Watching 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man felt like listening to a close cover version of a song that not so long ago used to be all over the radio. Even in the reboot-ready superhero genre, there was something a little exhausting about the new series’ arrival only five years after Sam Raimi wrapped up his hit Spider-Man trilogy. The film hit many of the same beats millions had watched just a decade prior — the bite, the discovery of powers, the death of Uncle Ben, the costume, the girl, the bruising battles.
Of the elements that were added to the revamp, not all of them clicked — like the odd Spidey-POV shot (which has been improved in the sequel, out this Friday) and a storyline involving Peter Parker’s parents, which continues to weigh down the franchise in its newest installment. But The Amazing Spider-Man did do something right in reworking Peter (Andrew Garfield) into a moodier, skateboarding loner rather than the classic nerdy underdog.
He still got beat up by bullies, but in defense of someone else. He was awkward, but not hopeless — a contemporary interpretation — and when he developed a crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), she liked him back before he suited up and started serving up justice. The result was that The Amazing Spider-Man had an actual, adorable two-sided romance in the midst of all its swinging through the city and encounters with the Lizard, one that skipped the usual twists by letting Gwen in on Peter’s secret early and having her guess that he’d promised her dying dad (Denis Leary) to stay away.
And Garfield and Stone have brought their warm, irrepressible chemistry to the sequel, which wraps its unwieldy two and a half villains around a love story that’s still so sweet and immediate, it tends to dominate the proceedings, making it feel like Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, and Paul Giamatti’s Rhino are just there to complicate the relationship between Peter and Gwen. The romance in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is its best part, while the superheroics already show signs of fatigue, with the film doubling up on its baddies rather than building them out and giving them understandable motivations.
That’s in part due to the unfortunate briskness with which the script — written by (since split) blockbuster collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci along with Jeff Pinkner, — serves up its antagonists. Ignored Oscorp electrical engineer Max Dillon (Foxx) goes from adoring Spider-Man to hating him after an accident juices him up into the glowing blue Electro, feeling irrationally betrayed because the plot seemingly requires him to. Harry Osborn (DeHaan) shows up as Peter’s previously unmentioned, years-absent best friend, and while the two have a nice scene together catching up alongside the DUMBO waterfront, Harry accelerates into desperate and ruthless, then green and evil, with disappointing economy.
DeHaan made a terrific transformation from mistreated kid to supervillain in the 2012 breakout hit Chronicle, but he can’t sell how quickly Harry makes a similar flip here, turning on Spider-Man for reasons that seem like they could have been sorted out with a text message. The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s interpretation of Harry is obviously different from the one in the Raimi trilogy, but the contrast between the two is stark, given the effort the earlier films put into establishing the friendship between Harry and Peter. The impact of one of Peter’s closest pals turning on him is extremely muted.
Meanwhile, Giamatti, hamming it up and having the most fun with a Russian accent and forehead tattoo as Aleksei Sytsevich, is mainly in the film as a bookend, a symbolic disturbance for Spider-Man to face down as he returns to a place at least somewhere close to where he began.
Before he made the jump to blockbusters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 director Marc Webb helmed (500) Days of Summer, and while the Spider-Man sequel is a tonal mash-up of the light and cartoony and the dark and brooding, it’s those flickers of indie-ish realism in which the film most comes to life. As in some other recent epics, superhero and otherwise, the biggest battles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are the ones that tend to feel like they have the smallest stakes because they involve so much CGI, with one immaculately choreographed fight between the pillars of a power station having the weightlessness of something that takes place entirely in a computer. It takes the romance dovetailing with the supervillain shenanigans for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to achieve a sense of having consequences.
And that speaks to how good Garfield and Stone are together. So good, in fact, that they outweigh the spectacle in which the rest of the movie is so invested. Giggling about hiding in a maintenance closet together, kissing when they’re supposed to be staying just friends, they come across as two people who are hopelessly smitten with each other. Spotting Gwen across the street, Peter walks right into traffic, and she’s just as charmed by his slightly creepy admission that he’s been following her around town. Their connection is strong enough that the obstacle the film throws in their way, that vow to Gwen’s father to leave her out of Spider-Man’s troubles, seems more grown-up, an issue of compromise and expectations. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a too-familiar superhero story paired with an uncommonly appealing love story that makes you wonder what its lead would be like in a movie in which one of them didn’t always have to run off to fight criminals.