When "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is on, it's on. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, the powerhouse duo at the heart of Sony Pictures' 2012 reboot, return with even better chemistry than their first go-around. Garfield's confidence as Spidey is at an all-time high. Returning director Marc Webb's vision of the web-slinging superhero is spot-on. And yet, there are a few fatal flaws that keep the sequel from fully living up to the descriptor in its title.
The movie begins with a look to the past. Scientist Richard Parker races against time, pursued by shadowy forces that want in on his secrets. Richard and his wife drop their young son Peter off with Uncle Ben and Aunt May before leaving on a flight that will take them to somewhere unknown, a new life where they'll always be looking over their shoulders. The flight is cut fatally short, but not before Richard sends out some crucial information to an off-site party, ominously known as "Roosevelt."
After the crash, the film moves to the present. We rush through the busy city streets of Manhattan right alongside the amazing Spider-Man, swinging and spinning his way through a high-speed robbery featuring Paul Giamatti in a sadly forgettable turn as the film's version of Rhino. Along the way, he collides with Max Dillon, a nerdy nobody employed by Oscorp. When Spidey gives the guy a pat on the back and a flattering role as "my eyes and ears" on the streets, Max is left feeling star-struck and self-important for the first time in years.
Post-robbery, Spider-Man fades and Peter Parker emerges at his high school graduation, just in time to accept his diploma -- but not in time to see his girlfriend Gwen's valedictorian speech. Gwen forgives Peter's absence; after all, she knows his friendly neighborhood secret. But even if Gwen understands Peter's great power, Peter still feels tremendous responsibility toward the promise he made to her father, the late Captain George Stacy, to stay clear of Gwen and keep her out of harm's way.
As the weight of that promise, and a new wrinkle in Gwen's life, tests the limits of Peter and Gwen's relationship, Peter also contends with new challenges as Spider-Man. His oldest friend, Harry Osborn, has returned to claim his birthright as the head of Oscorp; the friendship takes a sharp turn south, with dark consequences for everyone involved. Meanwhile, Max Dillon falls out of love with Spider-Man by way of falling into a pool of electric eels, emerging as the virtually omnipotent Electro.
As Spider-Man, Peter is about to face his deadliest adversaries yet. As Peter Parker, he's confronting the very real possibility of losing Gwen for good. As both, he must find out the truth behind his father's work, and the secrets of "Roosevelt." So much to do, so little time.
Frankly, it's too much to do, but Garfield is up to the task, turning in the best version of Spider-Man the big-screen has ever seen. He swings through a film brimming with too much story, some of it dreadfully misguided, with warmth and casual confidence. Garfield is the watchful protector of Peter Parker, an actor with palpable fondness for his iconic character, both on and off the screen. When he's not cracking wise, he's tugging heartstrings, fully embracing the wet-eyed inner-conflict that makes Spider-Man one of the most relatable heroes in the business.
Critics of last summer's "Man of Steel" lamented Superman's apparent inability to stop and save ordinary civilians, opting instead to punch his way through every conflict at breakneck speeds. Those complaints can't be leveled at "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." This is a movie that sees Spidey protecting a bullied kid and taking interest in his science project. It allows its hero to try and gently talk Electro down for a full three minutes before their first confrontation escalates to explosive levels. Yes, there's web-slinging, wall-crawling and fisticuffs aplenty. But whenever possible, Peter pursues peace and hope before considering nuclear options. It's a rare, refreshing thing to see in the modern summer blockbuster.
Likewise, Emma Stone thoroughly delivers on Gwen Stacy and what makes her unique. She's not a damsel in distress; Gwen is a brilliant, beautiful woman who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Spider-Man, serving as his absolute intellectual equal, if not superior. She puts herself in harm's way completely of her own accord, fully owning her actions and place in Peter's life as Spider-Man. Stone was wonderful in the first "Amazing Spider-Man," and she's even better here.
