Enough with the overblown action sequences already. The most memorable parts of comic book movies don't involve any blown-up bridges, collapsed skylines, or eardrum-shattering machine guns.
I would like to think I enjoy a good comic book movie as much as the teenager next to me. But whenever we reach that essential climactic aerial battle where superheroes and super villains bounce of buildings, obliterating skylines and the five senses, my brain turns to snooze.
Wake me up in five minutes. If the destruction's not over, give me another five. I may be a fan of comic book movies, but I’m not a fan of comic book movie action.
The latest of such spectacle comes via The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the sequel to the reboot of the profitable comic book franchise. I was hitting that snooze button immediately after the Marvel logo flickered across the screen, when we're greeted with a deadly standoff on a private jet that takes place before the main title appears. Snooze again soon after, as Andrew Garfield’s Spidey is chasing down Paul Giammatti’s Rhino, while juggling nuclear canisters through the streets of Manhattan, ensuring that insurance rates will skyrocket due to the path of destruction this mild introduction mandates.
Over the course of two and a half hours, Manhattan is rocked a couple more times thanks to Jamie Foxx’s awkwardly developed villain Electro. Almost every time he produces a short circuit, a piece of a skyscraper comes tumbling down.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not a terrible movie. Beneath all the rubble, there’s a smaller, very fine movie trying to claw its way out, one that’s propelled on the strength of talented actors like Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone (who plays Spidey’s first love Gwen Stacy) and Dane Dehaan, a marvelous new addition tackling the role of Harry Osborne a.k.a. The Green Goblin.
The fireworks between these characters, whether its flirtations or boardroom standoffs, would wake me up. The three even share a pivotal fight scene, a battle far more electrifying than anything Electro can produce particularly because it is character driven and intimate, in scale and destruction.
The rest is bloat; comic book action movie bloat built on CGI shrapnel that's pieced together so that it can be blown apart, collected and recycled for the next movie. That bloat, so familiar and tedious, seems mandated by the genre, or at least what the corporate mentality dictates the genre to be.
We see it in the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a remarkable example of the superhero movie because it predominantly focuses on the repertoire between actors, small scale fights, chase sequences, and suspense reminiscent of the conspiracy thriller. The Winter Soldier impresses with such fine elements before giving in to the expectations of the comic book movie by delivering a climactic, destructive aerial battle that is in line with what we’ve seen in everything from Iron Man to The Avengers.
And yet when we look back at The Avengers, the third highest-grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation), it’s not the epic battle where CGI superheroes flail about amidst an army of CGI aliens we remember fondly. Instead, the comic chemistry between the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo come to mind.
The Marvel movies in particular, or at least the ones that have been both critically and financially successful, have built their appeal on strong actors filling out well-written characters. Yet, whether or not Downey Jr. is in the mix, each movie gives into the yawn factor because that’s how you sell them.
Regardless of whether a big action blowout is a detriment to the story being told, these aerial climaxes seem commissioned by the boardroom as a necessity for any blockbuster, if only for the marketing materials. Studios have a checklist of marketable traits a movie must have to be profitable, which gets as specific as filming locations and the racial makeup of the cast (try and have at least one Latino to reach that lucrative demographic).
Big action is a necessity, not just for the studio but for you and I as well. As dull as the same old, sensory annihilating scene of carnage can be within the movie, they look great in trailers, which often tell their own cookie-cutter story. As much as consumers want something new, we flock to the same old, and the trailers promise that the all-consuming battle will not be missed, whether we actually enjoy them or not.
That’s probably why when we reach such action set pieces, they often feel less organic and more like the filmmaking team is scratching something off the grocery list. That’s the pervasiveness of the marketing department. They shape the movie. They dictate that Spidey and Electro have to do an aerial tango amidst sparks and shrapnel.
A director who built his career on this formula is Michael Bay, whose movies have always played like feature-length trailers. If you remember his debut, Bad Boys, there’s a memorable shot where the camera circles stars Martin Lawrence and Will Smith as they rise up from the ground, sweat glistening under the Miami sun. Bay admitted in the DVD commentary that the shot was filmed specifically with the trailer in mind.
We can thank that trailer-made mentality for the final 20 to 30 minutes of every blockbuster, whether we like it or not. The better comic book movies, like Iron Man and The Winter Soldier, minimize these blowouts. The worst—I’m looking at you Man of Steel —are consumed by them. The new Spidey falls somewhere in between.
Radheyan Simonpillai is a film critic based in Toronto. He tweets here.