A few mild spoilers below.
As I’ve written before, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is probably my favorite superhero movie after the original Christopher Reeve Superman. (I’m not in love with the Nolan Batmans although I get why people like them.) It’s one of the very few superhero films with an autuer’s imprimatur, and it’s just plain goofy as heck, veering between horror pastiche of the directors own work, sappy musical and a sad meditation on middle-aged loneliness. Raimi is old enough to have the original Ditko Spidey as his inspiration, from the upside down kiss to the rogue’s gallery of old men in greying wife-beaters—supposedly one of the reasons Raimi and the studio parted ways on Spidey 4 was that Raimi wanted the Vulture as the villain, and the studio wanted a more up to date bad guy.
In Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, all the references have been updated. This is the ultimate world of Bryan Hitch, Greg Land and Greg Horn, all blazing cgi and mottled, gloomy photoshop. The soundtrack has been similarly updated, with a group known as the Magnificent Six—which includes everyone from Pharrell Williams to Johnny Marr—blasting catchy singles. In what passes for innovation here, a scene where Peter Parker does the obligatory Google search to find out a mystery, instead of the chugging string music of every other superhero movie, we get a Phillip Phillips song.
Webb’s only previous feature before the first Amazing Spider-Man was (500) Days of Summer, which I’ve never seen but I’m told was a charming down to earth young romance. Some elements of that are present in ASM2 in the form of engaging scenes between real-life couple Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Their chemistry is infectious even if the dialog (the script was credited to Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner) just sits there on the page. With less charismatic leads, the patter would be as convincing as the set-up dialog at the start o a Saturday Night Live sketch; it’s perfunctory and awkward. Stil it must be said, Garfield has a feckless charm and Stone is adorableness personified.
I had a good time at ASM2, but to be honest I forgot ASM1 about a day after I saw it, and I’ll probably have forgotten this one by the time you are reading this review. Now, I don’t know who is really calling the shots on Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, but I did notice the name of Avi Arad as producer in the credits. Arad is the co-founder of Marvel Studios, and the originator of the term “toyetic” for films that have a lot of complicated characters that will make good action figures. (Along with Ike Perlmutter, Arad ran Toy Biz, the toy company that annexed Marvel after its bankruptcy.) According to lore, it’s Arad who insisted that Raimi put Venom into Spider-Man 3; Raimi’s real focus was the sad middle aged, striped shirted Sandman, played by Thomas Haden Church and the Venom plot was lifeless and boring as a result. I have no memory of who played Venom. (looking on IMDB it was Topher Grace.) The film felt crammed and unwieldy and no one was sorry that the franchise ended when it did.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 has a similarly over-stuffed and under cooked feeling: we get not only Electro but the Green Goblin AND the Rhino, who is literally in the movie for about two minutes in a complete throwaway performance that will nonetheless sell some toys. There is a shout out to the planned Sinister Six movie in the form of a tour of a lab filled with sleek black naugahyde suits. The guy with the unseen face who is involved with Peter’s parents is involved with this scene, so there’s The Gentleman. Toys, toys, toys.
ASM2 forges some new ground in the Spider canon by focusing on the fate of Peter’s parents, Richard and Mary Parker. In the first movie we learned Richard was a top scientist at Oscorp who disappeared, leaving Peter in the hands of his Aunt May (A perky Boniva-fortified Sally Field) and Uncle Ben.
In the opening sequence of ASM2 we learn that Richard and Mary died in an airplane crash as they were trying to escape Oscorp with some dynamite secrets that could change everything—secrets that Richard nonetheless manages to upload to the internet via what must have been the world’s fastest airborne wifi in 2000. (Yes, the misty past of this movie is only 2000—a time which is indeed mythic for the teen audience that will go see this film.) Here’s a little wee SPOILER: in this scene you’ll notice that there is a PARACHUTE on the plane and we never see the crash. If I were writing the comic book, that’s all I need for Mary or Richard to make a reappearance down the line.
After this bravura opening, we see Spider-Man in a typical conundrum—he needs to get to Battery Park for his college graduation and Gwen’s spech as valedictorian—but he has to save the city first! The threat is a truck full of plutonium, driven by a Russian gangster played by Paul Giamatti who will return as The Rhino.
All you need to know about the movie’s central conflict is in this scene—and all you need to know about the ending is that Gwen’s speech is about having hope and how we don’t live forever. Do the math there.
In addition, along the way Spidey saves the life of a humdrum Oscorp electrical engineer named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). Transformed by his encounter with greatness, Dillon begins to devote his life to idolizing Spider-Man, a fan club of one that turns even more lonely a few months later when Dillon is left behind at Oscorp labs to fix a bad fuse—and on his birthday no less. A mishap involving an electrical cable and a tank full of electric eels ensues., as as so often happens with such mishaps, the result is a supervillain.
Dillon rises from the tank the crackling blue energy creature known as Electro and after a starting Times Square showdown with Spider-Man, he’s taken into Oscorp custody where Martin Csokas as a weird German scientist does an impression somewhere between Ramsay Snow and Dr. Strangelove—an uncomforably campy moment in a movie that doesn’t seem to have much sense of humor aside from Spdey’s wisecracks. (The character, Dr Ashley Kafka, is actually a woman in the comics, but having another female in the movie would have been way too confusing or threatening for the audience, I guess.) While Electro is having his wattage checked by the sex-changed Dr. Kafka, he decides to hate Spider-Man. We learn this because there is a song that starts playing with the lyrics “He lied to you!” Why have character development when a hit single can do the job?
MEANWHILE, it’s yet another Harry Osborn, a character now as cinematically overplayed as Lex Luthor in the Superman canon. This Harry is a spoiled .001%-er with a foppish Bushwick haircut and skinny jeans played with surprising intensity by Dane DeHaan. As before, Harry and Peter are childhood buds, but all these experiments and secrets come between them, just as they do with Peter and Mary Jane.
ASM2 explores similar themes from the comics as Spider-Man 2, as Peter struggles to balance his life as a hero with his private life, but the character bits are just stalling for time between the action scenes, which I admit, looked great. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel (Star Trek, John Carter) takes full advantage of the CGI possibilities and Electro’s various pyrotechnies from Times Square to a futuristic electric plant, look way better than anything from a Marvel Studios film. But, like 90% of all superhero movies, this one mostly struck me as just one big ad for toys, DVDs, ice cream and future Sony Marvel movies.
Most of the folks I saw the movie said it was just fine, but I think we’ve entered the Rolling Stone Review Scale for superhero movies now. This is the process by which critics desperate to preserve the credibility of their own youth proclaim an album by a once great musician—now in his autumn or sunset years—is still the best since a past masterpiece, so by the time you add up all the references, some pleasant noodley effort plinked out on the piano to please grandchildren becomes a better album than Blood on the Tracks or Some Girls. Everyone thought Amazing Spider-Man 1 was better than Spider-Man 1 because they had seen it more recently. Most critics seem to favor this film over ASM1, but it’s really just another piece of the exact same pie. Andrew Garfield is now 30, and though he looks youthful, by the time ASM3 is done it will be time to move him to pasture and Avi Arad and Co. can cook up a whole new Spider-Man pie with the exact same ingredients. Some of them are tasty but some of them are as stale as can be.