Here there be spoilers
The ole’ web-slinger is back: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is maturing into a mighty crime fighting-guy, but his lingering promise to the deceased Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) to keep his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone) out of his escapades proves a drag. Gwen finally snaps at his stop-start attentions and dumps him, leaving Peter to spiral back into obsession with his parents’ death and seeming abandonment. Meanwhile, over at Oscorp, company founder Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) is dying from a rare genetic disease. He tells his estranged son Harry (Dane DeHaan) that he will suffer the same fate if he can’t improve upon the scientific healing methods he and Peter’s father Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) tried to develop by creating freakishly mutated animals. Dowdy, Dickensian Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has a close encounter with some of those animals when he’s electrocuted and falls into a tank filled with freaky electric eels: Dillon emerges as an electricity-eating, spark-throwing hybrid who calls himself Electro and begins terrifying New York in fits of pique as he feels let down by Spider-Man, his idol. Harry is beset by a similar resentment towards the suited semi-arachnid, as he recognises Spider-Man is the by-product of exactly what Norman’s programme was supposed to achieve, an achievement that seems perpetually out of reach for anyone else because of Richard’s long-ago ruse.
As easy as it is to be cynical about Sony’s remorseless rebooting and brand exploitation of their one captive Marvel hero at a time when anything superhero remains a licence to print money, the Amazing Spider-Man series doesn’t feel cynical in itself. Director Marc Webb’s touch with actors is so spry, and the cast he’s assembled so likeable, that even as the most laboured and well-worn cogs in the franchise machine turn, at least at first. It could be argued that the rebooted Spider-Man series relates to Sam Raimi’s original trilogy in much the same fashion as the various comic book series Marvel puts out about the character have complemented each-other for decades: minor variations, tweaks, twists and multiple dimensions open up dialogues between different versions of the same thing. Garfield’s Peter lacks the nerdy, socially offensive qualities that are supposed to make the character the empathetic underdog; he doesn’t struggle with real life in the same way Tobey Maguire’s Peter did, but instead looks and acts like a carefully contrived median of acceptable quirk and hipster cool, a construct for an age that the filmmakers seem to think is past the kind of exclusion that drove the original mythos. But Garfield’s intelligent playing gives him a lode of stammering neurosis in compensation, and Stone’s Gwen is still a radiant, clever charmer. Webb allowed them a lot of scope in the first The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), at the expense of the film’s nominal raison d’etre. Here, the comic book movie essentials crowd to the fore.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts superbly with two sweet action sequences, one depicting the actual death of Richard and Mary (Embeth Davidtz) Parker, which proves to have been the result of attempted assassination, with Richard fighting their killer in a Lear jet whilst desperately trying to upload a vital computer file. Webb here seems to chasing the momentous, deeply personal note of fateful loss J.J. Abrams managed in the opening to his first Star Trek (2009) in portraying a creation myth's vital station. This segues into a great chase scene as, present-tense, Spidey chases down a truck filled with radioactive material stolen by ranting Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti, chewing scenery, cast, and crew). Here, and later, Webb’s special effects team work up some sophisticated, intricate gravity-defying gyrations for Spidey throughout the film, and the camerawork is ebullient in depicting Spidey’s neck-straining flights through his urban playpen. The new entry shows Webb much more confident in handling action. But like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 slowly but surely falters from the manifold pressures upon it, not least of which is that Webb still makes a better domestic comedy-drama than he does action spectacle. Moreover, this film is a peculiar and frustrating by-product of corporate and merchandising necessities running interference on narrative concerns, as it tries to set up three different villains, deal with Peter’s lingering family issues, and introduce a new edition of Harry Osborn coherently as a supposedly important friend after leaving him out of the first entry entirely, before turning him into the Green Goblin.
This is a fault in common with Raimi’s much-abused Spider-Man 3 (2007), but Raimi’s film at least had plot strands it was aiming to drive to momentous conclusions. Too much of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, in essence, set-up, exposition, or backstory, and too little of it is strong pay-off. The sub-plot of Peter’s attempt to comprehend his father’s actions is as clumsily interpolated and weirdly ineffectual as the same sub-plot was in Iron Man 2 (2010): even when it’s seemingly essential to Peter’s psychological make-up, daddy issues have become the dullest of heroic angsts and it’s doubly true here, at least in how it’s handled. Not to mention how borderline incoherent are the mechanics of storytelling that bring Peter to a rather absurd hidden laboratory where salving video clips and MacGuffin inventions lie in wait for him. One likeable aspect of this new film is its attempts to embrace its comic book origins, rather than keep going down a Christopher Nolan path: Dillon is a classic variety of antagonist, a damaged dweeb worshipping Spidey with a shoebox apartment crammed with his hero’s paraphernalia, and swallowing humiliations and insults, a la Batman Return’s (1991) Selena Kyle, until he’s transformed into a monster that unleashes his repressed id. In what seems to be a now-compulsory flourish in such villain journeys, Electro is captured and tormented by shady creeps, this time corporate rather than government at least, including a deliciously over-the-top Germanic mad scientist named – no shit – Dr. Ashley Kafka (Marton Csokas). The influence of Chronicle (2012) feels noteworthy, not just in casting DeHaan, but in the big set-piece sequence of Electro’s increasingly angry appearance in Times Square, which calls to mind the finale of the earlier film.
In a similar spirit of pulp enthusiasm, Webb and his army of collaborators take less interest in trying to make the Green Goblin that Harry turns into vaguely realistic, as Harry’s ill-fated attempt to use an experimental formula to heal himself turns him into a fey, twisted Grinch who turns up for the finale. But the result of these competing storylines is that nothing feels terribly urgent: Peter and Harry’s crucial friendship is reduced to a couple of scenes of banter and catch-up. Whilst Webb’s emphasis on the resentment and dashed hero-worship in both Max and Harry opens up interesting territory in suggesting these villains are created by a blend of emotional inadequacy and the frustrated promise of an all-giving deity the superhero provokes, it’s developed far too scantly to be really convincing. Spider-Man is rather faced with mortal foes who seem to be having a perpetual hissy-fit. And, of course, each villain takes up the other’s space for pathos and evildoing to register. The film fades out on yet another supervillain’s introduction to stir a retired Spidey back into action, an idea that might have been better served by leaving either Electro or Green Goblin’s appearance to the end. Still, this Spider-Man has a cheeky energy as a crowd-pleaser, which makes him still rather refreshing in a crowd of increasingly dour superheroes. Some of the film’s best moments are quite throwaway, like Spidey zapping Electro with a blast from a firehose whilst wearing a hat borrowed from the firefighters who aid him, before he high-fives these impromptu helpmates. Such a great touch reminds us this superhero is one of the crowd he fights for.
As usual with scripts by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (with Jeff Pinkner's help here), the desired elements are all in place, but the balance is lacking, and there’s a lazy reliance on excessively convenient plot development, like the fact that Oscorp has become a one-stop shop for antagonists and crossroads where characters who shouldn't know each-other can meet. The film works best when concentrating on its best, essential tools, its cast, like Sally Field’s excellent meltdown as Aunt May, expressing her fretful indignation with Peter’s obsession with her roots when she’s struggling to survive emotionally and fiscally. DeHaan has an off-kilter, disturbing charm, his thin, tight face and spindly physique sometimes suggesting Leonardo DiCaprio’s perverse younger brother, whilst also harking back to an earlier generation of oddball character actors like Elisha Cook Jr and Brad Dourif. Foxx is broader, with a hint of vaudeville to his act as the nebbish: in some ways he feels most in touch with the half-suppressed, old-fashioned flavour of a drama where Bartlebys gain their dreams of being transformed into fantastic power figures. But Foxx has trouble, as does Garfield, in credibly joining the two spheres of his characterisation.
More immediately problematic is how the film builds to a story pivot which counts as courageous, particularly in this genre and given the marquee appeal of the Garfield-Stone coupling (although it will be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the comic). Gwen and Peter’s break-up early in the film is followed by a handful of toey scenes between the couple as they switch back and forth between frustration and affection, sparked by Stone and Garfield’s real performative wit and personal attraction. But the relationship is muted or reduced to mere distraction throughout too much of the film, sapping the climax of the jolting, tragic weight it deserves. Webb and his writers give Gwen a big pseudo-feminist moment as she tells off Peter for trying to keep her out of battle and takes responsibility for own fate, a touch that would be more appreciable if circumstances didn’t demand this turn out to be a very, very wrong call, and becomes instead a bit accidentally reactionary. The result is a film that strains to reach the same heights of powerful emotionalism reached by the first two Superman films, but such ambition is frustrated because its structure has the same overstuffed, indecisive feel as Superman III (1983), although it’s not nearly as big a mess as that. Given that Webb's grasp on managing a special effects movie seems stronger, it’s particularly disappointing that the climactic sock-fests still feel functionary and lack conceptual originality. The film’s visual as well as story grammar becomes clipped and hurried. Whilst Raimi’s stylisation was broader, Webb can’t match anything as mythic-feeling as the last shots of Spider-Man (2001) as its Peter Parker marched away from a grave: Webb’s similar scene feels more like what it is, a way-station between acts in an ongoing cycle that can only end when it ceases to be profitable. And yet the film’s best aspects deserve admiration, because at least it does believe in its hero as somebody whose adventures are beset by the same pain and joy his audience knows.