As much as the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy feels completely genuine in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, that sense of authenticity is barren just about anywhere else in this jumbled sequel that is filled with too much story for its own good. As it is, the film, with all of its subplots, is painfully straightforward.
This review contains major spoilers.
The film opens about a year after the last film ended. Spider-Man is now a beloved hero of New York City (except in the eyes of an off-screen J. Jonah Jameson), while Gwen (played by Emma Stone) and Peter (played by Andrew Garfield) are graduating from high school and deciding what path to take next. Peter is late for graduation because he is attempting to foil the robbery of some dangerous Oscorp chemicals. From this opening scene, the film appears in mostly steady hands. As Spider-Man, Garfield lays on the jokes at rapid pace, and the scene comes off as though it were plucked straight from the comics as our hero struggles to hang onto a dozen toxic chemical-filled cylinders using his hands and feet. The only distraction is Paul Giamatti as Aleksei Sytsevich, a Russian mobster who the actor plays in a cartoonish style that does work tonally with what returning director Marc Webb established with the film’s 2012 predecessor.
Peter, still struggling with the death of Gwen’s father in the first film, continues to flip flop on his relationship with Gwen, while she herself has grown tired of Peter’s inability to commit. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx, an employee of OsCorp who desperately wants to be noticed by others. Dillon is obsessed with Spidey after he is saved by the hero during the opening scene. Foxx plays the nebbish scientist believably enough, then takes a serviceable turn as Electro after a genetic accident at OsCorp transforms him into a living electrical surge (Foxx’s lines are more over-the-top than his acting). As Electro, Foxx is virtually unrecognizable, but the effects to turn the character into villain are indeed spectacular. Electro’s body appears to be translucent as tiny strands of energy continuously shimmer beneath his glowing skin.
Max and his story are pretty uninvolving and only serve to give Spider-Man a villain to take down and, later in the story, reveal that Oscorp is up to some significantly nefarious business. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” feels dated as it mechanically follows the tired plot devices of past superhero films: (Plot Device #1) the eventual villain and the hero are initially on the same side, (Plot Device #2) something goes bad for the villain, and finally (Plot Device #3) the villain will stop at nothing to take the hero down. Concerned that one villain would not be enough, Webb and his team of screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner) give us their take on the Green Goblin using exactly the same straightforward story structure as Electro’s. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” could be lazier in its attempt to adapt Spider-Man for the big screen, but not by much.
Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan) returns to New York to find that his father, Norman (played by Chris Cooper), is dying of the same incurable disease that has been passed down to Harry. Peter comes to visit Harry after Norman dies and the two spend some time together as they both attempt to reconcile with their fractured relationships. Almost immediately Harry begins to succumb to his illness and he believes Spider-Man’s blood is the only thing that can save him. When Spider-Man chooses not to give Harry his blood, fearful that it would kill Harry, a rift is established between the two and Harry promises to exact his revenge. See how this works? The characters are close, things go south, and then the two are bitter enemies.
DeHaan has a likable presence with a natural creepiness akin to Christopher Walken. Harry and Peter are forced together by the plot three times so that Peter can bewilderingly declare that Harry is his best friend during the film’s final act, which comes out of left fields since the two of them haven’t seen one another since Peter was ten and Harry was twelve. All of this is done to add weight to the film’s final act, when Harry uses a serum at OsCorp to become the Green Goblin and is immediately armed with a Goblin Glider and an arsenal of pumpkin bombs. The design of the character for 2002’s “Spider-Man” film was almost universally lambasted for looking like a Power Ranger villain; this film is proof that he may be too difficult to adapt for a motion picture. As the Green Goblin, Harry’s skin is a greasy blotch of green make-up and a terrible cotton candy-like wig. DeHaan was more menacing in his street clothes.
Between the villain’s origin stories, Peter and Gwen continue their on again/off again courtship. Garfield and Stone are a remarkable on-screen couple. Together they’re charming, funny, tender; the two of them encompass everything we want from a romantic duo. Each time we come back to Peter and Gwen, the film is steered right back on track for a few minutes. Though she is also only in the film sporadically, the scenes between Peter and Aunt May (played by Sally Field) also feel honest.
