I’m actually glad I read so many negative advance reviews of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They lowered my expectations to the point where I went in prepared to see a disaster on the order of Batman and Robin or X-Men 3: The Last Stand . . . or Spider-Man 3. So I was surprised—very pleasantly so—to find myself actually enjoying Marc Webb’s sequel to his 2012 series reboot. My feeling is, if you liked the last one, you’ll probably like this one too.
The film picks up about a year after its immediate predecessor, with Peter Parker (once again played by the perfectly cast Andrew Garfield) having settled into a nice groove as the web-slinging crime fighter—he’s having a great time stopping bad guys, and is even making some money from it, as he occasionally sells photos of his exploits to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (who is represented here by a couple of amusing e-mails—but when are we gonna see him already?). Peter is also graduating from high school, along with his beloved girlfriend Gwen Stacy (the exquisite Emma Stone, who is even better here than she was in the previous movie—and that’s saying something), with both headed for college.
|Gwen's future is looking bright.|
In the meantime, Gwen is continuing her internship at Oscorp, the scientific research company founded by Norman Osborn, who, if you recall from last time, is desperately seeking a cure for the disease that is killing him. We’re finally introduced to Norman here, and he’s played by Chris Cooper, who would not have been my first choice to take over the role from the more youthful and dynamic Willem Dafoe. But Norman has a fairly limited role in this film, not really enough to make much of an impression, though I am left wondering if Webb and his team have future plans for him.
Norman’s son Harry (Dane DeHaan)—who was Peter’s close friend when they were children—returns to New York after years abroad to see his ailing father, and reconnects with Peter. But it turns out that Harry has the same affliction as his father, and he becomes convinced that the key to curing himself is Spider-Man’s blood. Aware that there’s some sort of connection between Peter and Spider-Man, Harry implores his friend to convince the wall-crawler to help him. Peter wants to help Harry, but he’s concerned about what his genetically re-engineered blood will do to his friend, considering what happened to Dr. Curt Connors in the previous film when he messed around with this kind of stuff (he became the Lizard, in case you missed it).
Meanwhile, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nebbishy maintenance man at Oscorp, meets Spider-Man when the web-slinger saves his life during a melee in the streets of Manhattan. In the aftermath, Dillon develops an unhealthy fixation on the superhero—and then survives an accident at Oscorp involving damaged electrical lines and electric eels being used in genetic experiments. Dillon is transformed into an energy being who feeds on the city’s power grid, and renames himself Electro. In this new form, he encounters Spider-Man again, but the wall-crawler fails to live up to his expectations and earns Electro’s wrath—which is a major problem, as Dillon is becoming more and more powerful and is beginning to see himself as godlike.
There are other plot threads, as well. A Russian thug played by a hilariously unhinged Paul Giamatti shows up a couple of times, and is set up for future appearances. The mystery of Peter Parker’s deceased parents (played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), established in the previous film, is further developed—and pretty much resolved—here. (Interestingly, no mention is made of Spider-Man’s ongoing search for the criminal who killed his uncle Ben.) And Peter is racked with guilt over the fact that he has broken his promise to Gwen’s late father, NYPD Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), that he would stay away from Gwen and not let her get caught up in his activities as Spider-Man. Captain Stacy haunts Peter throughout the film, casting disapproving glares at the young hero.
So there’s a LOT going on in this film, almost more than its running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours can handle. And there was clearly plenty of additional stuff that got cut out during the editing process—key moments that were shown in the trailers are missing in the final cut. And an entire subplot featuring Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson was removed entirely. (I absolutely agree with this decision, by the way—adding Mary Jane would have been one element too many. I can’t see any way that they could have introduced her into this movie without it feeling totally forced. In addition, I don’t think Woodley was a good choice for the role to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good actress, but I find that she lacks the charisma and sexiness to play MJ the way she ought to be portrayed. Alas, the ideal actress to play Mary Jane is . . . Emma Stone. Oh well!)
