More or less freed from the shackles of origin story regurgitation that restricted the 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 begins to find its own identity. That life is mostly due to Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, a romantic coupling on- and off-screen. There ain't no chemistry like real chemistry.
There are a number of scenes—not earthshaking in the slightest—that give Spider-Man 2 a tremendous advantage over its predecessor. That film just was not impressive, visually or narratively, and because it was about 10 years removed from the first Spidey movie (and only five from the third), it raised very legitimate questions about being anything other than a money grab. There were some high points (Garfield and Stone again), but it wasn't truly its own creation.
Here, we go a little deeper and a little broader. As Peter Parker and the webslinger, Garfield is showing poise and more of a comedic touch than his previous work would indicate. He's still not terribly believable as an action hero, but many of this film's money sequences are so drenched in CGI, how could that matter? And as Gwen Stacy, the love of his young life, Emma Stone does what she seemingly always does: Charms the movie into being better than its parts.
It's weird—absurd, even—that much of what makes this film rise where The Amazing Spider-Man faltered is young adult relationship drama. There's probably one scene too many, sure, but the writing and the delivery by both actors give the on-again, off-again coupling gravity and levity. And like it or not, at the end of the day, the Spider-Man movies are about how Peter Parker wrestles with saving the planet and keeping safe the two people he loves. Speaking of that other person, Peter's brief encounters with Aunt May (Sally Field) are also really good, and none of the human interest stuff feels forced into place.
But that's probably not what you're interested in hearing about. How are the effects? What's the deal with the villain? How cool are the fight scenes? Are they epic in 3-D? In order: Meh, OK until he has to do something, not that great, and no.
The villain is Electro, not exactly a minor player in the Spider-Man universe, but still fairly low on the list of criminal possibilities. The backstory is he's an electrical engineer named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), and like Peter Parker, he has an accident on the premises of Oscorp, the world's most powerful company. The accident turns him, for all intents and purposes, into a walking electrical charge capable of putting New York City into total darkness just like that.
The visualization of Electro is top-notch, easily the technical achievement of the film. But how do you fight raw electricity? The first meeting between Spidey and Electro is pretty cool but the big one you know is coming leaves a lot to be desired.
Then there's Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), the prodigal son who stands to inherit Oscorp after his mad scientist father passes away. Presumably, you know his story from the first trilogy. Say this, though: Dane DeHaan is really creepy. It's good casting both for Osborn and what fans of the series know he'll become, so hopefully they don't blow it as the series progresses.
While the central performances are uniformly strong, the action could definitely use some help. It's just not all that compelling, other than a few shots here and there. Perhaps we're desensitized to Times Square being leveled by a new evil power every summer. It's just really hard to get excited about the battles here. That was also true of the first film so maybe that's something that merely trips up director Marc Webb.
However, what matters about every superhero movie is how the humanity comes out. When it lacks that, it's just another parade of effects, and good God, isn't that what Michael Bay is for? It's why Tim Burton's first Batman movie, the blueprint for all of this 25 year later, still holds up better than most and on the other end of the spectrum why the third flick in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy killed (at least temporarily) the golden goose.
Among all the big comic book properties, Spider-Man has probably had the biggest problem staying focused on the task at hand. Too many girls tugging on Peter Parker's heart and too many villains destroying Manhattan all at once is not a recipe for success. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sidesteps that fatal flaw by peeling back the layers on Peter and Gwen Stacy first and foremost. It's a well-intended emphasis, certainly, but it may go a little soft for audience who equate summer with 'splosions.