I’m sure this will be a common refrain in the reviews of Amazing Spider-Man 2, but this is a film with a severe bought of multiple personality disorder. The parts that are good are absolutely splendid. It reaches higher highs than the previous film. But it also has lower lows and where they go wrong, they go full-steam ahead into the muck. Like the previous installment, it is a film that echoes the worst parts of Marvel’s franchise-building in Iron Man 2 and magnifies them. What makes this so frustrating, so absolutely maddening, is that the makings of a good Spider-Man movie are here and they are so close that you can touch them.
I really want to like this movie and there are parts of it that I adore, but it is so schizophrenic that it feels like three different movies at once. Seeing it in a double feature with Captain America: The Winter Soldier playing second only magnified the issues with the film, showing how these types of films can be done right (while understanding that Spidey and Cap are two completely different characters.) The point is that In its fervor to create a “Spider-Man Universe” that it can milk year after year (they’ve announced a plan to toss out a movie annually featuring characters like the Sinister Six and Venom), Sony has tried to shortcut the Marvel plan that slowly, over many years, brought them to being the biggest movie franchise in history. It’s easy to see why other companies want to emulate them. But Sony and DC seem to have missed the point of how well planned and executed those films are and how long it took to do it right.
So let’s get down to what the best parts of the film are. The things that director Marc Webb does right deserve a high level of praise and I want to give him his due for what works. I don’t intend to simply drop a deuce on his front door and leave. There’s too much to like here for that.
First off, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield feel as if they were made for their parts and dropped into Webb’s lap from on high with a choir of angels singing “Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood.” Their chemistry is off the charts and it leads to a welcome expansion of the seeds that made the first film work on the level it did. (I’ve softened on the first film in subsequent viewings, but I would not say my rating has changed.) Stone especially is such a welcome presence that I would say she seems wasted here if they weren’t relying so heavily on her. Her Gwen Stacy is, overall for the complete arc of the film, the best written and best performed character in this franchise. She was already in an ascendency in Hollywood, mostly from her comedy work, and it’s easy to see why. She has an easy charm, a disarming intelligence and she looks fantastic. Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for her.
Andrew Garfield does a great job portraying the wise-cracking side of Spider-Man and displays his everyman qualities very well considering he’s a muscled teen heartthrob. He had a few of those moments in the original movie and this is yet another example of the film improving on what came before by giving him more to do as Spider-Man. Taking advantage of not being hampered by an origin story, Garfield seems to be more free to be playful when he’s out doing the hero-thing. I’m not sure how much is him and how much is a stuntman/CGI at any given time (though it does look like there is a LOT of computerized Spidey in the action sequences) but he simply looks like he’s having fun for a lot of the run time. And when things get really serious he makes a subtle but appropriate mood shift. Man do I wish I could plug these actors into the Raimi series. I may not dislike Tobey Maguire, but his Parker feels all wrong compared to Garfield’s.
To go along with that playful attitude, we are given action sequences that simply feel a lot more… well, Spider-Man-like. His opening gambit chasing a hijacked semi-truck is so much fun that one wishes it could stretch across the entire film. The way he involves every day New Yorkers and his environment into his battles feels much more organic than in the first film where things like the construction crane sequence made me groan audibly and with force. The film looks much more confident to be itself with Peter’s brighter template and not confine itself as being so dour, emulating Nolan to a degree. And not only are the action sequences filmed better, but they are written better. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud several times over Peter’s quippy banter that feels lifted directly from one of the better comics. Not every joke lands and sometimes it feels like they’re trying too hard, but then so does Spidey in general sometimes, so it makes complete sense.
