When we last saw Peter Parker, the cocky, angst-ridden hero of director Marc Webb’s strangely schizoid The Amazing Spider-Man, he was sitting in a classroom near the object of his affection, intent on pursuing a relationship with her even though he had just promised her now-deceased dad he would stay away from her.
Gwen Stacy, delivering the commencement speech as class valedictorian at the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, is still dating Peter, and their effortless rapport, heightened by actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s art-imitating-life spark (the pair is reportedly an item), makes it easy to root for the lovebirds, as well as the movie surrounding them. Who cares that, at 30 and 25 years old respectively, Garfield and Stone are way too old to be playing high school graduates? They have the kind of chemistry money can’t buy, earthier and more tactile than the wholesome, winsome pairing of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Sam Raimi’s trilogy.
It appears, at first glance, that the new chapter in Webb’s reboot of the Marvel do-gooder’s adventures is going to improve upon its problematic predecessor. Unlike so many contemporary superhero yarns, it’s not ashamed to be a comic book movie. It doesn’t work overtime to inject hard-hitting realism to the proceedings; on the contrary, it refuses to shy away from the genre’s pulpy trappings. The airborne action sequences, which had previously come across as a self-conscious 3D video game showcase inserted from a different movie, here feel better integrated stylistically to the rest of the film. They never get old. Garfield, saddled with tiresome origin-story lashing out in Amazing Spidey 1, is actually not such a dickwad this time. Gone is the skateboard on which he used to ride around, though the Dogtown and Z-Boys poster hanging on Peter’s bedroom wall calls attention to his former sullen-hipster ways. In short, Webb appears to have listened to his detractors, and has attempted to do the source material justice.
And then he introduces all sorts of new stumbling blocks that dampen the fun.
In between saving the day with his dazzling moves and lighthearted spontaneity, Spidey/Peter has visions of Gwen’s dad (Denis Leary), an NYPD captain killed in the line of duty, here resurfacing as a wordless hallucination sizing him up with a reproachful stare. It’s a cheap, amateurish tactic by the film’s screenwriting team of Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Jeff Pinkner, the first of several such missteps. Why do they feel compelled to underline Peter’s guilt so baldly? The quickest to move the story along, I suppose, but in having Peter and Gwen bicker and make up whenever it suits the filmmakers’ purposes, they drive a wedge that hampers the actors’ sparkling affinity. And, as Amazing Spidey Part Deux progresses, it becomes evident the film has bitten off more than it could chew.
The narrative problems, however, don’t stem from an overabundance of characters, as I initially feared, but from a failure to develop their hangups and grudges in an organic fashion. The film as its strongest whenever it simply allows the characters to interact, such as when Peter and his aunt, played once again by an overqualified Sally Field saddled with stringy hair that could use a lot more shampoo, talk about her decision to become a nurse, or when Peter reconnects with Harry Osborn (Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan), the trust-fund brat who has just inherited Oscorp, his late father Norman’s company dedicated to the development of new technologies, or in these movies’ case, an exposition hub and source of character baggage. More often than not, however, you’re all too aware of the plot wheels noisily cranking along. (Mild spoilers follow from this point on; you are warned.)
Tonal dissonance seems to be a Webb trademark going back to his vastly overrated romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, and Spidey 2 serves up a doozy in the form of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) an insecure, socially inept electrical engineer at Oscorp who idolizes Spider-Man (shades of Jim Carrey in Batman Forever). Dillon, bespectacled and gap-toothed, is here as Comic Relief, something Webb makes clear by the character’s clumsiness and his excessively whimsical music theme, courtesy of composer Hans Zimmer and collaborators Johnhy Marr and Pharrell Williams. Foxx is clearly having a blast playing a goofball, but the movie takes such pains to establish him as a clown that when his transformation into the AC/DC-powered Electro takes place, it’s virtually impossible to take him seriously as a dangerous foe. His powers might be mighty, but his nefariousness is nonexistent.
It would be nice to report Osborn morphs into a worthier antagonist, but the film gives him such a flimsy, half-assed motivation for his actions that when his true colors are revealed, it’s not compelling, merely risible. What the characters Webb and his creative team have cooked up out of the comic book Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in the early 1960s are very good at is self-pity. With the notable exception of Gwen and Peter’s parents (seen here in flashback in a pleasingly Grand Guignol-esque opening sequence on board a jet), they whine. They brood. They glare. And then they whine some more. DeHaan, a versatile and resourceful young actor, is stuck in resentful-rich-kid mode for so long that when it comes time to take on more overt bad-guy duties, he’s just plain silly. There’s no shortage of villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but not one is actually worth a damn, and remember, I’m still getting over Part 1′s talking lizard, so there was nowhere to go but up.
Which brings us back to Gwen and Peter, an engaging duo adrift in this mess of a movie. Stone once again imbues the blonde heroine with intelligence and moxie. She knows she’s stepping into harm’s way by choosing to be Peter’s significant other, which would be more empowering if the screenwriters hadn’t felt so compelled to stress her independence at every turn. Readers familiar with the comic book will recognize the storyline being played out here. Does the movie hew close to the way things turned out on the page? Let’s just say the film, tonally and story-wise, is so over the place that when a moment that should have ranked among the most moving in the Marvel canon comes along, it left this reviewer cold. There’s a lot of woe-is-me venting in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but when it’s actually required to depict genuine grief, it spins a web of sorrow that remains emotionally out of reach.
The Amazing Spider-Man lurches into theaters, in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D engagements, on May 2.