There is no question that we are living in the golden age of the comic book movie. After decades of experimentation, resulting in a fair mix of successes and failures, Hollywood has discovered the true potential of superhero stories beyond simple cash grabs, using iconic characters to tell truly great stories. With each new film, our expectations rise higher as audiences believe that the movies will get better. Disappointingly, while Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a great deal of promise and certainly shows an awareness of its own genre’s growth, it ultimately doesn’t live up to that expectation.
Anyone who has ever picked up a Spider-Man comic knows that the operative word for the superhero is “fun,” and when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 taps into that, it’s actually quite fantastic. While the film’s opening sequence once again provides details into the mysterious disappearance of Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz), Webb’s sequel really launches itself with a bright, exciting, daytime set action sequence where Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) does battle with Russian gangster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) while the villain speeds a truck full of dangerous materials through Manhattan. Sprinkled with exhilarating shots of the web-slinger swinging between skyscrapers, clever quips, and more than a few visual gags, the sequence is everything you could want from a Spider-Man movie, and if Webb’s entire sequel operated on that level, it would have been phenomenal.
Sadly, the director and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci got a bit greedy. While we have seen both “dark and gritty” and “light and fun” atmospheres play well in the comic book movie genre, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 far too frequently tries to have its cake and eat it too by mixing both. The result is a tonal mess that suggests the filmmakers were never quite sure exactly what they wanted from the movie. Incongruent subplots – including brooding Peter’s continued search for the truth about his parents; his hopeful relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone); and the return of the young, rich and dying Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) – wind up getting chopped up together in the narrative and, because the pieces don’t fit together, a flow can never be created. Rather than mixing, the tones end up clashing, and all the audience can do while watching the movie is just hope that it eventually picks a lane.
More than just technical and structural problems, however, the script’s story is wracked with issues. While the film makes a valiant effort to change up the Spider-Man mythos so as to avoid repeating storylines that we’ve already seen on the big screen, the road to accomplishing that is paved with a good dose of illogical thinking, coincidence, and poor character motivation (not to mention a rehashed, unfortunate narrative device from one of Kurtzman and Orci’s other blockbuster franchises). Not wanting to reveal any big spoilers prevents me from revealing too many details, but it’s hard to appreciate a movie that bungles the answer to a two-picture-long mystery and reduces some of the insidious dealings going on behind the scenes at OsCorp to being based on what basically turns out to be a happy accident.
Thankfully, Andrew Garfield is around to navigate the audience through the movie’s troubled waters, and once again proves that he was a fantastic choice to put on the Spider-Man mask. In addition to being effortlessly charismatic and charming, the British star is a perfect fit for the red and blue spandex, and gets the physicality of the character just right with lithe and agile movements (though important credit is also due to both the film’s stunt team and visual effects artists for making the impossible seem possible). The actor’s version of the superhero does have some shortcomings, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t really allow him to fully capture the socially-awkward/nerdy aspects of Peter Parker, but those detractions can be argued away by looking at Garfield’s performance as a different interpretation of the character and by pointing out just how great he is at capturing all of Spidey’s other most important qualities.
The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Emma Stone once again breathes wonderful life into Gwen Stacy and is great not just as a romantic lead – sharing excellent chemistry with Garfield - but also just as a smart character who is actually able to help her superhero beau in a major way on more than one occasion. Similarly, Dane DeHaan not only once again demonstrates that he is one of the best young actors out there, but also has a new and interesting take on the rich, angry and desperate Harry Osborn.
Such positive things cannot really be said about Jamie Foxx’s electricity-powered Electro, though that’s really more to blame – once again – on the screenplay. The villain is scripted to be completely one dimensional – simply driven by a want to be noticed – and his part in the larger story is devalued once some of the bigger subplots completely take over the movie. While his presence does open the door for some cool and flashy CGI, his inclusion in the story from a larger perspective is quite shallow.
After the first Amazing Spider-Man ended up being rather average - understandably retreading a lot of old ground in hopes of establishing a foundation for a new franchise - The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needed to be the sequel that epically and firmly inaugurated this new version of the titular superhero as the version for the modern comic book movie world. Unfortunately, it’s not. There certainly are some great elements within it, and there are plenty of exciting seeds planted for the future of the series. Hopefully production on the planned upcoming sequels and spin-offs isn’t moving so fast, though, that the studio and filmmakers can’t take a long, hard look at the problems with this latest film and fix them moving forward.