Now on to what unfortunately doesn’t work. I’ve got two words for you: Jamie Foxx. I’ve praised Foxx in the past after his work in Django Unchained. Of course I have seen him around since his In Living Color days. But his version of Electro is just completely off in it’s own little suborbital space station. His origin and character arc (or lack thereof) feel like they’re lifted whole cloth from one of the Batman films. Everything about the character reeks of 90s camp. From the bizarre combover to the obvious mental illness played for comedic effect to the sudden and inexplicable character changes that don’t constitute an arc so much as a schism. (As part of his plot, there’s also a male version of a female character from the comics named Dr. Kafka who is played as such a broad German mad doctor caricature that he reminded me of Mel Brooks in The Muppet Movie.) It is all straight out of Batman Forever. The real problem with that is simply the fact that this movie isn’t Batman Forever and it doesn’t fit at all. I am not sure who’s fault it is that he was portrayed this way. Foxx has a tendency to be big and brash so it’s certainly conceivable that he could have insisted on hamming things up, but in the end Webb is responsible for getting him to have a tone that matches the rest of the film.
In the meantime, you have Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn. His performance is adequate but all over the place, starting out strong but degrading into hysterics. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that he ends up as Green Goblin. The advertising materials have made that quite clear. He is the most troublesome part of the film, not so much because they skip over Norman Osbourne’s tenure as the Goblin or how he turns himself into him (though those are part of a larger problem I’ll address in a second), but because the transformation feels so shoehorned into the film. It feels like Sony’s forced use of Venom all over again. You can practically hear the gears smoking in the writers’ heads trying to force certain elements into the story with a mallet simply to meet an expected plot-point and set up Sony’s required spin-offs. Like they’d done an Electro story and then were told they had to find a way to include Gobby. The reasons for Harry’s motivation are so undercooked that if you stuck a toothpick in there, there would be more batter than cake. It feels so much like Venom in Spider-Man 3 that you can practically hear Topher Grace.
(I’ll give it points for how it handles Rhino but it is difficult to explain that without going into spoiler territory.)
It’s good that Electro was used, even if I feel he was wasted. The use of The Lizard in the first film, for all I disliked about the story surrounding him, was one of the highlights. I’m glad they’re not trying to tell the exact same story the exact same way it was done in the Raimi films. But it feels like in their drive to distance themselves from that series (which, keep in mind, includes an installment which many people feel to be the best superhero film ever made) they are changing things for no other reason BUT to distance themselves and aren’t thinking things through long term. What is the big hurry when they’ve already committed themselves to being in the Spider-Man business for the foreseeable future? It’s not the change itself that’s the problem. At issue is the fact that these changes don’t make any logical sense and actually are imposing unnecessary restrictions on the films that they may not recover from and/or are wasting opportunities. Why in God’s name is this series so obsessed with tying every single thing that happens to Oscorp? I mean, we get it. Evil corporations are evil, blah blah blah. But the backstory involving Peter’s parents, which eats up a good portion of the film, has the same effect on Spider-Man as Burton’s grafting of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey had on Alice in Wonderland. It misses the point entirely. Spider-Man is just some random guy that was in the wrong place at the right time. Building a complicated mythology in which everything from Peter’s powers to his family history to every villain he fights being involved in some huge conspiracy with Oscorp is extraordinarily limiting. Its effect on these films isn’t just stretching credibility (even for comic book logic) but making things repetitious for a character renowned for having a bench of well-defined and diverse bad guys that lags behind only Batman and maybe The Flash.
The way this film is put together makes me feel like it is far more concerned with seeding future entries than what’s going on right now. It’s the same issues that people had with Iron Man 2 and the way so much of it was given over to SHIELD, except that movie was simply better made. (Rourke and Rockwell are better actors and Favreau knew when to pull them back, for one thing.)
I don’t like saying these things. I want a good Spider-Man movie. There’s still a chance of getting a good one out of this crew. But something has to change, be it the writers or the brass at Sony because right now they’re too focused on churning out mediocre films with moments of brilliance. Amazing Spider-Man 2’s best moments are head and shoulders above the first film, but it’s problems are greater and make it a step-down overall. I still highly recommend it to people that enjoyed the first film because you’re going to get something out of it, but it’s far from what it could be.
(Two and a half damns given out of five)