As the world’s most popular superhero, Spider-Man is the poster hero for the resurgence of the superhero genre at the movies, but these days he’s hanging there by a strand of webbing. When Sony gave Peter Parker a reboot in 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” they became the first studio to recast and reimagine an entire (and lucrative) franchise, and therefore ran the first experiment to test audiences’ reactions to a reboot with the original so fresh in their memory. Results have been all over the board, and they will likely continue that way for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
With the Spider-Man origin story out of the way, director Marc Webb and a large team of story architects including James Vanderbilt (lone remaining writer from “The Amazing Spider-Man”), Jeff Pinkner (TV’s “Fringe”) and the infamous blockbuster duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (“Transformers,” “Star Trek”) had the freedom to explore new ideas and grow the scale of the Spider-Man universe.
As advertised, Spider-Man battles three baddies in this film: Electro/Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) and Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino (Paul Giamatti). Although the film narratively manages to avoid the villain overcrowding of the late-‘90s “Batman” films and “Spider-Man 3,” it’s far from ideal.
As with the Lizard in the first film, these villains stem from Oscorp, which truly emerges as evil’s central address in this rebooted Spider-Man universe. The opening sequence further establishes Richard Parker’s connection to Oscorp, which is completely revealed in this film after being heavily teased in the first.
Along with the villains and their plots and the mystery of Peter’s parents, there’s Peter himself and his journey as Spider-Man, his journey of discovering the truth about his parents and his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). It’s probably enough material for two 90-minute films, but it’s presented instead in one 142-minute film. Something does give, but surprisingly, it’s not the Peter Parker stuff, or the emotion.
Webb makes the cut as an action director to be sure, but his real strength is in creating character chemistry and realistic romance. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are special together on screen, which might have something to do with their off-screen chemistry, but regardless, their performances – particularly together – are the movie’s greatest asset. What could have been a melodramatic roller-coaster subplot really works because Garfield shows us how torn Peter is between his instinct to love Gwen and her father’s stern warning in the first film to leave her alone. Stone’s Gwen is a strong young woman who acts for herself first, and so her conflicts with Peter aren’t petty, but realistic.
But the real testament to both Webb, the casting folks and the writers is the relationship between Peter and old friend Harry, which has just minutes to materialize in a believable manner. DeHaan and Garfield create this honest portrayal of forgotten friendship in only a few key scenes that lead to the crucial turning points of the film. Those turning points are just okay as is, so the work in these low-key scenes proves critical.
Essentially, for all the good work done in character development on Peter’s end, the dreadful development of the villains acts as a counter force that fortunately only weighs the final product down so much thanks to the good elements.
Let’s start with Electro. Foxx is cast as a one-dimensional version of his mentally ill character from “The Soloist.” An Oscorp electrician and huge fan of Spider-Man, Max Dillon lives in his own world and suffers from an inability to separate logic from his emotions. Although the character does victims of mental illness no favors, it’s plausible that Dillon could become villainous under the right circumstances. That said, the film’s circumstances aren’t great, particularly in the realm of why the self-proclaimed Electro would want to kill Spider-Man. Electro is a cool villain aesthetically and the special effects are terrific, but he’s comparable with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze.
Although Harry Osborn’s motivations make a bit more sense, the film rushes through his character arc. The story asks us to pity him and then despise him with little time to make the transition. DeHaan makes the most of it, however, and shows he has quite the chops for playing a villain.
Plopped in all of this is Peter discovering just what his father was up to for Oscorp and why he left him as a child. What we learn makes total sense and satisfies our curiosity to know, but the information doesn’t impact the film’s climax in any way. Peter does nothing differently – he still must stop Electro and Green Goblin from destroying New York – and killing him.
It is easy to get lost in story details and plot points and character motivation, but “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is also as entertaining as it should be, and more so than its predecessor. The camerawork and special effects are the stuff Sam Raimi probably only dreamed of and take the character (literally) to new heights. The use of slow-motion proves to not be cliché, but to actually let the audience see the quality of the effects, the attention to detail. The action also hits harder – PG-13 seems to be getting more and more graphic, which as a 20-something non-parent, doesn’t bother me one iota.
With the “Sinister Six” – a team of Spider-Man’s enemies – coming down the pipeline soon, Sony needs to be a little more thoughtful about how it handles its villains, and they also should consider condensing the many themes and story lines of this new series. With just a bit more focused storytelling, their engaging, thoughtful and entertaining new “Spider-Man” could go from good to great, and meet fans’ growing expectations of Spider-Man on the big screen.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (comics)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx