The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (AKA ‘The Case Against Stan Lee Syndrome’)

The problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – in a word – is Stan Lee. That’s two words, I know. But they both refer to one concept, that being the idea that blatant, shameless self-reference is the bane of any worthwhile superhero franchise. This is not to say there’s no place for humor or lightheartedness in the Marvel/DC Universe because, quite frankly, humor is what allows both comic books and their celluloid counterparts to maintain a sense of buoyancy. But this odd, ongoing tradition of having Stan Lee – a giant in the industry – pop up throughout the majority of Marvel movies is embarrassing, if not entirely off-putting. These cameos, particularly the more recent ones, take one out of the suspended reality most superhero movies have come to rely on. And for what? To have a 91-year old man with unsavory acting chops deliver some throw-away one-liner? No, sir. There really is no place for it. Least of all in a franchise the likes of Spider-Man, a franchise that’s still battling to overcome the specter of its predecessor (Sam Raimi – for anyone who happens to be keeping score – is now up 2-0 in terms of critical superiority).

The Stan Lee issue speaks to something much larger, of course – the use of in-jokes and subtle winks to compensate for – or distract from – a general lack of substantive writing. Consider, by way of example, that during the opening action sequence of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 there is not only an unnecessary cameo by Lee, but two separate references to the original Spider-Man theme. The first features the theme serving as Peter Parker’s ringtone, the second Parker whistling the tune while in costume (less than one minute later). Cute, right? Wrong. Both references serve no other purpose save for distracting from the matter at hand, forcing viewers to temporarily consider how it might be possible for a 47-year old song to exist in a world where Spider-Man only recently came into being. One might argue this is a minor issue … and one might be correct. But when the joke’s repeated and then stomped on before being topped off by some one-liner from Stan Lee, the cumulative effect becomes stultifying, bordering upon inane.

What’s the point, beyond seeming coy? Die-hard comic fans are going to see each of these movies regardless of whether Lee appears in them or not. The remainder of the box office public doesn’t care. Meanwhile, as a writer/director, you wind up forcing a square peg into a round hole and for what? I mean, can you imagine Christian Bale running by Michael Keaton amidst the dark-end streets of Gotham only to have Keaton turn to the camera and say, “Hey, where’d he get that costume?” What if every Marvel comic book was required to include a cameo by Stan Lee? Poppycock, I say. Nothing more than cornball nonsense … and that, for any of you who might be wondering, is precisely what The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like. Dane DeHaan is fantastic and Andrew Garfield is OK, but it’s not enough to save a movie that’s lacking any soul, any deep-down sense of what people actually relate to in terms of style, motivation, layered conflicts and betrayal. The movie’s fun and the special effects are dazzling, but there’s very little left to latch on to once the CGI has run its course. I’d suggest that maybe what it needs is a little bit more, but the reality is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would have benefited a great deal from trying to cram in just a little bit less.

(The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens in theaters nationwide today.)