Talking to himself in delusional outbursts, an increasingly mad genius develops super powers that make him finally feel as if the world might take him seriously. Or at least notice him. The eternal dweeb, he sets out to get revenge on a personal hero who slighted him (an unforgivable sin to the bullied psyche) and to find the fame he deserves.
That’s how Jim Carrey’s Riddler is born in Batman Forever, and it’s also how Jamie Foxx’s Electro is born in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They are both brilliant losers who worship at the feet of superheroes (Bruce Wayne for Ed Nygma and Spider-Man for Max Dillon). Both are transformed by injured anger, both are crushed under the heel of asshole middle management bosses and both boil over when they don’t receive the respect they feel entitled to.
Early on in Spidey’s latest adventure – especially whenever Foxx is on screen – it’s easy to pick up on the Batman Forever DNA. Luckily, Peter Parker is the only acrobatic orphan who shows up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Of course the movie also doesn’t share the look of Joel Schumacher’s Gothic cartoon cabaret, and with some interesting character choices, it acts as a redemptive mulligan for one of the worst superhero adventures in modern memory.
The plot to AS-M2 doesn’t boil down easily. It’s not like Villain X is terrorizing the city again, and Peter Parker has to swing into action. It’s more like Peter (Andrew Garfield) is dealing with post-graduation life, a complicated relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the recurring visage of her father reminding him of a promise he made to stay away for her safety, his continued patrolling of a city that fears him, the return of an old friend in Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), the rise of a crazed human battery who might be more powerful than Peter’s alter ego, and the ever-present mystery of his parents’ decade-old disappearance.
All of those spinning plates defy the core question that hits Peter in a Hollywood back lot version of Chinatown when Gwen breaks up with him: if he’s invested in so many other people, how can isolation be the right answer for protecting those he loves?
It’s not a new question for heroes (super or not), but director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & Jeff Pinkner find a fresh way to explore it by seeing it realistically through the eyes of a cocky teenager. This isn’t the hardened warrior pushing everyone away with his muttonchops and surly demeanor; it’s a wisdom-free boy unable to resist any and all temptation.
On that front, Garfield is once again perfect for the role. Peter is conflicted, and Garfield draws that angst to the surface with practiced verbal awkwardness that evokes the “effortless” Vaudeville pratfall. He’s endlessly charming both when he’s cracking breezy jokes in the heat of a car chase and when he’s saying the almost-right things to the woman he loves.
Stone is a terrific partner in chemistry, bringing a sense of fumbling adorableness that often outweighs Garfield’s. In a scene re-establishing their friendship, they lay down ground rules on the attractive things neither can do if they’re to stay platonic, and it’s a list of quirky moves both actors do that suckers us into loving them. Every little thing they do is magic. A couple profoundly drawn to one another by a force clearly stronger than both of them combined. As a pair, they work perfectly, and the movie gives them plenty of room to run.
It’s also refreshing to see a superhero girlfriend who 1) isn’t in the dark about his identity and 2) can actively help when things get dangerous. In a way, the movie slowly becomes The Adventures of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.
Unsurprisingly, they’re the beating heart of a movie that often feels clunky. Like a cross-town subway ride where you have to change trains half a dozen times just to reach your destination, the story never gels. Individual scenes lead into others without much or any connective tissue, and even singular storylines don’t always seem to pick up where they left off. Call it a fault of editing or writing or the inescapable nature of a movie where we need to meet and greet two new characters with their own divergent paths.
Beyond the Riddler-echoing Electro (who Foxx turns into one of the more empathetic, sad sack baddies), Dane DeHaan brings his Hitler youth haircut to another neglected figure: an archetypal abandoned rich boy who’s father puts him in charge of a multi-billion-dollar corporation doing some bad business. Like Peter and Electro, Harry is a figure who has to learn to swim after being thrown into the ocean, and DeHaan brings a sickening energy to the role that makes you think Harry Osborne definitely tortured small animals at prep school.
While Peter, Electro and Harry all have core traits in common, the movie attempts to juggle two origin stories and a struggling familiar friend without any smooth motions. It’s weakened by repetitive exposition of even the simplest concepts and by a plot where this thing happens, then this thing happens, then this other thing happens. To the former, Chris Cooper gives it his grizzled best as Norman Osborne only to be cut off at the knees having to explain left field (yet key) information to his son. It’s the norm. Emotional scenes are often deflated by characters essentially saying, “Oh, and here’s a THING you need to know that will PROBABLY BE IMPORTANT later, but I didn’t mention it until now.”
