“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is the best comic book film I’ve seen in a long time – a movie that’s not only incredibly entertaining and a dazzling showcase of special effects, but also a compelling character study and, most surprisingly, a touching drama. This isn’t to say that a sense of humor is missing from the equation. There are, in fact, several moments that are quite funny, and this most definitely includes Stan Lee’s cameo appearance, arguably his best yet. Nevertheless, the filmmakers are clearly not taking the light, escapist, toyetic approach to the material; they aim to tell an actual story, and in the process make the audience care about the characters. Projecting it on the screen in beautiful IMAX 3D, the only 3D system that consistently delivers the goods, wasn’t a bad touch, either.
Because director Marc Webb’s vision isn’t quite as marketable as that of Sam Raimi, the director of last decade’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, he has been compared in some circles to Christopher Nolan, who has been showered with praise for his “Dark Knight” films. To the extent that both Webb and Nolan took less action-oriented and more introspective approaches, I agree. Unlike Nolan, however, who forced the Batman character to be the star of an overwrought, needlessly gritty soap opera, Webb never lost sight of Spider-Man’s comic book origins. In fact, there are several instances in which he seemed to relish pointing them out. How else to explain the inclusion of an evil scientist character with a thick, exaggerated German accent?
We must also examine the primary villain, played by Jamie Foxx. Starting out as a mousy, nerdy electrical engineer named Max Dillon, he accidentally falls into a vat of water filled with genetically modified electric eels and is transformed into a glowing entity made of pure electricity. Quite naturally, he adopts the name Electro, and during the major fight sequences, he will show his superhuman powers by sucking up electric power by any means necessary. And then there’s the secondary villain, who I suspect was intentionally introduced late in the story as a way to establish the next “Amazing Spider-Man” film. This would be the Green Goblin, who came to be as the result of being injected with mutated spider venom. Prior to his transformation, he was Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan), Peter Parker’s childhood friend.
Villain characters are typically developed in such a way that audiences cannot sympathize with them. This isn’t true of the villains in this film. Max Dillon’s transformation into Electro is not indicative of a desire for world domination, but rather of a desperate longing to be noticed and respected – much like Spider-Man, whom he idolizes to the point of obsession. Because he has been either badly used or altogether ignored, it’s easy to see why he would misinterpret one of Spider-Man’s generic pleasantries as a sign of a deep friendship, and why he would feel betrayed by Spider-Man’s less-than-friendly actions. Likewise, we understand the anger felt by Osborn. Apart from the fact that his own staff is conspiring to have him fired, he has inherited a degenerative disease from his uncaring father (Chris Cooper), and the only cure might be a sample of Spider-Man’s blood.
And what of the title character, a.k.a. Peter Parker, played convincingly once again by Andrew Garfield? As he struggles externally with Electro and the Green Goblin, a war wages internally, in great part because he has yet to solve the mystery of why his father abandoned him. But there are other major factors, including divisive public opinion about his Spider-Man alter ego, the fact that his aunt May (Sally Field) is struggling to get him into college, and his uncertainty over helping Osborn beat his disease. The single greatest factor, however, is his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who knows his secret identity and endeavors to help him whenever she can. He loves her dearly, but he’s continuously haunted by visions of her father, who, upon his death in the previous film, made him promise to keep her safe. Parker’s torment over the future of their relationship is made worse by the fact that she has been offered a scholarship to attend Oxford.
Some may find the film overly internalized, needlessly burdened with subplots, missing a few too many effects-laden action sequences, or some combination of all of the above. By my standards, the only disappointment of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was the inclusion of a teaser trailer for “X-Men: Days of Future Past”; because studio politics between Sony and 20th Century Fox dictated it be spliced into the closing credits sequence, making it seem like a coda from any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, it gives the false impression that the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” franchises will merge in a later film. In this particular case, you don’t need to sit through the end credits. All you need is a willingness to embrace a comic book movie that pays a little extra attention to character and plot.