The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

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All superhero reboots have the same binary job description: act like their predecessors never existed, and then be consciously better than their predecessors. 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man accomplished both in spades. Andrew Garfield brought more charisma to the title role than the departing Tobey Maguire (who has about as much of that vital essence as a wine cork, but who, like the selfsame cork, never fails to resurface); the always-winning Emma Stone sparkled as a more intelligent love interest than the Mary Jane Watson of earlier movies; and even Peter Parker’s family got an all-star upgrade in the persons of Martin Sheen and Sally Field. And that’s just the casting! Following on the heals of the ungainly disaster that was Spider-Man 3, the first Amazing favored a tighter, more unified plot with 300% fewer villains, and even treated audiences to a more colorful visitation of the Spidey origin story. All in all, a success…then everybody got comfortable.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a lot like those recurring scenes in the Back to the Future movies: Marty wakes from a deep sleep, his mother by his side, in what might, at first glance, be his own bedroom back in good ol’ 1985, but always turns out to be somewhere (and somewhen) more unnerving. Likewise, Amazing 2 features the same principal players as the first installment, but you realize very quickly that something isn’t quite right—the sparkle has vanished right along with the reservation. The hero has regressed in personality, love, and career; baddies begin to multiply rapidly; plotlines begin to fray; and Marty’s mom is married to Biff. It plays less like a movie with something to prove and more like a filmmaker’s sandbox, with bits and pieces of okay-to-decent movies all tacked together. Even some of the more successful bits subtract from the unity of the movie as a whole—like five picturesque minutes of timeless bromance, a la Brideshead Revisited.
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Some of those pieces just don’t work. The inimitable Paul Giamatti is mismanaged as a sweaty cartoonuva second-tier villain, though wasting veteran talent is the norm for superhero flicks now, if Days of Future Past is any indicator. Sally Field’s presence this go ‘round adds far less, and in the heat of the climactic final battle awkward cuts to her character nursing patients in a hospital across town feel like little more than line-item obligations in a bloated contract. Jamie Foxx—normally so good when he’s playing characters named “Max”—is an unremarkable villain who slowly devolves into a robot-like sidekick. When Max’s professional incompetence sends him headlong into a vat of electric eels, he becomes a being of pure-electricity and, more importantly, the source of conflict and rising action. Then Peter’s old friend, Harry Osborn, comes back to town and discovers he has a rare genetic disease that could be cured by Spider-Man’s blood. When billionaire Harry asks Peter to set up a meeting with the web slinger, their relationship becomes the source of conflict and rising acti…hey, wait a minute. Add to that a muddled will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot and the edifice starts to wobble.

Make no mistake, though; Amazing 2 delivers the usual blockbuster franchise goods. It continues to give glimpses into the Spider-Man backstory, delivers several exhilarating segments of first-person 3-D web swinging, and delivers several large scale battles with plenty of pyrotechnics. Amazing 2 even wets the moviegoers whistle for the many Spidey flicks in the pipeline. As Harry Osborn is led past a series of recognizable super-villain super-suits, he asks, “What is all this?” His guide’s response: “The future.” And therein lies the real disappointment of Amazing 2.

A movie franchise has one important thing going for it: the certainty of sequels. But few studio filmmakers have had the courage to exploit that reality in recent years, and Amazing 2’s Marc Webb (back from the first installment) is no exception. The movie ends in tragedy, or it nearly does. Peter Parker/Spider-Man suffers a major emotional blow in the final minutes, but hero and audience alike are only allowed to feel the weight of that injury for a few moments before Spidey is back to swinging from skyscrapers and slinging wry one-liners. The rapid recovery affords no time for catharsis, and even in a genre where genuine catharsis is rare human audiences can sense the spaces where it should or could have taken place. Big budget movies get more and more like theme park rides every year—excitement is the only permissible sensation, and things resembling other real emotions are only shown for a moment and then whisked away before they can have any real impact on the mood of the movie or its audience. The recent Star Trek Into Darkness demonstrates this contemporary reluctance perfectly. Its climax was a conscious inversion of The Wrath of Kahn, in which Kirk sacrifices himself to save the ship and crew, like Spock had done in the original. However, while the makers of Kahn were content to leave Spock dead until the release of the 1984 sequel, the makers of Into Darkness lost their nerve (or never had it to begin with).

The great tension in every superhero story, and the thing that makes them so relatable, is the problem of balancing the altruistic ideology of a masked hero with the personal emotions and affections of a human individual. If this Spider-Man never has to pause and wrestle with that problem in some meaningful fashion, he may be a little too amazing.

Sean Johnson

Sean Johnson is an Oregonian teaching great books in Florida. He cooks almost as well as his wife, and his son’s middle name is Zossima.

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