At just under two and a half hours, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” isn’t
just a raucous good time; it’s several of them, pitched to as many
different audiences, constantly at war with one another.
One side of the arena, director Marc Webb’s follow-up to the 2012 franchise reboot capably picks up the pieces of the relationship unfolding between teen hero Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, who excels at conveying fragility without losing all of his machismo at once) and his ultra-supportive girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in the aftermath of their high school graduation. On the other side, there’s the looming threat of Peter’s old pal Harry Osborne (Dane Dehaan), who’s mourning the death of his corrupt scientist father and developing a dangerous resentment of Peter’s alter ego. Then there’s the well-meaning recluse Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who inadvertently falls into a vat of electricity at Osborne’s office and turns into a glowing electrical charge that calls itself Electro — a terrific-looking special effect — and decides he, too, wants to take out Spidey. Spider-Man swings from place to place with virtuoso maneuvers that turn his stunning feats into physical representations of burdens he faces all around him: He’s literally pulled in several directions at once, and swinging as fast as he can.
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So it’s a busy time for the nimble hero, who endures enough high-flying perils to make up for the last decade of less compelling attempts at making his powers look like fun, at least when he’s not engaged in delightfully cutesy sparring matches with Gwen, who does her best to become a fiercely individualistic young woman in the shadow of a way cooler protagonist. “I break up with you,” she tells him early on, sick of his constant mopey behavior as he grapples with personal and professional duties at once. Gwen’s individualistic stance is notable for the few brief minutes it takes center stage, but Peter barely has time to contemplate a response when duty calls once more.
A lot of worlds collide in this freewheeling movie — or rather, they bleed into each other. Peter’s situation is a blatant representation of Hollywood’s Too Much Movie Problem. The rhythm is clearer than ever: spectacle, romance, spectacle, romance, repeat. Things blow up and fly by with riveting digital magic — that slo-mo camera that has captured every minute detail of a speedy maneuver since “The Matrix” has never been so versatile — and yet these sequences are largely detached from the intimate moments between Peter and Gwen, in which the actors hold their ground so well it’s like we’ve been transported, ever so briefly, into a Preston Sturges movie.
There’s a great moment in which the couple catch each other lurking around Osborne Enterprises and wind up smooching in a broom closet; in another occasion, when Gwen discovers that Peter has been using his powers to follow her, she processes the news with a naughty grin that’s more electrically charged than anything Electro’s cooking up.
No matter how impressive these individual moments, however, they never fully gel into a sufficient whole: Both messy and persistently thrilling, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” simultaneously ranks as the franchise’s best entry and its least humane, despite struggles to the contrary. It has a beating heart trapped in the vast machine of the Hollywood entertainment complex. The hero’s final confrontation with a giant man-powered robot ends on a cliffhanger, which foregrounds its symbolic nature: There are real people driving this beast, but make no mistake—it is a beast.
Once again, as the main figure behind the wheel, Webb continues to show some of the tender sensibilities on display in his lively debut, 2009’s “(500) Days of Summer,” which went great lengths to shake up the romcom formula with heapings of playful style. It’s a remarkable demonstration of studio efficiency that Webb has completed two multimillion dollar superhero movies in the five years since his first feature, but such speed has quickly become the industry norm.
Young filmmakers with a penchant for entertaining storytelling no longer get the chance to play around in the studio realm, as Richard Linklater did with his second feature, “Dazed and Confused,” a studio project he landed after “Slacker.” Instead, the commercial arena forces them to dive into the bigger risks of tentpoles and other environments less kind to distinctive voices, abandoning the originality that made them stand out in favor of a system that consumes their talent.
The first “Amazing Spider-Man” was something of an anonymous enterprise that blandly restarted the franchise so the studio could forge ahead after director Sam Raimi lost interest. With “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Webb has wrestled control of the material enough to peek his head into the action and slip in a few instances of ingenuity. The movie’s smaller moments rank as its strongest, for once turning Spider-Man into the flustered young man that makes him stand out from the muscular entities populating other superhero narratives. One bit, in which he casually crosses the street toward Gwen in a daze, relying on his spider-sense to evade incoming traffic but nevertheless causing an accident in the process, has the irreverence and bittersweet slapstick qualities that lifted “(500) Days of Summer” above the fluffy clichés populating its story. These moments give “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” occasional levity, but no leverage over the boundaries of its formula, which eventually wins out.
There’s a pattern developing here. Next year, the fourth entry of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, “Jurassic World,” will hit theaters as the second feature directed by Colin Trevorrow, following his whimsical time travel romance “Safety Not Guaranteed.” That same year will bring “Kitchen Sink,” yet another entry in the post-“Twilight” studio obsession with vampire dramas, marking the sophomore effort of Robbie Pickering — whose debut, “Natural Selection,” was a tender road trip dramedy that won the top prize at the SXSW Film Festival.
Is this the best way for these newcomers to hone their craft? More importantly, does it improve the movies? “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” suggests, instead, that most blockbusters are made on autopilot. The best that enterprising talent can do is add some emotional sheen. Notably, the strongest superhero movies of late don’t come newbies but rather veterans well-versed in the process of large-scale entertainment. From Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies to Jon Favreau’s initial “Iron Man” entry, these efforts show the capacity for a master showman to spin Hollywood elements in fresh ways. Meanwhile, no matter how much Spider-Man swings around, he remains firmly tethered to earth.