The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s biggest liability is that it follows The Amazing Spider-Man. This sequel is so much better than its predecessor that I’ve gone from being merely disappointed with the 2012 reboot to being downright angry about it.
From the new film’s gripping opening scene, a flashback involving Peter Parker’s parents, it’s not entirely clear that the earlier film will be a liability. The Amazing Spider-Man suggested a mystery around the death of Peter’s parents, and the revelations here offer a new angle on Spider-Man’s origins, along with some nifty set pieces.
Best of all, the new film delivers on the potential of one of the strongest moments in the 2012 film: a terrific sequence on the Williamsburg Bridge that I called out in my review as “a better character moment than anything in the Raimi films.” (You can watch the scene on YouTube.)
What makes this scene memorable is the emotional connection Andrew Garfield’s newly minted hero establishes with a young boy in peril whose trust and cooperation he needs to rescue him. Peter keeps up a stream of reassuring banter, takes the time to notice the kid’s name (Jack) on a nametag, and so forth.
It’s a touching, human moment — but just one scene in a film that I argued largely botched the iconic character and his defining motivations. Now, a funny thing happens: Spider-Man becomes the guy from that scene. Or rather, he becomes a more experienced, confident version of that guy, someone that guy would plausibly become.
This webslinger doesn’t just swing in and out saving generic New Yorkers, the way Tobey Maguire did in the Sam Raimi trilogy. He connects with individuals, taking the time to catch their names, from a distracted electrical engineer snatched from the path of a hijacked truck to the firemen who help Spidey hose down a hot situation. The firemen are called Mike and Big John, not that it matters. The electrical engineer is Max, and it turns out that does matter.
There’s another little boy, this one only getting picked on by bullies. His name is Jorge. Our hero not only scatters the bullies, he notices and enthuses over Jorge’s science project. He knows what it is. He repairs the damage it suffered from the bullies. He walks Jorge home. I love this guy. I never felt that way about Maguire’s character — not once. As for Garfield’s first outing, I thought he was kind of a jerk, for the most part.
Here, Spidey doesn’t just connect with individuals: He has a relationship with the whole city. There’s an element of self-aware performance art in his persona; he might be the first big-screen superhero who gets that being a public hero of any kind, from a rock star to the pope, involves playing a role. (Tony Stark also clearly gets the idea of playing a role — but the role he plays is “Tony Stark.” He plays it in or out of the armor, and it’s not specifically a heroic role.)
Peter embraces his rock-star status, partly because he enjoys it — as he enjoys every aspect of being Spider-Man, notably breathless daredevil freefalling through urban canyons, more spectacular than ever in big-screen 3-D — but also because it helps him do his job.
There’s egotism in Spidey’s showboating, but it’s also a way of exerting an element of control. His banter can be distracting and unnerving to bad guys and reassuring to the citizens he strives to protect even amid chaotic set pieces. (Zack Snyder, are you taking notes?) In a potentially explosive situation that could go one way or another — say, an unstable super-powered guy wandering into Times Square — Spidey just might be able to defuse the situation through sheer force of personality. As it happens, he isn’t able to, of course. But he might have.
The unstable super-powered guy is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), better known as the supercharged Electro. As villains go, Electro has never been an especially well-defined character; here, he’s defined precisely by his lack of definition.
Max is a marginal character — a case of borderline personality disorder, with poorly regulated thoughts and emotions, inexplicable outbursts, extreme reactions to real or perceived abandonment or betrayal and highly volatile perceptions of other people, swinging from idealizing others to regarding them with enmity and rancor. For awhile after their initial encounter, Max idolizes Spider-Man; then he does the other thing.
Max is a poignant figure: collateral damage, not only of the exploitative corporate culture of his employer (Oscorp, of course), but also in a way of Spidey’s celebrity. He’s a resentful invisible man in the shadow of a superstar, a frail insect caught in the web of an outsize personality — and he winds up metamorphosing into a dangerous wasp who might kill the spider and anyone else in the vicinity. That Max is a black man in a white man’s world is never stated or highlighted, but it’s part of the character’s DNA, even when he’s been transmogrified into pure energy.
Then Max becomes entangled with another strong personality. Peter’s old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan of Chronicle) is back in town, and, notwithstanding the bond of affection between them, Harry is obviously one of the creepiest people in the history of creepy people. Well, of course: His father is ruthless, dying Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper). The treatment of the Green Goblin legacy is not a strong point, but at least there’s potential for more in sequels to come.
The sequel can’t escape the 2012 film’s fatal flaw: the wasted death of Peter’s Uncle Ben. This Peter never grasps the tragic consequences of his selfish failure to use his powers to help others, thus driving home the great lesson of power and responsibility. There are efforts to ground his responsibility in other things, but none that have that existential power of flowing from his moral failure and resultant tragedy. I can’t overstate how problematic that is.
Now Peter is haunted by the death, not of Uncle Ben, but of Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), the father of his girlfriend, Gwen (Emma Stone). Leary actually appears as Stacy in Peter’s imagination, silently convicting Peter over his broken promise to stay away from Gwen for her own safety. Even the deaths of his parents loom larger than Ben Parker’s, which is just not right. Peter’s life is touched by other tragedy as well. None of this is out of place, but Ben’s wasted death will be a sore tooth until Spider-Man’s next big-screen reboot.
Aunt May (Sally Field, still miscast, but growing on me) still isn’t as central as she ought to be, but at least Peter’s devotion to his aunt is no longer in doubt. Gratifyingly, May emerges as a heroine in her own right, struggling through nursing school to help make ends meet (the financial realities missing in the first film kick in here) and helping to save lives in a city-wide crisis.
Then there’s Gwen: a strong, smart heroine who, like May, has a life outside her relationship with Peter. The forces driving them apart are not all about spider-powers, yet their conflicted attraction is electric; they feel like flesh-and-blood human beings, where Maguire and Kirsten Dunst always felt like The Peter Parker Character and The Mary Jane Character. Stone is easily the best big-screen superhero love interest since Gwyneth Paltrow — fittingly, since Garfield’s webslinger has become the most charismatic superhero since Robert Downey Jr.
For initiates, this is a spoiler: The film plays out one of the most iconic story lines of Spidey’s first dozen years. Somehow, the fact that the villain and the whole sequence appears almost as an afterthought, instead of detracting, enhances its poignancy. Raimi’s first film paid tribute to this story, but within the constraints of standard Hollywood expectations; here, they follow through to the bitter end, and it works.
Then there’s an epilogue with another new villain, tossed in like the Underminer at the end of The Incredibles. (No, the film doesn’t feel overstuffed with villains, like Spider-Man 3.) This scene plays as another character moment in Spider-Man’s relationship with New Yorkers. For the second time in two films, a little boy pulls on a Spider-Man mask and does something brave.
What follows, given the situation, is rather sweet. Director Marc Webb and/or his screenwriters clearly get that Spider-Man should be an inspirational hero. Man of Steel talked about Superman offering an ideal to strive for, but never delivered. Raimi’s films celebrated the idea of Spider-Man inspiring people, but as much as I enjoyed the latter two films especially, by now, it should be clear that, while Maguire’s Spider-Man had his moments, I never felt he really clicked as a heroic personality.
I remember reading Spider-Man comic books as a boy and being inspired by my hero’s selflessness, wit and grace under fire, as well as his capacity for self-criticism. Could this big-screen Spider-Man inspire young fans that way? You know, he just might.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense comic-book violence and some frightening scenes; a number of fatalities; some cursing. Teens and up.