Tag Archives: Spider-Man

Mary Jane Watson

One thing I love so much about Spider-Man is how so much of the narrative can be stripped down to its archetypes. Peter Parker is an unlucky kid who’s suddenly had this great power thrust upon him. Otto Octavius is a genius scientist doomed for tragedy. And Mary Jane Watson is the girl next door.

A lot of the fun of the various incarnations of Spidey, be it different adaptations or reimaginings across the multiverse (see: Spider-Punk or Spider-Ham), is seeing how the play with the familiar narrative. Spider-Man is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it’s a barrel of fun seeing what each new story will do.

All this to say I absolutely love Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man in the eponymous video game. Peter is a wisecracking twenty-something who always seems at the very end of his rope. Octavius is a down-on-his-luck scientist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And Mary Jane, well she’s a particularly great part.

The classic Spider-Man mythos is has a bit of a problem with its women. Gwen Stacy was, up until recently, best known for getting fridged by a death that haunts Pete. Mary Jane’s primary feature is that she’s the hot girl Peter has longed for for ages. This has been rectified a bit recently: an alternate universe Gwen Stacy was the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider and, upon finding out about the main universe’s Gwen’s fate, outright expresses disgust at being, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge.” The Spider-Gwen comics also had her confronting the fact that so many versions of Gwen Stacy die falling from a bridge and reclaiming that aspect of her character’s history. It’s all really cool and Spider-Gwen has long been one of the comics I most look forwards to.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man does work to make MJ more of an interesting character (though not to the extent that Spider-Gwen remains instructs Gwen Stacy). In this story, she’s not a model or actress, but rather an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle. She’s someone who’s decidedly good at what she does, and her job gives her opportunity to get up close with the action.

In fact, it’s some such investigation into the rise of a new gang in the city that leads to her and Peter running into each other again. You, as player, are also given the opportunity to play as Mary Jane as she sneaks around. So not only is she given a more active role in the narrative, but the mechanics of the game are used to put MJ front and center. In games like Spider-Man playing as ay character is an important thing. Strong characterization is mixed with the immersive nature of games; the goals and fragility of the character become your own (consider how powerful it is in The Last of Us to play as Sarah during the opening).

Gameplay-wise, the MJ segments aren’t perfect. Compared to webzipping Spidey, MJ’s sneaking and waiting varies a lot in how good it is. Much of the action is very scripted, with there usually being one way to get through the stage which leaves little room for player creativity or choice. But they are heavy in atmosphere and shine the spotlight on MJ who, as it happens, is quite wonderful.

Her journalistic chops and contacts make her a valuable ally of Peter’s (she knows he’s Spider-Man in this one, which also means for a complex and interesting dynamic). She’s a bold character, someone who willingly sticks her nose in trouble, even when it’s inarguably a bad idea. Her relationship with Peter is a complex one; they were together for a while and have been broken up for a while when the game begins. What’s real neat though, is that even still there’s a mutual attraction; MJ isn’t some unattainable goal for Peter, they’re both really into each other and things just didn’t work out last time. This distinction is important: MJ’s not the prize for Peter being good at Spider-Man and/or life, she doesn’t date him because he does x-y-z to impress her; she’s into him, she likes him for, well, him. Their whole chemistry is very mutual. All in all, she’s an interesting character and is a delightful reimagining of her.

It’s always interesting to see how stories reinvent themselves. You’ve the retcon of how Captain Marvel got her powers from a few weeks ago that was really cool, for example. And Insomniac’s Spider-Man puts a spin on Mary Jane that made her into one of my favorite characters in the game. Her and Spider-Man’s friend in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe. Also Aunt May’s really cool in the game too.

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Spidey’s New York

Narratives are a two way street. What you bring to them is what you get out of them.

So let’s talk Spider-Man, the video game (again).

Spider-Man, of course, takes place in New York. Because, well, duh. Now, I happen to live in New York and have lived here for most of the past six years. I went to college at NYU Gallatin down in the Village and lived in a semi-crappy apartment (okay, pretty crappy, it was a six floor walkup and there was no sink in the bathroom, but, hey, roof access!) on 14th for a couple years and have called Astoria, Queens home for over a year now (this apartment has a sink in the bathroom, but no roof access — the tradeoffs you make). Needless to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for New York.

