Everyone in Fresno and anywhere else in the world knows that these days the summer movie season inevitably means one thing: superheroes. Everybody has their personal favorites, and while there are quite a few that this examiner likes, personally, one of my all-time favorites is certainly Spider-Man. Of all the superheroes, he may be the one that I related to the most, and I know that I am not alone in that opinion. Not only was he a teenager when his crime fighting career first began, but unlike other superheroes created before him, his life had real problem, be it family drama, terrible loss, or even things like being low on money or not being able to get a date. As a comic book fan, my history with this character goes back a long way, certainly to the 1990s animated series, which while that show admittedly does not hold up as well as some other 90s superhero shows like Batman: The Animated Series or X-Men, it was still a very fun series that educated a lot of kids about Spider-Man's world and how large it really is. In 2002, fans all over the world had their dreams come true when director Sam Raimi delivered the first Spider-Man movie, and yes, while comic book films have come a long way since that film, it still remains a very fun, entertaining, and loving adaptation of the character. In 2004, Spider-Man 2 proved to be an even better film than the first, and ten years later still ranks up there with the greatest superhero films ever made. But then in 2007, despite some excellent visual effects, Spider-Man 3 disappointed audiences with an awkward tone, too many villains, and too many plot lines and ideas to make for a cohesive piece; it was a film that had a theme and message in mind, but which simply had too many card on the table to tell it.
After Spider-Man 3 there were plans to produce a fourth installment in the franchise, but after Raimi and actor Tobey Maguire left the project, that film was abandoned in favor of a reboot. Said reboot needed to be out in theaters by a certain time frame in order for Sony to maintain the rights, otherwise they would revert back to Marvel. Therefore, in 2012, director Marc Webb gave up The Amazing Spider-Man, the first film in a new Spider-Man franchise with Andrew Garfield in the title role. Those who have read my review of that film will know that I wasn't terribly pleased with it; not that I did not think it was a well-made film or the best one since Spider-Man 2, but because it had an overly dark and brooding tone more akin to The Dark Knight than the much brighter, jovial and more optimistic Spider-Man. That film also suffered, in this examiner's opinion at least, for having Peter Parker himself played too emo and aggressive, a antagonist who starts off very sympathetic but whose motivations make less sense once he becomes a villain, and, a series of changes to the character's origin story that felt as though they were done for the sake of change instead of actually improving anything, and, as petty as I know it is, a unsatisfying redesign of the classic Spider-Man costume. I want to stress again, The Amazing Spider-Man is not a bad film, there are some excellent performances in it, some great visuals, and one of the most authentic-feeling romances in any superhero film. It just didn't sit right with me, personally, as a fan of this character; there was a sense of fun and heart (even if it did venture into camp) that the Raimi films had that the reboot did not provide me with...at least not the first time. Thankfully, I have seen the films more times since then, and I am pleased to say that while it is still not my favorite superhero movie ever, it has gotten much better on multiple viewings. Maybe I just had too much baggage two years ago or maybe I still hadn't had enough time to let go of the earlier films, but I have lightened up on it since then.
The reason I bring all of this up is because, despite my issues with the first film, I was nevertheless very excited to see the sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Why? Because now at least the burden of retelling the origin was behind us and because all of the trailers make it look like many of my problems with the first film were going to be addressed this time. Scenes were happening in the daytime, we were getting out of the deary look and bringing back some brighter colors, Spider-Man was cracking more jokes, plot lines that were dropped during the first films were coming back to get resolved, and, thank goodness, the web-head was going beck to his classic costume, giving us the best-looking interpretation of it to date. So for all of that I was happy, but even I did have to admit that I was starting to get a Spider-Man 3 vibe when we discovered that we were going to get three villains in this film, in addition to wrapping up the mystery of Peter's parents and continuing his romance with Gwen Stacy. But does The Amazing Spider-Man 2 measure up or not? Lets find out.
The film opens up with an expansion of the flashback seen at the beginning of the first film where Oscorp scientist Dr. Richard Parker (played by Campbell Scott) and his wife Mary (played by Embeth Davidtz) are forced to leave the young son Peter in the care his Aunt May (played by Sally Field) and Uncle Ben. The couple are then seen on board a private jet trying to upload a video message to explain his disappearance and the secrets of his research when the jet is hijacked by a man sent to assassinate Richard. With the pilot dead, the plane crashes, but not before Richard completes the upload.
Decades later, a year after the events of the first film, Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) is fighting crime in New York City as the amazing Spider-Man, such as stopping and apprehending a Russian mobster named Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamotti), who was attempting to steal a truck containing plutonium vials. During this he also saves the life of a outcast Oscorp technician named Max Dillon (played by Jaime Foxx). This latest adventure almost makes Peter late for his high school graduation, where his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone) is valedictorian. Peter and Gwen are enjoying a happy and loving relationship, but every day Peter is haunted by the memory of her late father, Captain Stacy (played by Dennis Leary), and his dying wish that Peter leave Gwen out of his life so she does not get hurt; because of this, Peter and Gwen decide to end their relationship.
At the same time, Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan) has returned to New York to visit is dying father, Oscorp founder Norman Osborn (played by Chris Cooper). Norman reveals to Harry that the disease that is killing him is genetic and that it will soon claim Harry's life too, and so he gives Harry a small device that he claims contains his life's work. Norman dies the next day and Harry is made new head of Oscorp, much to the disapproval of several company chairmen like Donald Menken (played by Colm Feore), Harry also reacquaints himself with his old friend Peter.
Meanwhile, Max Dillion, who has become obsessed with Spider-Man, seeing him as his best friend, is forced to work late on some electrical equipment at Oscorp where he gets into an accident that transforms him into a being of pure electrical energy called Electro. As Peter tries to maintain a friendship with Gwen, who is making plans to move to England to attend Oxford, he is called away to Times Square to face Electro as he drains some of the city's power to survive. When Spider-Man does not immediately recognize him, Electro feels betrayed and declares Spider-Man his enemy.
So, Peter must now resolve his relationship with Gwen and stop Electro, but then it gets even more complicated when Harry's condition worsens and he reasons that Spider-Man's blood can help him so sustain his condition; Peter, however, believes that it will only make him worse. This development leads Peter to pick up his investigation into his father's research, leading to some shocking revelations, new crises, and perhaps the transformation of a dear friend into a vial new enemy.
As you can tell from that synopsis, there is quite a lot going on in this film, and ultimately, that is it's biggest flaw. People were worried that the film was going to have too many villains like Spider-Man 3 did, but the real problem here is that there are too many major plot threads to juggle at at once, so many that it becomes impossible to develop them all equally. The most successful element here is the romance between Peter and Gwen, which was also the biggest strength of the first film and where Marc Webb is clearly the most comfortable. The mystery of Peter's parents is more interesting this time around since it actually does get resolved, but the ultimate reveal is pretty much what most of the fans expected it would be.
The villains are the biggest problem however; none of them are bad necessarily, they just never get the kind of screen time they demand. Max Dillion is introduced as this nerdy, outcast Joe that everybody treats like garbage if they even notice he is there at all. When he gets his life saved by Spider-Man, his character turns delusional with fantasies that the tow of them are best friends when, as we all know, Spider-Man would have saved anybody's life the same way. This depiction has reminded many of Jim Carrey's portrayal of the Riddler in Batman Forever, and it is a very apt comparison. Now, I understand that we are meant to feel sorry for the character, because he really doesn't deserve to be put down so badly by everybody, but the creepy delusion this guy develops doesn't come off as endearing, but instead kind of pathetic, which was perhaps the point. Once he becomes Electro, he is hit with a dose of reality that he and Spider-Man really aren't best friends and that leads him to swear vengeance. Obviously Electro is not he deepest villain ever seen in a Spider-Man film, and that I cannot expect ever villain to be as effective as Doctor Octopus was in Spider-Man 2, but he absolutely has his positives, namely visually, which i will elaborate on later.
Then there is Harry Osborn, who is presented here in a very different light than in the previous film trilogy. This Harry is a childhood friend of Peter, which is great to know, but I did find myself wanting to know more details about their past and how they met in the first place. Yes, I know that Peter's dad worked for Harry's dad at Oscorp, but still some more details would have been nice. Whatever the case, this Harry is a lot creepier and more unstable, explained by his deteriorating condition, and his arch is more direct and condensed than James Franco's incarnation. It is no surprise when at the end of the film he ends up becoming the Green Goblin (which is no spoiler since they have released plenty of promotional images of him in the suit), but he still suffers from having too little screen time. When he is on screen his story works well, but I think that if there had maybe been a little bit more between him and Peter, then the shockingly brief appearance he makes as the Goblin at the end would have been even stronger than it was. As it stands, the Goblin's appearance feels shoehorned in. Who would have ever thought that of all character, the Green Goblin, the villain most often identified as Spider-Man's greatest enemy, would feel shoehorned into a Spider-Man movie? At least his appearance is still better earned than Venom was.
