Friday, May 9, 2014

Superheroes, A Captain America/Spider-Man Double Review

Before I get started, let me start by explaining my absence. See, here's the thing...

From December 2013 to March 2014 I was writing for three different sites. At least four articles per week for The Playlist, 2 articles/week for whatculture, and then I tried fitting in time for reviews on this site. I wrote more than I ever did in my life and I was finally making money doing it.

But I have a 8-month-old son. I'm married. We're all moving in just under two months. I have this whole new life that I'm about to embark. This has made it difficult for me to give everything an equal balance. I had to figure out how to make it all work concurrently, and I'm still figuring it out. So now it's about taking the right steps to get back on track.

While I've still been writing for The Playlist all this time, I haven't written a review in a while. Let's hope this doesn't turn out disastrously. In the last month, I have only managed to see Captain America and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Here are my thoughts.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

If there was one thing "The Avengers" did a great job of accomplishing, it was Joss Whedon's ability to inject some personality into Captain America. "Captain America: The First Avenger" is an enjoyable enough romp of a film, but the banter between Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Banner, and Thor was what helped make "The Avengers" a classic in the superhero genre. It's also probably why all subsequent Marvel Cinematic Universe films have received a substantial boost in box office gross. Iron Man 3 crossed $400 mill, Thor 2 crossed $200 mill, and The Winter Soldier is currently climbing its way towards $250 mill. These are each feats that could not be achieved by their direct predecessors. We all like Iron Man because Robert Downey Jr. has always given the character life. But the other guys? They were a bit stiff the first time around.

So, the question was how the screenwriters would handle the characters after "The Avengers." And since Thor kinda retreated to his old, bland ways. It was up to Steve Rogers/Captain America to right the ship. Luckily, we get a lot of interesting character dynamics in the second Captain America film. The writers brought Black Widow/Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) back into the mix which gave the Captain someone to banter with. But even better is the addition of a brand new character, played by Anthony Mackie. He plays an elite soldier who later reveals himself to be a superhero as well (Falcon, that is).

Aside from those two, Samuel L. Jackson is also along for the ride and is given much more to do. In fact, much of Captain America's plot revolves around Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit. Without giving too much away, turns out half the people behind S.H.I.E.L.D. are actually up to some fairly mischievous shenanigans. It's not quite the intelligence organization we once thought it was. We find out that Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford) is actually the one pulling the strings. And when Nick Fury doesn't want to obey his commands, Pierce does not hesitate to put Nick's head on a platter.

Captain America soon becomes disillusioned. He does not like where S.H.I.E.L.D. is going, he's not entirely sure if he wants to suit up for them anymore. And we get a few brief scenes where Steve Rogers ponders what his life would be like if he no longer wore the suit. What would his life be like? What would he even do with himself?

Unfortunately, before Rogers can have a true crisis of conscious, Nick Fury is in big trouble and the Captain is back in business without any hesitation. Soon, Rogers's willingness to help Nick Fury draws the ire of Pierce and he becomes a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D. With assistance from Natasha, the Captain attempts to find out what's really going on behind the scenes of S.H.I.E.L.D. (it's really annoying to type that out...). He eventually comes across a Nazi computer that explains everything, leaving the Capt, along with Natasha, with a thirst for revenge.

I haven't even said much about The Winter Soldier, which is strange because his name is part of the title of the film. There's a reason I haven't talked about him much thus far. While he proves to be a worthy foe of Captain America's, the character is completely devoid of personality. It's Alexander Pierce who gets to chew all the scenery; Winter Soldier is merely a henchman. I really wish more was done with his character, but we do get some interesting insights at the end.

There's a lot to admire about "The Winter Soldier." It's probably the best MCU film since "The Avengers." But I got to say, it was a bit disappointing to see it become "business as usual" towards the second half. All the interesting character moments in the beginning give way to an overabundance of exposition and lengthy action sequences. The movie feels like a tale of two halves and while they're both equally entertaining halves, I wish there was a bit more meat to this story. It's been a month and while I definitely came away satisfied with the overall product, I'd be lying if I said that the film has really stayed with me weeks later.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2

But that's nothing compared to what we get from "The Amazing Spider-man 2." Now there's a film that really makes you appreciate what producer Kevin Feige is doing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man, of course, is stuck being a separate entity. Thing is, a reboot of Spider-Man would have actually been interesting in the context of the MCU, but as they are, these "amazing" Spider-Man movies have a "been there, done that" feel. There's nothing special about them. Marc Webb does what he can, and there are some breathtaking scenes where Spider-Man shoots his web all over Manhattan, but the writing here is horrendous, the pacing is completely off the mark, and the acting is simply all over the place. Sally Field, Emma Stone, and Andrew Garfield are perfectly solid. Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti on the other hand? Yikes.

