I wish I could devote more time to reviews, but it’s crunch-time in Rhuboland, so here’s a whistle-stop tour of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, good and bad.
They beefed up Gwen’s (Emma Stone) role and gave her interests outside of her bf. They also showed her thinking about how kind of self-centred he can be and how she’s not content to wait around for him.
Plus, Gwen had some agency and some role in saving the day.
The character, Max (Jamie Foxx), is initially interesting, as a black guy getting to play something other than the tough guy, the guy presented as animalistic in some way. Although I wonder if the black nerdy, socially inept scientist is getting to be another stereotype. I was reminded strongly of Lem from Better off Ted, but I’m aware that I may be blinded by my own privilege in trying to assess what makes for a stereotypical black male character.
Max also gets to voice legitimate concerns of vanishing identity and feeling invisible, which can affect people of colour who are not recognised and rewarded for their achievements in the way that white men tend to be. Both Max and Harry cut sympathetic figures, at first.
The CGI is fucking fantastic. Second to none. And worth seeing in 3D, if that doesn’t affect you negatively.*
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfieldshine, instantly lifting both the acting and (one feels) the script in any scene in which they are in.
Hopefully it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that things do not go well for Max. And whilst they toy initially with making him a human dude who doesn’t want to do bad things when he first gets his (basically very destructive) powers, he rapidly descends into the violent revenge trope and becomes a basic monster figure with almost nothing of his original character left. Fear of the Other. Terror of the Black Man (complete with hoodie, argh). It’s just all the worst stereotypes.
And they make him blue. Instantly cutting in half the number of obviously PoC characters I noticed in the film (the other being an anonymous cop).
And he cedes Chief Monster Spot extremely quickly to the spoiled rich white guy, swiftly assuming a Henchman role.
Prior to that he had been Comic Relief, aspiring to be Side-kick (but not actually cool enough for that). It’s basically a race ‘You wanted a “You Tried” sticker, but you really don’t deserve it’.
I think the moment where Random Unnamed Woman Secretary-I-Don’t-Know-What-Her-Role-Was-Meant-To-Be-That’s-Not-How-Oxbridge-Interviews-Work told Gwen she could go in for her interview was meant to make this film pass the Bechdel Test. But, honey, no, that’s not good enough. She could have easily been a professor, btw, but she wasn’t.
Peter Parker stalks Gwen and she finds this romantic. PETER PARKER STALKS GWEN AND SHE FINDS THIS ROMANTIC. NO, Hollywood! Stop putting this crap in our mouths. You want to have your hero stalk a lady, represent it as every bit as creepy as it is, and not ‘poignant’. NO, NO, NO.
Mental illness = evil. Illness that alters conventional beauty generates mental illness. People who get sick have cooties. White able-bodied men are better than everyone.
All the people in any position of power, from the unnamed people in dealing with a potential air crash in the powercut, to Harry Osborn (Dane DeHann), were white men. Harry delegates some power to Felicia (his father’s assistant, played by Felicity Jones) on a whim, but even if she is capable, her power is 100% derived from him and, as far as we are given any reason to believe, given to her because she is pretty and not currently trying to seize power from him.
And, last, but only so you can skip it if you don’t want spoilers…
The fridging. I knew (because people tell you these things) that Gwen Stacey was not slated to live that long, but this still pissed me off. I don’t care that that’s how it happened in the comics. I know fridging happens in comics, that’s how come we have a name for it. We are living in the 21st century, and if you are remaking something, you can make it BETTER and MORE SUITED to the world we now live in. The whole movie I was sitting there, trying to work out if it was going to go somewhere sexist or not. And I guess the moment Peter says he’ll go with her to England so that she can follow her dream (a totally legit thing to do that needn’t compromise his dreams in any way, as they discuss) she was doomed. Allow a woman too much agency, and she has to die to fuel the mangst. And we were treated to a longish epilogue to that effect. Not to mention the fact that Peter, for no apparent reason than just because he likes to be in control, never loses an opportunity to deny her agency. Webbing her hand to a car because she (rightly) points out that she knows more about how to solve the issue at hand than he does, is perhaps just the most painfully obvious of these.
Also, the pacing was really patchy, and the (exquisitely CGI’d and very impressive looking in terms of FX) fight scenes were too long and not punchy enough. Again, I felt like the Multiple Villain Factor was a problem – why not let Electro at least be head villain? Green Goblin is totally up to fronting another movie.
