Two years ago, I was astounded by just how content Sony seemed to reboot the Spider-Man franchise without a single shred of ambition. In other words, I was surprised by how little surprise there was in director Marc Webb’s first The Amazing Spider-Man. The studio merely reset all of the dominoes that had stood in Sam Raimi’s original 2002 movie, and left it up to the inevitable sequel to actually do something different, something new.
Well, that sequel is here in the form of the hyperbolically-titled The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and instead of leading the franchise in a fresh, daring direction, Webb only improves on its predecessor’s aggressively generic filmmaking formula. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean the movie isn’t entertaining or engaging — it is frequently both. It doesn’t really cover any new ground, but at least it zips from one repetitive beat to the next at a decent speed.
There’s a lot of criticism going around regarding the film’s three antagonists, a nightmarish flashback to Spider-Man 3’s much-maligned overly-convoluted triptych of villains. Luckily, this is one case where the studio seems to have learned their lesson, taking care to relegate Paul Giamatti’s Rhyno to a book-ending device while connecting the dots between the two others — Jamie Foxx’s electricity-and-dubstep powered Electro and Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin — in a way that isn’t too contrived.
DeHaan, by the way, is a vast improvement over James Franco until bad CGI is used to make him look even goblin-ier! DeHaan plays the character like an evil version of Batman’s Bruce Wane, and he pulls it off with his creepy-yet-charming stare that Franco never had. Foxx is also fun to watch, playing against type as an awkward, attention-hungry nebbish. His desire to be noticed, and his discovery that being a villain will give his face visibility on the internet and on TV makes him a character that is well-suited for our times, even if the script does become heavy-handed on that thread.
In fact, the entire movie is immensely heavy-handed, which wouldn’t be such a big problem if it weren’t repeating the same ideas and situations as the last four movies. The entire franchise has hinged on the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, and I think it’s time the series adopted a new motto.
We get it, Peter Parker needs to choose between protecting NYC and protecting the ones he loves.We know it’s difficult to be Spider-Man and have a girlfriend at the same time. And yes, we also get that people close to you will get hurt if you decide to go around fighting dangerous mad men. I’m tired of watching these conflicts play out again and again in such an overdone, melodramatic way. While still treated with enough enthusiasm by the actors to keep the story from falling flat, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is cinematic deja vu.
Fortunately, the movie is really pretty, and that goes a long way. The special effects are consistently eye-popping and even the quieter scenes are filled with warmth and color. Webb was shoved into Hollywood thanks to indie hit (500) Days of Summer, and that pedigree still shows in his ability to make the human relationships believable (especially the main romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey), even when the dialogue becomes sappy.
It doesn’t hurt that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have real-life romantic chemistry to work with, nor does the fact that both of them remain top-notch actors…even if I can’t quite buy them as high-school graduates (maybe just because I know that Andrew Garfield is actually 30 years old).
As in the first installment, Amazing Spider-Man 2 includes oddly out-of-place montages featuring pop music (I’m sure part of the insane amount of product placement), usually as Peter broods in his bedroom. These sequences exemplify just how much of the film, apart from the action scenes, feel like it’d fit right into a music video or a Levi’s commercial. In these moments I like to imagine that Marc Webb was a guy destined to direct commercials and music videos but somehow ended up in charge of a big-budget franchise.
That’s really the strangest yet most important criticism I have of the movie — everything seems too pretty, too perfect. It’s assembly line filmmaking of the highest degree, with every shot perfectly framed, every line of dialogue perfectly calculated and perfectly timed, every character arc paid of at the right time, every plot point fitting into its rightful moment. All the rough edges have been scraped off, sculpted into a perfectly-calibrated example of the superhero genre. Sounds like a compliment, right?
Yeah, sort of. But, in shaving away any and all scraggliness, every bump and scratch, the film starts to feel vaguely impersonal, woefully void of its own voice and spirit. It isn’t nearly as soulless as Man of Steel, but it does feel like an echo of a genre that has been taken in fresher directions by The Dark Knight films and more recently by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
And so The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is entertaining pre-processed Hollywood fast food, a way to pass the time as you’ve passed it for years. It doesn’t give you more of what you love about the genre — it gives you more or less the exact same amount as usual. It is The Usual Spider-Man 2, and while that was enough to satisfy me this time (and last time), I can’t help but wonder how much longer it’ll last.
Rating: 3 out of 5