There’s something oddly lovable about The Amazing Spider-man 2. Here we have a superhero who occasionally fights crime with a bad cold, never above riding to the rescue of a bullied ten-year-old nor humiliating a Russian gangster by pulling down his pants. Headstrong and impertinent, it’s this new Spider-man that director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) envisions with equal grace and clumsiness, all while injecting an indelible charm into a jumbled mess of eye-catching action, unbalanced characters, and uneven humor as enthralling as it is routinely bewildering. It’s to these strange beats that our web-slinger dances to all too well, making a movie that’s fun, flawed and captivating all at once.
The Amazing Spider-man 2 finds our hero right where we left him. Fresh out of high school, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) continues his daily adventures as Spider-man as he and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), drift further apart, his promise to keep her away still standing. Soon enough, Peter is visited by his past when old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns to Manhattan to understand the sinister legacy left to him by his father, Norman, just as Peter begins to unravel the mystery of his own parents’ deaths. Meanwhile, Oscorp Industries looms over the New York skyline, employing not just Gwen, but an unstable engineer named Max (Jamie Foxx) whose transformation into the super-powered Electro will spell fateful, if not fatal, repercussions for Spider-man and the ones he holds dearest.
It’s in this coming of age story that sees the series at its most revealing. At first glance, Peter’s struggles are not so commonplace, with one foot forever placed in his high-school bedroom and another firmly planted atop the Empire State Building. Yet beneath the superpowers, he’s an appealing every-teen, reminding us of his youth as well as his accomplishment in comic book fashion running in proper parallel to the film’s more contemporary storytelling. It’s not hard to imagine his scenes tinkering in the garage with his web-shooters rendered in cel-shaded panels, and it’s easier still to relate to what times he’s put in his place, either by Gwen or Sally Field’s Aunt May in a particularly powerful scene-stealer. These touches add an appreciated freshness, considering what cliched questions of “Who am I? Why am I here?” the film preaching more than asking its viewers.
Similar sentiments can describe much of what makes up the film’s peculiar tone. Webb and crew show no hesitation at throwing Spider-man into any variety of ridiculous situations, including but not limited to Spider-man donning a fireman’s hat in full costume while brandishing a firehouse. At its best, the film plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon (albeit a great one) rife with gags befitting at least some of the character’s more humorous undertones. At its worst, it recalls that of Schumacher’s Batman work, complete with cheesy one-liners and puns mostly uttered from Paul Giamatti’s outlandish, gun-toting Alex Sytsevich. More divisive is the film’s insistence on needlessly catering to its younger demographic ad nauseam, the most offensive of which has a costume clad tike replicating a cartoonish Tiananmen Square. Comedy gives way to tragedy late in the film as they concern Peter’s personal crises, and the transition is jarring enough to strike a proper chord, though not before it’s sullied by yet another gag. Such moments aren’t lost among its forgivably bad pranks, but they can’t help but feel a bit muddled in the process.
As has become all too commonplace in the genre, the film is beset with scripting issues that further compound its haphazard construction. Penned by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Lost, Star Trek: Into Darkness), the film often seems half written than badly so, underwhelmed rather than overcrowded by its multi-villain thread. While Paul Giamatti’s Sytsevich and Felicity Jones’s Felicia Hardy aren’t given more than glorified cameos, Foxx’s Electro being reduced to nothing more than a big, blazing special effect, and DeHaan’s Goblin persona is sorely underdeveloped. Though the former two receive ample screen-time, neither pay substantial dues as Marton Csokas’s campy asylum doctor and Colm Feore’s stuffy Oscorp exec clutter up the works. What interesting pieces the movie has to offer it thankfully delivers through its gratifying paternal storylines, because so much else doesn’t make sense–from its subway car labs, to how Oscorp’s night shifts work, to New York’s citizenry spectating a super-powered beat down–but the film’s payoffs prove worth it in spite of the silly and out of place.
