Although 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man earned a healthy $750 million at the worldwide box office, it was a missed opportunity all-round, a careless reboot that fell short of the Sam Raimi-directed trilogy which preceded it. Hoping to persist with a sprawling Spider-Man franchise to compete with Marvel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 manages to correct several of the issues of its predecessor, as it’s a smoother ride that benefits from superior technical execution. Unfortunately, this follow-up is still burdened by a tremendously messy script – it’s overstuffed and tries to do far too much throughout its agonisingly prolonged 140-minute runtime. The cameras did begin rolling for this sequel barely six months following the release of the 2012 film, which is not exactly a sign that the writing process was deemed to be overly important in the grand scheme of things. The result may be mildly watchable as a summer blockbuster, but it’s not a keeper by any means – it’s a forgettable, half-baked mishmash of the comic book’s greatest hits, without much in the way of emotional heft.
Now a high school graduate, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) is struggling to maintain his relationship with girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Still haunted by the death of her father, Peter finds himself conflicted, realising it might be better for Gwen’s wellbeing if he simply left her alone. Meanwhile, geeky, socially-awkward Spider-Man fanatic Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is involved in an after-hours workplace incident at Oscorp, turning him into Electro and giving him the ability to manipulate electricity. Peter also attempts to reconnect with old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who’s reeling from the death of his father Norman (Chris Cooper). Learning that he will ultimately die from his father’s disease, Harry begins seeking a cure, and hopes that Spider-Man’s blood might bestow him with the ability to self-heal. But the unstable Harry is thrown over the edge when he’s fired from his father’s company, leading him to enlist the help of Electro in order to get what he wants.
While bits and pieces of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 do work, the narrative as a whole is a huge mess; a collection of scenes and set-pieces without a proper through-line. The plot is ostensibly about Peter working to defeat Electro while dealing with his relationship complications, but the majority of the narrative tracks Peter playing Sherlock Holmes as he endeavours to figure out what happened to his parents. As a consequence, Electro feels like a real wasted opportunity, as he develops into too much of a fringe threat when he should be the primary focus. Worse, the mystery of Peter’s parents still leaves questions to be answered in future instalments, and the arc feels utterly incomplete. But perhaps the biggest insult is the ending – the film continues beyond its logical closure point, ultimately cutting to black in the middle of a skirmish that will lead directly into Film 3. It’s the equivalent of tagging the first ten minutes of The Dark Knight onto the end of Batman Begins. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 basically feels like a trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 3, rather than a compelling standalone story.
Unfortunately, villainous motivations are entirely lacking here. Max’s transformation into the Big Bad Guy™ is half-baked and slipshod – he’s established as a stereotypical loner who opts to use his powers simply to get himself noticed by his peers, but Max’s decision to attack the city and kill Spider-Man has no motivation behind it. Harry’s characterisation is similarly slipshod – he becomes the villainous Green Goblin simply because the script demands it. Raimi’s films might get flack in hindsight, but each of the villains in his trilogy were given sufficiently believable reasons to turn to villainy, and some even saw the error of their ways. It would seem that the script here relies on the flimsy comic logic of “super powers = villain,” but this rocky justification clashes with the serious tone. The Twilight influence is still very much in evidence here, too – the on and off relationship between Peter and Gwen is ripped directly from New Moon, with the characters wanting to be together but Peter realising he’s putting his girlfriend in jeopardy.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also continues to distance itself from the Raimi trilogy by changing up aspects of the mythology, but again most of the alternations are outright wrong-headed. As it turns out, Peter was more or less destined to become Spider-Man, a moronic decision which completely erodes Peter’s status as an accidental hero. Added to this, Oscorp is basically behind everything that happens throughout the film – the creation of Electro, Harry’s transformation to the Green Goblin, and even the construction of all the tech which will be utilised by future villains. And just for good measure, pretty much everything else is linked to Oscorp – Gwen and Max are both employees, Peter’s father also worked for Oscorp and was killed whilst on the run from them, and so on. It’s far too convenient, and, like I said in my review of the previous movie, it makes a sprawling universe of possibilities feel small and riddled with coincidence. Worse, it feels as if various cosmetic changes were made simply to distance this film from the Raimi trilogy, rather than feeling organic to this new franchise.
To his credit, Webb is beginning to find his feet as a blockbuster filmmaker – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a livelier flick than its predecessor, adopting a more colourful look as opposed to the desaturated visuals of the 2012 movie. The action beats are more competent for this go-round as well, and anyone seeking conventionally “cool” summertime entertainment will likely walk away satisfied. Unfortunately, though, Webb leans on the slow motion stuff way too much, and the overly digital look of such moments completely takes you out of the experience. There’s a bold occurrence late into the climax which almost manages to generate emotion, but Webb mostly mucks it up by using gratuitous slo-mo, excessive CGI, and plenty of distractions to make it look “awesome,” reminding us that this is a blockbuster engineered to appeal to ADHD-inflicted teenagers. On a more positive note, the dramatic moments do work much better, and the pacing is more sure-footed. The script gives Peter some amusing moments of smarminess amid the action, which do work more often than not. The 3-D is an improvement over the last movie, though it’s still mostly underwhelming and disposable.
Garfield’s confused Peter Parker interpretation returns for this instalment. It’s an inconsistent performance, and the script still can’t figure out who this character is beyond a generic Edward Cullen clone. It’s once again Stone who runs away with the entire film, showing that she’s both a perfect Gwen Stacy and an ideal female lead. It’s just a shame that the material is far below Stone’s immense talents. Meanwhile, in the role of Max/Electro, Foxx is almost a total bust. As Max, his verbal bluster is over-the-top and the character is too exaggerated to be believable, while as Electro he doesn’t own the screen like a primary villain should. Furthermore, there’s no continuity between Max and Electro, as he turns into an entirely different person after the accident for no good reason. Paul Giamatti also shows up as a criminal who will presumably take centre stage in the next sequel, but it’s hard to take the character seriously – he’s a cartoon through-and-through, clashing with Webb’s insistence on a realistic tone. It doesn’t work. Likewise betrayed by the material is DeHaan, who pretty much replicates his performance from the superior Chronicle, only without the depth and consistency. The movie also wastes the chance for a Stan Lee cameo, squandering him for a completely forgettable one-scene role.
Ultimately, much like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is more concerned with looking towards future films than it is with providing a cohesive, satisfying standalone motion picture. It keeps shuffling forward, deploying more characters who won’t mean much until the next one (Mary-Jane Watson was in the movie initially, played by Shailene Woodley, but her scenes were cut in post-production) and hinting at what’s going to happen in further sequels. While this type of set-up might be acceptable in a television series with a new episode each week, such content is completely unsatisfying in major motion pictures, as they’re a far scarcer commodity. Marvel Studios tease future instalments in their movies, sure, but said features have their own individual stories to tell, mostly saving the teases for post-credits scenes. Iron Man 2 was the only Marvel movie which blatantly existed to set up The Avengers, and it’s widely regarded as one of the studio’s weakest efforts. Look, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an enjoyable mess, but it’s a mess nevertheless. Peter doesn’t undergo much of an arc throughout the story, and the movie isn’t really about anything – it plays out as an expensive toy commercial without any thematic relevance, humanity, or depth. We deserve better.