Spidey Refresh: Playful, tender "Amazing Spider-Man 2" a step forward

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
143 min., rated PG-13.

When a tentpole franchise gets rebooted for the sake of contractual obligations, it is hard to tell how much of it is a cynical business deal that will generate Happy Meal sales and how much is a vision with inspiration. Needlessly starting over from scratch five years after the last of director Sam Raimi's unrivaled three "Spider-Man" films, "The Amazing Spider-Man," though benefiting entirely from solid casting, left room for improvement. As was the problem with that proficiently entertaining but perfunctory 2012 "reinvention" of the Marvel superhero, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" often feels like we have already seen this story spun before, but it's simultaneously a step forward. With the carbon copied "origin story" out of the way, this rebooted sequel can finally get somewhere and prove that it has more of a raison d'être. With great waiting comes good, not great, payoff.

After battling Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard and still bringing hope and safety to the Manhattan neighborhood as Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) still wonders about the death of his parents, holding only onto pictures and his father's briefcase. He has just graduated high school with girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the class valedictorian, but is also haunted by Gwen's police-captain father's (Denis Leary) final words—"Leave Gwen out of it"—which soon complicates the young couple's relationship. Soon enough, Gwen is bound for Oxford University and they're both going different ways. Meanwhile, nebbish nobody of an electrical engineer, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), is saved on the streets by Spider-Man and begins his obsession. On his birthday, he's working at Oscorp, where no one remembers his name, and then electrocuted in a freak accident involving a tank of eels. More than ever, though, Max will be remembered when he mutates into Electro, a living generator. If that weren't enough on Pete/Spidey's plate, Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), CEO of genetic-engineering company Oscorp, is on his death bed and leaves the business to his 20-year-old son, Harry (Dane DeHaan). After the passing of his father, Oscorp's new heir has a visit from estranged friend Peter, but, like his father, Harry is cursed with a rare, fatal genetic disease that could be reversed with the blood of a certain friendly neighborhood savior.

Opening with an intense, stirring flashback sequence that details whatever happened to Dr. Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz), "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" then establishes a jokey, more playful tone through its giddy, dizzying, vertiginous city swoop and thrillingly immersive web-slinging, actually enhanced and not detracted by the 3-D. Spider-Man's saving of plutonium viles comes with several lighthearted one-liners and a tonal cartoonishness that gets a slight increase without going too far. If the 2012 reboot appreciably cut down on weightless CGI and relied more on stunt and wire work but rendered its human element a bit undercooked, this fifth entry in the canon rights that wrong. Director Marc Webb is back in and working from a screenplay of more layered feeling and too-muchness by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness") and Jeff Pinkner (TV's "Fringe"). Here, the interpersonal relationships are able to touch our hearts. Andrew Garfield made the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man his own, with a slightly cockier, goofier spin than Tobey Maguire. He could have merely gone through the paces, but one can really see his total investment in the character who faces inner struggle in himself and as his alter ego. Never asked to just stay put or be rescued, the do-no-wrong Emma Stone is plucky and useful as Gwen. Garfield and Stone are so naturally charming together as an on- and off-screen couple, and their relationship is beautifully drawn beyond nervously cute, low-stakes flirtations and holds more emotional weight this time. Injecting the film with an extra human touch as Aunt May, Sally Field is endlessly wonderful, being given both funny and touching notes to play. In the most poignant scene, May is doing all she can without her husband in raising Peter but won't hurt him with his parents' history. 

While it seemed like the trendy opinion to lambast Sam Raimi's final chapter, 2007's unjustly maligned "Spider-Man 3," for villain overload, it actually made logical sense for Peter Parker's personal journey, and it all felt succinctly paced and adeptly structured. That's largely the case here, too, but some of the villains are better handled than others and one thread is too rushed to make the impact it intends. Played by a mannered, stammering Jamie Foxx with a comb-over, Max Dillon is first introduced as a dweebish Spider-Man fanatic, much like Jim Carrey's portrayal of The Riddler in "Batman Forever." Once the actor morphs into the maniacal Electro, Foxx is more convincingly tragic and even intimidating with his glowing computer-generated face. Dane DeHaan is compulsively watchable and fiercely snaky as Harry, and with Garfield, they fill in the blanks of a history and former friendship that we never see like we did with James Franco and Tobey Maguire. He also has a gnarly transformation into Green Goblin. Solely functioning as a third but cameo-sized bad guy in the bookending scenes, Paul Giamatti seems to be having a blast, running buck-wild with a hammy Russian accent as the blustery Rhino. 

On paper, the plot would seem hectic and rather unwieldy, but it is always accelerating, even when it digresses. Once all the juggled threads fall into place, it's satisfyingly woven. (Scrapping the scenes with Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson was probably for the best.) The climactic moment makes a boldly dramatic move that rings true in its depiction of the fragility of life and puts a lot more at stake for the next installment. If there's any real letdown, it's that the filmmakers end the film and then tack on one more action sequence, a throwaway tease, just as 141 minutes start to feel like 141 minutes. Aside from some of the action spectacle too often resembling the film's video-game tie-in, technical merits are seamless across the board. Though the stylistic flourish has been overexposed since "The Matrix," slo-mo bullet time is quite cool and sparingly used in a set-piece of Electro's attack on Times Square. Hans Zimmer's music score is propulsive, augmented by The Magnificent Six's (including Johnny Marr, Pharrell Williams, and Junkie XL) electronic remixing of Max's angry internal monologue when he is reborn as Electro. Despite feeling a bite of Spidey fatigue, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a fun, frequently moving experience in its own right and, finally, a fresher start if it has to exist as "the next big thing."