If there's one thing that the "Amazing Spider-Man" series gets right, it's the chemistry between Peter and Gwen, thanks in part to the real-life chemistry between Garfield and Stone. Their relationship fills the "Amazing Spider-Man 2" viewer's stomach with butterflies -- along with dread. After all, in the comics, Gwen Stacy is best-known for one very particular thing. As the themes and turns of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" reveal themselves, the tension mounts, and the question emerges: Will this be the night that Gwen Stacy dies? The possibility is constantly in view, as Peter wrestles with wraithlike worry over his girlfriend's safety. The movie wears the possibility of cutting its greatest asset loose on its sleeve throughout the entire 142-minute runtime. Without spoiling the outcome, the very thought of losing Gwen is enough to keep viewers on the edge of their seat as the sequel swings along.
And then there's Jamie Foxx, who supplies an incredibly entertaining turn as Electro. The Academy Award winner actualizes a clear vision, bringing to life both Max Dillon's disheveled look and deep-seated insecurities. He provides laughs as the bumbling Oscorp technician, just as he makes you feel for the downtrodden man following his initial transformation. His first encounter with Spider-Man as Electro is one of the best scenes in the movie. Really, it's one of the best scenes in a "Spider-Man" movie, full stop. As the film progresses, Electro becomes a snarling, monologuing menace; he's less interesting when he's in this "Doctor Manhattan gone bad" mode than he is as soft-spoken Max, in over his head with unfathomable power. But even then, Foxx is enjoying himself so much, that it's hard to resist the ride.
The film's other main villain is another story. As Harry Osborn, Dane DeHaan delivers. He's an ice-cold rich kid who would never publicly admit just how much his father broke his heart. There's overwhelming pain coursing through Harry's veins -- literally and figuratively -- and DeHaan plays it beautifully. His eventual super-villain transformation, however, is ugly, for all the wrong reasons. Not that the Green Goblin is best known for his good looks, but the Goblin design just does not work, especially when measured against the film's extraordinarily faithful take on the Spider-Man costume. In action, DeHaan's Goblin looks like an ill-conceived joke. He's a key element in what very easily could have been one of the best and boldest scenes ever presented in a superhero movie, but it falls short, as DeHaan somehow looks even worse than both Willem Dafoe and James Franco's Goblins.
Really, character design is a big problem not just for "Amazing Spider-Man 2," but for the franchise as a whole. The powers that be have made it clear that the upcoming "Sinister Six" and "Venom" spinoffs are tied to Oscorp, the Villain Factory responsible for the likes of the Lizard, Electro, Rhino and the Goblin. Every one of those villains comes to life courtesy of an extraordinarily talented actor. Design-wise, however, they all fall flat, thanks to a clunky and misguided mechanized aesthetic. Nailing the villains' look is a harder ask than nailing the Spider-Man costume, but even so, the end results are way off the mark, as if they're trying way too hard to be something they're not. To be blunt, "Sinister Six" and "Venom" will not work if their main characters look as bad as the villains in "Amazing Spider-Man 2."
Beyond design, there's a fundamental issue with the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies: Peter Parker's "secret" secret origin. The first five minutes of the film are all Richard Parker, all the time, and it doesn't work. It plays like a scene from a bad "Mission: Impossible" movie. It doesn't feel like "Spider-Man" at all. If only Webb had completely removed that opening scene and kicked things off with the first Spidey sighting. But with the story inextricably tied up in the Richard Parker storyline, simply losing the intro wouldn't solve the problem.
In the end, more so than even the design issues, the biggest problem with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," and the series as a whole, is that these movies are too caught up in the "Roosevelt" of it all. Richard Parker, Peter's unique relationship with the radioactive spiders, his super-powered blood -- none of that comes even close to the top ten reasons why the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies work, assuming you believe they work at all. Those elements aren't clever new additions to the mythos; they're annoying anchors that keep this take on Spider-Man from realizing its full, amazing potential.
There is greatness in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." Garfield and Stone are fantastic as Peter and Gwen, and are even better when viewed together. Foxx is so much fun as Electro. DeHaan is cool as ice, when he's not in goober Goblin mode. But an overstuffed story, and a misguided interest in a completely unnecessary twist on Parker's origin, is the "Amazing Spider-Man" franchise's unshakable elephant in the room -- or rhino, as it were.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" opens on May 2.