When it works, it's a wonder. When it doesn't, the atmosphere of interference is obvious.
It pops and zips. It glides and soars. As an expression of the action aesthetic circa 2014, it's hard to top what Marc Webb has done with this second installment of the rebooted Spider-man franchise. It's that amazing. Back when it was announced that the (500) Days of Summer director would be taking over for horror geek icon Sam Raimi, and even more disconcerting, reimagining Peter Parker and his adventures for a different demo, comic book fans fumed. After seeing The Amazing Spider-man, it was clear that Webb wanted to make an insightful teen dramedy in which one of the characters just so happens to have superpowers. The relationship between Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) took center stage, while the script set up all manner of options for the next few films in the series to explore.
Well, here we are at Part 2, and what we get is more of the same. More love story. More post-adolescent angst. More questions about family and the past. And more villains. Way more villains. In fact, it's safe to say that The Amazing Spider-man 2 is more a preamble for the recently announced Sinister Six film than it is a proper continuation of Peter Parker's awkward coming of age. In between energy emitting flashes from proper baddie Electro (Jamie Foxx), we get the rise of Harry Osborne (not his father Norman) as the Green Goblin (Dane Dehaan), as well a brief bookending introduction to Russian bad guy Rhino (Paul Giamatti). Together, they take are focus away from the ongoing schmaltz of Peter and Gwen's (doomed?) love affair.
Indeed, if the first film was a wonderful romantic comedy with dramatic overtones in which a superhero movie suddenly broke out, The Amazing Spider-man 2 is an engaging action epic with too many side moments of our hero weeping. Indeed, the second time around is tough on Peter Parker. The film begins with a look at what happened to his parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz) and hints at why they are important to the plot. We then see Spider-man save the day as Gwen in giving her valedictorian speech. Then Harry returns home from boarding school to watch his father (Chris Cooper) die, but not before announcing that the boy also carries a terminal genetic flaw and requires Spider-man's blood to save him.
In the meantime, mild mannered engineer Max Dillon (Foxx) who is stalker obsessed with Spidey is involved in an industrial accident involving power lines and electric eels. He becomes a being of pure energy, using his new skill to get back at the superhero who kind-a, sort-of, snubbed him maybe once. While all this is going on, Gwen and Peter break up, Peter gets all gooey about it, Aunt May (Sally Field) reveals what little she knows about the Parkers' death, and Harry gets desperate. After injecting himself with pure radioactive spider venom, he morphs into a demented madman with... you guessed it... the death of Spider-man on his mind. Eventually, the two old friends face off, with Gwen's fate literally hanging in the balance.
Phew! That's a lot of mythology. While supposedly based on an actual published comic book storyline, The Amazing Spider-man 2 feels more like a plot placeholder. Unlike the best examples of the genre -- Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, the Kevin Feige controlled Marvel Universe -- there's a desire on Sony's part to forget the foundation and run right up to the top of the skyscraper. They want as much as they can manage in this suddenly revitalized property, and aren't about to wait until audiences accept the character and his circumstances to overstuff the narrative. They are going big and they are doing it now, and the results can be a bit disconcerting. We want to root for Peter and Gwen, hope to see them walk off into the sunset. But everything that Webb and his screenwriters suggest makes it clear that this won't happen.
There's also problems with all three villains. Rhino is a non-starter. We get so little of the character that we'll just have to wait for the next few installments of the series to see if he was worth the wait. Dehaan's take on Harry is just as laid back as James Franco's, but there's more inner rage and doubt. If the movie had just been about the whole Osborne/Parker family feud, that would be more than enough. By shoving the scared young man to the side for Electro's antics, we miss out on a more meaningful good vs. evil experience. Indeed, Foxx finds all the right nerd notes to bring his forgotten underling to life, but then he's given very little to do. He has one major stand-off in Times Square and another at a massive NYC power grid, but that's it. It's almost as if the movie decided it needed a bigger bad guy to heighten the spectacle and Electro was chosen.
Unlike the first film, which felt like it lacked real studio interference, The Amazing Spider-man 2 reeks of non-movie minded intervention. It's as if the suits sat around, waiting for Webb's original to work before diving in head first with a series of bigger and bigger ambitions. Even with the power of a potent Summer blockbuster in his back pocket, the director clearly couldn't deny them this time. For what it's worth, what's on the screen is truly fun and exhilarating. It lacks a certain level of depth, and there's very little to no emotional payoff, but the film is never boring and delivers on what fans of such franchises expect. This is especially true of the webslinging moments, which Webb makes truly remarkable. Hopefully, all this preplanning and preparation will pay off. One imagines The Amazing Spider-man 2 doing boffo box office, with the result being a chance to realize many of this movie's incredibly loft aims.
In today's instant gratification, can't wait too long movie climate, something like The Amazing Spider-man 2 is understandable, if unnecessary. It needs to strike while the interest iron is hot, before another collection of caped (or non-caped) crusaders come along and steal their thunder. When it works, it's a wonder. When it doesn't, the atmosphere of interference is obvious.