When The Amazing Spider-Man was released in 2012, the stench of a rushed production hung over it. Unexpectedly greenlit in the wake of director Sam Raimi's departure from a planned Spider-Man 4, ASM awkwardly tried to set itself apart from the previous trilogy by changing arbitrary elements of the comic's origin story. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) was no longer a nerd, just a slightly moody outsider still kinda reeling from his parents' mysterious death. The trailers made a bunch of fuss about the big secret in Peter's past, but most of that material was lopped out of the final film. Many criticized director Marc Webb for taking one of Marvel's funniest, most colorful superheroes and trapping him in a dour, portentous bore. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, much of the same creative team have gone back to formula, hoping to improve their creation. They do, but not enough.
At the end of the first movie, Peter was gleefully breaking a promise to the late Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) that he'd leave his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone) alone, in order to keep her safe. Having apparently realized that lying to a dying man makes Peter look like a jerk, Webb and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman reveal he sees the ghost of Captain Stacy everywhere, disapproving glare on his face. Simultaneously, Gwen is pulling away from Peter, excited about her chances at a scholarship that would take her to the other side of the world. The first film offered brief glimpses of Garfield and Stone's real-life chemistry, but ASM2 genuinely shines when it comes to their romance, capturing the be-all-end-all gravity of teenage relationships. One heavily-criticized scene shows Peter secretly checking in on Gwen after they agree to separate, right before slinging off to superhero duties. Some call it stalkery, but Webb and Garfield convey the way Gwen's mere presence calms and comforts him, and his struggle to reconcile that inner peace with responsibility (plus, he confesses his actions to her later). Stone, meanwhile, is even better than Garfield, deftly fleshing out Gwen's separate life with an air of possibility and ambition. Gwen and Peter are reaching a fork in the road, and the real sense of two lives drifting apart speaks to why the relationship material works and Stone's ability to sell Gwen as her own person.
The first of the film's two villains is introduced early, when Peter saves his life in the middle of a massive car chase. Max (Jamie Foxx) is a put-upon dork with gap teeth and terrible hair who spends his free time fantasizing about Spider-Man. In his department at Oscorp, he gets no respect despite having designed the plant that now powers the entire city. One night, he falls into a vat of electric eels while holding two power cables and emerges as Electro, a blue-skinned, humanoid battery that can suck the energy out of anything he touches. Foxx occasionally conveys a bit of pathos (the way the film turns the celebratory "Spider-Man!" civilian chant into the thing that pushes him over the edge is very clever), but his performance and the writing clash. Spider-Man would prefer to find the good in Max, but Max is so off-putting and weird it's hard to relate to his feelings of inadequacy, even before Webb reveals his creepy, serial-killer wall of Spider-Man clippings, connected by strings (I can't imagine anyone in real life making one of these things, but Peter later makes one of his own). There's also the intriguing suggestion that the existence of a Spider-Man will inevitably create Electros, a charge Peter would have to bear, but Max's strangeness ends up making his villainy seem inevitable.
Surprisingly, the better antagonist is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who returns to the United States for the first time in years thanks to his father's impending death. Upon arriving, he learns a secret that he'll have no choice but to face, and talking to Peter is his best hope. Superhero films are routinely criticized for being overstuffed with villains, and the return to the Green Goblin so soon after the Raimi films felt uninspired on paper, but DeHaan's performance more than makes up for both. His Harry is a reject with a huge chip on his shoulder, so ostracized he hardly knows how to interact with another kid his age. The way Harry's story dovetails with Peter and Electro's is perfect, and DeHaan's bitter energy gives the movie more electricity than Electro. The makeup used to transform him into the Green Goblin is visually underwhelming, but everything else about him works.
Sadly, the same can't be said about the film as a whole. Despite his deftness with the film's sentimental side, the action scenes are frequently boring, relying on bullet-time-esque close-ups to convey geography and detail -- obviously expensive, but not exciting. The fans cited Spidey's quippy humor as something the Raimi films were missing, but Garfield's banter during an early action sequence feels canned and one-sided, as if Spidey's mostly talking to himself. Mostly, though, the film is just bizarrely awkward throughout: scenes such as Peter greeting Harry for the first time in years, or Aunt May (Sally Field) trying to get Peter to hand over his laundry are filled with inexplicable pauses and drag on unnecessarily. The backstory involving Peter's parents that was lost from the first film turns up here, without adding depth to Peter as a character or having any bearing on the story. A 3D post-conversion is also irrelevant, even on the IMAX screen. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends with a nice one-two punch of drama and spirit (as contrived as it is), but even at its best, the film doesn't swing, it crawls.
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