After only five years, Sony executives made the controversial decision to reboot the Spider-Man franchise Sam Raimi directed to record-breaking commercial success the previous decade. Guided by the desire (and need) to keep Spider-Man actively contributing to Sony’s production pipeline or lose franchise rights to Marvel/Disney, Sony jettisoned Raimi and the aging cast for a new director, Mark Webb ((500) Days of Summer), and a new, younger, cheaper cast, revisiting Spider-Man’s overly familiar origin story for the second time in a decade. Despite energetic, committed performances from a multi-talented cast, including Andrew Garfield as the titular teen web-slinger and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, Peter Parker’s first girlfriend, The Amazing Spider-Man failed to rise above clichéd, redundant mediocrity. Thankfully, the semi-anticipated sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, sidesteps some of the reboot’s problems, but makes others familiar to anyone who say through Raini’s last, pre-reboot entry, Spider-Man 3: A draining, grueling overabundance of villains, climaxes, and everything in between.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens with a lengthy prologue involving Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz) that once again focuses on Spider-Man’s connection to Oscorp, the mega-corporation at the center of the Spider-Man universe (at least on film). Webb caps the prologue with a mid-air fight scene that feels like a leftover from the first film—probably because it was. The entire prologue feels unnecessary, especially since the first present-day scene segues right into large-scale action, with Peter (Garfield), immensely enjoying his newfound fame as New York City’s most famous, celebrated superhero (NYC’s only superhero, if we’re being accurate). Borrowing a panel from his comic-book counterpart, Spider-Man not only battles a random assortment of thugs and lowlifes with his fists, feet, and web-slinging, but with quick-witted quips too. It’s also graduation day, as in high-school graduation day, with Peter’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Stone), the class valedictorian.
Haunted by the promise he made to Gwen’s father (Dennis Leary, reprising his role, sans dialogue), Peter vacillates between dating and not dating Gwen, fearful that breaking the promise to stay away will lead to Gwen getting seriously injured or dying. He’s literally haunted by Gwen’s father, seeing his ghost wherever he goes. Peter, however, can’t stay away for long. As Spider-Man, he watches over her, coming dangerously close to unsympathetic stalker territory. Distractions, however, keep him from obsessing over Gwen, first when his old elementary school friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, making a career out of playing dysfunctional, neurotic teens), returns to New York City to run his father’s company, Oscorp, and second when an ultra-Spider-Man fan, Oscorp electrical engineer, and self-described “nobody,” Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx, miscast), falls into a vat of bioengineered electrical eels and becomes transformed into the electricity consuming and powered Electro.
At first, Electro isn’t a superhero or a supervillain, just misunderstood and feared (c.f., the X-Men) for his unique physical appearance and Day-Glo superpowers. Before long, though, he’s letting a lifetime of self-loathing boil over into anger, bitterness, resentment, and ultimately violence (cf., Batman Forever). Spider-Man, of course, has no choice (great power, great responsibility, etc.) but to play city-saving superhero to Electro’s destruction-prone supervillain. Max’s motivations, however, are thinly, poorly developed, making the transformation from Spider-Man-love to Spider-Man-hate anything but persuasive. Harry’s return and ultimately, his turn to supervillainy, barely merits even superficial analysis. With the exception of Peter and Gwen’s relationship—the emotional anchor for The Amazing Spider-Man 1-2—anything resembling a real-world motivation for behavior or action. In general, character behavior and action isn’t organic in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s inorganic, dictated by plot needs and by extension, series/franchise needs.
Working from a screenplay credited to Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinker (previous Spider-Man scribe James Vanderbilt receives only a story credit this time around), Marc Webb dutifully follows the standard superhero formula, interspersing set pieces with enervating regularity. The grand finale isn’t so grand and given the late arrival of a second supervillain, it can’t be described as final either, but the overstuffed climax is meant to satisfy a subset of moviegoers who expect the best spectacle Hollywood studio money can buy, not character development or character depth. Given the current state of superhero filmmaking and consequent superhero fatigue, genuine emotion and pathos are extremely difficult to find in the genre. To Webb’s credit, he imbues some of Peter and Gwen’s quieter, relationship-centered moments with genuine emotion and meldrama-free pathos. Where The Amazing Spider-Man 3 takes Peter Parker has been already decided (more supervillains, more money, Mary Jane), but for at least for now, Spider-Man fans can bow their heads in thanks for the small miracle that for once, justice was done to a key component of a comic-book character’s backstory, the Peter-Gwen relationship.