At long last, the sequel to the reboot of the film series based on the comics is here! In the jam-packed Amazing Spider-Man 2 director Marc Webb’s trilogy continues with more villains, more angst, more money for special effects, more merchandising tie-ins, more credited screenwriters, less closure, and much lower expectations because of all of the above elements that have made many a super-hero sequel unwatchable.
Short version for the unfamiliar: When last we left Our Hero (Andrew Garfield), he promised a dying man he’d stay away forever from Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) so she won’t be stuffed in a refrigerator like so many other mistreated, poorly written super-hero girlfriends. The end of Part 1 led us to believe Peter Parker was reneging on that promise, but now he’s plagued by an imaginary Arthur Stacy ghost (an uncharacteristically silent Denis Leary) who’s guilt-tripping our new, confident Peter into acting like Tobey Maguire’s mopey Peter instead.
And because Peter always needs more problems, dear old Aunt May (Sally Field) is struggling more and more with him, Uncle Ben’s absence (no ghostly cameos for him), and their mounting bills. A random encounter with an unhealthily daydreaming loner named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) leaves behind a false impression that complicates matters after a series of unfortunate events turns him into a human generator calling himself Electro. Peter’s former friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns from boarding school with a new set of responsibilities, a few thorns in his side, and a terminal problem only Spidey could solve for him, but at a tremendous safety risk. And the mystery deaths of Peter’s late parents (a returning Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) continue to haunt him with their seemingly harsh meaninglessness, about which he flails and roars as if they left him to go partying and just forgot to pick him up.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Boy, is this one filled up:
* Paul Giamatti has exactly two (2) scenes as an angry, hairless Boris Badenov who later acquires new equipment and a new nickname as the Rhino.
* Chris Cooper appears briefly as the sinister Norman Osborn, who’s quickly shuffled out of the movie because someone made the wise decision to have Spider-Man not spend two hours punching a grumpy old man.
* Colm Feore is a blindered, pitiless lackey who continues the twisted work of his absentee supervisors regardless of the cost, pretty much the same role he played on season one of Revolution.
* BJ Novak (Ryan from The Office) has two scenes as a scientist named Smythe, the same name as father/son villainous scientists from the comics who built heavily armed robots called Spider-Slayers. Here, he just shows up for the chance to treat Jamie Foxx like dirt.
* Li’l Max Charles from ABC’s recently canceled The Neighbors (and who recently voiced the human half of Mr. Peabody and Sherman) returns as li’l Petey in flashbacks.
* Marton Csokas, who was barely seen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Galadriel’s pointless husband Celeborn, is more visible and vocal as a gender-bent version of a comics character named Dr. Kafka. In print, she cared somewhat about her patients in all the stories I read; his version is a mad, cackling torturer.
* Yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The best parts of the movie are Spidey’s interactions with the citizens and visitors of New York City. He doesn’t just punch baddies; he saves the lives of as many nearby folks as he possibly can. Whether it’s from a human battering ram, from random car crashes, from collapsing buildings, or from potential electrocution, Peter isn’t fixated on just trading punches with the bad guys. He realizes the point in helping the helpless and giving hope to the hopeless. It’s that kind of heart that makes Spidey who he is — not a costumed wrestling champion, but a hero.
This time around, strange dichotomies connect Peter with — or rather, disconnect from — all the major characters. Aunt May now has secrets of her own to harbor from her secretive nephew, one of them involving a lifesaving uniform of her own choosing. Gwen and Peter both graduate from hard-science high school, but Gwen’s the only one who seems to be making use of her book-learning in college. Granted, Peter and Gwen are the cutest couple I’ve seen in a modern movie in quite a while (at one point they save the city together!), but hard decisions naturally stand in their way.
Max Dillon is intellectually talented like Peter, but suffers from workplace bullying, social anxieties, and low self-esteem caused by his virtual invisibility to the rest of the world. When his electrical powers drag him into the spotlight in a major way, his stunned surprise and zero self-control create a deadly scene and media circus that give all glory to Spidey and turn him into the villain before he’s even had the chance to decide. Unfortunately his ultimate conclusion is that with great power comes great entitlement.