There's no overall driving force to this film. TASM2 feels like a series of scenes that have little relation to each other. At least "The Winter Soldier" had the feel of a '70s political thriller, TASM2 comes off as being completely uninspired by comparison. While there's some great chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, the scenes with them together feel like such a drag. They feel underwritten and it lacks cohesion with the rest of the story.

Speaking of which, there really isn't much of a story here. I'm almost convinced "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" has no plot. Sure, Peter wants to find out the truth behind his parents, he's struggling to get back together with Gwen Stacy, he has to deal with Harry Osborn's inevitable hatred as well as the emergence of Electro... but there's simply too many different story points to this film and it's all so badly put together that the movie never really gets going.

I felt awkward watching Jamie Foxx's performance as Electro. The previews promised a cool, badass villain, but man they could not have botched this character more. Electro aka Max Dillon is a bumbling fool who works at OsCorp. There's nothing to this character other than the fact that he's a nerd that nobody likes. When Spider-Man one day rescues him for getting crushed by a car, Max becomes obsessed with the superhero. Max Dillon winds up becoming Electro in the most predictable series of scenes you could possibly imagine. It felt lifted directly from the very first South Park Christmas episode where Kenny has to climb a ladder and is almost certain to fall to his death. The joke of that episode is that Kenny manages to survive despite the obvious pratfall setup. With Max Dillon, there is no joke here. He's just an idiot who winds up becoming a superhero.

And then he turns on Spider-Man for the dumbest reason. Both Harry Osborn/Green Goblin and Electro turn on Peter/Spider-Man in a matter of minutes. Is Peter Parker really that douchy? Electro turns on him because Spider-Man steals all the attention away from him. Harry turns on him because he won't give him Spider-Man's blood (which we eventually find out would've actually been the right thing to do... I think... kinda skittish on those details).

There's no depth here. As soon as Harry and Peter's friendship is established, it's taken away. The movie could've actually greatly benefited from really exploring these characters, but you know they wanted to avoid that because Sam Raimi's trilogy already covered that ground. So, instead, Harry Osborn gets a Twoface-like transformation into Green Goblin and remains a one-dimensional character like Electro. Seriously, these two may be the worst villains in a superhero movie since "Batman & Robin." They're not fun bad guys, they're just dumb and Spider-Man takes cares of them pretty easily (albeit with some pretty serious consequences).

Simply put, there are just so many things wrong with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" that it's hard to keep track of it all. Denis Leary has a continuous cameo reprising his character George Stacy in the creepiest, dullest way imaginable. TASM2 does wind up having a rather emotional conclusion but it feels shallow and unearned. Believe it or not, the soundtrack and the score are also fairly deserving of scrutiny. The two times Electro reeks havoc on the city, it's accompanied by a score so laughably lame, you have to hear it to believe it. I think Hans Zimmer is simply tired of writing scores to superhero films because he completely phones it in here. Also, what's with the use of that ridiculously overplayed Phillip Phillips song that adds nothing but hokey sentimentality? In one montage (where Peter Parker randomly decides to create a True Detective-esque "obsession wall"), this changes from being a superhero movie to a segment on American Idol.

Overall, I think the problem is that Sony has decided to make this movie for kids aged 5-12. You know, kids who probably didn't see the Sam Raimi films. The humor is overly sophomoric, the romantic beats leave a lot to be desired, and the villains have the collective mindset of prepubescent children. I would never insult an audience in one of these reviews, so when I say, "I didn't enjoy this film because I no longer have the mind of a ten year old," don't take it the wrong way.

It's obvious though, when comparing these films, that Marvel Studios has a much better grasp on these characters even if their films aren't perfect. Fox Studios also has a Marvel property (X-Men) that they've been holding onto for a very long time. We'll see what "Days of Future Past" will bring us. But now that it's been almost two years since "The Dark Knight Rises" came out, and we're still being bombarded with superhero movies, it's become clear which studio has managed to stand out as the leader of the pack. Unfortunately, all of these studios are making a buttload of money so quality doesn't really matter anymore. So, go ahead and bring your kids to TASM2, just don't expect to be too impressed by what you see.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier: B

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: D

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