So, there it is. I really wanted to like this. I did enjoy parts of it quite a lot. But it had a LOT of problems. And I’m kind of done making excuses for studios unthinkingly churning out this shit anymore. I’m done with saying ‘Maybe the next one will be less ableist/sexist/racist’. It’s not good enough. It doesn’t make the mark.
But do stay after the movie for the mid-credit Marvel Thang. Mistique kicking arse is a wonderful palate cleanser.
*On that note: please also be aware that this film contains strobing effects.
My initial response, hot off the press when I got in last night: I haven’t seen a film like that this side of the millenium. For clarity: I’m not saying it’s the very best film this side of the millennium. I’m not saying it’s the most original. I’m not even saying it’s the best or most original science fiction film this side of the millenium (Moon and Serenity, at the very least, are clear contenders). But a film like this? A smart, visually stunning, action packed and graphically violent movie with varied and powerful female characters that presents a vision of the future that is new and architecturally experimental – a real film of dystopic vision, like this? No, I haven’t seen its like.
I talked in my review of Moon about how modern science fiction has stagnated somewhat and is failing to present us with new and interesting visions of the future in the way it did in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In my review of Prometheus I noted that one of its saving graces was that it was at least trying to break out of the familiar mould that has developed over the last 10-15 years of entertaining, but not ground-breaking (except effects-wise) movies. Moon was excellent, but a very different type of movie to Dredd 3D. Same goes for Serenity, and whilst Serenity can lay a claim to violence, originality, and dystopic vision to an extent, it’s not operating on the same scale as Dredd 3D, and it must be conceded that its original setting was developed more fully before the movie in the television series, Firefly. Dredd is doing something different again.
Minimally Spoiltastic Plot Summary
In a dystopic future where crime is almost entirely out of control, the only force that stands between what remains of the law-abiding citizenry and violent anarchy are an elite group of Judges. Judges bear little similarity to anything we would recognise by that term today. They judge, sentence, and execute the law in person, and their justice is swift and harsh.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the most impressive and feared of the judges. He is assigned by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) to assess a new recruit, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson failed the physical requirements to be a judge by three points, but the Chief is intrigued by the value of her unusual psychic abilities. As a mutant, she should have been executed herself, but her powers have such potential that the Chief wants to give her a chance.
Dredd allows Anderson to choose her own assignment for her assessment. She decides to respond to a report of a homicide in Peach Trees – a tower block so notorious that even Judges rarely venture in. Peach Trees is effectively under the total power of the Ma-Ma clan. Ma-Ma is the leader of the gang, Madelaine Madrigal (Lena Headey), and her brutal rule is enforced by her horrific punishment for any who cross her – she skins them alive, shoots them high with the drug ‘Slo-Mo’ (which extends perceived time and heightens sensation), and throws them off the top floor of the tower complex to splatter in the central courtyard as a message to others.
The judges enter, and using Anderson’s ability they locate the man who skinned the three victims, Kay (Wood Harris). Ma-Ma knows Kay can identify and implicate her if interrogated – she cannot let the judges leave with Kay alive. Shutting the blast doors on the tower, Ma-Ma orders the inhabitants of Peach Trees to hunt and kill the judges – the doors will not be reopened until she knows they are dead. Dredd and Anderson must fight their way to the top, against a tower full of people who want them dead, or are too afraid of Ma-Ma to help them, in order to carry out Ma-Ma’s sentence (death) and escape.
Why did it rock my world?
First off, let’s talk about Ma-Ma. Yes, the name ‘Ma-Ma’ is annoying because it once again suggests that a woman’s power is rooted in her reproductive capacity, but the name is as deep as that goes, and it is at least in-world based on the character’s full name, Madelaine Madrigal. You can see why it was chosen. Ma-Ma is indisputably Lena Headey’s best role. Headey first came to my attention playing Sarah Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I was pleasantly surprised by the show, which was much truer to the original concept than any of the films after T2. Headey was a relatively weak link, though, achieving a passable impression of Linda Hamilton, the original Sarah Connor, but never really making the role her own. More recently, she has risen to fame as Cersei in HBO’s award winning TV production of George R R Martin‘s Game of Thrones. I thought this was a better role for her, and she has improved notably in the second season. But he role as Ma-Ma has taken her to a new level. This is the tough she never quite achieved as Sarah Connor. It’s beyond tough. Ma-Ma is a terrifying vision of a woman who really could sieze control and hold a 200 storey tower block in fear.
This may be the best role for a woman we have seen in a very, very long time; and even though Ma-Ma’s origin story is rooted in having been a prostitute, there is no question that her current power has anything to do with sex. Lena Headey is still a beautiful woman, even with that scar, but Ma-Ma couldn’t be further from Cersei on the philosophy of female power. When a man sexually abused Ma-Ma, she bit off his dick and seized his empire.
