Shortly before the eve of the DVD release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (August 19, 2014), Sony announced that 1) The Amazing Spider-Man 3 has been moved from 2016 to 2018 for retooling, 2) the 2016 spot has been taken over by Sinister Six, 3) iconic symbiotic characters Venom and Carnage will also appear before TASM3 in a movie bizarrely titled Venom Carnage, and 4) Sony will make the first modern female superhero movie featuring … they’ll figure that out later. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy had a record breaking $94 million opening weekend and its sequel is on track for 2017.
Despite the Wall Crawler being Marvel’s most iconic figure for nigh on 50 years and easily being one the cinema’s most successful characters of the past 20 years (the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire films mostly), the insanely obscure Guardians of the Galaxy handily won the summer’s battle both with critics and audiences. Guardians will win the domestic box office battle by the end of this weekend, with TASM2’s $202 million take the lowest total for any Spider-Man movie by more than $60 million. While the Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe machine backing Guardians certainly had something to do with its success, it overtook Spider-Man (and captured the national consciousness) by doing everything right that The Amazing Spider-Man franchise has been doing wrong.
1) Death of Parent
Both Guardians and TASM2 begin with the death of the main character’s parent – Peter Jason Quill’s mother and Peter Parker’s mother and father – yet Guardians pulled off the moment a lot better. It succeeded by keeping this scene smaller in scope and shorter in length while being more driven and emotionally pure. It was a sad child surrounded by his family facing his cancer-ridden mother and watching her pass in front of his eyes. The film kept the sequence simple, down-to-Earth, and related to the character rather than gussying it up by making it too effects-driven or “comic booky.”
Compare that to TASM2, which used the death of Spidey’s dad to produce an elongated and unengaging action sequence that tuned a biochemist into Jason Bourne. TASM1 did the lost father thing slightly better than its sequel by simply having the parents leaving Peter in the middle of the night to points unknown, but TASM2 had to devolve this tragic instance into needless action shlock. The emotional punch of the loss of a parent is sacrificed for a fight scene on a plane that adds nothing to the finished film, emotionally or narratively. Worse of all, it keeps us from getting to what we actually want to see – Spider-Man.
2) Posthumous Message from Parent to Child
Coincidentally, both Guardians and TASM2 have the deceased parent leaving a posthumous message to their kid. Again, Guardians pulls this off this better, for much the same reasons as Point #1.
As before, Guardians plays it simple. The mother gives Jason a present before she dies, he doesn’t open it until he’s emotionally ready at the end of the film, and the gift is a letter declaring her love for her son and a mix tape. It doesn’t tell him his true lineage* or help him win the final battle or even affects the plot. It’s a resonant moment to send the Guardians out on that brings the movie full circle.
As is the movie’s wont, TASM2 decides in favor of bloat, which in turn sucks all the humanity out of the dying declaration of love. Parker can’t simply find a package, he has to go on this ridiculous quest that involves having a temper tantrum, discovering hidden pockets within hidden pockets, accidentally breaking open a calculator, solving clues, and finding an abandoned subway car hidden underground (how much did that cost the family? No wonder he’s not in college.) that contains a video of his father telling him a plot point that, again, is ultimately irrelevant to the conclusion of the film. (The Goblin-ifying of Harry Osborn could have been accomplished just as effectively by having Harry try any experimental drug instead of forcing Oscorp’s Spider goop to be specifically coded to the Parker DNA.)
While Guardians’ moment is a well-done call back to the opening and shows the growth of Quill’s character, TASM2‘s reveal feels hollow. We were forced down a labyrinthine path that led us back to zero.
* Additionally, both Parker and Quill’s parents have secrets that they kept hidden from their offspring. TASM1 spends a good deal of time talking about how Peter cannot learn the horrible secret of his parents and even closes with an overwrought mid-credits sequence of Lizard in his prison cell saying once again how terrible this secret is, without giving us any new information. We learn more in TASM2, but it’s not particularly interesting or informative. Guardians mentions that Quill’s half-not-Terran a couple of times, but it’s not treated with a belabored sense of mystery and shock. Even Yondu’s “we’ll tell him next time”-esque closing remark seems more like an aside than a cliffhanger.
Guardians realizes that the focus should be on Quill and who he is, whereas TASM seems to see the parents’ history as key to Parker’s identity. Heck, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 even had an original ending that featured Richard Parker returning.
3) Snarky Main Character, First Name Peter
While Quill is more of a caddish rogue and Parker is more of a flat-out good guy, the two characters have some similarities. They are both snarky, often find themselves in situations way over their heads, have a tendency to babble to get themselves out of tight spots, and are named Peter. But Chris Pratt’s Quill left a more positive impression than Andrew Garfield’s Parker.
