After two excellent entries, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy went out ignobly with its maligned third chapter. Much was made of the film’s apparently fatal decision to pit the hero against three opponents (to say nothing of the struggle with his dark side, which virtually becomes a character of its own).
In just the second go-round of the franchise reboot, the film’s producers have once again risked the burden of too many villains. Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a better film than Spider-Man 3, but it also reveals that the shared weakness between the two isn’t the surfeit of foes, but tying the motivations of its antagonists into something resembling coherence to create some emotional heft.
The movie, which was co-scripted by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the screenwriting duo of films like Transformers and the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot), endeavors to create relationships with weight. Some of the best scenes are those between Sally Field (as a feisty, hardworking Aunt May) and Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker. Their moments together not only offer a refreshing contrast to the dynamic we see in the Raimi version, but convince us that the problems they face are similar to those we deal with. But the movie also contains some leaden sequences — like the threat of a midair collision between commercial jets, and Peter’s investigation into his father’s past — that add little or nothing of substance to the film or our engagement with it.
Better are the introductions to Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan’s characters before they become the lethal Electro and grotesque Green Goblin. They earn our sympathies — especially Foxx’s Max Dillon, a nerdy but resourceful employee of Oscorp, the company that is the source of Spider-Man’s power and torment. With both, director Marc Webb captures moments of longing and tenderness as succinctly and satisfyingly as a well-conceived comic-book panel.
But the film can’t sell the scenes when DeHaan’s Harry Osborn and Dillon decide Spider-Man is the worst guy in the world and deserves to die (another parallel with Spider-Man 3). And for the most part, their characters are relegated to the periphery while Peter and on-again/off-again girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) dance around their relationship until it's time for another battle to break up the "I love you, but we can't be together" monotony.
Spider-Man’s fights with Electro are intriguing because of the differences in their respective powers, but they also contain elements common to the movie’s action sequences: the overuse of slow-motion and freeze-the-action effects like those seen in The Matrix. Generating such effects may be fun for the filmmakers, but it only diminishes the impact of the action by reducing life-and-death stakes to a visual gimmick.
By the movie’s final act, the superhero/supervillain showdown is drearily obligatory, supplying some thrills but lacking any ambition to tie up thematic elements. The bad-guy buffet of Spider-Man 3 ended on a sobering, perhaps even depressing note; Webb approaches that, before using the darkness as the prelude to a rousing ending that seems lifted directly from The Incredibles (it still works).
For all its flaws, this is an improvement over a muddled first film that didn’t establish a reason for being besides Sony’s need to keep the franchise going, lest it lose rights to make another Spider-Man film (and here it is). As Peter Parker, Garfield is notably more likable this time around, and his wall-crawler alter ego fires off some zippy one-liners worthy of his comic-book counterpart.
Raimi’s Parker was tormented by his love for Mary Jane Watson and the danger he knew his love would place her in. Webb’s Parker has a similar dynamic with the effervescent and whip-smart Gwen. The chemistry between the two is palpable (Stone and Garfield are a couple outside of the film), but their interactions reach a point of diminishing returns for moviegoers. Their scenes are invariably about Peter’s teary-eyed anguish and Gwen’s clear-eyed pragmatism; the dramatic tension can only be maintained for so long until it goes slack. Their dialogue is often done well enough (it's at least not too cringe-worthy, a few cliches notwithstanding) but it’s the very existence of the too-familiar dynamic between them that keeps the movie from branching off into as-yet unexplored areas. The filmmakers have done reasonably well within the parameters they’ve set, but it’s time to expand the canvas.