When Marvel Comics produced the first issue of “The Fantastic Four” in 1961, it heralded a change in comic book storytelling. No longer did each story exist in a vacuum but, as in real life, events in one story would have consequences in another with subplots being carried over the course of months in myriad issues. This soap-operatic tone was not only perfected in, but was an integral part of, “The Amazing Spider-Man” from the late sixties into and through the seventies (which included the 1970’s introduced companion title, “Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man”). It was a comic filled with teen angst, mystery, romance, and tragedy (and, oh yeah, super-heroics and costumed super-villains). In this sense, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 truly is a comic book come to life. From the manner of storytelling to the character voices and the visuals, the film is a homage to that era of Spider-Man comics even as it tries to work within modern storytelling aesthetics.
Coming off the heels of the last film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is standing in sundry crossroads: whether to continue find out what happened to his parents Richard and Mary Parker; whether or not to honor his vow to the late Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary) to stay away from his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone). In the meantime, Peter’s old childhood friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), returns from exile and discovers that he is dying from a rare genetic disease inherited from his father, Norman (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, a quintessential, emotionally unhinged “nobody” named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who was saved by Spider-Man, becomes the victim of an industrial accident at Oscorp that leaves him forever changed. During all of this, Gwen grows weary of Peter’s on again/off again inner struggle and calls off their relationship.
If that’s a lot to digest, that’s because it is. The problem here is that Webb and screenwriters Alex Krutzmen, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pikner, and James Vanderbilt are trying to condense storylines that would take at least a year to tell in comic book form into a two hour, twenty-two minute run time (thus making an argument that what works in one medium may not work in another). While the film is enjoyable, it’s extremely disjointed. Webb tries to balance comic book aesthetic with real life. This film implies that such a balance is indeed delicate because at times the movie strays too far one way or the other. Jamie Foxx, an extremely capable actor, falls way too far into caricature in his first few scenes though he more than makes up for same when he assumes the mantle of the super-villain “Electro”. DeHaan plays Osborne as if someone had saved Jack Dawson from the Titanic, transported him through time to the present, dyed his hair, and gave him crazy pills. This DiCaprio-lite interpretation of Osborne is just as distracting as Foxx’ overacting and takes one out of the picture. The same can also be said of star Garfield at times, as the tics and mannerisms he imbues Peter Parker with are maddeningly overdone. Also in evidence is a German mad scientist caricature reminiscent of Dr. Kaufman in Tomorrow Never Dies or John Glover’s turn as Dr. Jason Woodrue in Batman and Robin. Assuming arguendo that the intent of the film is to homage that era of comic book storytelling, these characterizations are arguably spot on in keeping with that era. However, Webb is also trying to keep things “real” and, as such, the combination of these two styles are discordantly jarring. The script makes a couple of head scratching leaps in logic in order to keep the story going, but for the most part they’re not distracting enough to remove you from the action. Unfortunately, the “too many villains” syndrome in these type of films doesn’t help matters here. However, given how broadly drawn (pun intended) these villains are it’s almost forgivable; almost.
Now, as far as being a comic book come to life, the visuals are just, with perhaps a small bit of pun intended, “amazing”. While a 3D viewing will compromise the integrity of the CGI, the film is stunning to look at. The cinematography of New York City (where the film was entirely shot) is lovingly rendered. The web-swinging sequences are a joy to behold, and one scene at the commencement of the climactic battle between Spider-Man and Electro wherein the visuals are practically ripped from the comics.
What truly elevates this film are the leads. Some would consider their real life relationship an acting “cheat”, but the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is the film’s real hook. Despite various missteps in his performance this time around, Garfield gets the essence of the Spider-Man character; most especially in the quieter moments such as one involving a bullied child. As Gwen Stacy, Stone proves to be a formidable partner to both Parker and Spider-Man. She imbues Stacy with a subtlety that is, at certain moments, almost heartbreaking to watch. While their dialogue together is more quip than actual heart to heart, it’s what Stone and Garfield communicate behind their words, the energy between them, that sells their relationship (both on-and-off screen); sincerity in a world of fantasy. However, theirs are not the only performances that stick with you. In one small yet pivotal scene, Sally Field reminds the world why she is an Oscar-winning actress. Dennis Leary, who cameos as the foreboding specter of Captain Stacy, says more with a look than some actors do with five pages of dialogue. And Paul Giamatti has a grand old time hamming it up as the Russian “Rhino”. Yes, another caricature; but he’s having so much fun with what little he’s given to do you just don’t give a damn and go with it.
Hans Zimmer ostensibly takes over the musical duties from James Horner, though he leaves the heavy lifting to “The Magnificent Six” (comprised of Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, Junkie XL, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro). However, to his credit he does continue certain motifs, if not the actual orchestrations, established by Horner: an adaptation of Spider-Man’s theme, quiet piano for the romantic moments between Peter and Gwen, a schizophrenically comical yet dangerous theme for Electro, etc. However, it’s replete with the bombast Zimmer is known for. However, here it’s appropriate. It’s a diverse score that combines modern rock with quasi-classical movie scoring, providing a tone that matches the film in more ways than one.
Certain story arcs come full circle. Just like in the comics, this film features themes of the “sins of the father”, duality, identity, super power fantasies made manifest, and tragedy; heaps of tragedy. Those who have followed Spider-Man lore know to what I’m referring. But there are also themes of redemption, paying it forward, inspiration, hope (hope that is inspired, not deceptively implied in an alien symbol), and most importantly, fun. For all its strum and drang, despite the tragedy that is a hallmark of the character, the character of Spider-Man is one of fun, and while he’s in costume Garfield captures that essence in quip and mannerism beautifully.
This new franchise is a divisive one as it rewrites/reimagines stories and relationships both established in the Raimi and the source material. There will be some who will hate this film simply on that basis. However, on its own merits, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an uneven affair in terms of performances, story beats, and logic. However, for the most part, its pros far outweigh its cons. Certain questions are answered, more are raised (for the inevitable sequel). Certain story arcs come full circle. While the details may be debated, the heart behind it cannot be. The Amazing Spider-Man is a mess but a highly enjoyable one and merits a big screen viewing.