The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Film Review

Sony Pictures
Although a bit crowded with villains and subplots, the love story will catch viewers in its web.

Andrew Garfield is back with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy by his side, ready to take on Jamie Foxx's Electro, Dane DeHaan's Green Goblin and Paul Giamatti's Rhino in this youth-skewed installment of the web-slinging franchise.

2012's The Amazing Spider-Man has its passionate defenders, and accumulated an unassailable $750 million box-office haul, but it sure took its sweet time gluing the radial spokes of its web into place. Now that effort pays off with its sequel, a more intricately woven skein of action, effects, character development and cheesy one-liners. The eponymous hero hits his super-heroic stride here, as does Andrew Garfield in the role, especially when Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker learns there's always some fine print in a contract with this many benefits. The plot gets itself tangled up in multiple villain strands, but in the main, this installment is emotionally weightier and more satisfying than its predecessor. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will swing effortlessly through multiplexes worldwide, with a long rollout through Europe and Asia before it opens Stateside on May 2.

With likeable-as-a-lollipop Emma Stone onboard again as love interest Gwen Stacy, who gets a lot more to do during this go-round, Spider-Man arguably has a stronger cross-gender pull than the average comic-book property. It also doesn't hurt that the brand has always appealed particularly to kids, especially seven-and-ups just starting to grow out of cartoons, who connect to the character's youth, occasional goofiness and fundamental innocence. Cannily, returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner work representatives of that demographic right into the story itself, especially in the last scene, which ends this chapter on a final, eye-moistening, cliff-hanging high.

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At the very least, New Yorkers will love it. The Amazing Spider-Man felt confined too often to Peter's bedroom, his high school and the Oscorp skyscraper, neglecting the metropolis that's such a vital context for the heroism until the third act. ASM2, on the other hand, opens with a giddy swoop through the Manhattan as Spider-Man swings in to thwart a heist masterminded by Russian, tattooed tubby Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti, maniacally gleeful, especially when he comes back in the last scene as the Rhino, evoking memories of The Underminer in The Incredibles). Thereafter, the film is one long series of postcards of famous Gotham landmarks, from the Williamsburg Bridge to Columbus Circle, even taking in forgotten subway stations.

Along the way to stopping Sytsevich, he saves psychologically unstable Oscorp-employee Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) from getting hit by a car, thereby turning him into a Spider-Man fan in the mold of Kathy Bates in Misery. As the marketing materials and trailers have already revealed, Max will be transformed into new nemesis Electro after an unfortunate mishap involving electric eels, the sort of industrial accident that usual health and safety guidelines don't cover.

Even under all the prosthetic make-up and visual effects, Foxx manages to project a literally white-hot rage and damaged psyche that threatens to upstage the core romantic plot about Peter and Gwen's relationship. No shot is ever quite as striking here as one where he shuffles down a street in a filthy hoodie, setting car lights and alarms ablaze, like a remix of the schizophrenic he played in The Soloist -- but with superpowers. Although race is never mentioned, there's a weird echo of Ralph Ellison's surreal 1952 novel Invisible Man, another New York-set story, given Electro is wracked with suppressed fury at his "invisibility" to most people, and after being transformed awakens in an underground lair lined with light bulbs. That might sound a stretch, but given a copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is prominently displayed in Peter's bedroom at one point, it seems someone on the production has a taste for highbrow fiction.

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Less literary and more stock comic-book fare, the other villain subplot revolves around the familiar story of Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), son of OsCorp's founder Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper). Although viewers familiar with the first Sam Raimi-directed trilogy from the '00s will note that who gets to be the Green Goblin has shifted around , the dynamics with reference to Peter Parker/Spider-Man are basically the same: Harry is an old friend of Peter's from a different social class, then they fall out; he turns bad, endangers Peter's true love and so on. With his angular, androgynous beauty and piercing eyes, DeHaan is well cast (if a bit repetitively so, given the character echoes the one he played in Chronicle), and he looks more persuasively like a teenager than Garfield (the actors are 28 and 30 years old respectively), but the character has a stubbier arc here compared to Electro. Presumably, later installments will revisit him, judging by hints dropped here.

In truth, none of the many subplots or action sequences, zesty though they are, have as much combustible power as the scenes featuring Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Gwen, benefiting here as did the previous film from the fizzy, tangible chemistry between Garfield and Stone. It helps that they're also individually such interesting performers, both nervous fidgeters who always seem so giddy in each other's presence, even when Peter gets all worried about keeping his promise to dead Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) to stay away from Gwen for her own safety and tries to split up with her.

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He can't stay away, and she won't let him go, quite literally, when she defies his attempts to web her up to keep her out of harm’s way. But forces much greater than Gwen's chance to study at Oxford University threaten to pull them apart. Events take a surprising turn (less surprising for readers of the comics), a plot point which will soon be spoiled everywhere, only spurring fans further to try to see the film in their respective territories as it rolls out.   

It's in these romantic scenes that it's possible to see a through-line to director Marc Webb's earliest feature, (500) Days of Summer, a sweet indie comedy about hipsters in love. Blockbusters by their very nature have to appeal to a mass audience, and yet little tweaks and touches here and there add a freshness, a quirkiness that make this feel like a blockbuster franchise teenagers can embrace as well as their dads. (Mothers fare less well here, although Sally Field is excellent in her few small scenes as Aunt May.) The fact that the soundtrack is the result of a collaboration between industry veteran Hans Zimmer and a supergroup dubbed The Magnificent Six, featuring Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr from The Smiths, sums up the film’s cross-generational project.

Production: A Columbia Pictures presentation of a Marvel Entertainment, Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach production

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field

Director: Marc Webb

Screenwriters: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, screen story by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt, based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Producers: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach

Executive producers: E. Bennett Walsh, Stan Lee, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci

Director of photography: Dan Mindel

Production designer: Mark Friedberg

Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott

Editor: Pietro Scalia

Music: Hans Zimmer and The Magnificent Six featuring Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr

Visual effects supervisor: Jerome Chen

No rating, 142 minutes