But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is never boring. The pacing is solid, the storylines are compelling, and the character interactions are wonderful. All of which sets it apart—FAR apart—from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which continues to be the absolute nadir of the Spider-Man movies.
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have incredible chemistry (no surprise, given their real-life relationship status)—it reminds me of Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies. Their scenes together absolutely sparkle, and watching them play off one another is a real delight.
|Peter and Gwen get a rare opportunity for some quality time.|
Actually, Garfield has a great rapport with pretty much everyone in this film—there is one scene in particular, between him and the magnificent Sally Field as Aunt May, that very nearly brought me to tears.
|Peter and Aunt May confront some painful family history.|
And Garfield and DeHaan’s Harry really do seem like old friends reunited. DeHaan is fine in the role—it’s a strong, multi-layered performance, though I found his Harry to be a bit creepier than James Franco’s, which makes it all the more obvious that he’s not going to be on the side of the angels for very long.
|Harry Osborn can't escape his family legacy.|
|... and after.|
For me, the absolute worst element of the film was the character of Dr. Kafka, a scientist working at the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane, played by an actor named Marton Csokas. Never mind the fact that in the comics, Dr. Kafka is a woman. Csokas plays Kafka completely over the top, as if he thought he was appearing in the Adam West Batman TV series, and delivers one of the most ridiculous German accents I have ever heard, more comical than anything in Hogan’s Heroes.
And as with the previous film, the musical score is totally unmemorable. Hans Zimmer replaces James Horner, and surprisingly, neither of these fine composers have come close to surpassing the work of Danny Elfman on the Raimi-directed Spidey movies—and this is coming from someone who doesn’t think that Elfman’s work was particularly spectacular. (Then again, the bar was set by John Williams with Superman: The Movie—it's doubtful anyone will ever be able to top that.)
On the other end of the spectrum, I cannot say enough good things about Spider-Man’s new costume. I’m so glad that the filmmakers decided to ditch the one from the previous film and return to the classic look established by legendary artist Steve Ditko in the very first Spider-Man story, back in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15.
Garfield’s new outfit is beautiful, easily rivaling the one Tobey Maguire wore—and in some areas, especially the eyes, it is actually a significant improvement. I did find it notable that no one in the film, not even Gwen, mentioned that Spidey is suddenly wearing new duds. (Maybe that was one of the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor?)
I was also pleased that Spider-Man’s trademark wit and mischievous nature were very much on display in this film—a stark contrast to Tobey Maguire’s Spidey, who was far more serious and hardly ever made wisecracks. And the movie goes out of its way to show Spider-Man making it a priority to save and protect civilians and first responders from the chaos and destruction caused by Electro’s rampage. Take that, Man of Steel!
In addition, Spider-Man himself gets plenty of screen time—and he keeps his mask on for most of it! This is a huge step forward.
Without getting too heavily into spoiler territory, I will say that the film is based in part on one of the most important Spider-Man stories ever published. In that sense, it’s a bit like X-Men 3: The Last Stand, which took many of its cues from the now-legendary comic-book storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” But unlike that cinematic misfire, which reached for the stars but never even got off the ground, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does its original source material proud, though not everyone will be pleased. I can say no more.
Longtime Spidey fans are sure to catch at least some of the numerous in-jokes (the number 121 figures prominently in one key scene) and subtle hints of future story plans. There’s even a shout-out to Star Trek—I guess Webb is a fan.
I’ve seen some criticisms aimed at this film that I found to be fairly petty and downright ridiculous. Granted, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has its flaws, but they are totally outweighed by its virtues. I still wish Marvel had the film rights—I think they would do an even better job with the property. Their most recent release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is one of the best superhero movies ever made, hands down. But Webb and his team have put together a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying film, and it’s nice to know that they will be back for at least one more Spider-Man movie. (Then again, I felt the same way about Sam Raimi and company after their Spider-Man 2, so maybe I shouldn’t be too optimistic. For now, at least, I’ll give Webb the benefit of the doubt.) I’m interested in seeing where they take things next, because at the end of this film, Spider-Man is left in a very, shall we say, intriguing place indeed.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.