Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have chemistry that seems almost absurd. Marc Webb has gotten better at staging comic-book action and seems to have a real feel for why Spider-Man is a great and enduring character. From scene to scene, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is the most Spider-Man movie that Spider-Man has ever been in.
So why doesn't it feel like a movie?
In some ways, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is the perfect modern franchise film. I'm sure that any executive in town who sees it is going to walk away raving, and it won't matter if they like it or not. It is an exercise in franchise management, and it hits every single entry on the checklist perfectly. By the end of this film, they've done a very good job of setting up the next three or four films in the series, but at the expense of this film telling any sort of cohesive story.
If you're worried about spoilers for the film, I'll tread lightly. It won't matter. The moment one character in the film starts talking, they lay out the way the rest of the film will absolutely have to unfold, and from that moment on, it never surprises again. It is an incredibly mechanical movie. While I have some big problems with "Star Trek Into Darkness," that is a much weirder take on what a sequel "should" be than this is. This time out, writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, along with Jeff Pinkner, have built something very familiar, even conventional, and that approach pushes the things that work to the foreground even as it makes a case for the limitations of the entire genre.
The film starts with a scene involving Peter Parker's parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), and it is a big exciting action scene that I didn't buy for a moment. I'll say this much: I was worried that they were laying groundwork to make Peter Parker the Chosen One in this series, a decision that really bothered me. Now I'm not so sure that's the case. I still think it is a frustratingly small world that these films are creating, and it's only going to get smaller the more characters they jam into it in "Venom" and "The Sinister Six" and whatever else they're going to end up making, but at least it's clearer by the end of this film that Peter was not supposed to end up being Spider-Man.
But is coincidence any better than the mono-myth archetype? This entire film only works as a story if you're willing to accept that pretty much every major story point hinges on a gigantic coincidence. And not just one of them, either, but coincidence after coincidence after coincidence. It is a coincidence that Peter happened to be at Oscorp and happened to get bitten by a spider that his father happened to have had a hand in creating, and if that was the only gigantic coincidence we were asked to accept, I'd be willing to shrug it off. But scene after scene of this film piles on the coincidences, to such a degree that if one person.. ANY PERSON… in this film had done ANYTHING even slightly different, then the entire thinly constructed thing would unravel. Instantly.
The first long sequence in the film involving Spider-Man is, frankly, pitch-perfect. If there's any scene in the film that illustrates the full potential of Webb's vision for this series, it's that scene. Peter Parker's clear pleasure in being Spider-Man, his wiseass way of interacting with bad guys, and his desire to save everyone all comes through loud and clear. It's incredibly well-staged, and Spider-Man looks and behaves like Spider-Man in every moment. One of the things that Webb's film does really well, and perhaps the best touch in the entire thing, is that Spider-Man goes out of his way to save people. He is not a fan of collateral damage, and in scene after scene after scene, Spider-Man puts himself in harm's way to help everyone. Anyone still grumbling a year later about "Man Of Steel" should find that particularly appealing.
One of those people he saves is a guy named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an electrical engineer who works for Oscorp. I'm not sure which of the writers decided that "Batman Forever" was the touchstone to use for this movie, but Dillon follows pretty much the exact same arc as Jim Carrey's take on The Riddler, going from a fan of the hero to an enemy as love and admiration curdle to something darker when they're given power of their own. While the marketing materials have put the full emphasis on Electro since day one, it seems like that's not actually the case with the film itself. Sure, Electro is onscreen for a good chunk of the movie, but as a character? He's so thin, so one-note, that I have trouble even considering him a villain. He is an obstacle for Peter in a few scenes, and I like that Peter has to think about how to beat Electro. It's not just "punch him harder," as it so often is in superhero movies. Instead, Peter has to reason his way through the problem with the help of his super-smart girlfriend Gwen Stacy. The way Webb brings Electro to life is visually interesting, and I think there's a weird neon beauty to the effects in his scenes, especially once he figures out he no longer needs to retain a physical form.
Webb's grown quite a bit since the first movie in terms of confidence. This is a comic-book movie in a way that many superhero films are not. So many of these movies seem to be almost terrified of embracing their comic book nature, but not this one. Without doing anything overt like Ang Lee's comic book panels and without leaning directly on existing source material like "Watchmen," this film manages to capture the bright, primary color energy of comics in general and Spider-Man comics specifically. There are so many individual beats or individual shots or small little flourishes in the film that I think work that it almost bothers me more than if the film were just terrible. Webb seems to get the appeal of the character, and like Parker himself, the film comes to life when he puts on the costume and starts doing what Spider-Man does.
Electro, as I said, ends up serving more as a plot device than as a real character, and Dane DeHaan, playing Harry Osborne, steps into the role as the central bad guy in the movie, and this would seem to indicate that DeHaan will be able to jump back and forth from small indie films to big studio movies and that he can adapt his acting style to some radically different styles of storytelling. He is so profoundly smarmy from the moment he shows up and playing things so big that it almost feels like the problem people have with "The Shining," where Jack Nicholson's transformation into a lunatic is pretty much as unsurprising as a reveal can be. From the first moment we see the relationship between Norman Osborne (Chris Cooper) and Harry, it's apparent that this kid is a broken toy, big-time.
