By Gary Dowell
Fledgling director Marc Webb displayed promise when the bumpy but enjoyable Amazing Spider-Man hit the big screen in 2012. It was rough around the edges — the tone was all over the place and the plot was always a smooth ride — but the enthusiasm and creativity was there, and talent and chemistry of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone made the flaws forgivable. The conventional wisdom was that with the baggage of a superhero origin story out of the way and Webb’s skills as a filmmaker certain to grow, the Spidey franchise was now free to move forward on its own terms into uncharted waters.
Two years later, however, that doesn’t seem to be the situation – in fact, this is a case of “same thing, but more of it”. Webb’s follow-up — written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner – is a jumbled mess consisting of a lot of frenetic scenes with no real story tying them together. That, combined with the necessities of Sony’s ill-conceived plan for a grand story arc spread over three sequels and two spin-off movies, bogs The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in a morass of clichéd plotting. The curious thing is that as busy as this movie is, very little seems to be going on.
The movie opens with a Ludlum-esque flashback sequence involving Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) late parents (played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz). industrial espionage, and a fight sequence on a plane (seriously). The story then shifts to the present day, picking up not long after the events of the previous movie. As is often the case with superheroics, Peter is flying high as Spider-Man but his personal life is a bit messy. His relationship with his Aunt May (Sally Field) is strained, and his romantic life with girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is on the skids, largely due to Peter’s guilt over breaking his promise to her late father (Denis Leary) and the inherent danger of his secret life.
While thwarting an armored car heist by Russian gangster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), Spidey saves the life of dweebish electrical engineer/social zero Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). A downtrodden employee of the Office Space variety at the sinister Oscorp, Dillon fixates on his perceived friendship with the hero; that all goes south when an industrial accident turns him into Electro, a man of living electricity and unquenchable rage.
To further complicate matters, Peter’s childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns to the city for one last argument with his dying father, Oscorp CEO Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), who tells him he’s inheriting two life-changing things: the family business, and the genetic defect that’s killing him. Harry concludes that he needs a sample of Spider-Man’s blood to survive, and takes steps to obtain it.
All of that, plus Peter’s search for the truth about his parents and an unnecessary subplot involving a power struggle within Oscorp, is a lot to juggle, and most of the movie is spent cutting from one bit of thinly sketched plot business or overblown and uninspired action sequence to the next that the movie never gets a chance to breathe. Very little of the story interconnects, and much of it relies on sloppy contrivances, coincidences, and a lack of internal logic. Worse, so much effort is spent on setting up future films that very little is developed or resolved here. In fact, it seems to be in a rush to get through the formalities before moving on to bigger things. Webb and company appear to be too busy looking farther down the road to focus on what’s in front of them.
Garfield still makes for a likable and endearingly human Parker/Spider-Man, and the chemistry between him and real-life love Stone is as strong as before (though they have slog their way through some cloyingly cute scenes together). Much as he did in The Place Beyond the Pines, DeHaan taps into the pain and bitterness of his character’s daddy issues and insecurities; although Harry Osborn’s fall was (mostly) more nuanced in the Raimi movies, it’s more believable here. Foxx is saddled with some unfortunate characterization as Dillon, who is portrayed as a weird hybrid of middle-aged Steven Urkel and Jim Carrey’s celebrity-stalker version of the Riddler. Fortunately, Electro avoids going full-on Batman Forever as Foxx sinks his teeth into the role of a coldly vengeful and literally power-hungry villain. Giamatti’s presence is meant to establish him as the villainous Rhino and pave the way for the appearance of the Sinister Six, but he only appears in bookend sequences so brief that one has to wonder if it was worth the effort.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 throws everything at the wall to see what sticks, but most of it just goes “splat.” It is an exhausting experience, and one that feels far less than amazing.