"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2"-- 3 STARS
A little under two years ago, when I reviewed the reboot of "The Amazing Spider-Man," which attempted to retell the origin of Marvel Comics' #1 star, the goal was to heal the Sam Raimi-inflicted wounds of 2007's awful "Spider-Man 3" and revive a sunken franchise. Need a quick recap of proof as to how Raimi and company ultimately ruined a good thing? Check out the hilarious "honest trailer" from the folks over at Screen Junkies. That's four minutes and change of sarcastic perfection better than I can describe with words.
In discussing "The Amazing Spider-Man," I wrote at length about the trappings of rebooting properties too early, the overt cash grab of studios looking to milk a popular brand or product, and the inherent rigidity of any possible reinterpretation of the classic Spider-Man character. As comic book fan as a kid and a film critic now, I gave it a fair shake and did my best to avoid comparisons. For the most part, the 2012 film, especially with casting, was a decent stab at upgrading away from the first trilogy, but much was still too familiar and redundant to be the true and vivid reinvention that was promised.
Its enormously expensive sequel, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," arrives this weekend aiming to follow the "Empire Strikes Back" route of a sequel improving upon and exceeding the original. Among comic book films, Raimi's own "Spider-Man 2," Bryan Singer's "X2: X-Men United," Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," and the recent "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" are all examples of those types of successes, while "Iron Man 2," "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," "Kick-Ass 2," and plenty others balance out that scale as inferior sequels. With a budget reportedly nearing $250 million (which would put it in the top ten most expensive films all-time), Sony Pictures is throwing everything they have at this film to further their own Marvel Universe parallel to Marvel Film's own activities based at its parent company Disney.
As much as this new take still feels rehashed on many levels, this sequel is the real deal as an exciting comic book adventure and spectacle. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is ideally suited to be the blockbuster opening act of the summer of 2014. It indeed does embody a second film that is narrowly better than the first film. I don't know if it's good enough where I can grant the sequel an entire star higher than the three stars I gave the 2012 restart, but I can certainly support and compliment the improvements and crowd-pleasing quality. What gets talked about from here on out is SPOILER FREE. I promise.
The advantage of every great sequel is that the tedious origin story is out of the way and the characters and storytelling can get right to new business. That is certainly the case here. Since the events of the first film, Spider-Man has slowly earned public support and has chipped away at negative perception of being a labeled a menace and vigilante. Crime in New York City has significantly dropped and the police support him more than chase him.
At the point of graduating high school and starting college, Peter (Andrew Garfield) still juggles a double life and struggles with his failures, misunderstandings, and responsibilities. The sequel continues the new ground broken by the first film to infuse the mysterious circumstances surrounding Peter's parents, Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), their connection to Oscorp, and their forced abandonment of Peter. That, along with the loss of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), still weigh heavily on Peter and his Aunt May (a returning Sally Field).
In addition, as Spider-Man, he constantly sees visions of the deceased Capt. Stacy (Denis Leary) that become stark reminders of Peter's promise to leave Stacy's daughter and Peter's girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone) out of the cross-hairs of his heroic exploits. Gwen frustratingly fights through that emotional fencing with Peter, but now faces a college choice to go to Oxford in England or stay with Peter.
The connections and complications are muddled further by the emerging threats and villains for Peter and Spider-Man. Reclusive Oscorp founder Norman Osborn (Academy Award winner Chris Cooper) is on his death bed, which summons the return of his rebellious son Harry (a very good Dane DeHaan) back from boarding school to take over the company. He and Peter are old school friends and they reconnect their friendship. The question is how far has the apple fallen from the tree and what is Oscorp up to in the wake of Dr. Connors' failures from the first film.
When Spider-Man thwarts a high-speed chase and plutonium theft by Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), he saves the life of a lowly Oscorp employee named Max Dillon (Academy Awards winner Jamie Foxx), who works in the bio-sustainable energy division. He begins to idolize Spider-Man and even meets Gwen Stacy before a freak electric eel accident at Oscorp infuses him with vast electrical powers that he cannot control, leading to quite the blow-up in Times Square. Comic fans know him as Electro, which thankfully doesn't look like this, but still looks a little too much like this.
With all of this going on and then some, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a very crowded picture which means its robust 142 minutes (the longest ever for any Spider-Man movie) get a little messy. Sony is trying very hard to world-build in a hurry and plant seeds to more potential franchise, sequels, and spin-offs. Unlike Marvel and their "Avengers" blueprint, they are not taking their time to flesh things out. As Queen would say, they "want it all" and they "want it now."
Unfortunately, that's a dose of history repeating itself from the mistakes of the Raimi trilogy which also bit off more than it could chew by the second and third films. Climaxes and twists (some that dedicated comic fans will see coming) pile up and take away from each other "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." The victories and/or defeats should resonate more and are not given time to breathe in a busy third act. It doesn't help that Jamie Foxx embodies an awfully dumb central villain. Dane DeHaan creates something flashy and is better than James Franco could ever hope to be as Harry Osborn, but Foxx is almost laughably pathetic with dialogue and is way too doctored up as a walking special effect to be taken seriously.