That Spider-Man offers up an open world with a terrific approximation of Manhattan is an absolute delight. It mayn’t be a 1:1 recreation, but it captures the idea of the island well enough that that I instinctively know my way around and get momentarily lost when things aren’t quite where they should be (the distance in between Union Square and Stuy Town is a touch too long). As such, right off the bat, I feel a personal connection with the virtual city, thereby creating a bit of an emotional narrative to my swinging around the city.

When I go through Washington Square Park I’m also going through a park where I’ve worked on homework and had snowball fights. I instinctively recoil when I realize I’m going through Times Square; Lincoln Center is where I graduated from college. In many ways, this open world is loaded, I’m not just exploring and beating up bad guys in 80s Afghanistan or a post-apocalyptic Colorado, I’m in the place I’ve lived and worked. Alongside that, I’m in a place that Peter Parker himself loves.

Though I will wax poetic about how wonderful Spider-Man’s open world is, it’s no real slouch in the narrative department either. Throughout the game it’s reinforced how much Pete loves the city; yes, he bears a burden to protect it — a burden that often interferes with his personal life — but it’s also a city he protects out of love. This can be small things like the quips he makes when taking photos of certain landmarks (Empire State University — the game’s ersatz NYU — is home to some of the best years of his life… and loans), or his dialogue while crimefighting. As players, we come to love the city because Pete loves it. There’s also the experiential nature of video games. Because you spend so much of the game swinging through Manhattan, you come to get to know the city and take a modicum of ownership over it (you chased out the Kingpin’s goons!). So when villains start trouble, they’re threatening your city. You get invested in the place, simply by being there.

That said, this is a place I know, and because I bring my own New York-related baggage to the game, it all takes on another level of import to me. Characters walking along the Highline isn’t just window dressing, it’s something I’ve done and so has personal meaning. Consider a tv show like Stranger Things; though it’s science fiction and something of a period piece, someone who’s lived in small town America will relate to a bunch of kids navigating the world; anyone who’s spent too-many-hours on an RPG campaign will immediately latch onto the kids with their all-day D&D campaigns. These little bits of projection/empathy aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but they add another layer of depth to the story that, often times, makes it a little more personal.

I adore Spider-Man’s open world in a way I don’t usually. Part of that is probably due to how well crafted it is; but most of it is definitely because, hey, I’m exploring my city. I’ve talked with some friends who also have the game, and we’ve spent as much time nerding out about getting to explore the city we know as we have the more game-y side of it. My often lament about open world games is how they don’t really end, how there’s always something more to do and completion is less narrative closure and more 100% and a Platinum Trophy; but as I watch my completion percentage in Spider-Man steadily rise (I just passed 90%) I’m starting to dread the game ending. I want to spend more time in this virtual New York.

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I’m Swinging Here

It wasn’t long after I first moved to New York that I found myself really wanting to be Spider-Man.  Not for having spider-like strength or the responsibility entailed; nah, what I really wanted were those web-shooters. Confronted by the architectural chasms that make up the city’s downtown, I figured that being able to swing from building to building would really help me get to class quicker. I’m sure there’s something to be said there for how ingrained the mythos of Spider-Man has become in my consciousness that that was my first response to figuring out a quicker commute (and not, I dunno, a bike), but this isn’t what this rant essay is about.

This one’s about New York.

I played The Division because it was set in Manhattan and I wanted to explore a virtual recreation of it. Much of my disappointment of the game is due to its failure to really capture the essence of New York. Granted, The Division is set in an apocalyptic envisioning of the city, where society has very much gone to the dogs, but there’s still something missing. A lot of this has to do with the visuals; the draw distance of the game is frustratingly short, with anything more than a few blocks away obscured by the fog. This means you can’t look up and see the Empire State Building poking up above the buildings over the horizon, and a lot of the sense of place that New York can afford is hampered due to the sameishness of buildings and neighborhoods with drab colors (again, fitting for the genre, but disappointing that it’s a staple). New York didn’t feel like New York. It felt like it could be any old city, albeit one with certain landmarks. I know the city, and I didn’t really recognize it.

 

Enter Spider-Man, a new game by Insomniac that just came out. It’s, obviously, set in New York because, well, Spider-Man. To my immense joy, the New York of Spider-Man feels like New York. The big question though, is why.