Much can then be owed to the film’s titular hero for carrying it. Garfield is a funny and thrilling Spider-man, carefree enough to call his girlfriend from the windshield of a moving car while not shy about giving his villains some sarcastic back-talk. For once he seems to feel comfortable in his own skin, hitting his stride with a screenplay steering him closer to the wisecracking web-slinger of comics. His jokes hit nearly every time, more thanks to Garfield’s comedic timing than quality writing. In that regard, his performance as Peter Parker still misses Tobey MacGuire’s more genuine geekiness, and yet he stands as the easiest Marvel hero to love, being more than satisfactory in either role.
In truth, none of the many subplots or action sequences have as much power as what scenes feature Peter and Gwen, beautifully benefiting from their natural chemistry better realized than MacGuire with Kirsten Dunst. With the ever likable Emma Stone onboard again as Peter’s feisty foil, the two prove as capable individually as they do together, both engaged in each other’s presence and complimenting one other’s strengths. He can’t stay away, and she won’t let him go, and quite literally, defying his attempts to web her up to a car to keep her out of harm’s way. It’s in these romantic scenes that the film becomes something distinctly more human, even channeling Webb’s own indie comedy prowess to echo a wider gender appeal. More impressive still is what effect they leave, ultimately (if not inevitably) making good on the film’s final, tear-jerker high that stings in spite of its predictability.
What action the movie boasts is undoubtedly more worthy of the movie’s title, consisting of amazingly well animated, if not a tad overused, effects. Though its opening sequence limits itself to a superbly staged plane crash, the rest fully realizes the metropolitan extent of its city-bound action. Rather than feel confined to Peter’s bedroom, his high school, or the Oscorp skyscraper, The Amazing Spider-man is a visual spectacle of famed New York landmarks, from the Williamsburg Bridge to Columbus Circle, compliments of the film’s groundbreaking camera work and once again breathtaking web-swinging. The film’s climactic clock tower battle takes center stage for its intensity as does its spectacular Times Square showdown, but Electro’s over-inflated power-station battle gradually becomes a bit too self-indulgent on slo-mo effects even in the film’s otherwise decent 3D.
The villains that comprise such scenes are more difficult to crack. A gap-toothed geek with a greasy comb-over, Max is introduced as a cartoonish fanboy consumed by a childish obsession with Spider-man before an on-cue industrial accident ‘a la electric eels at Oscorp. He’s a loser who just wants everyone to see him, and soon he’s assailing Times Square with glittery pyrotechnics at the flip of a switch. Though the film works hard–perhaps too hard–to cast Foxx’s Electro as meaningful, its result is more akin to a a poor man’s Mr. Freeze buried underneath a mess of well rendered but stifling prosthetics. At the very least, Foxx gets to blow things up and turn blue in tune to a ridiculous dub step symphony, but Webb does an injustice not capitalizing on Foxx’s more bombastic capabilities, leaving him all too superfluous to the plot as the movie goes on.
Nevertheless, the film is more Harry’s than Electro’s, and what gravitas he brings he does so in spades. While playing much the same sardonic, angst driven rich boy reminiscent of James Franco’s, DeHaan’s Harry is twitchy and anguished, every sentence wound tight in compelling contrast to Garfield’s loose-limbed energy. DeHaan has an intense, brooding presence about him–he’s engaging to watch and his motives the most clear–but his scenes tend to ramble a bit. It’s more unfortunate that Harry’s villainous transformation is all but spoiled thanks to the film’s marketing and, judging by the film’s hints, we have yet to see the last of him.
It certainly is hard to shake how much the film seems like one big bridge to a Sony sponsored cinematic universe. Every subplot seems like a setup for the next installment with no reason to exist beyond a smorgasbord of who cares entities. Giamatti’s final scene as Rhino will certainly evoke memories of The Underminer in The Incredibles and it’s all the more concerning given the film’s reluctance to invest time-well-spent on its potentially future members of the already promised Sinister Six spin-off.
The Amazing Spider-man 2 seems to embody the series at a crossroads, having matured into a bright, youthful adolescence, with all the goofy exuberance and dubious judgment that it suggests. Webb falls through on Garfield and Stone’s charms, dishing out an endearing romance alongside some splendid web-slinging action and a few performances ring true, with arresting chemistry and poignant moments where it counts. There’s much to be loved here and much to dislike, but its quirks hardly deserve overlooking its undercurrents of greatness.