I mention that detail specifically because it underscores a theme of sexuality and power that is explored with nuance. Anderson also experiences a moment of sexual threat, and uses this vision of a woman violently taking her power back as a way of underlining that women can be physically threatening, even in the sexual context, too. It draws attention to the question of women and power and sex, and it offers a novel response in rejecting the accepted order that women should fear men in the sexual arena because of their physical superiority. We are reminded that in the sexual context men are uniquely vulnearble to women, also, and not in the usual way in which women are forced to manipulate men by subjugating themselves to male sexual desire. No, this is a physical and violent way in which women can seize power. It surprised and challenged me, which so few films succeed in doing on this topic.
In contrast to Ma-Ma, Anderson is much more feminine than I had expected from the trailers. It’s also disappointing to have yet another woman’s super-power lie in being able to sense the thoughts and emotions of others. It’s a power that can barely be called metaphorical for the old idea of ‘feminine intuition’ – the concept used to condescendingly attribute to women a sixth sense that supposedly makes up for their inability to cope with masculine concepts like logic and rational thought. She is also annoyingly blessed with an artificially curled and implausible hairstyle that manages to stay undisturbed almost until the last frame. Nevertheless, it is clear that this film is not so much a film about how awesome Judge Dredd is (although he is that) as an origin story for Anderson. She’s the rookie in this picture, and we’re viewing her fairly impressive baptism of fire. One is not left at the end of the movie with any impression that she is lacking in mental or physical toughness.
Dredd himself is excellent. I have an affection for the 1995 film, Judge Dredd, that I know few fans of the comics share, but I’m here to reassure you that Urban’s Dredd is a million miles from Stallone’s. Urban was a surprise choice for the ultimate-square-jaw-grim-face, Dredd. Hard to see the elven Éomer or the enthusiastically good humoured Bones as a potential Judge Dredd, but I’ve come to realise that Urban is something of a chameleon. He plays this role to perfection, complete with the extreme down-turned mouth for which Judge Dredd is known, yet somehow avoiding caricature. He brings the requisite gravitas to the picture whilst never stooping to the implausible growl of Christian Bale‘s Batman. Moreover, he comfortably shares the screen with Ma-Ma and Anderson, balancing the task of marking the iconic figure he is playing whilst never over-powering his scenes.
In addition to good central casting, Dredd also stands out for its supporting cast. I’d like to see Wood Harris play something other than a drug dealer and thug, but he and Rakie Ayola are both good, and it’s nice to see more people of colour on our screens. The main characters are all white, alas, but they are the exception. Perhaps due to being largely filmed in South Africa, beyond the central three characters, virtually everyone else in this film is a person of colour. It’s such a relief to see a film where the crowds aren’t as white-washed as the leads. Moreover, I particularly enjoyed Rakie Ayola’s role as Chief Judge. We have seen increasing numbers of women in senior positions in film and television, but rarely women of colour, and as I have commented elsewhere, this is not the progressive statement it appears to be. These women are almost universally set up to be undermined by their more intelligent, more charismatic, excentric and rebellious male subordinates. This is not the case with the Chief. She clearly knows exactly what she is doing and exactly how to handle both Dredd and Anderson to make them get the best out of each other.
As I commented to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, in our post-film animated discussion, we’re finally getting to see characters like Leia again. What’s that, you say, Princess Leia? The one who falls in love with Han Solo and needs rescuing from Darth Vader and from being Jabba’s improbable sex slave? If that’s how you read her character, we see things differently. Leia is the most consistently capable character in the Star Wars movies. Her only flaw as a female character is that by starting at a level of competence so far above the other main characters she doesn’t progress in terms of capability over the course of the three movies. This makes her more of a feature for the male characters to bounce off in their progression, and means that any character development she undergoes must be emotional. Nevertheless, after Han and Luke have thoroughly bungled their attempt to rescue her, Leia rescues herself – as she does also once she has been captured by Jabba the Hutt. Or did you forget who it was who strangled that fearsome mobster to death with the chains of her own slavery?
Like Leia, both the Chief Judge and Ma-Ma start the film as generals, and they remain impressively competent throughout. Dredd does not need to undermine them by showing them up as silly women that he can run rings around – rather, he is more impressive because he is valued by so impressive a woman as the Chief Judge, and because he is pitted against so impressive an adversary as Ma-Ma. Other writers take note: you don’t have to make women look silly in order to make men look good. In fact, if your men only look good against silly and improbably powerful women, you’re undermining yourself.