 

Part of it’s the vibe. When you’re on the ground there are people everywhere, yelling at you or ignoring you (as New Yorkers are wont to do with any oddity). You’ll find people doing yoga in the park, hanging out on rooftops, and stuck in traffic. Food carts are all over the place; there’s that verisimilitude that makes the city feel real.

But let’s strip the city of its people; as Spider-Man you’re swinging through the city and seldom walking the sidewalks. What is it about the virtual city that makes it feel like the real one? Why does it feel right?

The New York of Spider-Man is far from a 1:1 recreation. Washington Square Park is way too close to Houston Street and Union Square is tiny, with the blocks between it and the church south of it excised entirely. It’s totally fine, though, because Spider-Man knows it can’t possibly recreate New York exactly and instead aims to capture the feeling of the feeling of the city. There’s just enough of it there and in the right place to evoke New York; a vision of the city authentic enough to please, well, me.

As Spider-Man, I’ve swung myself up to a rooftop and used the relative location of the Empire State Building or the game’s ersatz One World Trade Center to quickly orientate myself. While exploring downtown I tried to get my bearing and noticed a building I’ve walked past countless times in real life and instantly knew I was on Houston and Lafayette.

The game keeps you moving, the swinging mechanic is so much fun that exploring is a delight in and of itself; Propel yourself up in the air and you’ll see buildings all the way to the rivers and tall landmarks (including fictional ones like Avengers Tower!) tower over their surroundings. As Manhattan whizzes by, though, you see the neighborhoods change. FiDi looms over downtown, Chinatown’s signage is appropriately in Chinese, the High Line is there running near the Hudson. Because traversal in the game is so much fun — and fast — you will see so much of Manhattan and, much like in the real city, you’ll stop paying too much attention and suddenly find yourself in a new neighborhood with a new vibe.

I actually haven’t played too much of Spider-Man’s story. Every time I start up the game I get captivated by the city and swinging it around. Part of it is because, like I said before, the mechanic of swinging is so much fun. But a lot of it has to do with that wish fulfillment of the game; finally I’m able to swing from building to building and maybe get where I’m going on time. It’s in a game, yes, but it’s in a game that captures the New York I know and love.

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Haven’t We Heard This Before?

Spider-Man’s a superhero whose central theme is conveniently spelled out for us: with great power comes great responsibility. And it’s a great one too. A nobody gets given amazing powers and has to learn what to do with them. It’s a pretty essential part of most incarnations of Spider-Man, be it Miles Morales or even more recently when it’s Gwen Stacy that gets bitten by the radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Woman. It’s always that balance of power and knowing what to do with it.

When there comes time for a cinematic Spider-Man that’s the theme of the (two) hour(s). In Sam Raimi’s original film, Peter Parker’s irresponsibility is what gets Uncle Ben killed, and his acceptance of his responsibility leads to him fighting Green Goblin. The conflict of the second Spider-Man is him giving up the mask, only to take it back up because he’s the only one who can stop Doc Ock. In Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man we see Uncle Ben die (again), providing the impetus for Peter to use his powers to stop crime. Powers, responsibility, and Peter Parker reluctantly being the hero.

So Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have its theme waiting for it: responsibility and all that (most likely through the death of Uncle Ben). Except Peter is already Spider-Man. And Uncle Ben is already dead. And Peter really likes being Spider-Man.

Right here this sets up a different sort of superhero narrative. The usual internal conflict for a superhero is their unwillingness to do the heroing (and so the climax is them deciding to hero). Tony Stark becomes Iron Man out of a sense of guilty responsibility, not for the fun of it. Thor’s a self-serving blowhard who learns humility. Batman operates out of a just vengeance. Spider-Man usually Spider-Mans out of a sense of responsibility. But this Spider-Man really likes crimefighting; he gets a thrill out of the heroics. In fact, he wants more: he wants to be an Avenger. Like Iron Man.

It’s hard to give an eager hero internal obstacles. Tony Stark is hung up on guilt and the idea that he has to do it alone which makes things difficult for him. The Guardians have to overcome their infighting and greed to fight Ronan. Even Captain America questions if it’s worth it. But Homecoming‘s Peter is go-go-go. He’s got the power, and he’s fighting crime with it. Where’s the classic Spider-Man theme?*

Here’s part of Homecoming‘s genius. Responsibility in this movie doesn’t just mean crimefighting and heroing, it’s the reason for doing so. Peter, in the aftermath of taking part in Civil War‘s airport battle, wants to be an Avenger. He wants in on the big leagues. He bugs Happy Hogan to tell Tony about what he’s doing and he chases the Vulture because this is his chance to make it big.

