The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Directed by Marc Webb, 2014.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore.
142 mins.

After graduating from High School, Peter Parker tries to negotiate his on-off relationship with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and defend New York from new super-powered threats. Amidst this he reunites with Harry Osborn, an old childhood friend with a dark destiny…

IT’S THE STRANGE fate of Spider-Men to be dispatched before their time. Nicolas Hammond played the title role in the 1970’s Amazing Spider-Man TV show for a mere thirteen episodes before it was cancelled – despite garnering high ratings. Tobey Maguire was all set to go for Spider-Man 4 in 2009 when the film was cancelled at the last minute and the series restarted from scratch. And the star of said reboot, Andrew Garfield, was hastily replaced himself after just two movies, and three years in the role, to make way for Tom Holland in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

While Garfield’s time in the role was too short, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (subtitled Rise of Electro in some countries) provides a vibrant and soulful point to end on. The film doesn’t technically offer much innovation; even ditching the lo-fi, indie vibe that distinguished the previous movie for a more generic superhero style. Apart from a last-gasp twist that comic devotees have been anticipating (not revealed here, spoiler-phobes), it’s largely the winning formula the series is built on: an unbeatable three-hit combo of relatable hero, teen romance, and sympathetic supervillainy. But Amazing 2 offers the most polished and refined version of these essential elements so far, and does it all with an Oscar-nominated cast and set pieces of such epic scale they make fight scenes of preceding instalments look like a lot of silly pushing and shoving.

Spidey battles a trio of evildoers this time, and once again they effectively mirror and contrast against the title character. From the original movie in 2002, the series has focused on victims of circumstance and tragedy given great power – and highlighting why Peter, uniquely, uses said power for the benefit of others rather than descending into villainy. For Maguire’s three movies, it was the moral mantra imparted by his dying Uncle Ben. In Garfield’s two outings, it’s really the attention and wisdom of loved ones that provide the dividing line between hero and villain.

The most prominent and spectacular wrongdoer here is Jamie Foxx’s walking firework display Electro. He begins as meek Max Dillon, a stereotypical lonesome nerd, and the casual cruelties of life itself – plus a tank of electric eels – all but force him toward the Dark Side and a fetching blue make-over. Foxx keeps him engagingly, pitiably human, an abandoned, downtrodden man whose fall is all too easy to relate to – when he’s blasting Times Square with lightning bolts, you don’t cheer him on, but you know where his anger comes from. More than any villain of the five movies so far, Electro is a victim as much as a villain. You almost don’t want to see Spidey hit him with manhole covers.

While Electro is new to live-action, fellow fiend the Green Goblin is more familiar to moviegoers; but with a twist. Whereas Willem Dafoe’s 2002 incarnation donned a regrettable stylized helmet to justify the moniker, Dane DeHaan’s version suffers from a hereditary degenerative disease that leaves him with sickly green skin and witch-like talons. DeHaan plays alter ego Harry Osborn like a coiled spring; a young man barely suppressing a life time’s worth of built-up rage at his negligent father, industrialist Norman (Chris Cooper). Harry walks under a dark cloud and seems doomed from the moment he first appears. It’s his renewed friendship with Peter that brings a degree of happiness to his life, and the two bond over shared experiences of parental abandonment while each secretly investigating the entwined legacies of their fathers. This leads a captivating aspect to their inevitable clash when it finally arrives; two lost sons, their fates set by absent parents who nonetheless loom large over them.

Garfield brings an emotional commitment to the role of Peter, matched with a perfect understanding of the weird physicality and comedic nature of his alter ego

As ever, Peter’s biggest problem is with the opposite sex. He’s found the perfect girl in Emma Stone’s winning Gwen Stacy; but haunted by a promise he made to Gwen’s late-father in the previous movie, Peter doesn’t know whether to hold her close or push her away for her own safety. After a series of break-ups and make-ups, Gwen drops a bombshell – she’s moving to England.

Garfield and Stone are a faultless double-act; their clear chemistry and improvisational skills allow them to create a sweet, awkward, natural-feeling teenage romance. They’re so watchable, director Marc Webb just lets the camera linger on them until they get to the point of each scene – it’s a world away from the contrived soap operatics that tainted Maguire’s outings. It’s this authenticity (the actors were also dating at the time), and Peter’s desperate desire not to lose someone else he loves, which make their relationship the centre point of the movie, rather than an obligation. Despite yearning for his parents and the loss of his Uncle Ben, Peter still has the love of Gwen (at least for the time being), and his Aunt May (Sally Field) – while Max and Harry are desperately missing such relationships in their lives. Max clings to the delusion of Spidey as his best friend, while Harry – who does temporarily buddy-around with Peter – got nothing from a cold and distant father but birthday bottles of scotch sent to his boarding school.

As for the main man, Garfield is certainly the best screen Spider-Man so far. What he brings is an emotional commitment to the role of Peter, matched with a perfect understanding of the weird physicality and comedic nature of his alter ego. While Maguire often played Spidey as just Peter Parker with his face hidden, Garfield creates an entirely different persona, a trickster and a wise cracker, mocking and outwitting his enemies. He’s supported in this by the writing which, after five movies with the occasional quip, gives the webspinner a succession of smart-aleck remarks which are one of his most endearing traits on the printed page. And no discussion of the movie would be complete without mentioning costume; it’s lovingly accurate to the comic book version – specifically the wide-eyed 90s look – ditching the stylized embellishments of previous movie versions and going directly to the source.

Action scenes come in a quite unusual fashion; the film starts with a James Bond-style plane-based smackdown (featuring Peter Parker’s parents, no less), giving you no time to catch your breath before swinging into a major chase and rescue scene as Spidey chases plutonium pilferers across sunny NY. After this energetic opening, save for one sizzling set-piece, there is no action again until the multi-villain climax. Thankfully it’s a 5000-watt corker; an unhinged Electro sucks electricity out of the city, leaving desperate hospitals without power and unlighted aeroplanes racing unknowingly towards collision. And then the Goblin turns up…

It’s not perfect. It’s a little long. The story seems shapeless on first watch, before the pieces are put together. Screen time is spent promising a world of future movies and spin-offs which never arose; no less than seven supervillains are teased – including future Star Wars actress Felicity Jones as the Black Cat. Marton Csokas plays a bizarre asylum-dwelling psychologist/mad doctor, lip-sticked and sadistic, tonally at odds with the rest of the movie. And Electro is literally shelved for the middle act of the film whilst Harry tags in.

The multi-baddie approach is one Spider-Man 3 also came under criticism for, as fans like to see each iconic scoundrel given extensive screen time. But like that movie, Amazing 2 uses all its villains – all its characters – to tell a wider story about how life’s losses and mistakes batter us down, and how our reactions to it define us; whether we buckle under the strain and take out our grief on others, or use the tragedy to become stronger people. And that’s the conclusion The Amazing Spider-Man 2 reaches; be bigger than your tragedy, be bigger than your suffering. Be there for others. That’s what heroes do.

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Review by kind permission of The Wonderful Cocoon Club

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