The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Why so serious, Spider-Man?
Like that other troubled vigilante in Gotham City, the teenaged web-slinger from Queens has his demons, too, most notably the enduring guilt of being indirectly responsible for the murder of his beloved father figure, Uncle Ben. As with director Sam Raimi's apparently passé take on the character from a whole entire decade ago, mortality and alienation remain major themes of the rebooted Spider-Man franchise. But Raimi, the brilliant schlockmeister, also understood that despite the Shakespearean elements to be found in his comic-book source material, it was not actually Shakespeare.
Admittedly, great superhero stories often include a smattering of existential concerns and anxieties, but, in general, fantasy can only bear so much reality. Giving full voice (or, rather, voice-over) to Peter Parker's emotionally charged double life as man and pseudo-insect, Raimi spun his second Spider-Man movie, arguably the best comic-book adaptation of all time, into an entertaining blockbuster laced with just the right amount of weightier subject matter. He likely achieved this balance by being fully aware that his protagonist was dressed in a spider costume.
If your memory extends back further than a couple of presidential election cycles, it may seem strange that there is now a second Spider-Man movie. Comparisons between the two number twos are inevitable and overwhelmingly favor Raimi's earlier effort, not only because Raimi had a lighter touch, but also because the studio permitted him and his screenwriters to have a far more coherent one. Falling victim to the storytelling grandiosity of the increasingly hyper-serialized Marvel universe, director Marc Webb's own first crack at a sequel, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," is a bloated mess of portentous exposition and unintelligible action sequences.
Rather than following in the creative footsteps of the playful, technically inventive Raimi, Webb and his collaborators appear to be drawing inspiration from Christopher Nolan's achingly grim Batman trilogy. But, whatever one thinks of Nolan's work, it is ultimately the product of an auteurist level of control that studio executives probably have not granted to Webb, accounting for the movie's poorly pieced together plot. To be fair, though, what Webb wants most is for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" to be a colossal downer. And, on this score, he succeeds.
For large swaths of the movie's seemingly interminable run time, Webb's latter-day Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) obsesses over whether or not his crime-fighting ways will endanger the spirited Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the girl of his dreams who is unafraid to love a guy in spandex. Gwen's dead dad (Denis Leary), however, remains unswayed. A brusque police captain killed by a giant lizard-man at the end of the last movie, he returns to follow Spider-Man around like Banquo's ghost, a silent, glaring, and none-too-subtle reminder of Peter's vow to protect his daughter from Spider-Man's many enemies by simply leaving her alone. As for any possible diabolical threats to the life of Peter's poor old Aunt May (Sally Field), nobody appears too concerned.
This time out, there are a pair of supervillains allied against Spider-Man, each from opposite ends of the Oscorp Industries corporate ladder, a mega-company which apparently only specializes in evil stuff, like the disappearance of Peter's parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz). After suffering a gruesome accident involving a tank of mutant electric eels, the mild-mannered Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an Oscorp lackey and delusional Spider-Man fan, transforms into Electro, a blue bundle of energy who, despite having the power to bend electrons to his will, still cannot overcome a major inferiority complex. This lingering personality flaw soon sours his adoration of the wall crawler, sparking an epic battle in Times Square between Spidey and his newly-minted adversary.
To this moderately engaging character mix, the movie's committee of screenwriters ham-handedly adds the preppy Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), prodigal heir to the Oscorp empire and childhood friend of Peter Parker. Having recently lost his own father Norman (Chris Cooper) to a genetic disease that now afflicts him too, Harry reconnects with Peter over their shared preoccupation with death. But their bleak bond is severed when Spider-Man refuses to donate a bit of his venom-tainted blood to Harry, which, for silly scientific reasons, the budding sociopath believes can save his life. As comic book readers of a certain age already know, this schism finally gives Spider-Man the enemy destined to bring all of the movie's relentless foreboding to its gloomy conclusion.
Blessedly, there are a few sunny respites in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," all courtesy of Garfield and Stone's romantic chemistry, which is in no way dependent on the trite words coming out of their mouths. Despite being closer to a mid-life crisis than to adolescence, Garfield also turns in a credible performance as the charmingly gawky Peter, while Stone, as always, can flash a smile that would give any nerd hope. They should consider doing a project together that is either genuinely escapist or genuinely meaningful -- maybe some Shakespeare.