‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ bites off more than it can chew

1 ½ out of 4 stars

The Spider-Man reboot last year seemed to most like a fairly capital-based move from producers.  Following the spritely antics of director Sam Raimi in the first three films, The Amazing Spider-Man felt grittier and more character-driven, a welcome change to some (myself included).

With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we find a new director and team of writers who struggle to find narrative focus within an overcrowded cast of characters whom are mostly overacted.  Fortunately, some exceptions exist and provide some much needed gravitas amidst the chaos.

Following the events of the previous film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has fully embraced his role as the crime-fighting wall-crawler and managed to hide his identity from everyone in his life except his rekindled flame Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in a relationship that has led to insurmountable guilt in Peter for disobeying her father’s last wishes.

Even Peter’s own Aunt May (Sally Field) has no idea what is happening, though she does discover Peter has started tracing his late father’s footsteps using the materials from his old briefcase.  Peter’s life becomes even more complicated after reuniting with his childhood friend Harry Osbourne (Dane DeHaan), the deeply troubled son of Oscorp’s founder Norman Osbourne (Chris Cooper).  Meanwhile, a socially awkward electrician at Oscorp named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has an accident on the job that transforms his body into pure electricity (possibly even his own brains, as he begins to lose it following the accident) and he becomes a dangerous supervillain known as Electro.

Given a synopsis like this, one’s initial reaction might be “Wow, that’s a lot of plot in that plot.”  And boy is it.

spiderman2webFirst off, this film had four writers.  With so many cooks in the kitchen, it really is no wonder the narrative ended up so overstuffed.  The film attempts to juggle a backstory on Peter’s parents, Peter’s own journey to find out about their past, his deeply instilled guilt over Gwen’s father, his relationship with her, his relationship with his Aunt May, Aunt May’s struggle to keep the household afloat alone, and – oh yeah – THREE villains complete with backstories.  The connective tissue between these storylines never feels plausible and stretches far too thin to hold up.  Subsequently, not one storyline ever sticks out as central to the plot and the entire string of incidents ends up as a wash tonally and dramatically.

Director Marc Webb ([500] Days of Summer) seems a bit out of his element here as well.  His strongest scenes are duets, particularly between Garfield and Stone or Garfield and Field.  The amount of honesty and emotion he and his actors can achieve is truly staggering.  Other than these scenes though, Webb cannot nail down a definitive tone to match that of the previous film and the story at hand.

Yes, Electro has a pretty ridiculous origin story here (it’s a doozy) and Webb has his work cut out for him.  But coming off of an angstier, more thrill-inducing prequel, expectations are high already and a campier, more attention-deficient sequel just cannot be expected to meet those expectations.  Fortunately Webb shows some promise as an action director with his fight sequences, as shown by a high-velocity ultimate battle in a clocktower that manages to elicit some awe.

spidermanfoxWebb’s most amazing feat lies in his ability to draw these action sequences from some fairly lousy visual effects.  The design choices with Electro seem like a stark mistake, as the pulsing translucent blue skin that we have seen in trailers cannot hold up throughout the entire picture.  A climactic battle between Spidey and Electro in a power grid is particularly poorly rendered and looks more like Saturday morning animation than blockbuster special effects.  With such little consistency in artistic achievement, the entire endeavor never feels worthwhile in the end.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are those actors who always seem to get better with every new film.  The two have a crackling chemistry here and utilize a tonally appropriate humor throughout.  Sally Field provides a strong supporting performance as well, particularly in a deeply moving scene between her and Garfield where Aunt May reveals personal misgivings about Peter’s dad.  Unfortunately the rest of the cast all fall into “campy” territory.  DeHaan, a rising star at the moment, has very little script to work off of and frankly just overdoes it here.  Foxx is woefully miscast and impossible to believe as a nebbish dweeb.  He and DeHaan garner no sympathy and come across as mentally deranged from start to finish.

An Amazing Spider-Man 3 will appear around the corner shortly, have no doubt.  And the producers hopefully will learn from this latest endeavor and take what worked in the first iteration (the character relationships and strong potential from the cast) and apply it in place of the weaker aspects of the second (overstuffed plot and poor special effects).  A fanboy can dream at least.