If you saw the trailer, you’ve already seen the movie. You’ve seen Spider-Man’s intro, his opening battle, the introduction of two of three key villains, the final shot, and almost the entirety of every action sequence. The only thing missing is the accidentally camptacular line “Isn’t that the question of the day?” I can’t tell what’s worse: the line, or how distracting it was to see it missing when I’d heard it before every movie in the past four months. The marketing bastardized the film it was selling, and we’re left with a film absolutely absent of surprise. I can’t put all the blame on the film itself. How could I? After word got out audiences weren’t craving a sequel, the studio, Sony, got defensive and relentlessly played as much footage as they could and at every opportunity. It’s impossible not to feel Sony has contempt for its audience and its movie. They made it almost inconceivable to see this film unspoiled, and thus robbing it of working on its own terms. How am I to know what enjoyment could’ve been had by not knowing Electro ravages Times Square with lightning and bad Hans Zimmer dubstep (oh, yes)? It’s a tough thing for a critic to admit, but the marketing has forced me to judge the film with a negative skew, and I feel guilty The Amazing Spider-Man 2 won’t have a fair day in court. I’d feel a lot worse if it was any good.
The sequel to the 2012 reboot promised “His Greatest Battle Begins” and, unfortunately, they meant it literally. Taking a feather from the ugliest duckling of the Avengers franchise, Iron Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an extended and very expensive advertisement for films still yet to hatch. The script is so teeming with unnecessary subplots and story diversions, almost all of which are exposition for the upcoming Sinister Six and The Amazing Spider-Man 3, that the title character becomes brutally sidelined. He’s barely in the film. We get a lot of snazzy CGI sequences of swinging from Spidey’s point of view, many of which are long takes, but it seems as though the title character has less to say than Aunt May. Writer/director Marc Webb paid attention to what worked in the first film, so Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) yet again anchor the film, even though it’s a sinking ship. The main (read: ONLY) conflict for Peter isn’t how to stop the villains — he seems utterly unconcerned with their fate — but what to do about Gwen. He made a promise to her father he wouldn’t be with her, and he’s haunted by his promise. He loves her and struggles to find the balance between being a good guy and a responsible one. That’s it, and it mostly consists of scenes with Garfield furrowing his brow looking confused. That’s as deep as his character gets, and he makes Steve Rogers looks like Othello by comparison. Unlike the first film, Peter Parker has no journey. He’s become yet another two-dimensional character in a film made with the complexity of cardboard.
He ends the film as the same punkish hero that he was at the beginning, so it’s a godsend that Andrew Garfield can command the screen. It’s a shame, then, that his interpretation of Peter Parker is a faulty one. The crux of the character depends on a segregation between the Spidey persona and Peter Parker the man, with the former being a sarcastic punk and the latter a muted and slightly bland all around swell guy. The problem is that Garfield combined them, and it’s as though Bruce Wayne started acting like Batman in everyday conversation. Peter darts from conversation to conversation as though he’s always about to run out of breath, over-talking and generally giving way to obnoxiousness. Regardless of whether you care about accurately portraying Peter Parker, the routine is exhausting. The greatest asset of Garfield’s performance, and indeed the film, is that when he and real-life girlfriend Emma Stone share screen-time, more sparks fly than Electro at a power plant. They’re excellent together, but their genuine chemistry isn’t a strong enough heart to pump blood through the rest of an otherwise lifeless film.
For one thing, Electro (Jaime Foxx) is not a character. Electro’s real name is Max Dillon, and he begins as a Spider-Man-obsessed man playing off so many stereotypes of the socially inept nerd that the cast of Big Bang Theory suddenly seem like different versions of James Bond. He isn’t socially swift and seems amazed anyone would remember his name. He’s the rare villain you start off wanting to hug, but, as it goes, one annoyingly contrived thing leads to another, and before you know it he’s an electric cousin to Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan: blue, bald, and big. He goes from being a victim of wrong place at the wrong time to a murderous psychopath with seemingly no in between. He needs to be bad for the film to roll onto the next action set piece, so bad he is. Jaime Foxx is an excellent performer, but his talent is all but forgotten here. Similarly, wonderful up-and-comer Dane DeHaan stars as Peter’s long last pal Harry Osborn, but he too is criminally underused. His character floats through the film, behaving without believability or just cause, and the only reason he’s memorable at all is a bad one: a shocking lack of judgment in haircut. The characters are cogs in a machine of CGI overload and brainlessness. They exist because they must, and the undercooked explanations for their actions are as maddening as they are nonexistent.
It must be said that a wonky script alone isn’t enough to capsize a 250 million dollar tentpole. There’s a bastion of poorly written features that are rollicking fun (looking at you, The Rock), but this isn’t one of them. It’s the opposite. The more The Amazing Spider-Man 2 tries to excite, the more boring it is. There’s a bizarre absence in spectacle, and I can’t tell what the graver misstep is: that the action is unexciting, or that there’s so little of it. So much time is spent (wasted) establishing where the franchise can go, there’s time for little else. The irony is that the few action scenes the film does have are brief, but they feel long. Great action scenes have more in common with music than with theater and use variation in tempo and rhythm to give a scene its feel and pace. If that’s true, then Webb can’t keep a beat. Instead of taking a set piece and developing a narrative through the action, it’s just more and more and more of the same. The screen is so constantly chaotic any semblance of rhythm is gone, and you’re left with CGI vs. CGI death matches where nobody, least of all Spiderman, can actually get hurt.
In contrast, Marvel’s The Winter Soldier builds from one moment to the next, and, as the set pieces continue, they constantly change shape. As they do, the stakes are tightened and intensified. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t have stakes, but it does try and contrive them. In the third act when crisis falls over Manhattan, the narrative is spliced into three parts, two of which are completely random and serve no purpose beyond artificially adding to the (nonexistent) danger. If it wasn’t obvious these sequences were designed to be exciting, you’d be forced to think they’re boring on purpose.
Most jarring of all is how the film tries and fails to transition between tones. In the film’s thrilling opening sequence, which may be the best, Webb fosters a genuine and delicate feeling of loss. It’s a nice moment, one I came to wish the film had more of. But it doesn’t last- not two seconds after the scene concludes are we met with the intrusion of Hans Zimmer’s blaring Spider-Man theme, which is too regal and self-serious for a character so overtly playful (better suited for a Christopher Reeves-era Superman, I think). It’s set to a CGI-heavy intro to Spidey slinging between buildings, cracking jokes, and becoming the punch line of many instances of slapstick. The two scenes couldn’t be more opposite, and it is truly as though they were from different films that were choppily edited together. As if that wasn’t enough, another minute passes before we cut to Gwen Stacy’s high school graduation, also seemingly from a different film, then back again. Yet another minute passes and we cut to a haunting image from the previous film of Gwen’s father telling signaling Peter not to act on his feelings. That’s four entirely different tones smushed together in the first five or six minutes -- not that anyone’s counting.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a film singularly disconnected from itself and the audience alike, the type of baffling mess where every creative decision is in question. There is one exception: towards the end of the film, Electro starts electrocuting power plant towers and they start making sounds clearly reminiscent of dubstep. This is obviously meant to sound like the score, and when Spidey hears it and says “I hate this song”, it’s the only time in the entire film that reflects what the audience is actually thinking.