A fourth storyline, still dangling from the first film, has to do with the disappearance of Richard and Mary Parker and the truth behind Richard’s experiments on spiders at OsCorp. Peter goes all John Nash and covers his wall in clues to help him resolve the mystery of his missing parents. Inexplicably, there are a number of photos of Gwen on the wall as well. When Peter finally uncovers his father’s secret, the revelation is a cross between the worlds of James Bond and Harry Potter. Not only is it not so astounding a surprise, but you’ll wonder why so much time was spent getting to this point in the film.
This brings us to one of the film’s biggest problems: the death of Gwen Stacy. Spider-Man and Gwen figure out how to stop Electro and they do so (thankfully, Gwen was not portrayed as a damsel in distress). Within seconds of stopping Electro, the Green Goblin shows up on his glider. Seeing Spider-Man and Gwen together, Harry immediately realizes that Peter is Spidey and snatches Gwen, promising to kill her. The hero and villain duke it out and Gwen falls to her death as Spider-Man narrowly fails to save her.
There is no decade long animosity between the two characters, as in the original comic book “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (from the “The Amazing Spider-Man” #121). Green Goblin shows up and no more than seven minutes later Peter is crying over the body of his dead girlfriend. It’s such a cheat. Webb and team desired to tell a seminal Spider-Man story, but because their film is so overstuffed, it’s completely rushed. Or worse, it’s arbitrary.
The movie should have been reduced to two main storylines: the relationship between Peter and Gwen and the return of Harry Osborn. The Electro and Richard Parker stuff only serves to balloon what might have been a compelling superhero drama. As an audience, we’re already invested in the young lovers, but Harry’s story and his transformation into the Green Goblin needed time to breathe in order for the finale to have the necessary impact.
By the film’s conclusion, the mysterious man who came to see Curt Connors at the end of “The Amazing Spider-Man”, appears at the end of this film to assist Harry Osborn in gathering a team of candidates for future OsCorp experiments. So, out of nowhere, Harry Osborn has chosen to become a master super villain eager to lead a team of other super villains to raise some hell in the Big Apple? There was so little concern for developing Harry’s character, the goal appears to be to expand the Spider-Man franchise above anything else.
Curiously, the film also veers into over-the-top-ness with some of its characters and imagery, beginning with Giamatti, who screams and snarls his way through both of his scenes. Then there’s Marton Csokas as Dr. Kafka, an actor who would only be described as subtle if he appeared in one of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. A few times during the film, Spider-Man is wearing something unusual over his costume to garner a laugh. While in a convenience store he’s wearing a beanie and scarf to keep warm and, while helping some firemen, he dons a firefighter helmet while hosing down a blaze. By the end of the film, it seemed as though the filmmakers were attempting to determine the level of camp that audiences would find acceptable. At times Hans Zimmer’s score is a perfect complement to the broader tone of parts of the film, whether it’s overly whimsical during Foxx’s scenes as Max Dillon or when the fanfare is laid on too thick whenever Spidey saves the day.
Webb directs a number of strong action sequences in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, chief among them are the opening chase with Aleksei Sytsevich and Spider-Man’s initial battle with Electro. The director uses a cool slow motion technique to better demonstrate what Spider-Man is capable of doing within the blink of an eye. One terrific moment has the hero preventing a large group of bystanders from being electrocuted while on a large metallic bleacher. The final battle with Electro becomes a bit too cartoonish, but the scuffle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in a clock tower is skillfully executed (even if Gwen is not).
At a time when we are getting layered comic book adaptations such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the Christopher Nolan Batman films, by-the-numbers affairs like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” have become passé.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt
Cast: Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Electro / Max Dillon), Dane DeHaan (Green Goblin / Harry Osborn), Colm Feore (Donald Menken), Felicity Jones (Felicia), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich), Sally Field (Aunt May), Embeth Davidtz (Mary Parker), Campbell Scott (Richard Parker), (Dr. Ashley Kafka), Louis Cancelmi (Man in Black Suit), Max Charles (Young Peter Parker), B.J. Novak (Alistair Smythe)
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date: May 2, 2014