What makes a great superhero movie truly great is when we can understand what it is that the villain wants, and it's not just, vaguely speaking, "the world." The Joker is so interesting in "The Dark Knight" because it is clear that what he really wants is chaos and horror and anarchy, and everything he does becomes compelling because he's working towards that goal. Loki is fun to watch in the Marvel films because he's motivated by his anger towards his father and his desire for power, and everything he does is part of advancing that agenda, even when it looks like he's doing something good. And while I know a lot of people don't like the portrayal of Zod in "Man Of Steel," I thought there was something really sad about the idea of a man who was genetically engineered and society-trained to be a killer whose only job is to defend Krypton and all of its people and watching him struggle to fulfill that task, he's never just about empty villainy. He truly believes that Kal-El is wrong, and if he has to kill one Kryptonian in order to potentially save the race.
Here, Harry has decided that the one thing that can save his life is a donation of blood from Spider-Man. He asks directly the first time, and then when Spider-Man says no, he goes completely off-the-deep-end insane and becomes a super-villain. The same thing is true of Electro, although I like the first scene where an energized Max encounters Spider-Man in Times Square. I get that by the end of the scene, Electro has to be angry at Spider-Man and craving some revenge, but they have to shorthand that journey because of all the moving pieces. I don't even mind if they're going to use the same general idea as The Riddler, but they spend so much energy trying to set up Max's unhealthy interest in Spider-Man after being saved by him during a high-speed pursuit that his sudden switch from love to hate is too sudden.
That's what happens when you jam the story so full of incident and fan-service that there's no room left for the breathing space that is essential for making a movie that really works. There are scenes that digress so much, theoretically trying to make all these bits and pieces hold together thematically, servicing each of the film's storylines with a check mark on a list, that they feel like they were cut in from another movie.
Take, for example, Richard Parker's underground magical laboratory. The long sequence Peter spends locating and searching the lab gathers information that we already know by that point in the movie, and all it does is muddy the film further. I would not be surprised if the overall theme that the writers of this film thought they were conveying had something to do with "sins of the father." But the movie never really connects all the dots, and by the time it starts lunging towards its conclusion, it feels both rushed and overstuffed.
I say "overstuffed" because it is apparent that they're setting up "The Sinister Six" and "Venom" soon, although I forget which is which in terms of release date. Short of having Harry turn to the camera and snarling, "Tune in next summer in this theater for 'The Sinister Six'!" Yes, they have set up a whole fistful of minor characters that could pay off later, but the way they get there drove me crazy. What it seems to be saying is that none of these upcoming created-by-Oscorp-bad-guys will have any sort of compelling backstory. In the comics, learning about the villains and how they became villains is often part of what drives a story. If the answer is just "Someone got angry at Spider-Man and then Oscorp gave them a doodad to use to go fight Spider-Man" each time out, that seems incredibly boring to me.
Okay… can I discuss a spoiler? If you're still reading now, you're probably okay with it being spoiled or you're someone in one of the countries where "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" has been playing for a little while now, then you know why I'm going to be cautious about spoiling the film. If you're not okay with it, then just take this as your opportunity to tap out, and then come back when you're able to read the rest.
I'm serious. I'm going to just plain spell it out.
Okay. You asked for it.
Gwen Stacy's death is a pivotal event not only in the world of the "Spider-Man" comic books, but in all mainstream superhero-driven comic books. Her death was a shock to anyone who read it during its initial publication, and it defined the Peter Parker character permanently. It is just as profound an experience for him as the death of his Uncle Ben. As soon as I saw the chemistry that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have together, I knew that the decision would be made to kill her and to make it hurt. I have to confess that while I think they still have that same great electricity between them, a good 2/3 of the scenes between them involve them just basically making goo-goo eyes at each other. It's like an adorable overkill. It's all just building to the moment where Spider-Man finally fails, and while fans should be glad to see that it is indeed the Green Goblin who kills her, it seems to happen insanely fast, though. His first time out of the house as the Goblin, he not only finds Spider-Man but also finds him at the exact moment where he's with Gwen, allowing Harry to realize how to hurt Peter. Once she starts that fall, it takes a loooooong time, and that's totally by design. In the comics, she broke her neck when Spider-Man caught her with his web, and here, it's basically the same. It's a brutal moment, probably my favorite choice that Webb made. He almost stops her, and if she'd had an extra five or six feet to work with, she wouldn't have slammed into that floor and then bounced off it, lifted again by Peter's webbing. I think the best emotional stretch in the entire film is what happens after her death. Peter will be changed by this, but I hope that doesn't mean the next few films are going to be non-stop dour. These films get the Spider-Man humor right, and it would be a shame to lose that altogether.
There are some very strong visual effects sequences, and Webb does a nice job of making the audience feel like they're swinging through the canyons of New York. I would expect nothing less, though. These movies are essential to the game plan for Sony for the next few years, so they threw a ton of money at the problem. Daniel Mindel's photography is rich and bright, and Pietro Scalla manages to make it feel like a contemporary action movie, with a breakneck pace, but never at the expense of making sure it's very clear what's happening. I'm not crazy about the score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Johnny Marr. They try this whispering/talking/singing thing as Electro's theme, but it doesn't really add up. The big themes are fine, but forgettable.
While I feel like I've spent most of this review complaining, the film does work in fits and starts, and I think for many Spider-Man fans, it's going to be easy to focus on what they do like instead of getting hung up on what they don't. It is nice to see Spider-Man onscreen, especially when they get him right and he's the same exact Spider-Man that decades worth of readers have fallen in love with. At its best, the film feels giddy and fun and confident about what it's doing. At its worst, it feels like it was built in a laboratory from the dead parts of other movies. That uneven quality sets me on edge, and I wish I could either like it without reservations or just hate and dismiss it altogether. I'm still interested in seeing this Spider-Man in a great movie.
It's just not this one.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" opens in US theaters on May 2, 2014.