When a film that rakes in big box office numbers faces an alarming volume of critical backlash, it is a challenge for filmmakers and production companies to know what parts of their formula to tweak for the sequel. Case in point, 2012’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. While the franchise reboot was not universally panned, fans and critics who saw glaring issues with the film were much more vocal than you might find with other lifeless blockbusters. Sony Pictures and, by extension, director Marc Webb had to have had this in mind when developing THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and the result is a sequel that is substantially better than that its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t a great film, and perhaps this review will be equal parts whining about what I don’t like and damning the film with otherwise faint praise. Either way, I think it is worth noting that the filmmakers at least tried to make a better film than the previous installment.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 presents itself more like a trailer for the four upcoming Spider-man franchise films that have been announced than as a work that can stand on its own two feet. I’m not normally one to complain about franchise building in the age of modern-day filmmaking; Disney/Marvel thrives by positioning each of their films as a teaser for the next to come, and Warner Bros. is looking to emulate that strategy with the JUSTICE LEAGUE franchise. What the AVENGERS films do effectively is contain their narratives in way that are individually satisfying if not seen in the context of the overarching cinematic universe. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, on the other hand, clumsily juggles several narrative threads that serve no purpose than to set up the sequels.
Let’s review the major plot lines, and don’t worry; I’ll steer clear of major spoiler territory. After the events of the first film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), is at odds with his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), afraid that his identity may put her in danger. As this ‘will they / won’t they’ relationship plays out, socially awkward Oscorp scientist Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is granted powers that may make the world finally take notice of him. Meanwhile, Peter’s childhood best friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan) has returned to New York City after an extended stay at a boarding school, with the intent of taking over his father’s business. A family secret puts him on a collision course with Spider-man, a secret linked to the research of Peter’s father Richard Parker, which Peter himself has been obsessing over in recent months.
Whew. That’s four major plot lines, perhaps two more than this film needed. Especially tedious is the amount of time devoted to Jamie Foxx’s Electro character; his motivations are flimsy and one-note, and his ultimate role in the story is nothing more than that of a mini-boss or henchman. The film devotes a lot of time trying to make us sympathize with him, time that could have better been spent elsewhere.
Likewise, the Richard Parker back story / plot is a black hole of emotional energy. I’ll admit, a lot of this comes from my own personal biases. Creating a backstory that forces an interwoven backstory linking Parker and Oscorp makes the world of Spider-man feel small and claustrophobic. As a long time fan of the comics, I prefer my web-slinger choosing to accept the responsibility of his powers rather than having the burden forced on him by familial ties. Regardless of whether I like the plot hook itself, I could live with it if the execution was effective. Instead, it is forced into the film with all of the grace of a rampaging rhino.
Hey, and speaking of rampaging rhinos, let’s talk about the costume design of the villains! THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 gives us our favorite wall crawler not one, not two, but three antagonists to trade blows and verbal jabs with. Each of the three villains that Spidey comes across – Electro, the Green Goblin, and the Rhino – need serious costume and make-up overhauls. Electro looks bland, the Rhino is underwhelming, and the Green Goblin is a an absolute train wreck of character design. For a franchise based on a comic series that prides itself on its colorful rogues gallery, Sony has made an effort to sap the life out of Spidey’s foes.
Of course, there are a few dramatic improvements that THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 makes over the first film. The costume design for Spider-man himself, as well as the shots of him swinging around New York City, are visually impressive. This is perhaps the best looking Spider-man we’ve seen on the big screen to date. Likewise, the electricity effects are stunning, especially in 3D. While this film isn’t the best 3D film I’ve ever seen, with very few scenes designed to really jump out at you, the 3D does make the electrical bursts that Electro flings around look all the more menacing. In fact, my favorite sequence in the film is the first encounter between Electro and Spider-man in Times Square, a scene that manages to combine fun banter, engaging character beats, and well-choreographed action. Director Marc Webb even chooses to include a slow-motion sequence that makes Spidey’s heroics all the more visually stunning.
The real heart of the film is in the chemistry that Andrew Garfield has with the rest of the cast when he isn’t wearing the mask. I’m still not convinced that he is the best casting decision for Peter Parker, coming across as a lovable slacker more than a nerdy kid who has transformed into something more. At least here, unlike the previous film, Garfield seems to embrace his character instead of being limited by it. Garfield’s relationship with Emma Stone off the screen translates into tangible chemistry on-screen that is rivaled only by the earnest and sincere friendship that Garfield and Dehaan bring to the Peter/Harry relationship. Marc Webb earned his reputation as the director of the sublime (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, a film anchored purely in the nebulous waters of human relationships. Webb brings a glimmer of that magic to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, enough so that I found myself disappointed whenever Spider-man had to costume up and rush off to action.
Ultimately, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is a middle of the pack feature for me, with legitimately interesting elements overshadowed by big budget, franchise building moments. Still, it is a better film that its predecessor, eve if it was forced to derail its own narrative for the sake of setting up future films. I hope that in future installments, Sony allows the films to work both as stand-alone features and as parts of complex long-form story; otherwise, we’re in for a long, bumpy road.