‘Amazing Spider-Man 2′ Review: Not As Amazing As ‘Spider-Man 2′
Director Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 will be ten years old in June. It's an important movie for fans of the superhero genre -- the first movie in this present generation to be "good", rather than "good, but..." The commitment, pathos, and unabashed joy in Sam Raimi's sequel made it nearly everyone's favorite superhero movie -- until The Dark Knight, or Avengers, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Now there's another Spider-Man 2, an "Amazing" one, the second movie in director Marc Webb's reboot for Sony's Columbia Pictures. It is definitely not more amazing than Spider-Man 2. It is resolutely and in every way a sequel to 2012's Amazing Spider-Man, for better and for worse.
I should state up front that I have never watched a modern Spider-Man movie that I didn't enjoy. I got a kick out of all three of the Raimi pictures, including the third one, which I used to defend the way some people defend Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Back. "No, it's meant to be like that. They weren't trying to make something good, they were trying to make this!"
I also greatly enjoyed the first Amazing Spider-Man, despite its flaws. In actor Andrew Garfield, the world discovered the best person to bring Peter Parker to the screen. The pleasure of seeing him tear into that material, joined by a surpassingly charismatic performance by Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, was enough to get me past the dull nonsense about Peter's parents, the awkward villainy of the Lizard, and the frankly criminal decision to jettison the line, “With great power comes great responsibility."
Amazing Spider-Man 2 brings all of that back for a second go-around. It has the same wonderful performances from Garfield and Stone, giving the movie all its light and air. It also has the same dull nonsense about Peter's parents and the same awkward villainy weighing it down at the ankles, only this time, more so. And still no-one says, "with great power comes great responsibility", but Uncle Ben is dead now, so I suppose I have to let that one go.
The stuff about Peter's parents, Richard and Mary Parker, is the reboot's second greatest sin (after the loss of that line). Peter is an everyman, not a chosen one, and any story that tries to introduce an element of determinism to his story distracts the audience from the character's strengths. It was true of that dire spider-totem story in the comics; it's true of Peter's boring parents.
Yet Amazing Spider-Man 2 goes out of its way to give these dead squares attention, up to and including a tiresome opening sequence and ludicrous bit of pulp pomp in a secret subway station. All of this takes away from Spider-Man's themes of universal responsibility, and it adds nothing but minutes to the running time.
Then there are the villains. There are three of them in this movie (and efforts to establish, by my count, at least four more). I don't want to give anything away if you've been smart enough to dodge spoilers up to now, so let's focus on the main one, Electro, played by Jamie Foxx.
As in the comics, Electro is Max Dillon, an engineer who receives electrical powers in a freak accident and turns to a life of crime. The details vary quite a bit. The movie adds a welcome and necessary human connection between Dillon and Spider-Man, which creates some strong scenes in their first couple of encounters.
The connection sadly isn't substantive enough to survive the braggadocio of the latter acts, in which both Electro and Spider-Man are replaced by CGI constructs that turn every action sequence in the movie into a video game cut scene. If there was stunt work here, I missed it -- and a movie that doesn't show real bodies in motion seems to miss one of the great pleasures of putting superheroes on the screen. (The Iron Man movies arguably get a pass on that score.)
There is, of course, a crass level of destruction on display, and it's exhausting and dispiriting to see Spider-Man save one guy over here while another car goes flipping off in another direction over there. It adds to the horrible frenzy and dilutes the heroics I paid my ticket price to see. A painfully intrusive score by Hans Zimmer and "The Magnificent Six" adds to the discord.
The Electro story also gives us the unfortunate experience of Marton Csokas hamming his way through a grotesque German caricature as a male Dr. Ashley Kafka (the character is female in the comics). The performance is an example of the movie's inability to balance the grand opera of superheroes with the humanity of their true identities.
Director Webb and writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner seem nervous about creating a world in which these realities co-exist, and have instead created an oddly compartmentalized reality where we slip from one world to the next between scenes. One of the other villains actually offers a glimpse of a better synergy of larger-than-life super-humanity with a mundane landscape, or at least a more entertaining version, but it comes so late in the movie that it would be a spoiler to say more.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 is clumsily written. One can feel the checking of boxes as the story progresses. At one point there's a sequence involving two airplanes that's so clearly there to check the box marked "raise the stakes" that the writers don't seem to notice that it never intersects with the story we're actually following.
Despite its many failings, I was still able to enjoy Amazing Spider-Man 2, for the same reason that I enjoyed the first one; Garfield and Stone. They bring charm to spare to their roles, and Garfield in particular shows the humor and generous spirit of Spider-Man over and over again in his interactions with strangers, loved ones, and villains alike. (He's particularly sweet in his interaction with a boy called Jorge who, in an ideal world, should have been a black kid called Miles.)
One of the strengths of the Amazing Spider-Man franchise is that it really wants to strike an emotional chord, and it chose lead actors who can play those notes (and almost navigate the nasty stalker aspects that inexplicably appear in both movies). The romance feel to me like cosplay at a convention; a welcome inclusion for a broader audience, and one that's going to upset a few people who want, shall we say, a more resolutely "masculine" experience.
The romantic elements of Amazing Spider-Man may be dismissed as "too Twilight", "too CW network show", but I think there's ample room in superhero fiction for stories that female audiences might appreciate more than male audiences, whether it's in the Gwen Stacy mode of romance, or the Black Widow mode of equal kickassery. (It helps that they're both brave, complicated, and competent women.)
The movie gets it right in its leads, its emotional resonance, and its tremendous humor. That makes everything it gets wrong all the more galling. Andrew Garfield deserves better material, and it's frustrating to think he might never be in a Spider-Man movie that's the equal of his talents. A softer reboot of the franchise between the Maguire/Raimi movies and the Garfield/Webb movies would have served everyone so much better. To put it in James Bond terms, a Connery-to-Lazenby reboot would have served us better than a Brosnan-to-Craig. It would have avoided all the plodding reintroductions and allowed these new movies to jump with both feet into a fully realized Spider-Man universe.
That's clearly where Sony wants to be. Its scrambling efforts to build a broader franchise that can support, for example, a Sinister Six movie, have only added bloat to the already over-crowded Amazing movies. Sony wants to be Marvel Studios without exhibiting the patience or discipline that Marvel Studios embraced.
It's idle speculation at best, but I can't help wonder if Spider-Man co-producer Avi Arad believes he knows better and is letting his hubris take over. He struck gold with the original Spider-Man trilogy, but the accomplishments of his former confrères at Marvel have since eclipsed his own. Marvel Studios is the gold standard now, not Arad.
Arad, Garfield, and presumably Webb will get another shot at mastering the formula with a surely guaranteed third Amazing Spider-Man movie, in among whatever other Spider-franchise movies Sony makes.
I'll probably keep coming back, because despite all the problems with Amazing Spider-Man 2, it remains true that I've never watched a modern Spider-Man movie that I didn't enjoy. I probably enjoyed Amazing Spider-Man 2 more than most of my contemporaries will. But it's a hard movie to love.