Some among you will be too young to remember, but I can still recall way back in the day when we all had to walk to school through the snow (uphill both ways), when a shave and a haircut cost two bits, when goilz were goilz and men were men, and when Tobey Maguire starred in Spider-Man movies directed by Sam Raimi.
I broke with the prevailing consensus back then, greatly preferring Spider-Man to the ubiquitous recyclings of Spider-Man 2. But I think everyone can agree that it wasn't until the concluding chapter of Raimi’s trilogy that the wheels came off altogether: too many villains, too many storylines, too much everything.
Two years ago, when director Marc Webb offered his premature reboot of the franchise, he seemed at least to understand where the previous trilogy had gone wrong. The Amazing Spider-Man may have been a wildly redundant enterprise, but Webb—along with his stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone—at least re-discovered the proper scale and focus of the subject, delivering a film imbued with improbable charm.
His sequel, alas, exhibits almost none of its predecessor’s virtues. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a lumbering mess, so overstuffed with plot devices that it smothers even the complementing charismas of Garfield and Stone. About the best thing one can say about this fiasco is that Webb has taken only two films to reach the same exhausted, exhausting endpoint that Raimi required three to achieve. It’s progress, of a sort.
In keeping with its overall strategy of ostentatious decline, the movie opens with arguably the least appealing element of the initial reboot, and proceeds to make it far worse. I refer to the newfangled backstory in which Peter Parker’s father (Campbell Scott) was a brilliant genetic researcher for Oscorp, the multinational company whence all dangerous scientific breakthroughs emerge in the Spider-verse. Realizing his work could be put to nefarious ends, Parker destroyed it and, along with Peter’s mother (Embeth Davidtz), fled Oscorp’s wrath, abandoning young Peter to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. This time out, we actually see the couple’s flight, both figurative and literal: the private jet on which they attempt to stage their escape to Switzerland (paid for by whom, exactly?); the mid-flight assassination attempt that is all but identical to a dozens of scenes from earlier films (do you know what happens when you fire a handgun inside the pressurized compartment of an airplane? of course you do); and Parker pere's down-to-the-last-second effort to upload invaluable data from his laptop to … no, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.
By the time we actually get to the present day, with Spider-Man (Garfield) once again looping his way through the urban canyons of Manhattan, Webb’s film is already running a substantial goodwill deficit. And it’s only going to get worse. This movie’s Basically Decent Guy Who’s Involved In An Accident At Oscorp That Gives Him Superpowers While Turning Him Evil—well, the first one, there will be another later on—is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a mild-mannered loser who works in the engineering department. (We know he’s a loser because he refers to himself as “a nobody”; because his boss treats him like dirt; and most of all because Foxx is saddled with unstylish glasses and gap teeth.) Following an unfortunate encounter with a live power line and some electric eels (yes, electric eels), Max is reborn as "Electro" and proceeds to go make a spectacle of himself in Times Square.
Meanwhile, Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan) has reappeared after a long stint at boarding school. Harry will be familiar to viewers of the Raimi films (in which he was played by James Franco), but not to viewers of the first Webb movie, in which he was not mentioned. And indeed, the deep friendship between him and Peter, though emphatically stated, is never much in evidence. No matter: Soon enough he’ll be Green-Goblinizing himself just like his predecessor, albeit on an accelerated timetable. This Harry, too, is an ill-tempered whiskey drinker, though the specific brand is no longer designated, Maker’s Mark having evidently concluded that “The Bourbon of Psychopaths” was not such a great product placement after all.
As for Peter’s love life, he and Gwen Stacy (Stone) have moved beyond the adorable flirtation phase into the phase where they argue over whether they love each other so much that they have to be together or they love each other so much that they have to stay apart. This also is not an improvement.
Other familiar elements are thrown into the mix: a few tedious gags involving the old Spider-Man cartoon theme, a big speech by Aunt May, and fraught questions regarding the obligations owed to not one, not two, but three dead fathers. (There’s more family melodrama on display here than in a lifetime of Thanksgiving dinners.)
Perhaps aware than none of these bits are adding up to a satisfying whole, the screenwriters also throw in a few fresher flourishes: an Arkham-esque prison for the criminally insane in which the jailers experiment on their charges, a high-school physics problem about how to stop Spidey’s web shooters from shorting out in Electro’s presence, and a secret lab hidden in a place so silly that the Bond franchise wouldn’t have gone there even at its lowest point.
Who, you ask, are the screenwriters responsible for this vertiginous whirl of narrative components? Why Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, of course, the multi-billion-dollar maestros of two Star Treks, two Transformerses, a Mission: Impossible, and a Cowboys & Aliens. Their Spider-Man script (also credited to writers Jeff Pinkner and James Vanderbilt), opens a new front in the duo's ongoing war to render all big-budget cinema completely and forever incoherent.
It hardly helps that Webb’s direction lacks the nimbleness he displayed in the first film (and before that, in 500 Days of Summer). The frequent deployments of sodden slow-motion, the lugubrious music-video montages—every scene feels like it goes on for at least one beat too long. And don’t even get me started on the jangling electronic score, which is like something out of a Tangerine Nightmare.
Garfield and Stone do the best they can with the material, and summon up a few moments of incandescent chemistry. But ultimately the movie proves itself too heavy a lift even for its two stars. Foxx, by contrast, supplies a canned performance, or more accurately two: first as nerdy, bullied Max and later as roaring, glowing Electro. Colm Feore and B.J. Novak show up as a couple of smirky, jerky Oscorp executives. And as the third, almost-literal afterthought of a supervillain, Rhino, Paul Giamatti is easily the weakest that I have ever seen him. The best thing that can be said of the role is that it is tiny.
Which brings us to DeHaan (In Treatment, Chronicle), who plays Harry. How to put this? There are unlikable movie characters whom we hope will eventually receive their comeuppances, and there are movie characters so unlikable that they make us want to exit the theater altogether. DeHaan’s Harry is the latter sort. I realize that the actor is trying to portray whiny petulance and sneering entitlement. But this is a rare case in which the mimesis is altogether too persuasive.
That said, the fundamental flaw with The Amazing Spider-Man 2—and easily the most amazing thing about it—is how much dissonant material the filmmakers managed to cram into its already-swollen, 142-minute running time. This was a movie during which I swear I could actually feel the cells of my body aging. There is a scene near the end of the film that is meant to be—that ought to be—profoundly moving. But given the dull, punishing weight of all that has come before, it’s hard to muster the energy to feel much of anything.
Where can Spider-Man possibly go from here? Sony is planning for a third installment two years from now and a fourth two years after that. Late in this movie, we even get a tour of possible future villains, as Harry inspects the secret Oscorp armory in which they keep all the super-weapons they have yet to inflict upon an innocent populace: Doc Ock’s arms, the Vulture’s wings… (I swear to you that I am not making this up.)
Wherever this version of the franchise is headed, we can rest assured that corporate logic is already inexorably contemplating ways to reboot the reboot. (The Spectacular Spider-Man?) A modest suggestion: Next time, go straight to the overwrought, multi-villain mishmash in the first installment.