Editor's note: Read the longer online review here.
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.
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." What makes this scene memorable is the emotional connection Andrew Garfield’s newly minted Spider-Man 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.
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 whom he snatches 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 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.
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 involves playing a role.
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.
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, of course, he isn’t able to. 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.
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, 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 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.
Then there’s Gwen: a strong, smart heroine. 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.
Then there’s an epilogue with another new villain. 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.
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.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense comic-book violence and some frightening scenes; a number of fatalities; some cursing. Teens and up.