These days the bar for superhero movies is set to an unprecedented high. It seems like anytime a box office record is shattered, there’s a comic book hero to thank for it. So here we are at the second installment of the reboot to one of the series that kicked off the Hollywood superhero juggernaut, just shy of a decade after the ultra-successful Spider-Man 2. At times enjoyable, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 unfortunately feels like a step backwards for the genre. Despite a strong cast that can be a blast to watch, too many characters and an undisciplined plot leaves the film barely getting by on the charisma and strength of its leads.
After the events that saw New York nearly destroyed at the claws of a reptilian science experiment gone haywire, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is doing his best to adjust to life as a regular high school graduate who also happens to be a superhero. But things are almost looking up; he’s got the girl of his dreams Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and Spider-Man’s popularity in the Big Apple is at an all-time high. Peter is conflicted though, perpetually haunted by traumas both past and present. He wonders continually what caused his parents to abandon him on the doorstep of his loving aunt and uncle, and often agonizes about a promise Spider-Man made about Gwen to her dying father. Further complicating his life is the return of his childhood best friend, and an increasing number of supervillainous adversaries who continually push his abilities to the breaking point. If it sounds like Pete’s got a lot on his plate…well you couldn’t be more right.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is made of contrasts, toeing the fine line of what can make blockbuster summer movies exhilarating or campy. In what feels like a constant “up the ante” mentality towards crafting a sequel, Webb seems to subscribe to the perilous philosophy that more is better. More villains, more drama, more explosions, it all keeps coming. Not that there isn’t a lot of enjoyment to be had though. The action scenes, specifically the special effects, are well on par with what audiences have come to expect from a major comic-book adaptation. Electro’s (Jaime Foxx) big debut in Times Square in particular is a hell of a scene, a terrific setting to unleash a villain whose powers can turn any instance of electricity into an explosive maelstrom of lightning and sparks. There’s definitely fun to be had watching Spidey duke it out with a supervillain capable of easily knocking him around, surrounded by the chaos of crashing Jumbotrons and neon billboards.
But amongst the legitimate heart stoppers there is an overabundance of side plots and misguided exposition, often giving away too much of one side and not enough of another. Was it necessary that we open the movie with a scene bluntly establishing the (already presumed) fate of Peter’s parents? Do Peter and Gwen really need to go through multiple breakups and makeups to convince everyone that their relationship is as earnest as it is troubled? Unfortunately this leaves little room to explain the motivations for the other characters in the show. Electro goes from a Spider-Man infatuated loner to a demigod whose singular motivation is to kill the hero he once idolized, never stopping to really explain the fact that Spider-Man had nothing to do with his tragedy. Dane DeHaan is extremely compelling as Harry Osborn, Peter’s estranged childhood friend. DeHaan is an extremely talented actor, and some of the best scenes in the movie are between Garfield and himself, but tragically he ends lost in the mad-dash to the climax. He goes from being a friend with a dark past, to a sneering villain in a leather jacket so quickly that DeHaan can barely sell the transformation, despite his considerable acting ability.
Fortunately, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are more than capable of doing the film’s heavy lifting. Part of what makes the jilted lover story as engaging as it is, is due to the terrific chemistry the leads have together. Garfield is clearly at home in the role and balances the nuances of Spider-Man’s unique personality well: A young man overburdened by fate, but never short of a good joke. Emma brings a natural grace to Gwen, convincing as a person with a yearning for companionship and a grim understanding of what her soul mate’s responsibilities truly are. Fortunately for the movie, she provides a terrifically strong female presence. It’s encouraging that the story has this character that is not afraid to speak her mind or run headfirst into danger if she can help in anyway, and never feeling like a mere damsel-in-distress.
Despite the films successes, Webb’s approach to the sequel still tends to swing off the rails a little too often. Even after the credits role, you just can’t shake the feeling that the film’s biggest fights and dramatic climax are just played up in a way to set the scene for an even larger third installment. Despite the undeniable charm of the main characters and impressive action, the story just doesn’t hold up as well as audiences should come to expect. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly isn’t the worst film you can see this summer, but it does tend to illustrate the dangers of what made superhero movies so condemned in the first place.