The following annotation was written by Robert:
The second in our informal trilogy of “Martin Adds A Once Upon A Time Reference To A Comic” (or The OUATiad as I call it) concerns the villains of TASM2.
A story is about a protagonist and an antagonist, and how they clash. The first two Raimi Spiderman movies succeeded because their antagonists clashed with Peter in a philosophical sense, not merely physically or for personal reasons. The Green Goblin opposed Peter by advocating a “the strongest rule over the weak for their benefit” philosophy, while Peter thinks that the strong have a responsibility to help people. Dr Octopus opposed Peter by continuing with his dangerous experiments, caring more about his ego (in the Jungian sense) than people’s safety. Peter struggled with fitting in normal life (mostly represented by his relationship with Mary Jane) and superheroics, and even gave up the Spiderman role for a time. In the end, he chose to be both Peter Parker and Spiderman, balancing the needs of the ego with the selfless need of heroism.
The Amazing Spider-Man‘s antagonist fails for the same reason Spiderman 3‘s antagonists failed: there’s no philosophical debate going on behind the spandex and the punching. Dr Connors may have a secret past with Peter’s father, but his mentor-ish relationship with Peter never goes anywhere, so his motivation never progresses beyond “I must use SCIENCE for SCIENCE REASONS!” The closest thing to a genuine clash between Peter and an antagonist is when Gwen Stacy’s father calls Spider-Man a criminal vigilante. Peter protests that Spider-Man was trying to help the cops, while Gwen Stacy’s father tells him that real heroes don’t work for cheap thrills – “real heroes put on a badge, not a mask”. (Peter is extremely lax about wearing masks in that movie, but that’s probably too literal an interpretation.) As a result, both TASM and Spiderman 3 feel aimless – nobody properly opposes Peter, so he never rises to proper heroism.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 requires a different approach of criticism, because it’s trying to build a franchise. This is almost certainly inspired by what Marvel did with their Cinematic Universe. However, the Raimiverse (first 3 Spiderman movies), Amazingverse, and the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) are all easily distinguished by one thing: how they treat their Super Science.
The way a story shows its Super Science – the science and technology that is the source of superpowers – says a lot. In the Raimi Spiderman movies, the characters basically live in the real world, with Super Science added. Here, Super Science is the purview of scientists and the military. Similarly, the MCU began as very similar to the real world. Super Science is similarly in the realms of advanced military (SHIELD), technological innovators (Tony Stark), aliens (Thor) and so on. In reality, you’ll never gain spider-themed superpowers from a spider biting you, no matter how genetically engineered that spider is, and dropping even the smartest people into terrorist captivity will not result in sweet powered armours. That’s not the point. The point is ‘Peter Parker gains power, learns how to use it responsibly’ and ‘Tony Stark builds himself a new identity, literally and figuratively’. Super Science is known in these two fictional universes, but it’s not easily accessed. It’s not the story; it’s how the characters are thrown into the story.
In TASM and TASM2, on the other hand, Super Science dominates all. Oscorp Tower is the physical and philosophical centre of the Amazingverse, which resembles the classic cyberpunk setup: a large corporation with sinister intent, whose advanced technology seeps through every part of society. However, this setup never comes to fruition. A carjacker in the first movie uses a fancy touchscreen device to steal said car, which would imply a very high level of technology, but do we see any practical use of holograms or genetics in peoples’ ordinary lives? No. They use the same old 2D tvs, drive the same cars, eat the same food, and most importantly, act exactly like the early 2010s people of our world. The Amazingverse is a world where giant lizards rampage – indeed, it’s a world where a giant lizard rampaging is acknowledged by the characters to sound really silly – but Super Science otherwise has no social impact.
For a real world comparison, imagine that Google started in 1998, like it actually did. Then skip ahead 16 years to 2014, but imagine that the main way to get information is to go to a public library. Oh, sure, Google search engine exists, but literally nobody uses it except technogeeks and high-up scientists. Despite this, Google is still a household name that’s known everywhere. Would that not be really, really weird? That’s Oscorp.
By the end of TASM2, there is one actual antagonist in the Amazingverse, and it’s Oscorp. Electro and Rhino are more or less just heavies* marching to the company’s tune, and even Harry Osborn has some kind of unknown sinister intent, along with somebody I know only as Shadowy Hat Guy. I think this is contrary to what Spider-Man is about. The backstory of most Spider-Man villains, as well as the wall-crawler himself, is ‘random person gets powers through stroke of luck, goes crazy with it’. (Peter reached the third stage of this, which is ‘realise you have a responsibility to be selfless with your powers’.) Having everything come from Oscorp feels kind of soulless. It’s not a bunch of petty individuals fighting anymore, it’s one monolithic puppetmaster, with no characterisation beyond “EVIL”, who plays everyone through their parts. (To compare it to the MCU, it’s not like Obadaiah Stane turned out to be working for the Chitauri.) Furthermore, storylines where Peter fights a large, evil organisation tend not to go well: Clone Saga. ‘Nuff said.
While Electro is stereotyped as ‘the crazy one’, in truth, all three villains of TASM2 are directionless, defined more by their surface traits than by any actual meaningful desires.** In my opinion, that’s why the movie’s such a mess, although everything else about it doesn’t exactly help either.
*I acknowledge the appropriateness of referring to a large, bald, Russian man as a Heavy.
** Peter and Gwen are mostly the same, though, so at the very least the filmmakers achieved consistency.