When Sony announced they were planning to relaunch their "Spider-Man" franchise with all-new talent just five years after Sam Raimi wrapped up his own Tobey Maguire-starring series in less than impressive fashion, the general sentiment was a resounding, "But why?" Raimi had long planned to continue his own franchise, and the news that fans of the webslinger would be subjected to yet another origin story in order to drive forward the legendary adventures of the comic book hero sounded, well... it sounded kind of stupid. The first film in the new series, 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” didn’t help matters too much – new leading man Andrew Garfield injected charm to spare and the addition of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Spidey’s first love, was more than welcome, but the action was lacking and the story was flat. This is what needed to be rebooted?
Fortunately, director Marc Webb has settled into the task at hand for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” a sequel that handily capitalizes on the best things about the first film, while working double-time to iron out some of its issues.
Peter Parker (Garfield) is still struggling with his past, especially as it applies to the work of his father Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) and how that may provide the key to the mystery of both why his parents abandoned him as a child and why he’s, well, a spider-man now. The film actually opens with the Parker parents (Scott and Embeth Davidtz as Mary Parker) in flashback, with a dazzling and stomach-churning plane sequence that effectively expresses just how much danger the Parker family is apparently always in, while raising still more questions about how everything ties together. (Many of these questions are answered over the course of the film, but their actual value is yet to be seen.)
Meanwhile, back in present day, Peter is clearly much more comfortable in his skin (and Spidey suit), and the action of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” reflects that (the web-slinging and city-soaring sequences are also a fair bit better, and seem to have been infused with a skydiving sensibility that makes them feel quite accessible). Still reeling from the impact of that plane sequence, Webb hits his audience with a full-scale car chase through the streets of New York City, with a deranged baddie (Paul Giamatti, not quite the Rhino yet, but apparently having the time of his life screaming at Spidey in a stilted Russian accent). It’s a bit setpiece, and it keeps the energy of the film pumping right along.
Until it stalls out.
As has become more commonplace in the glut of superhero movies, the film is bogged down with over-the-top and overstuffed villains. Though the film works hard – perhaps too hard – to cast Jamie Foxx’s Electro as a somewhat sympathetic (and totally bonkers) bad guy, that side of his personality and origin story has little bearing on what actually unfolds in the film. Sure, it’s amusing to imagine that before he became “Electro,” Max Dillon was a loser obsessed with Spider-Man, but by the time he transforms, he’s mainly concerned with sucking up more electricity and blasting things to kingdom come, not holding fast to his humanity. At the very least, Foxx gets to blow things up, turn blue, and conduct a dub step symphony that (sadly) doesn’t exist just inside his head.
The issues with Electro – who can be quite scary in his best moments, though he’s never fully formidable – are probably why screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Jeff Pinkner decided to introduce young Harry Osborn in this outing, giving him little chance to prove himself as Peter’s friend before becoming Spider-Man’s foe. As Harry Osborn, Dane DeHaan spends the first half of the film posturing as a sulky kid CEO, a deranged child millionaire with little ability or interest in reacting to anything in a normal fashion. Recently orphaned by the death of his dastardly dad, Harry gets to take over Oscorp (sure!) with little regard for the technology he has at his fingertips – technology, he’s told by his dying father, that can help him overcome the genetic disorder that will soon ravage him (and, yes, turn him into the Green Goblin, because whatever). But Harry has little use for things like “technology” or “medicine,” and soon becomes convinced he needs Spider-Man’s blood to survive. It should go without saying that he soon transitions into full-on Green Goblin mode, which is both totally nonsensical and wholly welcome, if only because it allows DeHaan’s frenetic and unhinged performance to find its right place.
The plot is also bogged down with father-centric storylines, few of which have any actual payoff within the context of the film. Peter is consumed with discovering the truth about his dad, while also being haunted (literally) by the ghost of Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary, who gets to stand around a lot), just as old pal Harry attempts to understand the legacy left to him by his own dead father, Norman Osborn. But as the film drives towards its big final fight sequence and a massive revelation, all that time filler feels like a time waster.
At least that bit of the film is clear, because plenty about the film just doesn’t make sense – from its loose grasp of how computer technology worked fourteen years ago, to the inner workings of corporate America’s leadership structure, to a number of laughably off-key musical cues – but the good stuff works in spite of the silly and the out of place.
The film’s charms – of which a staggering amount has little to do with action sequences or superheroics in general – are palpable. Garfield is a disarmingly funny and engaging Peter Parker, something Tobey Maguire could never quite handle without making his own version of the character seem like a slope-shouldered dweeb, and he’s just as witty when he’s in the Spidey suit. The jokes of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” hit nearly every time, and that’s due to Garfield’s comedic timing, not superior writing. Garfield also excels when he’s matched with Emma Stone, and the pair’s romantic chemistry pops off the screen with a charm and sizzle that is nearly impossible to deny. These two are adorable together, and some of the best bits of the film involve them simply interacting with each other.
It’s long been known that the latest “Spider-Man” franchise is set to spawn at least four films – no silly trilogies this time around! – which is why “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is tasked with so much bridge-building. It’s not enough that the feature answer a number of questions set up in the first film, it must also lay the groundwork for at least two more features (with Sony also queuing up a “Sinister Six” film, Spidey’s current story will eventually span five films). It’s a tall order – but it’s actually the thing the film succeeds at the most.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is an essential entry in the cinematic canon of Spider-Man, complete with new villains, new questions, and new heartaches. Despite a stunning series of high highs and low lows throughout the majority of its runtime, the film’s final thirty minutes are some of the best any superhero film has to offer, a combination of big-time action and heart-ripping emotion, filled with ambitious (and frankly daring) choices that set the stage for the second half of a franchise that now has plenty to offer.
SCORE: 7.6 / 10