As far as superhero reboots go, "room for improvement" was probably the best way to sum up 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man." Certainly financially, the film made a very healthy $750 million worldwide, but that's still less than any of the three Sam Raimi films that preceded it. And creatively, the film had some strong building blocks—an increased emphasis on romance, a hugely appealing central pairing in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (plus support from ringers like Sally Field and Martin Sheen), a bright sense of humor, a fresh-ish take on the characters—but a patchy script, disappointing action and lackluster villain meant that there was plenty of opportunity for a sequel to prove itself worth of the title "amazing."
Unfortunately, that's not what director Marc Webb and his team have managed to pull off with follow-up "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." The sequel, hitting less than two years after the first (and respectively, two and four years before the already-scheduled third and fourth films, not to mention the "Sinister Six" and "Venom" spin-offs that are in the works) doesn't just double down on what didn't work in the first film, it manages to undo some of the good qualities of the original as well. The result is a film that kicks off the summer blockbuster season with a resounding thud.
After a 'Dark Knight Rises'-aping prologue showing the death of Peter Parker's parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davitz) in a plane crash, we pick up an indeterminate amount of time after the original (this is a film that's very good at indeterminate amounts of time), with Peter and Gwen Stacy back together and graduating high school. But the promise he made as Spider-Man to her dying father that he would stay away to protect her still haunts Peter, and their relationship is rocky as a result.
Meanwhile, after Parker's alter-ego saves his life from a car chase caused by a Russian mercenary (Paul Giamatti), much-ignored low-level Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (a mostly inaudible Jamie Foxx) has become obsessed with the hero. But the obsession gets darker when an after-hours accident turns him into a being of almost pure electricity. But he's not the only guy with a potential to turn against Spidey. Childhood pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) has returned from boarding school and years abroad to visit his dying father Norman (Chris Cooper), only to be told that he's got the same disease. The only cure? Spider-Man.
We're keeping the plot recap as brief as we can, and excluding some of the more tangential sub-plots (Spidey's search for the truth about his parents and his origins; uh, Sally Field's Aunt May retraining as a nurse) but all this goes some way to demonstrate the first and most self-evident issue with the film: it's wildly overstuffed. Sony seems to have taken the lesson from the mammoth success of "The Avengers" that people want an abundance of characters in their superhero movies, but the script from J.J. Abrams acolytes Jeff Pinkner, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci flits around from plotline to plotline shapelessly, and the result is something bloated, that at 141 minutes, is way too long.
It's a film of many scenes, but not much structure, of many events, but no real plot. And worst of all, it's not really about anything. Previous 'Spider-Man' films had a singular journey at their heart, even when Sam Raimi's movies were at their worst, but it's unclear what Webb is trying to say here. The various villains and side characters don't add up to anything thematically coherent, beyond "these guys will look cool as toys."
Webb does feel a little more confident with action this time around (the opening scene with Giamatti—who has nothing to do but bookend the movie with some screaming—is decently staged), but too often keeps it weightlessly CGI-driven, with few real-world elements to make you care about anything that's going on. But worse, there's less of a handle on the human beings at the film's center.
Garfield and Stone, who were the heart of the first film, remain well-cast and charming. They have chemistry in spades (unsurprising, as they're a real-life couple), and that still shines through on the screen, far more of a special effect than anything the VFX whizzes can come up with. But the film doesn't do right by the relationship. Because of Peter's promise to her father, they've become very off-again/on-again, and the result is frustrating, like watching that couple that you were friends with who lived off the drama of breaking up and getting back together. The result makes Peter into kind of a jerk (and, thanks to a "Superman Returns"-style development, kind of a creepy stalker), and Gwen into someone much more thankless than you'd ever imagine Stone was capable of playing.
Still, they're more appealing than the villains. In human nerd mode, Foxx is an overly-mannered nightmare, with little of the pathos of the best Spider-Man villains, and once he's transformed, while he occasionally makes for some striking imagery, he seems to be an entirely different person; there's no continuity in Foxx's performance between Max and Electro. Meanwhile, DeHaan remains a hugely charismatic presence, but again, the character is inconsistently written (being a megalomaniacal douchebag in one scene, even before his "downfall," then chumming up with Peter in the next), and that they haven't seen each other for ten years means that the sense of betrayal in the friendship doesn't come across. The result is basically a replication of DeHaan's performance in the far superior "Chronicle," but with more embarrassing make-up effects. Both, it should be said, are awards-worthy performances next to a totally baffling cameo from Marton Csokas as one Dr. Kafka (we're not making this up), a mad scientist seemingly inspired by the emcee from "Cabaret."
Still, at least they have more to do than some. Most of the dead characters get more screen time than some of the big-name supporting cast. Chris Cooper (also reprising an earlier villain, though unfortunately it's his "maniacal laugh" guy from "The Muppets") gets only a single scene, while Felicity Jones gets two, neither of which give her anything to do. If you're going to cast one of the best actresses of her generation, at least give her more to play than "assistant." (We also spotted the name of Cronenberg favorite Sarah Gadon in the credits, though we'll be damned if we can remember seeing her face on screen.)
Needless to say, since they're not much on their own, the parts certainly don't add up to more than their sum. The film, like the original, feels very haphazardly structured, a hotchpotch collection of scenes rather than a unified whole. There's also no tonal consistency, with Webb lurching awkwardly from quippy comedy to brooding drama to high tragedy in short spaces of time, undercutting all three modes as a result. The framing's still pretty workmanlike as well, particularly when it comes to a preponderance of slo-motion bullet-time that suggests that Webb might finally have got around to watching "The Matrix" fifteen years after everyone else.
Occasionally, the film will do something right, something that hints at the promise of this cast, and a new understanding of the character. In particular, there's an emphasis on Spider-Man as a protector of civilians rather than a fighter that feels refreshing, particularly when framed up against the collateral damage of some other superhero movies, ones that rhyme with Stan Of Meel. And, uh, Peter uses Google rather than Bing in this one, like an actual human being. And... Webb uses a Phosphorescent song that I really like (though other musical cues, including Hans Zimmer's Pharrell and Johnny Marr-assisted score, are disappointing, particularly when the latter is used to represent the voices inside Max's head in a weird chant/rap thing).
But there's so much more wrong with the film, including some stuff that gets into spoiler-y territory that we won't discuss here. We went into "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" hoping that it would take what worked about the first film and run with it. We left thinking that, if it continues on this downwards curve, we'd avoid future Spider-films like the plague. [D]