Back in his 2012 review of The Amazing Spider-Man, Daniel Carlson described the film as “place-setting for a better, fresher, more exciting movie”, a comment that will likely resonate a good bit when you watch its entertaining, if often tonally inconsistent sequel. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ratchets up almost everything that we saw in the first film, both positive and negative. In the end, despite its labyrinthine plot and messy exposition and it’s awkwardly and rather sloppily developed villains, some solid action direction and the performances of the two leads makes the film not just decent, but perhaps the best adaptation of the character to-date.
The film picks up shortly after the end of the first film, with Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) now firmly knitted into the societal fabric of New York City. He’s become a polarizing character, equally loved and distrusted, yet still relentlessly and tirelessly fighting bad guys whenever he can, while also juggling his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). His exhaustive routine is interrupted by the return of his childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan), who has his own agenda inextricably tied into his father Norman’s (Chris Cooper) mysterious company Oscorp, as well as the arrival of the villain Electro (Jamie Foxx), who was created through yet another Oscorp mishap. Threaded into this already overly complicated tapestry is Peter’s ongoing quest to find out the truth behind his parents’ abrupt disappearance over a decade prior, which is also tied into Oscorp. All of that said, you can pretty much ignore what you’ve seen about Paul Giamatti and the Rhino — that’s a relatively minor element to the story.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has a few too many threads woven into it, and that’s what often bogs the film down. Two or three of those stories could either have been excised, condensed, or postponed for the inevitable third film. The least affecting — and interestingly, the most non-canonical — is the search for Peter’s parents, a story invented solely for the film and one whose resolution is mostly addressed in the film’s opening sequence. Worse yet, the denouement of that plotline is not only clumsily telegraphed, but ultimately unnecessary to the central narrative. It’s a clunky chunk that requires too much exposition, and it interferes with the far more engaging stories that are more directly tied into Peter Parker’s already-complex life. More frustratingly, that time spent mucking around with his family history results in having to hurry along some far more important plot points which results in a rushed final act that crams in a conclusion to Harry Osborn’s story that feels like it happened far too quickly.
Osborn and the film’s primary villain, Electro, are the other main problems. The ongoing theme behind the majority of Spider-Man stories, both on the page and on the screen, has always dealt with ideas of science gone awry, and not understanding or respecting the forces that the characters are trying to control. Naturally, this all ties into the underlying great power/great responsibility trope that has been the driving force for every Spider-Man hero and villain since its inception. The idea has always been that when power is used responsibly and respectfully, it results in a message of positivity and of heroism (even if oft-misunderstood), but when it is abused, it leads to corruption and darkness (and an inevitable clash with Spider-Man).
The latter half of that message is somewhat mangled this time around, particularly in the case of Foxx’s Max Dillon, who is simply an electrical engineer who actually adores Spider-Man who has an ill-fated (and utterly ridiculous) accident (through no fault of his own) that leads to him becoming Electro. Dillon is terribly portrayed as a socially stunted, perhaps somewhere on-the-spectrum mope who snaps completely at a perceived slight by Spider-Man, and as a result suddenly wants to destroy New York and murder Spider-Man, a transition that leaps far beyond any semblance of logic. Similarly, Dehaan’s Harry Osborn goes from friendly if somewhat embittered chum to psychopathic vengeance-seeker in a plot twist that feels like an abandonment of logic and common sense, and doesn’t do the early development of both the character and their friendship justice. It’s an odd problem, because the villainous outcomes are actually reasonably well-scripted given the brief time they’re given, and the performances of both actors are solid. But the film’s great stumble is the rushed, plot hole-ridden path they take to get there. The film’s final egregious stumble on the enemy front is Oscorp itself, which is apparently staffed by two pretty young women (Stone and a throwaway role for Felicity Jones) and a group of over-the-top sinister mustache-twirlers.
However, the film’s greatest strengths are Stone and Garfield, a genuinely enjoyable and engaging pair of onscreen presences whose chemistry is absolutely perfect. At times, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 almost feels like two totally different experiences knotted together into an almost jarring combination. Their story, which alternates between a charmingly depicted romance and a difficult, yet very emotionally resonant breakup due to Peter’s guilt over the death of Gwen’s father, is fantastically rendered. This should come as no surprise given director Marc Webb’s skillful treatment of his first feature, (500) Days of Summer, a film that cleverly tackled romance from an unusual and sophisticated viewpoint. Yet it’s also due to great performances by the two leads (perhaps bolstered by their real-life romance), who bring a sense of depth and realness to an otherwise fantastical and overly complicated story.
As for the action, it’s usually well-rendered and lacks some of the insanity of the first film (there’s nothing on par with the stupid-bananas crane sequence from the original), and edited well enough that you don’t lose sight of what’s actually happening, although the final action sequence with Electro was a bit of a dizzying, neon-lit headache-inducer. There’s far more story than action, and that works in the film’s favor, particularly since most of the story is quite engaging (especially any time when both Peter and Gwen are on screen). Yet when the action does come, it’s often exhilarating, breathless stuff. Perhaps most refreshing is the amount of time Spider-Man spends actually protecting people. Instead of just recklessly smashing through anything in his way during his fights, you really get a sense that he’s doing everything in his power to save the populace and actually help, which is a critical theme that is often lost in superhero films (I’m looking at you, Man Of Steel). As an added bonus, the 3D effects are actually fairly well-utilized here, which is not something that I say very often — 95% of the films I’ve seen in 3D felt like a waste of time and money. Here, it actually results in a solid sense of movement and space within the film, giving a feeling like you’re right there with them.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a solidly entertaining film, and with it Garfield officially puts to rest the ghost of Tobey Maguire. It’s not that he’s a better actor (though he is), it’s that he’s now firmly given his own take on the character, making it his and making you buy into it. The script still isn’t even close to perfect, but it does improve on the original in substantial and important ways, and by the end it not only sheds some of the story’s dead weight, but it also nicely and organically sets itself up for the next chapter. There’s a fluidity to the relationships on the screen, particularly Peter and Gwen, but also the friendship between Peter and Harry, even if that friendship’s conclusion falters. The ending is surprising and deeply affecting (though not the final battle itself, which is exhausting and overwrought), and that’s due to good writing and direction, and the work done by the main players. It still creaks under its own weight, and it struggles to feel like a fully assembled, seamless piece of its own, getting knotted up by too many needless and extraneous elements. As contradictory as this may sound, it’s easily the best Spider-Man we’ve ever seen on screen, even if the movie itself is not great.