Comics icon Stan Lee reinvigorated the superhero genre back in the early ’60s when he took over the main writing chores for Marvel. Over the next few years, he created a sensational cast of modern superheroes based on a single concept. Each was, in his own way and in Lee’s image, slightly neurotic, beset by worries and not always given to being particularly heroic. They were all wounded, somewhat broken people, whose powers gave them purpose they might have lacked before: Iron Man needs a pacemaker, Daredevil’s blinded by a freak truck accident, the Thing laments his rocky monster look.
Among this group, Spider-Man has the hardest luck. A scrawny geek who happens upon a radioactive spider that gives him his amazing powers, Peter Parker remains fretful even after he learns to love the web-slinging. His comic book stories are half rock-em-sock-em robots and half true romance (a Marvel subset for which Lee also wrote), the latter aspect in particular Marc Webb has embraced, in The Amazing Spider-Man and now again in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
The sequel grinds along over 142 minutes, alternating between long jags of a love story and the occasional throw-downs through which Peter learns to appreciate that love story. As the film opens, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is still of two minds about Gwen (Emma Stone). He wants more than anything to be with her, but he’s haunted by the pledge he made to her dying father (Denis Leary, who keeps appearing as a ghost, lips pursed and gaze accusing) to stay out of her life in order to protect her. Peter and Gwen play a push-pull game, even as trumped-up supervillains Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) attempt to lure Spider-Man into a final showdown.
While the Avengers’ opponents are often thematically linked to their heroes (say, Captain America and the Winter Soldier), the Spider-Man films tend to treat villains as little more than afterthoughts, a series of dully well-meaning scientists who stumble into some sort of accident in their research and go mad with their newfound powers. If anything, Webb’s villains are even duller than Sam Raimi’s, as his films amp up the love story between Gwen and Peter (and Spidey comic fans know how that turns out). In Spider-Man 2, neither Electro nor the Green Goblin distracts Spider-Man from his romantic agonizing for very long: he’s become the most emocore of superheroes.
But Peter’s only one of this film’s several portraits in suspect psychology. The evil Electro starts out as an introverted Oscorp engineer very much taken with Spider-Man, until a lab accident involving a vat of electric eels turns him into a supercharged blue entity suddenly hell-bent on destroying his former idol (he’s also equipped with magic lightning-logoed underpants that appear when convenient). As in the Raimi films, the Goblin is in reality Harry Osbourne, one of Peter’s best friends and heir to the massive Oscorp fortune, stricken with the genetic disease that lays waste to his father (Chris Cooper), and who, like Electro, comes to despise Spider-Man. In Webb’s vision, it’s not enough that a villain is motivated by ambition and greed (though Paul Giamatti’s quick turn as the rampaging Rhino appears just to want to get rich and bust ass on the way). But the film’s renditions of Electro and the Goblin’s deeper emotional needs never seem more than cursory.
In contrast, it spends long minutes observing the ups and downs of Peter and Gwen’s relationship. Peter flips from carefree and teen-like (a state of mind that particularly suits young Garfield) to tortured and miserable and back again, like a 13-year-old at drama camp. We know going in that his vulnerability is Gwen, but here the couple’s efforts to keep and also make sense of the secret they now share — his identity as Spider-Man — provides them with a focus for their romantic tensions. How can he protect her but also be with her? How can he not lose her by rejecting her? It’s a puzzle she treats more rationally than he does.
The saga of Peter and Gwen distracts from the action and the second act drags: the final battle scene between Spidey and Electro has all the tension of a spent waistband, the Goblin is little more than a plot device to deliver Spidey’s ultimate suffering, and a second Rhino sequence is tacked on like a postscript. But in the doomed romance aspect, at least, Webb roots his sequel firmly in the Stan Lee oeuvre, a pulpy and mostly winning combination of spandexed superheroics and the complicated yearnings of young romance.