I wasn’t a big fan of Marc Webb’s new take on our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man, when it came out in 2012.
The web-slinging hero looked great, thanks to updated special effects and costume design. The cast, led by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, were compelling and believable. That made it easier to forget that we’d seen most of these characters just five years earlier in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films.
At least it would’ve been easier to forget Raimi’s version if Webb’s reboot hadn’t felt so much like something we’d already seen before. All of the marketing for The Amazing Spider-Man said this would be “the untold story” of Peter Parker’s origins. Yet it just ended up being much the same story of Parker getting bitten by a radioactive (or genetically enhanced) spider, gaining superhuman abilities and learning what happens if he doesn’t use those powers responsibly.
This wasn’t the untold story; it was the retold story. Even if the movie looked great and applied some slight differences to the hero, the sameness of it all was disappointing — and actually felt pointless. If anything, Webb’s film made me appreciate Raimi’s 2002 version more, because it established so much more of Spider-Man’s world in its two hours.
But as it turns out, the “untold story” we were supposed to get was apparently cut out of this reboot so that its new angles and shocking revelations could be saved for the sequels to come. So if you were wondering why we were supposed to care about Parker’s parents in the last Spidey film (other than the fact that they left their kid with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, then ditched town), Webb’s follow-up addresses that right away. And the repercussions of that opening scene play out later in the movie.
Our first glimpse of Spider-Man in this new film finds him blissfully soaring through New York City. I imagine the filmmakers feel much the same way, unburdened from the obligation of retelling the hero’s origin story. The sequence shows what Webb and his special effects team are capable of doing.
Spider-Man has never looked better on the big screen. His redesigned suit looks spectacular, true to the comic books, the best version of the costume ever created for live action. And Spidey’s web-swinging through the city has never been more impressive. This is no longer a guy hurtling through the air while holding onto a slim thread, looking more like a video game creation than cinematic image.
We get a first-person view of his preferred mode of travel, high above the streets and between skyscrapers. We see the physics — and physical effort — involved. He contorts his body to create less resistance and draws the web more taut to generate more force. And he climbs up that web when he needs to get higher. The careful attention to detail is truly impressive.
There are so many things that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gets right. The tone of the character — most importantly, the balance between wise-cracking antagonist, quick thinker, clever problem solver and compassionate hero concerned for saving lives — resembles the one so many of us followed in the comic books, rather than the brooder we saw in the previous film. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his mopey, angsty moments, which is also true to Spidey.
However, there’s so much more light to this portrayal. Maybe the best example of this is the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, a romance compelling enough to deserve its own film. Without it, the movie would be a soulless exercise in special effects, action and comic book storytelling tropes. Sometimes, the romance and love interest aspects of a superhero film are eye-rolling, a blatant reach for a wider, female audience. Here, it’s the glue.
Much of the credit for this has to go to Stone for making Gwen a substantial character, not simply a distraction or damsel in distress. As an audience, we have to fall in love with her so we can understand why Peter is so infatuated. But that’s really not so difficult. C’mon — who isn’t in love with Emma Stone these days? (Watch her lip sync!) You almost want Peter to give up being Spider-Man so he can just spend all of his time with this woman. Yet… you also can’t help but wonder if he’s holding her back.
But for all the dazzling visuals and sizzling chemistry between the leads, there still has to be a story to pull us along for two-and-a-half hours. (Could Webb have gotten by on sweet special effects, cool set pieces and loads of goopy romance? Probably, but he’s a better filmmaker than that. And the stakes are too high these days with the multitudes of superhero movies populating theaters in the present and future.) Unfortunately, that’s where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 falls short against competition like Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The movie’s biggest weakness is with its villain. Jamie Foxx has shown that he’s a fine actor in plenty of films such as Collateral, Ray (for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award) and Django Unchained. Hell, he was good in White House Down. He can do drama and comedy equally well, he shines in lead and supporting roles. That versatility would seem to make him a great fit for a superhero movie.
But I don’t think Foxx is at fault here as Max Dillon (or Electro). He can only work with what he’s given, and is believable as a meek nerd starved for attention and affirmation. Although I think the script pushes that idea too hard throughout the movie. Even if Dillon was constantly overlooked and put-upon, when he says things like “she remembered my name” after a conversation with Gwen Stacy, it’s being laid on pretty thick.
Electro largely comes off like a villain from one of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies — a hero-worshiping mouse who’s given the opportunity to roar. But his motivations are so thin that it just becomes clear he’s whatever the story needs him to be.
Dillon’s admiration of Spider-Man demonstrates how much of an icon the hero has become. After he has the accident that gives him power over electricity (and basically turns him into a human battery), Electro wants to take over New York City’s main power grid. But why? Because he designed it and wants credit for that? Because he needs to feed on electricity and that would be the most satisfying meal possible?
What’s truly baffling is why and how Dillon goes from admiring Spider-Man to wanting to kill him for seemingly no reason. But that makes for a fantastic set piece in Times Square, probably the best sequence in the movie. Not only do we see what Electro’s powers can do, but it allows us to see Spider-Man think fast and save lives. But we know Foxx is capable of so much more than just shooting lightning from his hands and snarling with mad power.
Maybe screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, along with Webb, knew they didn’t have a great villain with Electro and that’s why they decided to shoehorn in a couple of more. We see Paul Giamatti as a Russian mobster who’s eventually given an armored suit and becomes the Rhino. But he’s really an incidental character. The true villain of the piece, the one who plays a role in the most climactic and shocking moment of the story, is Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn (or the Green Goblin, though he’s never called that in this movie).
If you’ve read the comic books or seen Raimi’s prior trilogy, you know that Peter and Harry are childhood friends largely torn apart by the manipulation of Harry’s father, Norman Osborn. That was the basis of the 2002 Spider-Man.
But if you didn’t know that previously, I’m not sure Webb makes the friendship between Peter and Harry a compelling story point. We’re told in brief scenes that the two grew up together as good friends and were there for each other through painful times. But this is never given enough time to really make us care. It’s not a tragic fall from grace, as in Raimi’s films. The relationship, perceived betrayal and climactic battle between the two is just something to push the story along to something bigger.
Ultimately, that’s the biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. As with so many superhero franchises that aspire to trilogies and multi-film epics, this movie is more of a middle chapter than a complete story. It picks up where Webb’s previous film left and brings some storylines to an end, but serves mostly to extend previously dangling plot threads or begin new narratives that will be resolved in future films.
That just seems to be the way of doing business nowadays, in light of the success Marvel has had with The Avengers and the individual films that led up to it. Fans of summer blockbusters probably don’t mind because they’ll go see the next one, no matter what. And comic book fans are used to individual issues that are just pieces of a bigger story that will eventually be collected in a paperback collection.
But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 couldn’t stand on its own without what came before it and the promise of what’s to come. Everyone involved — whether it’s the filmmakers, the cast or the paying audience — deserves better than that.
One final gripe: The music in this film is awful. Spider-Man’s main theme sounds like something you’d hear in an infomercial. It’s the kind of synthesized music that would introduce a newscast in movie (which never seems to sound like the newscast intros we hear in real life).
Hans Zimmer is credited as the composer — along with Johnny Marr and Pharrell Williams were responsible for individual songs on the soundtrack — but this is nothing close to his work on The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel or 12 Years a Slave. With so many superhero films out now, it’s surely difficult to compose memorable themes for every one. But this almost sounded like a placeholder or replacement score.