The Amazing Spider-man when it premiered in July 2012. The update of the series (a mere five years after a three-run film franchise) seemed more out of necessity of distributor Sony keeping its prized cash cow within its fold than anything else, and still does. The first film, which like the sequel was directed by Marc Webb, was full of raw ingredients (some good, others more sketchily drawn) that never seemed to coalesce into a firm reason for being. While I try my hardest not to hold onto any pent-up bias when entering a movie house to see something for the first time, sometimes it's not quite so easy to let go. To get personal for just a moment, I admit that and that my personal taste generally doesn't gravitate towards the comic book spectacle variety either-- although there is greatness engrained the fabrics of the Batman, X-Men and, yes, even the Spider-man film franchises. That non-true believer stamp may render what follows completely unnecessary, but here goes anyway as The Amazing Spider-man 2 has marched into cinemas, ushering in the 2014 summer movie season.
To date, this marks the fifth Spider-man movie in twelve years and second in this updated faction, perhaps making the marketing tagline "his greatest battle begins" seems a bit, well, silly. However, times have changed since Sam Raimi unveiled and first Spider-man flick back in the dog days of 2002, and now comic book franchises have grown stately in stature and demand an entire cinematic universe to hold them. With that being said, there's a lot of ground to cover. The constraints of doing so much heavy lifting all within the confines of reasonably light span of two-and-a-half hours almost merits a pity cause in favor of director Webb, who is fashioned to a machine bigger than the bona fides anyone could possibly earn from one go around at superhero play and as helmer of indie romantic comedy-- his first film was the charming 2009 film (500) Days of Summer. At the very least, The Amazing Spider-man 2 (whose major downfall is overcoming its title-- The Inconsistent Spider-man 2, though more appropriate likely wouldn't have sat will with the Sony executives), while never fully recovering its sense of redundancy, improves on the first outing in the human elements of the story and is a bit sprier all around. Plus, there's two aces in the films favor in the adroitly gifted Andrew Garfield, returning as Peter Parker, and Emma Stone, on again as girlfriend Gwen Stacey.
Before the story officially continues, we must go back for further exposition, as the film opens on Peter's parents-- played briefly before demise by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz-- in the spurn-inducing moments before they abandon their only child. Peter's dad, Richard Parker (not to be confused with the Bengal tiger in Life of Pi) had his reasons, of course. The film opens with a chilling, if not entirely essential, one-off sequence that all but harkens back to the old "with great power comes great responsibility" credo from the past. All of this suggests, in its James Bondian-style opening segment, that The Amazing Spider-man 2 will indeed up the ante and fashion the web-slinger's story full circle in various ways-- it sort of neatly does in the only way that screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkler can in a way that accommodates the twelve other missions on target within their screen space. The fun begins a bit later, seeing Spidey gliding and soaring through the streets of Manhattan, catching crooks and saving children while delivering delightfully drool action banter along the way. His opening victory glide eases nicely into a fun sequence as Peter arrives late to his own high school graduation, flying in just in time to receive his diploma and give Gwen a smooch. Gwen, on the other hand, should be pissed he just missed her valedictory speech.
Remarkably, the best aspects of The Amazing Spider-man 2 do involve Gwen, a whip-smart science wiz who post-graduation is gifted enough to not only snap up a job at Oscorp (and all their sinister doings), but she's also on the fast track for a scholarship to Oxford. Unfortunately, Peter is fallen by the promise he made to her late-police chief father to leave her alone-- you can't hardly blame him, unwanted specters of Denis Leary would likely give anyone the chills. Thus, The Amazing Spider-man 2 offers an on again/off again pull for Peter and Gwen, while simultaneously offering the biggest delight of the film as the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is wonderful and playful in all the ways that the film that surrounds them is sterile and manufactured. One wishes Webb would pull his two attractive leads and plot them in a great, talk-a-minute 40s style screwball comedy, a tease the filmmaker seems more invested with overall.
It's strange that the more human moments in The Amazing Spider-man 2 are the ones that work against all the noise and bombast, a contrast even to the first (fourth?) outing which felt lost in areas not completely CGI-ed. Garfield, himself, is looser, funnier and in grander command both as man and superman. He jelled the Peter Parker/Spider-man into something rather special over the two-film grace period, creating something suave and almost vaguely hipster in his arrested development allowing both Peter and Spidey to be freer and more peppery while maintaining his inner nerd. His scenes truly pop with Stone, who seems to be channeling a fiery Rosalind Russell rather than playing damsel in distress, until, well, she has to. Even Sally Field, who returns as venerable Aunt May, evokes a power and grandeur within her sidelined segments, of which should mostly serve as pep talk, but are enlarged with deeper themes of grief, doubt and maternal love. Her eyes outdo millions of dollars in CG work and linger.
The deficits in this anted-up tale have little to do with the action sequences, where the smart and dastardly talented technicians developed series of throbbing and terse, neonized set pieces to destroy, batter and all but make the city of Manhattan a ruin (nothing new there.) They come from the villains, a common problem is stories like these, especially the rare bird that's more alive and flowing in the exchanges of boy and girl. There's three in The Amazing Spider-man 2 and together make up a rogue gallery of thinly established characters whose distinctions seems more notable by their hair styles than their dastardly do. A barely recognizable Paul Giamatti opens the ceremony with his Russian baddie turned machine-encased Rhino, a slight character this go around who seems to be prepped for more work in the future. Jamie Foxx plays Oscorp loser Max Dillon, a nerdy shlep who adores Spider-man until-- well it's essentially Edward Nygma played straight.
The third is a bit more completed, not just because it requires the entrance of Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), but more so, his completed and a bit unnecessary morphing into one of Spidey's biggest foes and culminates in a climatic sequence that's beautifully staged and emotionally impactful, but also asks more questions of this particular franchise's future. It may have been a bit more soothing had Harry's entrance been less treacly from the start as memories and inevitable comparisons come into play as does the absurd foundations of the looming Spider-man at Sony cinematic universe trying in vain to be established. There's so many battles here, it's nearly impossible to map out which of them could possibly be Spider-man's "greatest." And when, exactly will it begin?
That's cynicism rendering its ugly head and truthfully, the best moments of The Amazing Spider-man 2 (and there are several) are gloriously not cynical, but churned by the corniest and most heartfelt. It's the packaging that's difficult to deal with and, well, the villain problem. Perhaps next time. All the while, I'll dream about playfully nimble back and forth banter between Garfield and Stone. C+