In today's Hollywood dominated by superhero movies, Marvel and Disney are the undisputed champs. There is no competition, really; they've got every studio twisting into knots to try and emulate the multi-franchised spinoff-heavy universe they've perfected with The Avengers. Sony, more than any other, has made it clear their intentions to ape Marvel's approach with Spider-Man, planning sequels long in advance and spinning off into Venom and Sinister Six movies. And so we have The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which takes the simple story of down-to-earth hero Peter Parker and overstuffs it to Rhino-sized levels.
Marc Webb's first film, released not even two years ago, was a good starting off point for the franchise. Andrew Garfield had the geeky cool charm of Peter Parker down pat, and his chemistry with Emma Stone (his real life girlfriend) was and remains off-the-charts. The introduction of Gwen as Peter's love interest was a refreshing twist from the Sam Raimi movies and despite the familiarity of Spidey's origin, there was a welcome lightness to it. Goodness knows we didn't need another grim 'n gritty comic book movie. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 maintains a spirited sense of humor, but with a ton of characters to consider and even more subplots to juggle, nothing quite rounds into shape as it should.
One of the many storylines needing to be dealt with is the big secret surrounding the death of Peter's parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), and the reasons they abandoned him as a child. A thrilling mid-air sequence clues us in to the mystery, before we're literally dropped into Spidey's latest adventure. Now on the verge of graduation, Peter finds himself juggling his role as Spider-Man and as Gwen's boyfriend, this despite the promise to stay away he made to her late father. Betraying that promise weighs on him, and his relationship with Gwen has gone into on-again/off-again territory. She's considering a move to London if she's accepted into Oxford, which threatens to end their love forever. In the spandex realm he's keeping busy battling brutish Russian mobster Aleksei Systsevich played with comical exaggeration by Paul Giamatti. In the midst of stopping his rampage, Spidey saves unappreciated Oscorp employee Maxwell Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who quickly becomes obsessed with the hero. Dillon's friendly, if somewhat creepy, infatuation with Spidey turns dark for unconvincing reasons when he falls into a tank of electric eels (seriously) and is gifted with incredible electric powers. He also starts to look like the spawn of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan.
As if a wayward girlfriend, tons of family secrets, and a staticky blue supervillain weren't enough, Peter also has the sudden arrival of childhood friend Norman Osborn (Dane DeHaan), back from being sent abroad by his dying father (Chris Cooper). Now the head of Oscorp, Norman learns he's dying of the same degenerative disease, and the only way to possibly cure it is to get some of that Spider-Man blood flowing in his veins. It's the friendship between Peter and Norman that suffers most from the crowded plot, as we get basically one scene of the two reconnecting, professing their mutual angst, and then splitting off to become foes. Norman gets green, ugly, and desperately in need of a manicure, while Peter's attention is divided in a million different directions. And so is the script pieced together by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Jeff Pinkner, who fail to give the story any sort of focus. The weirdly ambiguous passage of time (weeks and months pass without explanation) is a symptom of the film's poor narrative structure, just as the lack of clear antagonists for Spidey. A hero is only as compelling as his enemy, and despite there being three bad guys to tussle with, none of them are given much shape. Electro goes from dorky to menacing sidekick at the drop of a hat, while Osborn is never written with any consistency. The betrayal he feels over his father's actions never comes through, nor do we really get a sense of Norman's friendship with Peter, which becomes a huge issue as secrets become unmasked, both literally and figuratively.
As for Peter and Gwen, their turbulence is something of a double-edged sword. The exploration of Peter's concern for her safety is believable and totally in keeping with his protective nature. He's already seen too many loved ones die over his costumed life and won't risk her, too. But as they repetitively bounce from one "should we or shouldn't we" conversation to the next, it doesn't give Gwen much to do until she's just another damsel in distress. Garfield and Stone are such a charming couple, genuinely having fun in one another's presence, that it's often enough to overlook the lack of forward momentum. Others in the supporting cast aren't given much to do, some to an embarrassing degree. Felicity Jones turns up as Felicia, presumably Felicia Hardy aka the Black Cat, and she clocks maybe three minutes as Osborn's aide. Chris Cooper might have given the film some real emotional weight if he had stuck around as Norman Osborn, but he only gets one scene. DeHaan, one of the finest young actors working today, does his best to internalize Harry Osborn's angst, but the script doesn't offer him enough opportunities.
As for whether or not Gwen meets the same fate as in the comics, well, those answers aren't going to be found in this review, but the decision Webb makes is bold and definitive. Despite the glaring problems he does do quite a few things right. He's certainly more confident in the use of CGI action, ramping up the speed and incorporating a number of dizzying visual splashes. The Times Square sequence alone impressively combines 360 degree roto-scoping and slo-mo to fully capture the scope of Electro's powers. Despite the heavy effects work and massive amounts of destruction, the action never feels cold or distant, a lesson Zack Snyder probably needs a refresher in. Webb does a good job of inextricably linking Spider-Man to New York's fate while also planting the seeds of future dissent.
Finally, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is both bloated and insubstantial, feeling like little more than a set-up movie for Sony's expansive plans. To paraphrase Spidey's famous credo; Webb has the great power to right the course in the next movie, and hopefully he'll take the responsibility to do just that.