Advance rumors to the contrary, there’s no way The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could be as terrible as the shambolic late ‘90s series-killer Batman and Robin. It simply can’t go down like that anymore. There’s too much studio oversight — along with the best talent that hundreds of millions of dollars can buy. Action sequences will be mapped out on computers far in advance so that armies of gifted artists and technicians can go at it. Specialty writers will be hired — each with his (it’s always his) own micro-specialty — to punch up this scene or that transition. The results will be tested and re-tested with carefully selected audiences. The budget of the average Marvel Comics–related movie these days could run a small city, and in an age in which “franchises” and “tentpoles” constitute most of a studio’s output, there’s no way that sums so vast would be spent blindly, on faith. Which is to say that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bloated and often boring and has absolutely no reason to exist, but that it also hits its marks. No fanboy will pass it up. No studio head will lose his or her job.
You’ll recall that Sam Raimi & Co. finished off their Spider-series with the messy Spider-Man 3, but, to their credit, they’d first made Spider-Man 2, one of the best of all superhero movies. The scale was right; the action scenes were charged with emotion. The villain, Doc Ock (played by Alfred Molina), had stature. The new “franchise” was evidently necessary for Sony to make in order to continue squeezing money from the character, and by my lights got by with it for one reason: the breathy, funny, damnably charming Emma Stone. She meshed beautifully with Andrew Garfield, who played Peter Parker like the reincarnation of those hyperneurotic, overmothered juveniles of the ’50s: Montgomery Clift, Anthony Perkins. Stone’s Gwen Stacy soothed away the rough spots, bandaged the psychological boo-boos. The movie’s villain was nonsensical: He wanted to turn everyone in New York City into a lizard. But who cared about him when Spidey could come home to Emma?
In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Garfield seems even more strung-out, largely because the ghost of Gwen’s dead father (Denis Leary) keeps turning up and staring balefully at him. Peter promised he’d leave the girl alone for her own safety, but it’s impossible. He breaks up with her. They reunite. She breaks up with him. He follows her around the city in costume, pausing only to foil robberies or rescue people from fires. She gets a fellowship at Oxford. He thinks about crossing the Atlantic. Will they or won’t they work things out? The city, in the meantime, explodes. There’s a new supervillain on the scene, Electro (Jamie Foxx), who’s electrified and bonkers. He was delusionally fixated on Spidey before he fell into a vat of enhanced eels. Now he wants his one-time hero to pay for ignoring him. He’s the Mark David Chapman of supervillains.
The Electro effects are superb. Every muscle in Foxx’s face seems as if it has a different sort of current passing through it — the electricity breathes along with the man. But Electro is monotonous as a dramatic character, and easily seduced by the rich young scion Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who has his own bonkers beef with Spidey. DeHaan has an intense, brooding presence — he’s excellent — but his scenes are convoluted and rhythmless. As his corporate underlings try to keep a lid on their company’s sordid history, the movie loses its pulse. Every strand seems like a setup for the next installment with no reason to exist — a Goblin plus Rhino (Paul Giamatti) plus some other who-cares entity.
Reportedly, Kevin Feige, the man who oversees Marvel’s film properties, had one directive for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He wanted a climax with exploding helicarriers. That meant what had been a good, crisp, paranoid-conspiracy thriller gave way to a typically cluttered, overlong climax (really four climaxes) with, yes, exploding computer-generated helicarriers. I don’t know what the directive was for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which Feige has no control over), but the only thing that works is a sad turn that Marvel Comics readers will see coming and depress the hell out of everyone else. I think I’ll pass on The Amazing Spider-Man 3.
You know what’s amazing? The movie opens with a flashback to the apparent final moments of Peter’s scientist father (Campbell Scott) and mother (Embeth Davidtz) aboard a plane that’s supposedly taking them to safety. No supervillains, no egregious CGI — just well-staged, tautly edited fisticuffs. My heart sank when the scene was followed by the little computer-generated Spidey swinging past computer-generated cityscapes and whomping a computer-generated truck. Those kinds of miracles are so cheap. My favorite moment in the film was when Gwen was having an argument with Spidey and he darted away, and in exasperation she screamed “Peter!” — and then clamped a hand over her mouth. Adorkable! If Stone wants to keep taking money jobs, at least she could have someone come up with a female superhero for her to play. She could charm the supervillains into submission.