Whatever you thought of Marc Webb’s previous outing in the rebooting of the Spider-Man Marvel Comics franchise is precisely what you’ll think of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with very little deviation. If you thought the first go with Andrew Garfield as everyone’s favourite angsty webslinger was a novel updating of the character, this entry should move things along nicely. If you thought the reboot was unnecessary and made Peter look like more of a petulant, manipulative brat with only a basic amount of concern for those around him, you’ll probably hate this one even more than you hated the first one.
Myself? I though the first one was an entertaining kind of mess that had its share of great moments and a whole mess of problems. This one also has some great ideas and arguably even more problems, but at least the problems with this sequel aren’t the exact same problems as the first film. For everything it fixes from the first film to this one, it finds something else to screw up, leaving the entire project a decently paced, compulsively watchable, well acted piece that sometimes descends into complete overstuffed incoherence (but not in the way you’re probably thinking).
Peter Parker (Garfield) has taken on his great power and great responsibility and become a vigilante hero for the citizens of New York City full time. His relationship to Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) has suffered its ups and downs, with it seemingly coming to an end around their high school graduation thanks to Peter being literally haunted by the memory of Gwen’s dead father. In the middle of Peter’s almost perpetual existential crisis a new villain arises to the top of Spidey’s to-do-battle with list: a former engineering nerd named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who gets into a work related mishap while maintaining Oscorp’s environmentally friendly electromagnetic power grid (which gets its tremendous energy from a bunch of eels in a tank) and becomes the blue-in-the-face Electro. Meanwhile, Peter’s old friend Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) has inherited the company of his dead father, only to find out that he’s dying of a genetic disease that only an infusion of Spider-man’s blood can probably cure.
As you can probably tell, the plot of ASM 2 is incredibly preposterous and silly, but at least Webb and his bevy of screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, James Vanderbilt, and Jeff Pinker) seem willing to cop to making a story that feels like a throwback to traditional comic book silliness. To say that ASM 2 starts off being the latest superhero film to quote-unquote “stay grounded in reality” is a complete lie. The film’s opening backstory enriching sequence that shows what happens to Peter’s biological parents is fine in theory, but so goofily staged that it almost elicits chuckles (complete with possibly the worst CGI aircraft I’ve ever seen outside of an Asylum production), but it gets the tone right in the next scene: an endearing chase where Peter has to thwart a hijacking of a bunch of plutonium by a Russian tough guy (Paul Giamatti, playing exactly what you think he’s playing, but not in more than 5 of the film’s 142 minutes). Webb’s film is at its strongest when it isn’t trying too hard. When Spidey is just being Spidey or Peter is just being Peter (or when the villains are allowed to go full on crazy), the film has an endearing, unforced charm to it that the rest of the production should have been taking cues from.
With the exception of one major plot point late in the film (a callback to the comics that’s handled very well and faithfully and giving hope for future installments), Webb’s more serious moments tend to fall completely flat. The film had to have been pruned quite considerably since a lot of character bits have fallen completely by the wayside. The relationship between Peter and Harry is made out to be something the audience should already be familiar with despite never having been mentioned in the first film. Harry’s tenuous relationship to his nefarious father, Norman (Chris Cooper) is horrendously handled in only one exposition packed sequence that no one in their right mind should have ever signed off on as a good idea.
The main problem isn’t that the film is overstuffed with villains, but with half-baked and completely ancillary and pointless subplots that only add to the running time without ever once contributing anything even halfway tangible to the final product. Why does the film’s big climactic battle have to keep cutting back and forth to two planes about to crash into one another? None of the characters that are the actual focus of the movie ever once know this is happening, so why should the audience care? Literally showing the disapproving ghost of Denis Leary is one of the dumbest things in a movie so far this year. Why make a seemingly big deal out of Aunt May (Sally Field) getting back to work in a hospital and keeping it secret from Peter when again it only amounts to scenes of Sally Field carrying hospital equipment around. Who is she saving and why is this even a big deal? There’s are scenes involving Peter trying to get to the bottom of his parents’ deaths that take up too much time and only end up leading to one of the most tired clichés in all of cinema: the “if you’re watching this, I’m probably dead” video. Peter’s job for J. Jonah Jameson gets brought up, but we never see him, so why bother bringing it up? The answer to that last one is simple: so it can explain away something else the audience is already supposed to know that they were never told in the previous film. It’s a rebooted series, but even moreso than the film that sparked it this one almost requires that people have at least read the comics or watched Sam Raimi’s trilogy for this to make the most sense.