In similar fashion, the music choices often destroy scenes. The worst offense comes while Peter is montage-ing together clues about his father to a poppy song about love that feels both on the nose and completely tone deaf – like the musician’s movie-producing cousin owed him a favor.
Aural digression aside, the only story really served by the structure is Peter and Gwen’s. At first it feels schizophrenic, but it ultimately becomes the natural rhythm for two people who can’t figure out their commitment. Scenes where they fight aren’t automatically followed by scenes where they make up or apologize; their behavior isn’t wholly dictated by what they’ve done before, but the methodical madness evolves into a genuine exploration of a whirlwind relationship where an abnormal couple isn’t dealing with one argument or one joy at a time.
That’s the ultimate feature of this film. Where the writing is weak, the actors do enough heavy lifting to make it work the same way the rebooted Star Trek did. They keep dancing so that we’re distracted and willing to comply. It works. Garfield engages with humor whether it’s sweet sarcasm while pantsing a Russian lowlife (played by a scene-stealing Paul Giamatti) or wearing a diving mask for safety during an ill-advised at-home experiment. Stone reminds us that Gwen has a brain behind her looks and personality.
Plus, Sally Field anchors the movie as Aunt May right when it needs it (twice). While everyone else is muted by blockbuster-style emotion, someone forgot to tell her she had to operate at 90% capacity, and when she cries you want fervently to reach through the screen to console her.
In the seventh or eighth subplot, Peter unravels the truth about his parents’ disappearance, making good on the advertised (but unfulfilled) promise of the first Amazing movie. However satisfying, it’s all too little too late – a clever answer that would have been powerful in the first film but pales in a crowded field. Even as Peter hems and haws over his father’s old satchel and its contents, he’s dealing with so many other things (and other characters are emerging from supporting status with their own issues) that it ends up feeling like a tiny loose end tied up instead of the fundamental catalyst of personal longing that he’s agonized over for years.
On the flashier end of the things, the action also does a lot to distract from the uneven story. While there’s some CGI fog of war, it’s at a minimum, and the choreography pushes limits with unbelievably powerful beings. Spider-Man is a base jumper version this time around, and his movements are balletic as ever, but the real triumph is in designing a villain who is made of pure electricity. Electro’s nature allows them some innovative fight scenes that impress by blacking out Times Square and eventually threatening the entire city. And how do you defeat an enemy who can escape into a socket at any time? Webb and company face that not-necessarily-cinematic character challenge with creativity that allows the intelligent side of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy to shine alongside the bruises.
The action suffers a bit from pointless slow motion, but I’m guessing they inject it early and often in order to acclimate the audience for when they utilize it to profound effect. Otherwise, it’s a lot cleaner than most modern action. Between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, productions might have finally figured out that we enjoy seeing what’s happening on screen.
AS-M2 also bucks another superhero trend – the post-credits scene. They have one, but it’s forfeited to a different franchise entirely, so they embed their tease for AS-M3 into the film itself. It almost works. Almost. It beautifully rounds out one of the villains and provides a serialized feel that compounds the sheer chaos that Spider-Man has dealt with the entire movie, but it looks and feels too much like the post-credits sequences we’ve come to love/loathe. It’s an interesting move, and pre-Marvel dominance it probably would have been interesting and been effective. Instead, it’s sleight of hand where we can see the card up the magician’s sleeve.
Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a thrilling, emotional film with baby fat sticking out of its spandex. It attempts to do too many things with too many drawing board characters, but it isn’t anything close to the mess that it could have been. In getting Peter and Gwen right, it achieves an entertaining and solid foundation on which the rest can wobble. It’s a supermodel with a case of acne and definitely better than its predecessor.
The Upside: Acting is all-around engaging, action is often spectacular and innovative, some emotional moments hit hard, humor is perfect (and perfect for Spider-Man)
The Downside: Clunky with a chance of spoonfed exposition
On the Side: Pharrell Williams co-composed the score with Hans Zimmer which is just a bizarre, bizarre pairing.