With characters, especially main characters, consistency is key. TASM seems to enjoy putting Parker on an emotional roller coaster, and by that I mean his moods change at the drop of a subway token. While Garfield is fine as the wisecracking wall-crawler, he fails at the severe depression that both films require him to be in a lot of the time. This isn’t a knock on Andrew Garfield, who has been terrific in more serious works (e.g. Never Let Me Go, The Social Network), but more on the director Marc Webb and the writers who mistake melodrama for drama. Parker has two speeds: fun-loving and overly moody (which can be angry or grumpy, depending), and there’s no real middle ground. I understand that Parker is a teenager and thus might not have great control over his emotions, but A) Garfield looks way older than 18 and B) even teenagers aren’t that temperamental or one-dimensional without some form of serious emotional disturbance.
Ironically, this is the place where Guardians ends up being more complex, and it works to its advantage. Quill is as complicated a character as Parker (if not more so), but Chris Pratt handles it better, at least partially because of writer/director James Gunn’s greater appreciation for the character. (In a side note, if you haven’t seen Gunn’s earlier works Slither and Super, do so- the latter being one of my favorite comedies of the past decade). Quill almost always keeps on his cocky shell while his emotions and fears play out internally – he’s obviously thinking, feeling, and plotting throughout, but the film doesn’t bash us over the head by having him succumb to extreme melancholia every time a situation changes. This makes moments like his tears when reading his mother’s letter at the end a lot more poignant because he lets his guard down for the first time. Compare that to TASM2, which has the death of Gwen Stacy losing its impact because, among many other reasons, Peter brooded over not dating her for more than half the movie and ended up similarly depressed over the death of her father in TASM1.
We understand that these characters are dealing with concerns and losses and strife, but emotions can happen concurrently and not every feeling needs to be illuminated with neon lights. TASM2 was unable or unwilling to find that balance, leading to a character that some reviewers even diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
4) Blue Villains
Both films also feature a blue main villain under the thumb of a megalomaniac – Electro (under Harry Osborne) in TASM2 and Ronan the Accuser (under Thanos) in Guardians.
Again, simplicity reigns supreme in Guardians. Ronan wants power and Nebula wants to destroy things (plus she gets the really cool Darth Vader “let me in this ship and get me out of here” ending from the original Star Wars). And it worked. With the film needing to establish all the good characters – who most of us have never heard of before – the best tactic was giving us bad guys who felt like a legitimate threat, and they did.
TASM2 had the chance to imbue its villains with complexity, which is one of the strengths of sequels. Having already established the main characters and the universe, future installments have the opportunity to delve into the opponents more. TASM2 tried (I think), but they failed. Max Dillon was a guy who was horribly abused by his employers and nearly died because of a workplace injury (that was partially due to his inability to take safety precautions, but I digress) that was swept under the rug. These elements set him up as a sympathetic character. Even after he turns into Electro, he is cruelly experimented on, which is an easy way to let the audience feel for the guy. Yet the film never seems to take his suffering seriously, and he’s never given a chance for redemption that seems natural for a character like him. It’s difficult to tell where TASM2 stands on how it feels about him, and straddling both sides of the fence ends up hurting the movie.
5) The Destruction of a City
With many of these superhero tentpoles, a city’s destruction is a given, but it’s a difficult line to walk. You need to show that there are real stakes involved, but you also don’t want to be subjected to the Disaster Porn accusations levied against Man of Steel.
On Xandar, Guardians managed this successfully by showing the impact on non-main characters. We saw citizens running scared and trying to hide from the falling debris and explosions with who-would-turn-out-to-be Corpsman Day’s (John C. Reilly) wife and children as our point of focus, though we don’t know why until the end. In some ways, I even thought that Guardians pulled this off better than Godzilla, which seemed to concentrate solely on the film’s main characters- future Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), future Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and their child.
Among the ways TASM2 tried to show the impact on non-main characters was … by having yet another ridiculous plane sequence, this one featuring two jets losing power and about to crash during Electro’s final assault on the city. It’s one thing to show commoners being directly affected and another to have two planes full of people we have never seen and will never see again about to crash. It was so divorced from everything going on that it failed to build suspense.
At least with Guardians, we understood that everything in the sky had a direct connection to Nova Corps and the ground, and the failure to stop Ronan would lead to the planet’s obliteration. The TASM2 sequence felt like tourists wandering into a shot – we knew they weren’t going to crash and there was no point of connection to make us care if they did. It didn’t help that the movie was already overlong and overladen with plots, that throwing another one onto the pile didn’t help.
It’s pretty much universally accepted that Guardians of the Galaxy was a superior film to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Sony’s seemingly rushed and altered connected universe plan shows that it acknowledges the disappointment of the latter film. While no one wants to see another film repeated, Guardians has some lessons that The Amazing Spider-Man franchise should adopt. The space opera shows that it’s possible to create something with a relatively light and fun touch while still pulling off the emotional and dramatic moments. Ironically, that’s a big part of why Spider-Man became Marvel’s standout character, but what The Amazing Spider-Man has apparently forgotten.