When Sony decided to reboot Spider-Man, it was a bit of surprise since Sam Raimi‘s series still had life in it, and everyone involved in the production was eager to return for a fourth installment. But the studio cravenly hit the restart button, and even though they hired a director with great potential and a strong cast, The Amazing Spider-Man was a weak return for the wall-crawler. It was too gritty and the plot was an utter mess based on coincidence with entire plotlines cut to ribbons (what happened to Irrfan Khan?). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wants to function as a reboot of a reboot, and while it’s marginally better than its predecessor, it suffers from an overstuffed plot where no one seems to be on the same page. There’s a fun, lighthearted tone that always peeks out, especially in the scenes between Peter (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen (Emma Stone) as well as Spidey at his most buoyant. But that vibrancy is always snuffed out by ridiculous villains, cheap motivations, and shiny but lifeless action scenes.
Peter Parker is having a lot more fun being Spider-Man, but he’s ambivalent about his relationship with Gwen Stacy because even though he loves her, he promised her deceased father (Denis Leary) that he would stay away in order to keep her safe from harm. This time around, harm comes from two sides. The first is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nerdy, beleaguered, and completely unappreciated Oscorp engineer who is a total Spidey fanatic after being rescued by the superhero. When Dillon accidentally falls into a tub of genetically engineered electric eels, he transforms in to Electro, who has the power to control electricity. The other danger comes from Peter’s childhood pal Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), who is now running Oscorp after the death of his father Norman (Chris Cooper), but suffers from the same terminal illness, and believes that the only cure is Spider-Man’s blood. Oh, and Peter is still trying to solve the mystery of his father’s secret work for Oscorp.
That’s four, loosely connected plotlines, and they’re all set at different tones and serving different purposes. There’s some overlap like Peter and Harry trying to cope with their different birthrights (lo and behold, their fathers worked together), but even that’s a tenuous connection. Peter’s background is still a mystery, and now he has a blessing/curse. Harry knows why he’s dying and he’s straight-up doomed. Additionally, their renewed friendship feels hollow since they haven’t seen each other in eight years, so they’re almost strangers. When they eventually become enemies (this isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the trailers), nothing has really been lost.
Perhaps if the film took more time to build what they had, there would be more tragedy to the picture, but the sequel is all over the place. How can there be room for pathos when you have Harry enraged over his mortality but not long after he’ll be skipping along to remind us he’s a callous villain? We get a few scenes of how sad and pathetic Max is, but then he’s transformed into a special effect designed for set pieces. Sure, there’s something vaguely tragic about their transformations in the sense that they weren’t always bad, but that’s always been the point of Spider-Man villains—they’re irresponsible with their great power. And in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, they both dislike Spider-Man because he didn’t give them what they wanted (blood for Harry, attention for Electro), so they’re not just irresponsible; they’re petulant crybabies.
The relationship with Peter’s deceased dad, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), is also underserved because it’s more of a plot point rather than something where a son would be struggling to have an emotional connection with his lost parent. Even though Garfield plays the scene for all its worth, an important revelation comes off as exposition rather than a heartbreaking loss. The emotional resonance is minor at best, and further undermined by the plot holes required to create the scene in the first place.
Where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 works is where the first movie worked: the relationship between Peter and Gwen. The chemistry between Garfield and Stone remains superb, and I would say it’s the “heart” of the picture except it’s relegated to just another plot line. It’s the best of the four since it provides some welcome warmth and humor, but even it gets screwed up by the shoddy script. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinker back themselves into a corner, and then they clumsily try to maneuver out of it. What’s left is the hope that Garfield, Stone, and director Marc Webb can some day work together on a movie that has a good script. It will probably be a movie that doesn’t involve Spider-Man.
For his superhero sequel, Webb is at the mercy of whatever the dumb scenes require. There’s no tonal consistency because the characters are inconsistent. Everyone is acting like they’re in different movies, and then tripping across their interactions with only the loosest motivations to guide them. Dillon loved Spider-Man, but because of a misunderstanding, he now hates Spider-Man and also developed a god-complex. You can make the case for why Electro would behave this way. You can even make the case for why the suit he creates for himself would have silly lightning bolts on the arms (someone as uncool as Max would design an uncool costume), but it comes off as silly because the character is stuck in a movie with a missing dad, a scorned son, and a tortured romance. Where does someone like Electro fit in? How can Webb possibly manage such a scattershot narrative?
The results are mixed at best. The sweet romance between Peter and Gwen has to stand side-by-side in a movie where the main villain’s music is dubstep (points to Webb for making this genre the music of villainy). In Raimi’s films, there was camp, but it was a classic comic book kind of camp that remained consistent. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 swings all over the place, and occasionally it will stick with something that works.
Webb has no problem tapping into the superhero’s humor and warmth. When you strip away all of the idiot machinations and plot holes, you have the Spider-Man we want to see. He’s the people’s hero, and he relishes being the good guy. Spider-Man is incredibly funny, although sometimes the reliance on humor can be to the detriment of the character like when he decides to banter with criminal Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) rather than just stopping him. But this is at least forgivable because there’s a sense of joy and excitement to the scene.
What I can’t forgive are the film’s priorities, and I honestly can’t tell what those are beyond setting up a sequel featuring the Sinister Six. And perhaps a crass attempt for bigger set pieces is a fitting direction for a franchise that can’t focus on one story or give characters the time they need to develop. For The Amazing Spider-Man series, it’s all about cramming in as much as possible, quality be damned. That doesn’t mean the movie is all bad, and it’s slightly better than the first movie in almost every single way. It doesn’t ruin its comic book origins, but it still suffers from awful plotting and haphazard character development because story and character aren’t the highest priority for this franchise. The priority is the franchise.