“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper
Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner (screenplay); Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, & James Vanderbilt (screen story). Based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Directed by: Marc Webb
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
It would be perfectly understandable for audiences to feel cynical about the ‘Spider-Man’ films. After all the time, money, and emotional investment both the filmmakers and audiences shelled out for Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Sony “rewarded” everyone by hitting control-alt-delete on the franchise simply out of laziness and rights retention issues. Coupled with the obvious fact that the first “Amazing” entry did little to deviate from the previous films, the whole saga has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.
Now cometh the latest entry, hastily produced to capture whatever unique need we might have had for Marvel’s teenage hero. What are we to make of this latest incarnation, and should we even care? Absolutely, we should. I’m pleased to report that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has most everything I never knew I didn’t have in a Spidey story. Sure, this film exists in a familiar world, but it also offers enough new material and thrills to the point of reinvigorating my interest in the character, errors be damned. It was a monumental task that could just as easily have fallen flat, but director Marc Webb and crew somehow constructed the most enjoyable web-slinger adventure thus far.
Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, whose world has settled a bit after the events of the first film. He’s grown into and loves being Spider-Man, he’s rekindled his romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), and seems to be headed in the right direction on the cusp of high school graduation (let’s ignore that Garfield is 30 years old). In contrast to Raimi’s trilogy, where being a hero seemed such a burden on Peter, he seems to genuinely enjoy his role as hero now, carrying the right balance of braggadocio and humility. Dare I say it, Spider-Man is a heck of a lot of fun in this film.
Part of that comes from perhaps the best pairing of a superhero and love interest on-screen to date. As cliché as it sounds, Stone and Garfield absolutely have great chemistry together. It’s clear to me that they want to kiss each other, and their emotion never seems forced; the fact that they are dating off-screen does add a specific resonance to the fates of both characters. It nearly seemed like these two had already been together for an entire trilogy. Gwen Stacy is simply a worthy partner to Spider-Man’s greatness in every way- she’s self-sufficient, ambitious, resourceful, and so darned understanding of what Peter’s duality is. Garfield himself is far more natural in the role the second time around; he played it oddly in the first, with what I can only describe as emo-twitches.
There is a loose end to tie up from the first film- Peter’s parents. After all, they apparently left forever when he was a young boy, and The Boy Who Would Be Spider-Man has been left to doubt himself and wonder why. That inner battle with his self-doubt is the driving force behind the film’s emotion, and even drives the plot. Peter’s father, a brilliant scientist in his own right, may have been partially responsible for some rather devious experiments while working alongside magnate Norman Osborn (Cooper). This leads to an entire subplot involving a ‘special projects’ department at Oscorp, and the introduction of Norman’s son Harry (DeHaan) and Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Foxx).
Brief as it may be, the dynamic between the elder and younger Osborns is interesting and unexpected. The duality between the two intentionally mirrors that of the Parker father/son duo, and it becomes very clear why Harry is slightly unhinged. He’s trying to become his own man in the shadow of an awful father and a sprawling family business. He’s been in boarding school for a decade. He’s unbalanced. Dane DeHaan pulls off unhinged and unbalanced with ease, and his unconventional delivery, though it may seem odd, serves him well in this role.
Foxx’s Max Dillon is another interesting character, and his story also makes sense. He’s a loner, so much so that he idolizes with extreme prejudice (especially Spider-Man). When he eventually sheds that feeling and reaches his breaking point, it’s logical that he becomes Electro. Electro is a character with some gravity, for the previously powerless Max is granted enormous power, and does not execute that power with great responsibility (see what I did there?). Plus, he’s a dangerous dude, also a little unhinged. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” gives us a villains that align out of necessity and are in lock-step with logic. As a result, it feels more satisfying and less forced. It’s ‘logical villainosity’ as I see it.
By my last count, there are many more villains in this film, some not fully realized yet, some perhaps lurking in the darkness. The wise move to focus on just two, however, helps this film stay clutter-free, unlike the famously flawed, overflowing “Spider-Man 3”. On the other hand, merely introducing the idea of additional baddies, gives the architects of this cinematic saga the leeway to plug and play if necessary. It’s a smart move that should satisfy both hardcore fans (put that villain in there!) and casual viewers (that’s not logical!) of the series.
It’s necessary to praise the look of this film as well, for it’s the strongest part. Those that groaned about the special effects in the earliest trailers (myself included) quite simply owe the effects team an apology, for this film is brilliantly rendered, with a vibrant palate that keeps from becoming too colorful. The 3-D effect here was immersive, adding the depth required of a character swinging through the air via webs, or with electricity bounding in all directions. For the first time, Spider-Man doesn’t look like Gumby when he’s CGI gliding in-between skyscrapers. Even New York becomes NEW YORK here, realized better that any film in the series.
My chief complaint with the Raimi films was the ‘stodginess’ of the stories. At nearly every turn, we found some character waxing poetic about power and responsibilities, mixed with Kirsten Dunst turning her head ever-so-slightly followed by another set of maudlin dialogue, and peppered with awkward, forced emotion scenes. To be fair, there are a number of positive aspects of the trilogy as well, but to be honest, I find it forgettable, and something of a chore to watch. On the other hand, Marc Webb has managed to pull off a highly difficult task, creating a technically brilliant film that should satisfy both the die-hard comic fans and the thrill-seeking crowd, all while having to make difficult editing choices and making something seem relevant and not simply setting up another film.
I won’t detail the actual finale to this film, but bold would be the best word to describe it. It’s visceral, and doesn’t cheat; it’s simply there to digest, brilliantly realized without any pulled punches. I found myself liking this so much that I even forgave mishaps like the unfortunate ‘Rhino’ and Ravencroft psychologist characters. With this entry, Webb has made his saga stand apart from Raimi’s, for this is bolder, fresher, far more fun, and less awkwardly operatic than any of the previous four attempts. It ends with a specific momentum, that seems correctly on-track to become something larger. To butcher Dickens’ prose, “it is a far, far better thing that Webb does, than he has ever done” with this sequel.
There was palpable, actual danger in this film, and the stakes just seemed higher. The story’s events led me to believe that they weren’t interested in the same choreographed story line of most superhero films, and the jarring nature of the ending created a tension not present in these films until now. It’s exciting. I actually like Spider-Man a whole lot more than I did before this film, and I’m looking forward to an expanded take on the character and what I presume to be a vast array of nemeses. Bring on Green Goblin. Bring on Vulture. Bring on Dr. Octopus, or Venom, or whomever this creative team decides to throw at Spidey next; it’s no longer a chore to watch him.
*Note- If you’re like me and have become accustomed to waiting until the end of the credits for a specific scene to set up the next film, don’t bother. If you’re interested in a non-sensical, contractually forced teaser clip for rival Fox’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in the middle of this film’s credits, then by all means stay. It was an unfortunate coda.