The film’s climax, and Peter’s self-actualization, comes when Peter decides to hero not for the glory or to impress Tony, but instead to save the day. It may not sound like a huge difference, but, without spoiling anything, the film makes the distinction clear. It’s when Peter heroes for the greater good and not for himself, that he becomes a real hero. Spider-Man Homecoming is still a movie where Spider-Man learns a lesson in responsibility, it just plays out differently than usual.

We’ve had enough versions of Spider-Man over the past fifteen-odd years for the idea of a new Spider-Man to be met with a hint of tiredness. Here we go again, Spider-Man has to learn how to Spider-Man and responsibility. And Homecoming is about that, but it handles it in a much different manner than prior renditions. You don’t need an edgy and avant garde narrative with brand new everythings to tell a new story. Sometimes just digging into your core theme is enough. I think that’s why Homecoming is able to be quintessentially Spider-Man while still feeling incredibly refreshing. Jon Watts and the team didn’t feel the need to completely reinvent Spider-Man, rather they explored the story a bit more and found something new.

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Not Another Peter Parker

I’ve had a relatively busy couple weeks, which means less time to see movies and play new games, so more yammering on about recent events (either that or wax on about Agent Carter again, but I’m waiting on that one.

So let’s talk about new news, comic book news. Namely, Spider-Man’s going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to standing alone. Which is cool, because we’ll finally get to see Spidey swinging on the big screen while Iron Man and Cap stare disapprovingly. But then, a new Peter Parker’s being cast, thereby throwing out Andrew Garfield and giving us what’ll be the third live-action Peter Parker in barely twenty years. In other words, we’ve got ourselves another Spider-Man reboot.

Another!?

I really enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire. He struck me as feeling more like a teenager, felt a bit more true to my idea of Pete. Then there’s the question as to why we even need a reboot in the first place. The original Amazing Spider-Man would have worked in fairly neatly with the MCU, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though a narrative train-wreck, hit a key moment of the Spidey mythos that could really deepen future installments. But fine, an all-new Spider-Man. Again.

I think some of my disappointment/frustration on this part stems from the fact that we’re getting another Peter Parker. I do wish Marvel had been willing to really shake things up. Why not have Miles Morales as Spider-Man? Sure, they’d have to play around with his backstory some, but it’d be really interesting to have someone else in the suit (and also because I still want to see Donald Glover as Spider-Man, even if he’s steadily outgrowing the role). We’d get a really new Spider-Man with a new inner-life and a new arc. And a little diversity doesn’t hurt once in a while. Granted, Peter has his, well, Parker-ness – but that’s been done. I want things to move on. Heck, at this point, why not really upend things and throw Spider-Gwen in, or even Mayday Parker or, heck, anyone but Peter Parker.

What’s especially bothersome, is that because of Spider-Man’s inclusion on the Marvel slate, Black Panther, Inhumans, and – most importantly – Captain Marvel have all had their release dates pushed back (And Thor: Ragnarok, but that’s not important at the moment). We’ve just had Marvel turn a bunch of no-name superheroes into megastars, and Ant-Man, another lesser-known hero, has a movie due out in a few months. It’s disappointing to see them take such a safe bet.

Now, yes, Spidey in the MCU is really cool. If they use him right, he can bring a new point of view to the series; he’s usually the kid, he’s a bit naive, and he’s not as mature as the other heroes of the MCU. Like Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel who’s arguably the new Peter Parker of the comics. A movie about her would be a welcome addition.

But hey. Kevin Feige’s involved and he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing and Spider-Man brings with him characters like Jessica Drew and Venom, so that’s cool. I’m bummed that the new movie will be pushing back fresh faces and I do wish that if we had to have a new Spider-Man that it’d be someone else after under the cowl. But the movie’s not out yet, so who knows, maybe it’ll be really good.

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Feels Like It

Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.

his ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.

It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.

A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.

he game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.

Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.

The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.

Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.

Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.

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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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