However, the fourth main character, after Dredd, Anderson, and Ma-Ma, is not the Chief Judge or Kay, it is the setting. It’s frustrating, but I can’t find any images of the interior of Peach Trees that would really show you what I’m talking about. You catch glimpses of it in the trailer above, but it doesn’t really give you a clear idea. The vistas of the mega-city are only a part of it. The interiors are like a run-down, dirty inversion of a Logan’s Run style future. You can see the artistry and beauty in the design of the Peach Trees central courtyard, but whatever the architect intended, Peach Trees has become a slum. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Dredd embodies the sort of dystopic vision we haven’t seen in a long time. This is art. And the art direction of this film is stunning – beyond compare in recent history.
Concept, technology, and technique have come together in this movie to create not only a vision of Dredd’s future, but a vision of the future of film – the vision that was still-birthed in Prometheus and conceived in Avatar. This is 3D beautiful and unintrusive as it was in The Amazing Spider-man, but moving beyond creating something beautiful and dynamic in a well-made-but-not-conceptually-original superhero movie. This is the construction of a fully-realised world, visually beautiful, but also ugly and dirty and dynamic and violent and fully integrated with the plot and its themes. Pete Travis and Anthony Dod Mantle deserve oscars for this. There has not been a film that used light and camera angles and editing and CGI and the 3D technology like this ever.
But I doubt they will get the awards they deserve. This is Dredd’s opening week in the UK, and it wasn’t showing in our city’s most central cinema. The screening Lee and I went to was virtually empty. We’ve got to fill up the cinemas for this, guys. We have to make this film known and recognised for its achievement. Get out there. See it. Love it. Talk about it.
There are two things that immediately struck me that were most important to communicate as the credits roled. These things are as follows:
1) There is nothing wrong with this movie.
2) You need to see this film in 3D.
These might seem like ‘damning with faint praise’ in certain portions of the net, but if you’re been following me for a while, I hope you’ll take them as they are meant. Which is to say: I thought this movie was excellent. There was not a single thing wrong with it. Moreover, every other movie that I have seen in 3D, even where I thought the 3D added something in places (pretty much, in Thor and Avatar), at multiple points made me feel a bit queasy, was unnecessarily blurry throughout, was confusing in the fight scenes, and I repeatedly had to remove my glasses for my eyes to recover. None of these things is true of The Amazing Sprider-man. Furthermore, the 3D was not only not gratuitous, it was completely and utterly breathtaking. You need to see it. It is worth your time.
Now, if you have seen the trailer whilst watching some film you did not see in 3D you may be looking at this review somewhat sceptically right now. Let me put your mind at rest. I shared your concerns. I now understand. This movie is meant to be shown in 3D. The CGI looked shit in 2D because it was meant to be seen in 3D. In 3D it is stunning. You really feel it as an awe-inspiring experience every time he leaps from a building. For the first time 3D has made me feel closer to the action, more engrossed, as opposed to distancing me from it. For nothing else but that, you should experience this movie.
And that’s just the set dressing.
OK, it wouldn’t be hard for to beat the previous Spider-man movies in my eyes. I found the first one to be almost without redeeming feature (although quite funny in an unintentional way). I enjoyed Spider-man 2, sometimes in the way it meant me to (there were a few genuinely funny, rousing, exciting moments), but often because the scripting was so bad I had to laugh or I’d cry. I actually have time for Spiderman 3, in a way that I know few people do. I think it had a better, tighter plot, and made few appalling scripting errors, at the same time as taking a more realistic and welcome attitude towards romantic relationships. None of this is to say I thought it was a great movie.
The Amazing Spider-man is just a different creature in every sense. There were one or two moments that might have been called corny, but these were entirely due to the nature of the source material – I want this to be spoiler free, but there are certain Spider-man events that you know are inevitable, and they need to happen in one way or another. Given that they had to go down, they were given the most plausible interpretation possible – one which was both respectful to the source material whilst bringing it up to date with what a modern audience would expect.
The acting was flawless. Just look at the cast list and you know that there was a lot of talent. I mean, Martin Sheen, well. He was everything you’d expect. Rhys Ifans was also excellent, and touching, even though he had a somewhat less realistic story arc (again, within the confines of comic book lore, very well-handled). Sally Fields was nuanced in a way the previous Aunt May did not even approach (although, she did what she could with the lines she was handed). But the real prizes go to Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. They both epitomise the nervousness and enthusiasm of young love without ever becoming clichéd or obvious. Their on-screen chemistry is undeniable and wonderful. Before I even saw the film I was charmed by this photo of them together at a cocktail party, captioned by Megan O’Keefe (she of My Mom Watches Game of Thrones fame): ‘I’m at the point where I honestly don’t think Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are promoting The Amazing Spiderman. They are promoting the fact that they share a perfect, flawless love that I will never understand’… And, well, that’s pretty much how it looks on-screen.
