I tried to write a spoiler-free review of this movie; I really did. In fact, I tried to do that almost as hard as I tried to like this movie. Unfortunately, neither of those attempts worked out.
To get to the heart of what makes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a bad sequel, if not quite a bad movie, it helps to look back at some of the ol’ webhead’s past big-screen showings. Under director Sam Raimi, the franchise got off to a strong start in 2002 when Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire, found himself pitted against Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, corporate megalomaniac turned homicidal flying goblin.
As adaptations go, it was pretty good. Sure, certain elements were glossed over or altered—Peter’s scientifically ingenious creation of his own webshooters was replaced with the much-maligned organic webs; Green Goblin’s traditional outfit was heavily revamped into a rigid metal armor that now serves as an odd foreshadowing of what would become Iron Man’s visual style; Spider-Man’s earliest love interest, Gwen Stacy, was ignored in favor of redhead bombshell Mary Jane Watson. But the changes to the source material were for the most part minor, and those that were made often served to make a more straightforward story that avoided getting bogged down replaying entire story arcs of comic history.
Spider-Man 2 continued the tradition, if in a somewhat less spectacular fashion. Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina, offered a sinister and ultimately morally ambiguous counterpoint to Spider-Man. More than that, though, Spider-Man 2 more fully realized the long-term appeal of Spider-Man in the comics: namely, his totally mundane real-world problems with rent money, relationships, and… y’know, normal things. The motif of a hero losing his powers only to regain them at just the right moment did hearken back to Superman II in quite a strange way, and the action sequences were less well-done than in the original, but if you take the first two Raimi films as a whole, you have a more-or-less perfect distillation of Spider-Man’s emotional core.
And then came Spider-Man 3. Ah, poor Spider-Man 3, poster child par excellence of the butchered second sequel since its 2007 release. In short, the innumerable problems with the last film of Raimi’s trilogy can be boiled down to two: first, an inattention to narrative that resulted in an overloaded slate of villains; second, an inexplicable disregard for character development, resulting in an almost-total negation of Peter’s responsibility for his uncle’s death, a tonally confused attempt at turning the series “dark,” and… that weird dance thing (because a rock fell out the sky, that’s why!).
The mixed reaction and bloated budget of Spider-Man 3 put the kibosh on any plans Raimi may have still had for a fourth installment. So, five years later, the Evil Dead alum was out, replaced with relative newcomer Marc Webb. Maguire was replaced by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, and Mary Jane Watson was quickly replaced with her comic-book predecessor, the policeman’s daughter, Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. Throw in a brilliantly sinister Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors, and The Amazing Spider-Man was exactly what the franchise needed: an exciting, action-packed, but emotionally grounded revitalization of the series. Picking up the debris of Spider-Man 3, Marc Webb assembled a coherent character piece that, while obviously doing its level best to distance itself from Raimi and Maguire’s take, rivaled and surpassed its antecedents in bringing the Peter Parker of the comics to the big screen.
His scientific genius, almost completely overlooked in the first three films, is put on display with Peter’s work for Oscorp and his teacher’s-pet relationship with Connors. The wisecracking Spider-Man persona that was all but absent from much of Maguire’s tenure in the role is placed front and center, all while Peter deals with the intense grief that comes along with trying to find Uncle Ben’s killer. And it was likely Webb’s experience as a romantic comedy director ((500) Days of Summer) that left the Peter/Gwen relationship feeling more genuine, more spontaneous than Peter and Mary Jane had been in previous films.
But for Webb, Garfield, and company, their Spider-Man 3 moment came early. In case you can’t tell, that means I didn’t like it.
Like I said earlier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t a bad movie; not exactly. It’s just a bad sequel. If this were following up on some other Spider-Man movie, it might have done its job very well, but the character development and emotional depth seen in the franchise reboot is barely to be found here. And when that emotional depth does rear its oh-so-rare head, it’s only in ways that negate the character development with which it blended so effortlessly in the previous film (but more on that in a few paragraphs).
I’ll get the good parts out of the way first, since they’re fewer in number and easier to outline. First, Spider-Man’s on-screen persona is spot-on; Garfield is perfect in his role as the wise-cracking webslinger, perfectly translating Spider-Man’s wry in-action comic book persona to film. It’s only when the mask comes off and we delve into the nitty-gritty of Peter Parker’s personal relationships that things get muddied, confused, and disjointed.
The only real exception is, quite inexplicably, the relationship that seems most shoehorned into the narrative: that of Peter and Harry Osborn. The dialogue between these two is the most genuine of the entire film, and Peter’s empathy for Harry on his father’s death seems as real as you could expect between two childhood friends.
In fact, the Peter/Harry dynamic is a good example of one of the weirdest things about this movie: all the interesting, human things that are supposed to happen to Peter Parker happen primarily to other people: Harry’s father dies (I’ll leave it to you to decipher this event’s implication for future movies), Gwen pursues a scholarship at Oxford, Max Dillon, a Peter Parker-esque social outcast, is transformed into the villain Electro. All these problems center around Peter, to be sure, but they are first of all other people’s problems. Peter’s own personal issues—his guilt over Uncle Ben’s death, his money troubles, his struggles with Spider-Man’s public image—all these are barely present here.
Ironically, Max Dillon seems the most dynamic character of the bunch here. While this revamped villain borrows a bit too much from Batman Forever’s Batman-obsessed Edward Nygma, and while his camp sensibilities are at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, Jamie Foxx’s Electro is an almost refreshing break from the meandering, ultimately futile attempts at character-building in the film’s first half. It’s hard to say just how good a performance Foxx’s would have been in a better film; is Electro a good villain who deserved a better movie, or merely a mediocre-to-okay part of an otherwise second-rate flick?
Speaking of character building, it’s easy to see that that’s exactly one of the things that made The Amazing Spider-Man the well-received franchise resuscitator it was. Martin Sheen and Andrew Garfield got more screen time together than Tobey Maguire and Cliff Robertson did, and that fact made all the difference. Likewise, Peter’s revelation of his secret identity to Gwen built a stronger rapport between the characters than was possible with the slow, on-again-off-again build-up to the full-fledged Peter/Mary Jane romance in the Raimi films.
With this sequel, we get… well, more of the Peter/Gwen relationship in pretty much the same terms, and, as was mentioned, a whole bunch of interesting human things only peripherally related to Peter. For a film about Spider-Man, this one’s got remarkably little that actually happens to Spider-Man until the third act, when… well, you know.
Yeah, I’m going there. Part 2 is about refrigerators.