There was a time that comic book movies were measured by the strength of the villain. In the 1990s, actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Uma Thurman — award winning actors — took on roles in the Batman films and completely let loose with ham-fisted performances that rivaled the campy 1966 TV series. All of that changed in 2008 when Iron Man hit screens, and the focus of the comic book movie shifted back to the titular heroes, and less so their nemeses.
And the truly exceptional villains are the ones who don’t have motivation other than, say, personal gain, as in Thor’s Loki, or in sheer world domination, as in Captain America’s HYDRA. This argument can be completely summed up in 2008’s The Dark Knight, when the late Heath Ledger turned in a brilliant Oscar winning performance as a maniac whose entire motivation was only to “watch the world burn.”
I bring this up, because Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man series unfortunately falls back to those sometimes-terrible Batman films for villainous inspiration. While these ridiculous campy villains could easily sink these films, the series is held up by the strength of its leads, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
Garfield understands Peter Parker being a comic book fan himself, and he completely channels the comic book version of Spidey. When he’s on screen in the red and blues, the film truly is amazing. From his snarky quips, to his seemingly fan friendly attitude, to his give-it-all, self-sacrificing battles, this is the Spider-Man I have always wanted to see on film.
Stone is Gwen Stacy. She looks like a Gil Kane drawing come to life. She’s smarter than Peter, and she’s never truly a damsel in distress: when she’s there in the thick of it, she’s there to help her boyfriend, even if that goes against his wishes. It’s refreshing to see a female character written so well — and so close to the source material — in a comic book movie.
Gwen and Peter are also wonderful together on screen. Their relationship completely saved the first film, and they keep this one from sinking into Joel Schumacher territory. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 throws many obstacles in their way, including Peter being haunted by the ghost of Gwen’s dead father (Denis Leary), whose last wish was for Peter to keep Gwen out of danger, and Gwen getting accepted to Oxford University in Europe. These two lovers do everything they can to stay together, but the writing is on the wall and something has to give.
And give it does.
Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained; Miami Vice) plays Max Dillon, a bumbling joke of a character that works at Oscorp and who created the electrical grid that New York uses, though he gets no credit for it. In fact, Max is nearly invisible to everyone, save for his immediate supervisor, Alistair Smythe (B.J. Novak), who constantly berates him.
While Spidey is fighting/chasing Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), a Russian truck driver trying to steal plutonium from Oscorp, Max is saved, and instantly becomes Spider-Man’s biggest fan. Later, a lab accident at Oscorp causes him to become Electro, and for a terribly weak reason, he grows to hate Spider-Man and becomes a villain.
But even this isn’t the plot of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. That dubious distinction falls to the story of the Osborn family, as Peter Parker’s old friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), comes home to visit his dying father, Norman (Chris Cooper). Norman suffers from a disease that turns the skin green and makes the fingernails long and pointed. It’s hereditary and fatal and Harry knows his time on earth is short–even though Norman lived into his 60s and Harry is in his early 20s.
Norman gives his son his life’s research to try and find the cure. And this devolves into a jumbled mess of a story that involves the work — and death — of Peter’s parents, secret military contracts, corporate espionage, and whatever other summer movie cliche that screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci can shove in this thing.
Harry ultimately tries to use the same method — radiated spider venom — that created Spider-Man to save his own life and instead, he becomes the Green Goblin, who then goes after Spidey because Spidey refused to give Harry a blood sample. It is yet another weak motivation for a villain in a film series clearly defined by weak villain motivations and end games. I mean, who can forget Curt Connors desire to turn New York into lizards in the first film? Really?
The cast is rounded out with Oscar-winner Sally Field (Forrest Gump, Norma Rae) as Peter’s Aunt May, who once again feels wasted, and is even given a subplot that goes nowhere. Colm Feore (Thor, Chronicles of Riddick) stars as Donald Menken, Norman Osborn’s trusted assistant and eventual foil to Harry. Up and coming actress, Felicity Jones, stars as Felicia Hardy, the person that Harry chooses to be his assistant when he takes over Oscorp upon his return. This is obviously a set up for the next film, as Felicia Hardy is a popular Spider-Man Comics character, Black Cat.
Director Marc Webb ( Days of Summer) does the best with what he’s given, and honestly and truly, the action scenes with Spider-Man are some of the best ever filmed in a comic book movie. And in 3D it’s even better. Webb understands the pacing needed for a good, tense, pulse-pounding hero/villain battle, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 luckily has four or five good action pieces. The film suffers when we are forced to focus on the subplots — for which there are too many — and the villains — for which there are also too many–but picks back up easily when we get back to Spidey being Spidey, and Peter and Gwen trying, against all odds, to make their relationship work.
With the muddled, cliche-filled plot and campy, scenery-chewing villains, everything about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 should sink into the depths of mediocrity, and is only saved by amazing performances by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and for some incredibly staged fight sequences and action set pieces, which elevate the production to a passable, and enjoyable height. This film is the culinary equivalent of ordering a $50 cut of filet mignon and then pairing it up with a side of generic ranch-flavored triangular corn chips. With Webb and cast set to return for at least one more film in this series, there is hope that maybe they can get it all figured out, because Spider-Man is amazing, but to date the films are not.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is rated PG-13 and opens nationwide on May 2.