Where the film redeems itself and improves from the original is the action and the romance. The darting 35mm cinematography, departing from the digital trend, by J.J. Abrams regular Daniel Mindel and superb action cuts from the editing team of two-time Oscar-winner Pietro Scalia ("JFK" and "Black Hawk Down") and Elliot Graham ("Superman Returns") combine seamlessly with supremely brilliant visual effects from Sony Pictures Imageworks. Often, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a wondrously jaw-dropping visual frenzy. The story may be a mess, but the action feels extremely polished. The addition of a bold new musical score from a collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, who just pumped up "Man of Steel" together last summer, puts a great stamp on giving this action scale, power, and pulse.
The radiant charisma and chemistry of real-life couple Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone give the Peter/Gwen romance a glowing jolt to the overall landscape. Marc Webb, familiar to audiences before the Spider-Man reboot for "(500) Days of Summer," knows how to put together a cute romance that has its ups, downs, and payoffs. Twice now, he has given us an effective human side to a superhero. The blockbuster hit-making team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who stewarded the "Transformers" franchise and "Star Trek" reboots too, were put in charge of this universe going forward by Sony Pictures. With a screenwriting assist from TV writer/showrunner Jeff Pinkner ("Fringe," Lost," and "Alias"), the trio wisely dials the romance to 12 and give the busy film welcome breaks of love and emotion. When Garfield and Stone play off each other, magic happens.
Finally, as I did two years ago, I fell obligated to update and share my general complaint about the world of Spider-Man, comic, film, or otherwise, where everything is too implausibly and conveniently related to each other for no good reason other than forced connections (which is also hinted in that Screen Junkies "honest trailer" from earlier). Here comes your comma string again. It's utterly dumb and incredibly convenient that in a metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people, Peter Parker loves Gwen Stacy, who just happens to be the daughter of Capt. Stacy, the fallen police chief that hunted-but-then-helped Spider-Man and now haunts Peter still years later, while he, himself, is still haunted even more years later by his lost parents, Richard and Mary Parker, who just happened to work at the omnipresent Oscorp alongside Dr. Curt Connors from the first film and Norman Osborn from this second film, where 15+ years later, Gwen herself works at, Aleksei Sytsevich steals from, and the company's dangerous experiments still exist for the scenarios where Peter can be bitten by a radioactive spider to become Spider-Man, Norman and Harry can share the same disease that only Spider-Man's blood can possible cure, a treasure trove of future villain swag resides, and Max Dillon, in a slam dunk workman's compensation case, can be accidentally turned into Electro, which, naturally, happens soon after Spider-Man saved his life, boosts his self-esteem, and meets Gwen Stacy for fun's sake at the office. Whew!
Diagram that sentence, English professors! Yes, the suspension of disbelief is that tall and preposterous, but such things are Spider-Man canon (sort of) and have to be forgiven as a comic book movie and the way these characters were created in the first place. From Superman to Batman and more, these comic worlds are all this melodramatically incestuous to a warped extent. You can't blame the director and writers when this was how it was all made 50 year ago.
Veer too much and you get the backlash "Man of Steel" saw, wrongly in my opinion, last summer for reinterpreting an icon in a drastic new way. Be too true and you are a silly comic book that doesn't work as a movie experience. Such hopes for comparisons can't be done and we're back to the "book is always better than the movie" territory. Still, that's where this movie either wins or loses support from different fanbases. One group, which includes me, sees too many similarities to previous versions and hoped for something more reinvented and new. Others see the popular new Hollywood stars, the guise of a trendy new edge, and get their "hipster" Spider-Man reboot. Honestly, as entertained as I still was, I think I will always be in the camp that wanted bold and not recooked.
LESSON #1: FINDING A PURPOSE WITHIN YOURSELF-- In typical post-high school/early 20's fashion, all of our main characters are seeking this lesson. Peter is greatly influenced by the mystery of his parents, his dedication to his aunt and late uncle's values, the vigor of being the best help to people as Spider-Man (more on that later), and the tenuous love he has for Gwen (more on that later too). Gwen is torn between the next step of career success and standing by her man. Harry returns to his family after a long disconnect with a vast company's resources at his fingertips for new direction. Max is an invisible loser who finally taps into power that gets him the attention he lacked. For each character, a search for a purpose within fuels their actions.
LESSON #2: PROTECTING THOSE CLOSE TO YOU THAT ARE PUT IN DANGER-- Peter's visions of Capt. Stacy remind Peter of the importance of this lesson. That promise to leave Gwen out of his role as Spider-Man is big. As a hero and crimefighter, he has acquired a bullseye on his back. Peter puts himself and the people around him at risk of the danger that accompanies that role. Being embroiled in treacherous work echoes what happened to his parents and their decision to leave Peter with relatives to flee the country because of the heat on them. They knew those risks meant protection and Peter is seeing those now too.
LESSON #3: WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY-- I don't care how elongated and elegant Martin Sheen's version of Uncle Ben tried to make this central Spider-Man mantra different to sound new in the last film. I believe he said "those who have the ability to do good are morally obligated to help others," but let's face it. We all remember this version of the credo. It's easier to remember, say, and it fits better on a movie poster. Jokes aside, this will always be the defining lesson for all things Spider-Man and it should be. Peter is just a young guy and continues to learn that his heroic actions, though fun, carry weight, consequences, and culpability.