Lastly is Aleksei Sytsevich, a.k.a the Rhino, but he is pretty much absolved from these complaints since he is literally just a bookend villain; Spider-Man captured him at the beginning of the film, and then engages him in battle while he is wearing a robotic suit at the end. Ultimately, he is there to be set up for future films down the line.
And that brings me to the root of the problem, because much like Iron Man 2, this film has a major emphasis on building up it's larger universe than telling a condensed story. For instance, Felicity Jones appears in this film as Norman Osborn's assistant and later Harry assistant, and her character's name is Felicia, clearly meant to be Felicia Hardy, a.k.a. the Black Cat. Now, her character does very little in the film other than tip Harry off to information that leads to his final transformation into the Goblin, so they could have named the character anything, but by naming her Felicia that promises the fans that Sony has plans for this character down the line. Similarly, Max's major bully at Oscorp is a leading scientist named Smythe, obviously meant to be Alistair Smythe, a recurring villain from the comics best known for his connection to the Spider Slayers. And then you have the shot shown is the trailer where the shadowy man in the fedora, the same one sen in the post credits scene in the first film, walks through a room full of bizarre Oscorp devices clearly meant to tease us of future villains that we will most likely see in the upcoming Sinister Six movie, of which Rhino is the first example. As a fan, did I geek out at all of this stuff? Of course I did. I love seeing Sony commit themselves to building a bigger Spider-Man universe and cluing me in on the future, but when that sort of thing gets in the way of telling a functional story by, say, cramming in multiple villains so they are all set up for later films, then it becomes a problem.
Oh, and since I mentioned the post credit scene from the first film, I might as well take a time out to say that this film has probably the most bizarre post credit scene of any superhero film, because it is a short-but-exciting sequence from the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past. That's right, we get to see a clip from a competing studio's superhero movie where the two franchises are totally unconnected save for them both being based on a Marvel comic. The reason for this, as previously explained, is because of a contractual issue with director Marc Webb; you see, after making (500) Days of Summer, Webb was contracted to helm another movie for Fox, but they agreed to let him make The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the condition that Sony agree to promote X-Men: Days of Future Past. I'll agree with Moviefone that this will ultimately be a win-win situation for both studios, but anyone thinking this scene is suggesting a Spider-Man/X-Men crossover will be, sadly, disappointed.
Okay, now after all of the ranting I just did, you probably all think that I dislike this film as much as I did it's predecessor. Well, believe it or not, you'd be wrong. Despite it's faults, this is still, in a lot of ways, the Spider-Man film I felt I needed to see when the first film came out. As I said in my intro, the brighter colors, lighting of tone, and the change in costume were enough to raise my spirits, but there were other things that I appreciated too. Andrew Garfield finally won me over with this portrayal of Peter Parker, making the character, a lot more likable, a lot funnier, and overall a lot more spot-on to the Peter Parker I know; sure, I'll probably always have a nostalgic soft spot for Tobey Maguire's portrayal, and like the first three films in general I do not feel that portrayal should just be forgotten, but Andrew Garfield has officially become the new Spider-Man for me.
I loved the chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone in the first film and I like it just as much here. Their scenes together are where the film functions the strongest and I loved every second they were both on screen, perhaps not surprising since they are dating in real life. Marc Webb is a master of the on screen relationship and together with these they bring what is arguably one of the most charming superhero romances to a close. Yes, you read that right; I'm not going to say what happens exactly to prevent any spoilers, but lets just say that all the hardcore Spider-Man fans who remember Gwen Stacy's arc from the comics will have an idea what to expect here and while the details are different and it does not have the same build-up and history with the antagonist that we had in the comics, the outcome is still very powerful and the epilogue is portrayed and paced very well. Heck, I don't mind the way they utilized the Rhino as much because it did allow the film to end on the uplifting note that I needed it to...again, I can't explain why without going into spoilers.
Again, while it did get in the way of some of the storytelling, all the world building and Easter eggs placed there for fans were still a lot of fun. I particularly liked the reveal that Peter is already sending in pictures of Spider-Man to the Daily Bugle and even having an e-mail argument with J. Jonah Jameson, almost promising that we will finally see the character again in the third film...and I'll say again, they can bring J. K. Simmons back to reprise the role and I will have no objections whatsoever.
I should also be fair and say that Marc Webb did have some restraint in terms of how much he should pack into this film. Originally, the story was also going to include the character of Mary Jane Watson, Peter other most well-known love interest portrayed by Kirsten Dunst throughout the original film trilogy. For this film, actress Shailene Woodley was cast in the role and while the part was going to be a small role, her scenes were indeed shot, but then cut around June of last year in order to streamline the story better and keep the focus of Peter and Gwen's relationship. While I do feel sorry for Ms. Woodley and I would like to see her scenes included on the DVD release, I absolutely agree that in a film as bloated as this, loosing Mary Jane was the correct decision. Oh well, maybe next time...
