Movie review: ‘Spider-Man 2’ has an itsy-bitsy drawback

05/01/2014 10:00 AM

05/14/2014 5:58 PM

Well-acted and executed, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" does little wrong besides exist.

Two films in, it’s clear the "Amazing" series does not offer enough new to have warranted a reboot of Sam Raimi’s 2002-07 "Spider-Man" trilogy. The $750 million amassed worldwide by 2012’s "Amazing Spider-Man" might argue differently, but we are talking originality, not box office.

It took two films to establish the new franchise’s tone, and the tone of the 2012 film and this sequel hew too closely to the Raimi films. Both series spike their overall gloom with moments of levity, most tied to Peter Parker’s exhilaration in flying via Spidey string.

The Christopher Nolan "Batman" trilogy proved a comics-movie reboot could feel original. Nolan turned Tim Burton’s serio-comic tone into a serio-serious one, in the process seeming to deepen the stakes.

Tone is everything, because those comic-book stakes rarely change on their own. Though the comics universe might be vast and varied, not so the movie plots emerging from it.

For instance, the crime-fighting activities of Spider/Bat/Superman always pose threats to their lady loves, independent women destined to be damsels in distress once the superhero’s enemies become aware of them. Or in Gwen’s (Emma Stone) case in "Amazing Spider-Man 2," a damsel in a skirt and thigh-high boots.

In "Amazing Spider-Man 2," Peter tries to stay away from his girlfriend for this reason, just as Tobey Maguire’s Peter did in Raimi’s excellent 2004 "Spider-Man 2." That the girlfriend here is science whiz Gwen and not actress Mary Jane does not make this element fresher.

"Amazing Spider-Man 2" also shows Peter’s rich-kid friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) turn bad, as he did when played by James Franco in 2007’s "Spider-Man 3." While it’s understood any reboot likely would include Harry, seven years is too short a time between iterations of Harry the baddie.

Yet it is not entirely fair to judge a film in the context of others, especially in our low-attention-span times. Taken on its own, "Amazing Spider-Man 2" – directed, like the 2012 film, by Marc Webb – offers flawless performances, a central couple oozing chemistry and breathtaking action.

To a 12-year-old who never saw the earlier Spidey films, or a 32-year-old who did but wants to see Spidey swing via better effects technology, "Amazing Spider-Man 2" will succeed wholeheartedly.

With Peter’s origin story now out of the way, the sequel focuses on his adjustment to the role of superhero. He seems at ease, joking with criminals and with the citizens he saves, and nearly missing his high school graduation because he stopped to avert a plutonium spill.

Webb highlights Spidey’s physical exploits with stomach-dropping élan. When Spidey, photographed from behind, leaps from a skyscraper’s roof, the audience can feel his descent. Transitions from Andrew Garfield to stuntman to computer-generated Spidey are seamless, which was not always true in the Raimi films.

Garfield seemed cocky in the 2012 movie as his Peter used his new powers mostly for his own entertainment. In the sequel, his Peter is still frisky and bouncy but emotionally grounded by his relationships to Gwen and his Aunt May (a salt-of-the-earth Sally Field), who raised him.

Garfield goes a bit heavy on the New York accent, perhaps to mask his Englishness. But he’s good at acting without words. Clearly a tactile person, he keeps moving into Stone’s and Field’s personal spaces as Peter tries to show affection. Garfield probably was directed to do some of this, but the rest feels like an actor savoring every moment of getting to play Spider-Man.

He and Stone spark off each other so noticeably that watching them feels like invading an intimate space. It’s also just nice to see Stone again. She has appeared on screen infrequently the past few years, allowing Jennifer Lawrence to steal some of her relatable-young-actress thunder.

Stone exudes kindness and self-confidence as Gwen, high school valedictorian on her way to Oxford. The actress also appears to be aging in reverse. In 2007’s "Superbad" she played a teen but seemed 25. Now she’s 25 and believable as a recent high school grad.

Peter promised Gwen’s late cop dad (Denis Leary) he would keep a distance from her and thus keep her out of harm’s way. Peter’s inner conflict regarding Gwen, about whom he is crazy, brings angst and tension to the movie even before the villains – both tied to Peter’s dad’s former employer, Oscorp – appear.

Harry, back from a long time away at boarding school, does not seem evil at first but merely resentful of his demanding, now dying father, Oscorp founder Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper). DeHaan ( "Chronicle" ) brings to the role an early-DiCaprio hair flop and more weight than Franco did.

A scene at Norman’s deathbed is rife with hostility on both sides, and so believably acted it is hard to watch. Cooper’s long, gray fingernails – half Howard Hughes, half harbinger of his son’s monstrous future – do not help.

The main villain is Electro, electrified alter ego of nerdy Oscorp electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). Max, who just wants to be noticed, first meets Spider-Man on the street and becomes a super-fan. But an accident involving electric eels alters Max’s appearance and outlook.

Foxx imparts deep vulnerability and loneliness as Max, and even as Electro. Foxx expresses emotion through otherworldly contact lenses and skin turned translucent by special effects.

A well-choreographed showdown between Spider-Man and Electro in Times Square (shot on location and via a studio-made facsimile) becomes more powerful when considering Max, whose greatest desire is to get close to people, repels everyone with the electricity he exudes.

Webb imbues his film with an authentically New York feel, from Times Square to the Queens row house where Peter lives with his aunt.

Yet the New York setting never affects as much as it did in the Raimi films. Part of it is timing. The first "Spider-Man" came out just months after Sept. 11, 2001, when ideas of destructive forces loose in New York and a swinging teenager who could save the day held greater meaning.

There’s no such meaning attached to "Amazing Spider-Man 2." Maybe that’s due to timing, but more likely, it’s due to all the action films that have torn up New York on screen during the past dozen years, and audiences becoming inured to it.

"Amazing Spider-Man 2," despite its merits, simply is not special enough to break our been-there, blown-up-that reverie.

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