Pity Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Thanks to Sony’s need to retain the rights to their lucrative web-spinning hero (as well as keeping him out of the hands of Marvel Studios proper, who would likely dwarf their profits in short order), their reboot of the Spider-Man franchise followed hard upon Sam Raimi’s at times brilliant at times frustrating trilogy. Spider-Man 3 may have left a bad taste in the mouths of many, but that does not mean more Spider-Man with a new director, new actors and a new take on the origin story would be a remedy for their ill feelings. The Amazing Spider-Man was a clunky take on the origin story, saddled with an unspectacular villain (pity Rhys Ifans as well, it seems), but it had some real heat in Garfield and Stone, perfectly encapsulating the awkwardness of young high school love despite neither of them resembling a high schooler. Even with its unimpressive story and its over-reliance on Peter Parker’s parents as a plot device, the charm of Garfield and Stone persevered enough to make the film interesting at the very least and at times even something resembling a film that deserves praise.
Coming back for a second round, though, should theoretically free things up for the creative team to stretch their boundaries a bit. Released from the shackles of an origin story, screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner (with an additional screen story credit for James Vanderbilt of Zodiac fame) have the opportunity to open up the world a bit. As is so often the case in not only superhero movies but Spider-Man movies specifically, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 overloads on the villains, introducing three of them all told over its 142 minutes. The first is more of a throwaway, with Paul Giamatti’s Rhino opening the festivities in what basically amounts to a pre-credits stinger. The meat of the plot centers around Peter’s interactions with Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a neglected engineer at Oscorp destined to become the electricity-based supervillain Electro, with the addition of Harry Osborne (Dane Dehaan) in Green Goblin mode to stir the pot. With two major villain origin stories to consider, the continuation of the Peter’s father storyline and the romance between Peter (Garfield) and Gwen (Stone) percolating, it is safe to say that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has a bit of ground to cover.
There is so much to share the screen in this film that it cannot help but be overstuffed. The simple pleasures of watching Peter and Gwen fumble around in the throes of young love are lost in the morass of conspiracy theories and mythology-building. It is incredible how different in tenor the attempt of building out this universe is compared to the ease with which Marvel Studios references their extensive background; nothing ever feels right when Sony tries to expand their universe. And the biggest problem with that continues to lie at the feet of its villains.
Rhys Ifans is a good actor who was weighed down by a do-nothing character. The same can be said for both Foxx and Dehaan in this installment. The filmmakers do try to inject some interest in Max Dillon by sketching him as a paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices prior to his accident, and they do some intriguing things with the sound design during these early sequences, but once he goes all blue and sparky he’s just the same boring nondescript villain Ifans became. The same can be said for Dehaan, whose talents are roundly wasted until he is forced to don an absurd costume with scraggly teeth and warts for a short act three villain turn that essentially amounts to a cameo. For all of the vitriol pointed Sony’s way for the Venom debacle, they certainly have not learned their lesson.
Garfield, for his part, remains an inspired choice for the role of Peter Parker. He has always had a casual charm to his roles, making a name for himself working for directors like Terry Gilliam and David Fincher, and his mix of quips and awkward gangly post-pubescence is a much closer approximation to the Parker of the comics than Tobey Maguire’s version. Emma Stone also remains great; she’s the firebrand the film needs to inject some spice when the film bogs itself down in all of its silliness. They are the two beacons of light in the swamp, and they deserve much better than what they are given.
For every good comic book movie, whether from Warner Brothers or Sony or Fox or Marvel Studios, there always seems to be a film like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 waiting in the wings. A blatant and naked cash grab, a film that only exists to retain Sony’s rights to the character, a rehash of a trilogy that ended less than a decade ago, all of the warning signs were there. The Amazing Spider-Man was not great, but it was not a complete embarrassment either. Any of that juice from the first film has been thoroughly squeezed away, and all that remains is a dried husk. There is a way to go about making these movies, and a way to create a cautionary tale that can be a prototype for what not to do in order to keep the momentum going. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may not be Catwoman, but it is not all that much better in the grand scheme of things. Still, Webb has something special in Garfield, and the hope would be that he can find some better material for the inevitable sequel.