What’s missing from The Amazing Spider-man 2 is humanity. Every single explanation as to why these characters should be cared about and any reasons why their motivations make sense have been excised. No one in this film seems motivated by anything even remotely believable, but I guess that’s comics for you. Aside from the relationship between Peter and Gwen, nothing here rings true. And yet, it certainly feels like these character moments were included in at least one cut of this awkwardly assembled final version, only to be replaced by set piece designed to add stakes. They don’t heighten the stakes at all. They are the exact opposite of stakes: useless filler. Ultimately, whoever made the decision to make this yet another nearly two and a half hour film where things just blow up everywhere for the summer movie crowd was the person who made the wrong choice, mostly because I am willing to bet that somewhere out there a 140 minute version of this film that makes perfect sense can be cobbled together from everything that was cut.
Webb asserts himself nicely this time out; a lot better than his last time behind the camera. The cutting is less frantic, he’s no longer trying to make a J.J. Abrams film with all the lens flares and elaborate tracking shots (until the climax, of course), and tonally he really has made Peter less of a brat. He gets plenty of assists from his cast, but also gets some aid from some really nice work from cinematographer Dan Mindel (who oddly enough shot most Abrams films, but tones things down nicely here, especially when the film’s sometimes bizarrely sketchy CGI drops the ball) and from a damned good musical score from a dream team of composers working together (Hans Zimmer, Johnny Marr, Junkie XL, Pharrell Williams, some other people).
Garfield gets a lot more to do this time out and he clearly understood that Peter was too much of a manipulative jerk the last time out, this time portraying the character as someone undergoing a learning process instead of just jumping blindly into being a badass. He still has a great deal of charm, but this time the edge that he brings to Peter is more in line with the character’s sarcastic comic book roots than the mean, almost borderline sociopath that he was before. His chemistry with his co-stars also shines through, here. He makes a perfectly natural partner with Stone, a great concerned friend to DeHaan, and a confused opponent for Foxx. This film has Garfield and Webb building towards something with the character instead of just the same old, same old.
Stone has a few great moments where she gets to call bullshit on Peter that should make most of the audience smile with glee. Her razor sharp wit is put to much better use here. Their relationship doesn’t really have to progress more, since for most of the film Peter and Gwen are never together, but they make the most of how both characters are progressing in different directions.
DeHaan is a perfect addition to the cast, mostly because he’s playing Harry as the person Peter was: a young man drunk on newfound power and determined to use it to better his life at any cost. He’s bringing a fully rounded performance that gets so badly introduced into the series that he’s tasked with making an impact almost completely out of thin air. He’s bringing something to the character that’s genuine and very clearly not on the page, and it’s something that looks to pay off in much the same way as Peter’s current arc.
Then there’s Foxx, who does a terrific job playing an absolutely terrible role. Electro isn’t the same character as he was in the comics. He isn’t even something new. His entire existence is a cross between Catwoman from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (resurrected by spirit animals), The Riddler from Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (an awkward, unnoticed nerd obsessed with his hero who then just up and decides he wants that hero dead for being more important than him), and Mr. Freeze from Batman and Robin (in that he has the absolute worst one liners known to man, one even worse than X3’s previous comic flick nadir: “I’m The Juggernaut, bitch!”). Yet Foxx still looks like he’s having a blast playing the two different sides of Max, and despite the abundance of not-so-electrifying puns, he at least seems like a credibly built up threat; something that DeHaan’s Harry doesn’t feel like by the time he snaps.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a complete mess. It’s not a Spider-man 3 complete mess, but it’s still far too scattershot to be called a good movie. By that same token, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained. There’s quite a bit of fun to be had even when your brain can’t shut off how objectively stupid the whole thing is. It’s long, but it zips by without dragging and the only problems you’ll likely notice will come later when you’re sitting at home and it dawns on you that none of what you saw makes a lick of sense. Still, for those couple of hours, it’s a fun enough ride. Unless, of course, you hated the first reboot installment for all of the reasons I just listed.