pursuit of a truck pursued by masses of police cars. Spider-Man whoops with exhilaration, and it’s infectious, especially when his mobile rings and it plays the theme from the 60’s cartoon series.The film makers obviously partly wanted to give us a good time watching this film, but they also had another impulse that is given away from the start. The film opens with a sequence showing how Peter Parker’s parents were effectively murdered, pop misery at being parent-less an apparently essential trope of Superhero movies.We might have been able to get past this if the film had concentrated on the humour and kinaesthetic rush that Spider-Man experiences in his daily superhero duties, but this is an action movie with an estimated budget of 200,000,000, and a 2 hr 22min run time – the pleasures to be had are going to be curtailed by the self-importance and trite bombast that goes with a film being an ‘event.’The betrayal of the film’s pleasure-giving side is shown in the schizoid nature of that initial chase – the gag where Spider-Man’s phone rings and plays that familiar theme is undercut by the nature of the call. Almost unbelievably it’s the old hoary chestnut of the wife or girlfriend of the hero pestering him to hurry up and finish what he’s doing! Gwen Stacy, Spiderman’s sensible girlfriend, is at a graduation ceremony, about to give a speech and she needs Peter Parker to be there – he’s about to graduate too.The exhilaration of the chase is intercut with Parker’s dialogue with Stacy, and, much worse, with her speech, a homily of such self-satisfaction and po-faced witlessness that I found myself looking at the white stick man figure on the green background of the exit sign inside the cinema – not because I was seriously considering leaving, but that it was a visual balm that helped with the distress of listening to such sanctimonious cant.The inter-cutting of the chase with the dialogue with Stacy is not straightforward incompetence from the filmmakers: they knew what they were doing – it’s bad film making that’s a realisation of its makers’ intentions. In this film, the good impulse to make an exhilarating action film is spoiled by pop psychology in its contemporary, maudlin form.Andrew Garfield is excellent in his role, conveying well the ebullience of an older teenager with a body he’s more than at home in. His Spider-Man loves fighting crime, at whatever level: one sequence has him saving a kid from bullies, and cheering the kid up. Garfield does this with such spirits and warmth, along with a complete absence of worthiness, he makes pleasure in ‘doing good’ smart and hip – a very tough thing to do.But he is also required to suffer and emote, to show the depth of the film, its importance, and something curious happens in these sequences: they play false because Garfield is too good an actor to function at the dumb level of the film’s idea of emotional depth. He out-classes the film with his talent.Garfield’s grief seems real and has weight, but what he’s required to emote over is contrived and manipulative in a particularly contemporary way. Tragedy doesn’t happen here for itself, it happens so Spider-Man can ‘grow’ ; the film is too trivial for this to be offensive, but it is dispiriting – people die so Peter can learn. This traducing of experience to conform with the self-centredness of the culture of therapy isn’t played satirically. Emotional depth means being a victim.There’s almost a hint that this is satirised in one of the film’s two main villains, a pathologically needy genius, Max, who is overlooked and dismissed throughout his daily life – when he is acknowledged, it’s only for his bosses to bully him. Max is played by Jamie Foxx, who manages to make the overwhelming bugginess of his hurt and inadequacy witty without punishing the viewer with unadulterated pathos.Through one of those accidental metamorphoses that are part of the genre, Max becomes ‘Electro,’ a magically luminescent blue figure who gets his power by draining sources of electricity, graduating from Times Square to the whole of New York. The plot has Max as Electro trying to kill Spider-Man out of a monumental sense of aggrievement; unfortunately there is a second major villain who is also psychotically ‘hurt’ by a perceived slight from the hero. All the attempts at emotional depth and weight add up as a dampener on the film’s spirits.This even happens in the films climactic sequence, where New York is plunged into darkness and the protagonists battle it out. This is spectacular and beautifully designed and realised, )although there’s always something a bit glib about CGI produced but the action ends up playing second place to Spider-Man’s ‘learning journey’ -God help us.Astonishingly, somehow Emma Stone manages somehow be likeable despite the sustained efforts of the film – makers to make her a drag. So much in the film shows talent and imagination and ambition; and so much is mangled through the misjudged nature of the attempts at depth.The ending shows Garfield’s Spiderman back in his ebullient crime fighter mode; hopefully next time he’s allowed to stay that way. It could be a wonderful film.Mark Wrigley 2014
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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