And I can’t stress enough what an excellent actor Andrew Garfield is. He not only fills out the tights (or whatever it is they make Spider-man costumes out of these days that I’m pretty sure teenagers can’t afford, but anyway), but the boy makes a believable character out of the two-dimensional shell Toby Maguire left behind. I have an affection for Toby Maguire, but Spiderman is not his best work. In illustration: Peter Parker is a character with a lot of reasons to cry. I imagine it’s hard for an actor not to turn Peter into a blubbing mess. I imagine it’s also easy for a director to say ‘don’t worry, son, we’ll just pull out the air-sprays and may your eyes water on cue’ – I’ve seen far too much of this these days and I really don’t believe in single, beautiful tears from pristine white eyes anymore. Andrew Garfield cries from the red eyes of someone who doesn’t want to cry,who isn’t weak or wet, but who nevertheless has landed in a life that is seriously fucked up even before he gets bitten by a mutant spider. He’s angry as well as conflicted and despairing, and justifiably so. But he doesn’t wallow in his pain. It’s masterful. Andrew Garfield is one to watch.
Neither of these photos is what I was after. My Google-fu failed me. But I guess you can see what I meant by the hair style?
Frequent fliers of the Happiness Max will know that I have issues with the treatment of women in most superhero films. Not so, here. Even Aunt May gets to say ‘For goodness’ sake, I can walk 12 blocks by myself!’. And though the confines of existing story structure and comic book lore mean that there is an inevitable power imbalance between Peter and Gwen (Emma Stone), it does not really impose upon their relationship. Moreover, Gwen gets to be believably strong, saving the day in her own right in a really, really beautiful moment that makes an awesome visual reference to Jurassic Park in a way that I can’t say too much about without spoiling things, but is just thoroughly awesome – right down to her bangs*.
I suppose a nitpicker might want to complain that the science doesn’t make sense, but to them I would say ‘Really? In Spider-man? You don’t say.’ You really can’t have Spider-man where the science makes sense. He gets bitten by a spider and gets superpowers. As the whole sciency bit turns on the assumption that this makes sense, anyone who has a problem with this was never going to like a Spider-man movie anyway.
Besides that… OK, I tell a lie. Representation of people of colour was not super awesome. There was a prominent character with asian features, Dr. Rajit Ratha, but he was a baddie, so that’s not 100% win. That said, I didn’t feel he was stereotypical at all, and nothing about his evilness seemed connected to his race. Equally, there was a disabled character – awesome – but he went evil too – less awesome. But it didn’t seem like the character was really evil, rather that the serum he took made him act not much like himself. He was a really cool and well-rounded character before that. I suppose, again, there was the constraint of the format. The character’s disability and character development are a matter of comic book lore. It does at least raise interesting questions about the treatment of disability – what is ethical and what is not; how much people with disabilities should feel like they have to be like able-bodied people… He seems like a perfectly capable (and lovely) scientist before the plot-hammer hits him, and his basic desire to find a way of healing himself is not actually what is presented as questionable by the film. Rather, certain pressures are applied in a business capacity to make him do something he would have found ethically unsound otherwise. In this sense, both Dr Ratha and Dr Connors are pressured into their unethical behaviours by an unseen (hinted white) rich man. Which suggests to me that the big bad in this movie is really the big bad of our age: the 1%, the over-privileged, forever seeking to carve out an extra sliver of advantage for themselves at the expense of anyone else who might get in their way.
I don’t know. I’m not gonna press that point too hard. Perhaps I should say that it’s a film ‘with much less wrong with it than all the other superhero films’. Even Captain America and Batman Begins (which I adore) have their issues. Nonetheless, I’ve been so let down lately by films that I expected more from that I don’t feel bad about giving credit where it’s due. This is a fine, fine film. The cinematography is simply stunning, and the use of 3D is unsurpassed, creating a seamlessly enjoyable visual experience. On top of that it is witty and the fight scenes are fantastic. Spiderman is satisfyingly wise cracking whilst never being too cool for a dorky kid. The characters are well-rounded and universally well-performed. It’s also the least thematically problematic superhero film I’ve seen.
You need to see this movie. Honest to kittens, I was jiggling in my seat with joy.