A Narrative Is A Train

So I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though the final act is excellent, the film as a whole tends to stumble where the prior movie succeeded. Why? It lacked a central through line to follow. See, the first Amazing Spider-Man had a core theme: Who is Peter Parker/Spider-Man? Every thread in the story’s web (ba-dum tish) comes out from that; his tension with Uncle Ben is a question of identity, the conflict with Curt Conners is Peter looking for his father, his romance with Gwen Stacy is him coming into his own. It all served the central question.

I was told by a professor to think of a film’s narrative as a train. The plot is the engine, the driving force of the story. The subplots are the carriages that make the whole thing worthwhile. A plot is hollow without subplots to give it weight, and subplots don’t really do anything without a plot. They need both, and they have to work together.

Let’s look at The Avengers, a movie with no less than eight central characters that could easily have gone wrong. What’s the central through line/plot/train engine? What to do with Loki. Each character’s conflict emerges from that question. The tension between Iron Man and Captain America, for example, is their disagreement over how to deal with Loki’s threat. All the other bits — betrayal return, Nick Fury’s disagreement with the World Security Council, the highlighting of Black Widow’s red in her ledger, and so on — never feel tangential to the story since they’re rooted firmly in the central plot. This means that the film is free to explore character’s motivations and relationships without bogging the story down. The film still feels like a cohesive whole.

But back to Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, sadly, not as strong as its predecessor. It’s threads are all over the place. We have the subplot of who really were Peter’s parents that’s so peripheral it’s on a train unto itself. The main villain this time ‘round, Electro, doesn’t have a plot nearly as intertwined with Peter’s story as the bad-guy, Curt Conners, in the 2012 film (or Norman Osborne and Doc Ock in Sam Raimi’s 2002 and 2004 films). Even when Peter and Electro’s plots interact, it ends up giving Peter a whole ‘nother plot to follow, especially when complicated with Harry’s involvement. Meanwhile, his relationship with Gwen — and the question with where it stands — is its own plot.

Here we have Peter, our protagonist, following four plots that don’t really have any bearing on each other most of the time: who were his parents; should he help Harry; the Electro situation; and working on his relationship with Gwen. The reason these are all plots (and not subplots) is because they’re all on different tracks. There lacks a central train pulling them all together. As such, it feels discordant.

Something else I was told, by the same professor, is to always give solutions when finding flaws. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needed a through line. Maybe it could be Peter and Gwen’s evolving relationship. Better yet, why not the question of why is Peter special? Electro is mad that Spidey gets all the attention, that he’s the only special one. Harry wants to know what makes Spider-Man special, why he survived being bitten by the radioactive spider. Gwen wants to help Peter, that he doesn’t have to bear it all alone (and her choice matters too). Peter, meanwhile is trying to balance all the responsibilities that come with his specialness. There we have four subplots that all follow the main one and the central narrative becomes much stronger. Four carriages on the same train on the same track.

Don’t get me wrong, I still liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I don’t think it was as strong as the first one (which my brother vehemently disagrees with me on), but I do think it felt very Spider-Manish. As someone who grew up on the cartoons and video games, recently began reading the comics, it felt right. Spider-Man quipped, which is important; New York was there (Union Square! The Highline!); and there was a Marc Webb Musical Moment™. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be a messy movie, but it’s a wonderful mess.

And the final act is brilliantly done.

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