'The Amazing Spider-Man 2': 'Professionally mediocre' sequel
Part of the appeal of Spider-Man, in all his paper and celluloid incarnations, is the character's recognizably human scale. Neither a trillionaire industrialist (Batman), a Norse God (Thor), nor an indestructible Christ figure (Superman), Spider-Man is just awkward, orphaned teenager Peter Parker, living a drab middle-class existence in Queens, where he juggles girls, schoolwork, and superheroics. Yet it's peer pressure, that classic teenage hardship, which seems to be the motivating force behind the professionally mediocre The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Sony, the studio that owns the rights to the Spider-Man character, has publicly admitted to coveting Disney's massively successful multi-character Marvel universe and thinking how much they'd like one, too. So in this sequel to 2012's redundant The Amazing Spider-Man, it's not enough for Peter to worry about defeating the villain du jour in time for dinner with girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Here, returning director Marc Webb felt it necessary to inflate the action to Avengers-like proportions, as if scale, and the prospect of more Marvel characters in more Disney movies, made The Avengers the third highest-grossing film of all time.
As The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ably proves, Sony is missing the point. The Avengers worked (as did Captain America: The Winter Soldier) because it was a shiny, heavy machine that still managed to be clever, charming, and smart. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is loud, dull, and forced. If it wasn't for the appealing chemistry between Andrew Garfield as Peter and Emma Stone as Gwen, both of Sony's shareholder-approved slabs of Spider-Product would feel more disposable than they already do.
Peter and Gwen get 'repetitive and weightless' in 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'
In the first movie, the relationship between Peter and Gwen was shot through with the zing of the new, for them and us. Emma Stone's humor and live-wire energy brought out the shy, cute smile in Andrew Garfield, whose estimable skills will probably start to atrophy every time he plays this character. In the sequel, the duo's interaction is repetitive and weightless. Peter and Gwen's conversations alternate between “cutesy-wootsy” and “are we or aren't we,” as Peter struggles to fulfill his promise to Gwen's dying father (Dennis Leary, striking the same glowering pose) to stay away from his daughter.
There's also a bunch of nonsense about Gwen possibly decamping for England on an Oxford scholarship. When you consider where the Gwen character is headed – a spoiler not to be revealed here, although it was spoiled in the Spider-Man comic 41 years ago – it would have been more devastating for Peter and the audience if Gwen stayed in New York in the name of everlasting love.
Such action-heavy, emotionally inauthentic scripts are the hallmark of celebrity screenwriting duo Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who co-wrote The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with former Fringe and Lost writer Jeff Pinkner. In fanboy circles, Kurtzman and Orci are the writing team you love to hate, specializing in overwritten, under-considered films like Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. In keeping with Sony's master plan, they crowd The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with a pair of major villains, a cameo by another villain (Paul Giamatti as The Rhino), and a scene inside the gleaming Oscorp tower that reveals Doc Ock and The Vulture's mechanical exobodies.
Wasted Green Goblin, cartoonish Electro
And yet, the writers haven't the time or the courage to fully invest in the one villain who'd give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 some passion and depth: Green Goblin appears late in the film, but the devilish teenager standing atop Gobby's signature glider is dealing with father issues just as profound as Peter's. Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan, menacingly petulant) has inherited not only his late father's corporation, but also the disease that killed him. Harry believes the disease can be cured by Spider-Man, whose blood has made him nearly invincible. Peter's daddy issues, which were suggested in the previous film, are expanded upon when his superpowers become closely tied to his father's experiments at Oscorp.
The idea of a hero and a villain connected through the actions of their deceased fathers would have given the movie fertile thematic soil to till. But Sony didn't spend $200 million so Spider-Man and Green Goblin could dramatize Harry Chapin's Cats in the Cradle. So The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gives us Electro, a villain whose main power is reminding the audience of Joel Schumacher's campy, franchise-killing run on the Batman sequels from the 1990s.
Before falling into a tank of electric eels and gaining his electricity-controlling superpowers, Electro was mild-mannered science nerd and Oscorp functionary Max Dillon. Both characters are played by Jamie Foxx, who is asked to play Dillon as cartoonishly as possible. He's assisted in this unfortunate task by matted-down hair, thick eyeglasses, a fumbling air, and a reverence for Spider-Man that turns lethal for reasons that are a bit murky. It has something to do with Spider-Man not remembering Max's name, which seems a thin motivation to kill a superhero, even if you have suffered the unique trauma of falling into a tank of electric eels. But it does lead to the movie's first big fight sequence, a flashy dustup between Spider-Man and Electro in Times Square.
'The Amazing Spider-Man 2': 'Visual trick's and 'the stench of corporate expectations'
To this end, Marc Webb and cinematographer Daniel Mindel (whose ultra-busy style compromised both recent Star Trek films) bust out a rather thin bag of visual tricks, including slow-motion turns of Spider-Man's body as he avoids bullets and electrical blasts. Quickly though, seeing shocks of electricity fly through the air, hither and thither, becomes just a bunch of visual static, a desperate plea for attention for a generation of easily-distracted moviegoers. Spider-Man and Electro's final fight in a power station confuses movement for excitement while also including Gwen – because cliché demands she knows exactly what button to push at the climactic moment to help the hero save the day (note: it's the really big button under the protective glass).
At the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter swings vertiginously up, down, over, and around the skyscrapers of New York, thrilled by the gravity-defying freedom bestowed upon him by his arachnoid powers. It's the only moment in the film that contains any amount of joy, for Peter or for us. And the reason is heartbreaking: when one film bears the artistic and financial burden of being good enough to launch ten future films, directorial vision and creative risk are fireable offenses. There's simply too much money and too many studios jobs on the line, which explains why both of Marc Webb's Spider-Man films, more so this sequel, give off the stench of corporate expectations. Give a villain that power (Stench-Man?) and Spider-Man, in the immortal words of Bart Simpson, would fold faster than Superman on laundry day.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Dir.: Marc Webb. Scr.: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner, from a story by Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt, based on the characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, Embeth Davidtz, Campbell Scott, Marton Csokas, Louis Cancelmi, B.J. Novak, Sarah Gadon, Chris Cooper, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Lucas Till.
Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 photo: Sony Pictures.