As played by Dane DeHaan (in an entirely different manner from his turn as a super-powered victim-turned-psychopath in Chronicle), this version of Harry Osborn is the most confident, least spineless, scariest Harry we’ve ever seen, in print or film. We can tell he’s definitely his father’s son when he responds to various backstabbings not with a mewling Hamlet soliloquy, but with the sort of increasingly shrewd plans you’d expect from a villain in the making, even if a little improv is required to mitigate occasional unforeseen consequences. The deeper into the film we get, the deeper Harry’s fury seethes in stark contrast to Peter’s peacekeeping efforts.
Nitpicking? If only any of these thematic arcs paid off. Don’t get me wrong: the superhuman fights are another round of typically amazing CG work, fraught with peril and surprises and laughs and at least one sickening jolt. But the part where Spidey and Electro fight as two sides of the fame/infamy coin? The part where Peter and Harry are at odds over whether or not Peter can or should help him? The part where Aunt May had a subplot? The ghost of Denis Leary? The part where Peter finally learns how his parents died heroically? Pretty much everything is concluded in the final half-hour with, “They fight and fight and fight.” It’s less about closure for almost anyone and more about putting brakes on everything before the movie crosses the 140-minute deadline. And nothing stops a super-hero movie in its tracks like fighting.
I’d be a tad more forgiving if the fights worked as scenes from a flesh-‘n’-blood movie. They’re worth watching in their own way if I think of them as video game cutscenes, but when this happens, I’m no longer in film-watching mode. I’m still appreciating art of a sort, but I’m waiting patiently for my controller to reactivate so I can get back to playing and interacting. This mental jostling is particularly distracting during the inventive chase scenes that couldn’t possibly be filmed with real humans, not even the world’s most highly skilled stuntmen or contortionists. Beyond a certain point, Jamie Foxx’s balancing act between Max the Sad Nebbish and Max the Vengeful Twin of Dr. Manhattan vanishes, to be replaced by an Electro who’s so animated and so buried in vocal distortions that union stand-ins could’ve finished the movie for him and we’d never know the difference.
Also: when explosive trouble goes down in Times Square at night, I love how parade cordons appear magically from nowhere around the battlefield, all for the hundreds of frightened bystanders to stand behind while they keep watching the dangers escalate and the damage estimates rise.
Also also: when Harry inevitably transforms into the Goblin, it’s less than half an hour before the credits roll, giving him all of two minutes to throw himself into the role before it’s time for Final Boss Battle. Thankfully someone in OsCorp’s experimental evil weapons division just so happens to be working on a one-man riding-glider prototype that lets Harry arrive in time for the finale. Part of me wonders if the glider’s inventor entertained visions of the U.S. military buying hundreds of thousands of these gliders so that entire platoons could fly into battle from on high, filling and obscuring the airspace, and somehow not colliding with each other into one giant Keystone Kops dogpile. But that’s just me.
So did I like it or not? Despite the presence of three costumed villains, two villains’ names that appear to have been used gratuitously with zero chance of suiting up, two spare villain suits that have no users yet, and the fairly schlocky Dr. Kafka, this exciting but overstuffed sequel never quite devolves into the Batman and Robin PTSD flashback that I dreaded it might. The first ninety minutes are certainly playing for keeps, as both Harry and Electro have formidable screen presence as long as their respective actors are allowed onscreen to command it. All the scenes between Peter and his loved ones nail all the best parts about Peter/Spidey in the comics. But when the time comes for the summer blockbuster explosions to take over, its technically marvelous displays cost it some points, especially in comparison with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 or the more recent Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which unfairly raised the bar a bit beyond Spidey’s reach.
How about those end credits? There’s no scene during or after the Amazing Spider-Man 2 end credits that’s connected to the film itself, but the scrolling is disrupted partway through for an unusual bonus: a clip from X-Men: Days of Future Past, coming to theaters Memorial Day weekend from Fox. Awfully generous of Sony to sell them the ad space.
That scene: Academy Award Winner Jennifer Lawrence dons her complicated Mystique bodysuit one last time to rescue Toad, Quill, some guy like Havok, and maybe a few other random mutants from military tent captivity. Ta-da.