But on that same notion, it is odd that the one plot line that is not picked up from the first film is that Uncle Ben's killer is till at large. Don't get me wrong, this film has way too much going on as is, it's just odd that the sequel would completely forget something like that. Maybe I'm just let down that Uncle Ben isn't playing as central a role in Peter's life in these new films as I would like him to, be it in life or in death.
The action sequences in this film are spectacularly visual, the best Spider-Man action I have seen on screen since the train battle in Spider-Man 2, and while that sequence has still not been beat in the ten ears since that film came out, these battles are still a feast to the eyes. When Spider-Man is diving from buildings and swinging through the air it looks the best that it has in any of the other films, catching the true acrobatic, free-spirited nature of this character excellently. The opening chase sequence is full of energy and the kind of opening you always secretly hope for in these kind of films. The sequences of Electro using his powers are beautifully realized with the popping blue colors and the inherently, well, electric atmosphere; these scenes also allow Spider-Man to come up with (with Gwen's help) more creative ways to confront such a powerful new villain. The battle between Spidey and the Goblin, sadly, very brief, but at least it very personal and quite viscous, things that would have made the battle with Venom more bearable in my opinion. These sequences are, again a feast to the eyes, and I highly encourage you to see them in 3-D because they sure do pop.
Lastly, I need to pay tribute to the performances. Andrew Garfield, as I stated earlier, deliver the kind of performance I was always hoping for as Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, this time being allowed to play the character with more charm and humor and less melodramatic angst. Still, this being Peter Parker, he goes through a lot of drama in this story and he manages to find the correct tone to all of this here so I am rooting for him in the story. Emma Stone lights up the screen as Gwen Stacy, bringing that same lovely charm and spunk that she did last time and making her character feel like a real young and independent woman and not just another damsel in distress...well, except for...never mind. Jaime Foxx is sadly underutilized as Max Dillon, a.k.a. Electro, in that he needs to play the role like a stereotypical nerdy outcast, complete with a jerry curl comb over, that due to underdevelopment becomes a creepy, delusional guy who we are not able to feel sympathy for like we are meant to, again, because of limited screen time. However, once he become Electro, he does become more interesting to watch, at least visually. Dane DeHaan is creepy and understated as Harry Osborn, a very different take than the more cool and smarmy approach of James Franco's portrayal. He is not he most memorable supervillain ever, once again due to limited screen time, but his friendship with Peter does feel genuine and natural and his decent into madness is emotional and believable. Sally Field is limited her as Aunt May, but she still delivers one of the most solid performances in the film. There is one scene in particular where she confronts Peter over his fixation of learning about his father that is one of the strongest scenes in the entire piece. Colm Feore appears and Oscorp executive Donald Menken, but while he is certainly a formidable jerk throughout the film, there is not a whole else to say about his character. Similar things can be said for Felicity Jones as Felicia Hardy, whose role is essentially and extended cameo, but she shows signs of potential growth for the obviously expanded role she will have in future films. Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz reprises their roles as Richard and Mary Parker, respectively, and while they are only in the film for a little bit, they are able to add greater depth and sympathy then they were able to last time, mainly because we actually get answers about why they did what they did here. Paul Giamatti bookends the film as Aleksei Sytsevich, a.k.a. the Rhino, and he plays the part totally over-the-top, but at least he is clearly having fun in this minor role; we'll see what becomes of him in the later films. Chris Cooker appears as Norman Osborn for what is a shockingly brief role for such a significant character in the Spider-Man universe, but even from his one scene, during which he is dying, he conveys an anger and nastiness that comic book fans all know is at the heart of this character, one of the most evil men in the Marvel universe. Other performances include Marton Csokas as Dr. Ashley Kafka, Louis Cancelmi as Man in Black Suit, Max Charles as Young Peter Parker, B. J. Novak as Alistair Smythe, Denis Leary as George Stacy, and Michael Massee as the Man in the Shadows.
Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a very fun, visually captivating, and generally more optimistic film than it's predecessor that will definitely provide a fun time at he cinemas. It benefits from strong performances, especially from the two leads, and some great visual effects, but it is greatly bogged down by too little time to develop the ensemble cast of villains in the wake of multiple story lines and an emphasis on building up a broader universe for the franchise. Still, despite the first film admittedly being the more structurally stable of the two, Marc Webb's second outing still gave this examiner a more enjoyable time, so for all of that, as with the first film, I am giving it a three stars.