One thing is certain about The Amazing Spider-Man 2…it isn’t boring or unambitious. In fact, Sony’s rebooted Spider-Man franchise finally takes that much-needed step out of Sam Raimi’s long shadow this time around. While the results are (at best) uneven, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is anchored by great performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, shines in its more lighthearted moments, and does its very best to establish a wider Spider-Man universe for future films.
There’s an awful lot of Marvel mythology that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wants to address, and it often feels like the screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt is trying to simply hit as many Spidey beats as possible, for fear that they may not get another chance. On the one hand, this results in what is a more complete Spider-Man/Peter Parker performance from Andrew Garfield (if not the most complete by any actor to wear the webs), and some unabashedly fun action sequences set on the streets of New York City. On the other hand, the movie is often in danger of collapsing under its own weight, and might have done better trying to tell one story rather than approximately four.
Picking up with Peter and Gwen Stacy’s high school graduation, the movie follows the expected ups and downs of any Spider-Man screen romance, before introducing not one, not two, but THREE villains (four or more if you count various Oscorp heavies) who serve (or don’t serve) the story in assorted capacities. There are issues held over from the previous film, particularly the mysterious fate of Peter Parker’s parents, and the film kicks off with a nearly identical flashback that promptly turns into a strangely out of place action sequence on a private jet before launching into villain origins, easter egg hunts for future Spider-Man films, and more.
Through it all, whenever Garfield and Stone are on screen together, there are genuine sparks. What seemed like a rather rushed relationship in the first Amazing Spider-Man film now feels quite natural, no doubt aided by their own off-screen romance. Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a delight, smart, funny, strong, and by far the most charismatic character in the franchise, and quite possibly the strongest “civilian” character in all of superhero cinema.
The problems, however, manifest early and plague the film right up until the closing credits. A hero is only as good as his villains, and Spider-Man has a rogues’ gallery as memorable and grotesque as Batman’s. But the presence of three baddies, even when one is a throwaway (the less said about Paul Giamatti’s painfully broad Rhino the better), often makes for difficult storytelling. When one of those villains is the single greatest villain in Spider-Man history, one whose entire conflict is based on his and his family’s long relationship with the character, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make that work in the context of a single film, especially when he has to share screen time with other, less interesting characters. It just doesn’t work.
Electro is particularly difficult to take, and like most of this movie’s villains, he feels like a holdover from an earlier era of superhero films. In his civilian identity he’s played for creepy comedy, and his character arc (an obsessional hero worship of Spider-Man) owes far too much to Jim Carrey’s forgettable, irritating turn as the Riddler in Batman Forever. Let’s be honest, it’s not like Max Dillon has ever been the most well-rounded character in the Spidey-verse, but here he’s saddled with unfortunate supervillain-by-numbers dialogue and is neither menacing nor sympathetic enough to leave much of an impression. I’m not saying that Max Dillon deserves better, but Jamie Foxx certainly does. On the other hand, Electro is an impressive visual, and considering all the superhero movies out there, there’s a surprising lack of energy projecting heroes and villains on the scene.
Dane DeHaan makes for a more than serviceable Harry Osborn, intentionally less likeable than James Franco’s interpretation, but he’s shortchanged by his introduction midway through the film and obligatory heel turn in the final act. Once again, one of Spider-Man’s greatest rivalries is botched by overambitious filmmakers. Harry goes from amicable (if intense) long-lost buddy of Peter’s to driven, hard-drinking jerk to full-blown supervillain in about as much time as it takes to read these words. None of these facets of Harry’s personality get a chance to shine, making his eventual emergence as a costumed metahuman more confusing than cathartic or scary, and his villainous deeds far less weighty than they need to be. It’s hard not to feel like we’re getting a little cheated out of seeing Chris Cooper’s appropriately icky Norman Osborn in action, as well.
Other than the Peter/Gwen relationship, there is one thing that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does absolutely right, and given the ever-increasing levels of violence in superhero films, it’s refreshing. Throughout the movie, great pains are taken to show Spider-Man’s concern for the people in the path of the fights. Spider-Man not only saves civilians, he takes the time to talk to them. While previous Spider-Man films went out of their way to show Spidey as a “hero of the people” it always felt artificial. Less so here. His willingness to talk to and engage with everyone, from a kid on the street to police and firefighters (in one very funny and endearing moment) to the very villains who are trying to kill him is so pure, and so very in keeping with the everyman spirit of the character, that it deserves applause. No live-action incarnation of Spider-Man has quite nailed it the way we see here, and it makes Spidey’s later failures hit that much harder.
In fact, this is the most active, vocal, jocular Spider-Man we’ve ever seen. There’s plenty of physical comedy, an appropriate amount of Spider-Man wisecracks and banter, and in those moments when it is almost certainly Garfield in the suit and not a stand-in or CGI model, it’s hard not to feel like this is as true an interpretation of the character as we’ll ever see in live-action. Getting Spidey so right elevates what might otherwise be a pretty dismal affair. It’s that Woody Allen/Groucho Marx/Bugs Bunny sensibility that makes Spidey unique, and getting these character beats right is something that no special effects budget can buy. When not in the red-and-blue, Peter is aided ably by Sally Field as Aunt May, who (other than a rather exposition-heavy speech) is great fun and seems to be enjoying her scenes with Mr. Garfield.
But ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is weighed down by its own need to throw as much at the audience as possible. Whether it’s the (rather unnecessary) backstory involving the secret science project of the elder Parkers, the overabundance of villains, or Sony’s desire to seed an expanded Spider-Man movie universe to rival Marvel’s…it’s all just too much. It’s a miracle that this movie is as coherent as it is, and Marc Webb deserves praise for keeping as many plates spinning as he does. It’s a better film than its predecessor, but I hope future installments in the franchise are less concerned with rushing headlong through iconic moments in Spidey’s history and more interested in celebrating what makes these characters endure.