I don't care about Peter Parker's parents. I don't care if they're alive or dead; if they're traitors or patriots; if they're spies or scientists; if they work for Oscorp or Donald Trump; if they're human or alien. I didn't care about them in the comic books, and nothing that's been presented about them in two AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies has made me care about them any more. I'm a great admirer of other performances by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz, who play Richard and Mary Parker, but they do nothing for me in these films. And no, simply eliminating all scenes and references to them in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 doesn't come close to solving the problems I had with it, but it would have shortened an overlong movie to a more suitable length and made what doesn't work seem far less painful.
And the worst part is, director Marc Webb didn't have a choice but to deal with these characters substantially in this second installment of this new incarnation of Spider-Man, because the first film painted him into a corner. And that's a shame because Webb gets a great deal of Spider-Man right on the money, especially the interpersonal material between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, still the best version of this character who has ever done it) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In this second film, the parameters of their relationship are beautifully established. She's the fixer, the caregiver, the protector, while Peter is a bit all over the place, desperately in need of someone to keep his head in the game. They aren't the same person, quite the opposite; but they work really well together, and their banter and affection for one another feel genuine, even if Peter's guilt about telling Gwen's now-late father he'd keep her out of danger threatens to tear them apart (actually, it does for a time).
But for those of you who don't care about the mushy stuff, there's a great deal more action in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and a lot of it looks like an actual comic book brought to life. The opening Spider-Man versus Russian thug Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) battle is an absolutely perfect realization of a Spider-Man comic book battle, or at least the best I've seen. Late in the film as well, Spider-Man comes face to face with Sytsevich again, this time in the armored guise of The Rhino, and again, the film elevates itself all too briefly to remind us of one of the many reasons this character is so popular. Here's a guy who loves being Spider-Man; he's not some angst-ridden hero who's constantly questioning why he does what he does (even when he has reason to). He knows that he was put on this earth and given these gifts to help people.
That's one of the most noticeable differences between this film and most other superhero movies is that there are a great number of shots of Spider-Man saving individual people from falling debris or other hazards. One of those saved is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an uber-nerd and gifted electrician who is obsessed with Spider-Man even before they meet and the hero declares Dillion his "eyes and ears" on the street. For a brief moment, an invisible man is noticed and made special by his idol, and Max (clearly mentally unstable from the start) loses his grip on reality and starts lashing out at those who don't treat him with respect.
The problem with the Dillon character is that he's more of a caricature of a nerd, hitting every stereotype of nerd-dom—oversized glasses, terrible combover, funky teeth, and a goofy voice that seems only necessary as a means to contrast with the deep, sinister voice he uses when he is transformed into Electro, a human battery that sucks up and shoots out energy in a seemingly limitless capacity. Like Spider-Man, Electro is a product of an accident at Oscorp, apparently the only company in existence in New York City, and it typifies one of the many problems with these new stories. The filmmakers seem to believe that everything has to be connected somehow, either by design or coincidence. Sure, it makes the storytelling simpler, but having Oscorp for the center of all things seems silly and worse, lazy.
Feel free to lay some of the blame at everybody's favorite genre screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who along with Jeff Pinkner came up with a story that feels more like an in-between movie, transitioning this new Spider-Man in the last movie to the already-announced expanded universe of films to come. Nothing but Peter and Gwen stays on the screen long enough for us to grasp onto and care about, and that includes Electro, whose ultimate motivations for turning villain are just asinine, and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), Peter's old childhood friend (and son of Oscorp founder Norman—the connections never stop), who is suffering from a debilitating disease that forces him to takes chemicals that turn him into fan-favorite The Green Goblin.
Dopey motivations aside, the villains aren't bad in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. I liked the look and approach that Foxx assumes for Electro, and DeHaan is outright freakish in his Goblin attire, which does away with the plastic-mask look from Sam Raimi's version, and instead makes him look like the worst kind of junkie, with his eyes blazing and hair spinning up into the air. Giamatti's Rhino resembles a tank set upright and given legs, and that works for me. The problem is, he's barely in the film—a huge flaw among many.
The film finds slivers of time for hinted-at characters who might be more important in future films. Felecity Jones shows up as Harry's assistant "Felicia," while another Oscorp big wig Donald Menken (Colm Feore) shows up, possibly to become The Vulture in future films. Sally Field returns as Aunt May, but her main function seems to be to almost catch Peter in his room while he's still got his Spider-Man suit on, clearly a metaphor for masturbating.
There are so many transitions in this film that feel like there's scene missing to take us from one plot point to the next. It's not just the villains' motivations that make no sense; almost no major decision or turn is fully explained or sensible. If anyone buys the friendship between Peter and Harry, I have a bridge in New York I'd like to sell you (so Spider-Man can spin a love note on it).
I'm not going to talk about the film's major, climactic development here—I have interviews for this film that I'll post on Ain't It Cool News early next week that will have plenty of those—but I do want to emphasize the even in that moment, the film doesn't feel quiet like it's earned the emotion that should go along with it. That being said, many people in the screening I saw it with were bawling their eyes out, so maybe I'm just dead in the heart, but I'd like to think that's not the case.
What works in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 works so well that it should tell you something when I say that what doesn't work drags the film down so far that I can't bring myself to fully recommend it. Much like after watching the last film, I feel like what will come next will be better, but I think the odds of that actually happening are unlikely. I get that Spider-Man stories have always had humor as a major component, but I'm fairly certain that it's preferable to have the audience laughing with you rather than at you.