I have to start with a confession: I never saw The Amazing Spider-Man. Watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes me think that might have been an error in judgment. It’s not as good as Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, but it’s certainly better than Spider-Man 3, and maybe better than Raimi’s original Spider-Man.
Start with Andrew Garfield, who is much better suited to the role than Tobey Maguire. The latter was likable enough; but he always seemed a bit heavy, both physically and metaphorically. By contrast, Garfield’s frame – all gangly limbs and hair-tuffed head – is the kind of physicality that pops into your head when you think “superhero with spider powers.” His take on Peter Parker maintains the core of moral duty, but nests it between a reckless devil-may-care charm, and the clawing sense of sheer panic any kid just this side of 20 would feel when caught in such otherworldly circumstances. There’s a marvelous moment when Peter finds himself facing both the impending departure of the girl he loves and the demented obsession his best friend has developed with the healing powers of Spider-Man’s blood, and he literally grabs his head in both hands and cries, with those incredibly elastic features, “I have no idea what to do!”
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts out strong, with a flashback to Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) and their attempt to flee Oscorp after discovering some of the company’s less savory practices. The resulting struggle on a chartered jet is both shockingly violent and concludes on a moving note of marital devotion and principled self-sacrifice.
From there we catch up with Peter, years later, as he struggles to balance his dual lives. He’s able to handle the logistics pretty well, successfully sprinting into his high school graduation after cleaning up a high-speed pursuit. But he knows his crime-fighting places his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), in danger. The dying wish of her father (Denis Leary) was that Peter leave Gwen “out of it,” and visions of the man haunt Peter throughout the film. So it’s not too long before he cracks under the strain and breaks things off. Happily, Gwen knows about Peter’s secret identity, making her a full participant in the deliberation. In fact, the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is palpable throughout the film, and her Gwen Stacey is able to cut through Peter’s bullshit with refreshing directness. Peter’s own uncertainty and unwillingness to follow through on his decision is also far closer to the surface, making him both more relatable and more damaging to Gwen.
As Aunt May, the film doesn’t give Sally Field a great deal to do, but being a bit younger than the previous Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) allows Field’s character to contend with Peter on a more equal footing. She brings a welcome working-class anger to an emotional scene with her nephew, elevating the character above a mere walking moral compass.
The preview for the film raised the worry that Amazing Spider-Man 2 would be over-stuffed with three villains. But the filmmakers wisely relegate two of them to cameos – albeit ones crucial to the narrative – while focusing on Electro (Jamie Foxx). He starts off as Max Dillon, an awkward and unloved electrical engineer at Oscorp. Spider-Man saves him during that opening chase, producing an enduring hero-worship in Dillon that sours into hatred after an accident at Oscorp transforms him into a being that’s made up of and feeds off electricity. Their initial battle in Times Square is visually spectacular, and also shot through with a kind of Frankenstein-esque pathos: Max is simultaneously overwhelmed by the crowd’s horror at him and the newfound power he’s experiencing, and he can’t process that Spider-Man’s caught between genuine empathy for him and the need to protect everyone else. Afterwards, unfortunately, the film shoehorns Electro into the traditional antagonist role for the climax.
Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) goes through a similar descent. His initial reunion with Peter is expertly handled by director Marc Webb, but afterwards Harry’s conviction that Spider-Man’s blood will cure him of a life-threatening illness drives him into cackling villain territory. So both Harry and Electro are given a certain depth by the script, then underserved by where it takes them. But they do get one great scene together when they storm Oscorp tower, and it makes you wish they could’ve been a team for the entire movie.
Webb takes a streamlined and aggressive approach to the filmmaking. The shots of Spider-Man hurtling through the sky over Manhattan have more weight, momentum, and vertigo than I’ve seen from any previous rendition. He’s able to induce panic and horror through editing in a climactic transformation scene, and his shots of Electro at the height of his powers have a God-like menace to them. The weird and ominous mutant dubstep score that Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Johnny Marr cooked up helps there as well.
The whole movie is a bit messier and a bit darker than the first trilogy. It lacks the narrative drive and thematic coherency that Saim Raimi achieved with his extremely well-executed moral fables. But it makes up for it with a string of moments of superior human intimacy.