Shock and some awe
Omens haven’t been great for this sequel to The Amazing Spiderman. Together with an all-too-revealing marketing campaign, the presence of three villains, and the very premature announcement of two further installments, it has the reek of a company desperate to keep alive its most valuable property. There are plenty of positives to take from the original – a genre-rare compelling romance, a trendy reiteration of the webslinger - but due to its mixed reception, we’re now in a world where the promise of a new Spider-Man generates apprehension rather than enthusiasm. In short, this has a lot riding on it.
If the pressure is on behind the scenes, it rarely shows on the screen. Channeling the humor and wackiness of the character on the page, this captures the essence of old webhead like few other adaptations, completely unburdened by mundane origin rituals. The Amazing Spider-Man was a decent enough launching pad to reinvent Peter Parker, but it frequently had the feel of something cautious not to step on the toes of another vision. Not so here. First seen with the wind rippling through his trademark suit, a whooping Peter Parker starts the film (symbolically) at the top of the world, proceeding to glide past skyscrapers in the pursuit of sirens. Like a Bond prologue with a jokey ringtone in place of Goldfinger, this opening car chase zips along at a giddy, breathless pace, stopping only to revel in the swagger and impudence of Andrew Garfield’s interpretation of Spider-Man.
One caveat: the inclusion of Paul Giamatti as Russian gangster Aleksei Sytsevich at this stage is judicious, but also baffling. A thankless role with few intelligible lines (“this isn’t the end spida!” he babbles), it regrettably serves as a benchmark setter for Spider-Man’s other underdeveloped foes.
Elsewhere, Marc Webb reaps the rewards of ideas planted in the first film. The decision to schedule Spider-Man’s 3 and 4 was doubtless an act of over-confidence on the part of the producers, but the director diligently lays out the initial groundwork, creating a neat sense of continuity between his two efforts. This time out, when Peter is not chastising the local crooks, he is piecing together the clues left by his father’s sudden disappearance, uncovering his connection with the people over at Oscorp. Before, Webb left us in the dark as to the machinations of the company, baiting us with the makings of a conspiracy, but leaving it there. Here, by tying up a series of loose ends, he pours a flashlight over proceedings, hinting that we are on the brink of something big.
As has been a trend for the last two Spider-Man’s, it’s the villains that don’t get enough love. Suffering less from Spider-Man 3 issues of quantity than of the general issue of bad writing, they just haven’t been contemplated as devotedly as the heroes. Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a tentative, overlooked technician at Oscorp who, after being rescued by Spidey, turns into a fully-fledged Spider-Man fanatic. Foxx isn’t bad – he can twitch and talk to himself like the best of them - it’s just hard to buy him as someone who would plaster his walls with Spider-Man’s face, probably because we don’t get enough time in his company. After one of the most avoidable creations/accidents yet, Dillon is turned into a Dr. Manhattan-alike who can regenerate through plug-sockets. Still, although Electro looks and sounds impressive (a terrific, dubstep-scored showdown in Times Square is the pick of the set pieces), his story is too brisk and clichéd to generate real pathos.
Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn gets the better share of the characterization and of the creepy combovers. A far cry from James Franco’s high-school popular version of the character, this Harry is a black sheep, clashing with his dying father and with Oscorp. DeHaan operates well both as an amiable old friend of Peter, and as someone unstable enough to lose their reason when prompted. But, for all of DeHaan’s good work, Harry’s transformation feels like it was hastily put together in anticipation of the final act. Not even maniacal cackling can disguise that.
Despite the presence of a man who can manipulate current, the most electric element continues to be the smaller human interactions. Sally Fields’ Aunt May emanates warmth in the rare domestic scenes she shares with Garfield, and there’s a gentle streak of humor running through their exchanges, with Peter playfully evading the scrutiny of his Aunt (“I was washing the American flag” he says after tinting the laundry red and blue).
Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman also introduce a meaty dimension to the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Haunted by a promise made to her dead father (that he keep away from Gwen), Garfield cuts a conflicted figure, oscillating between the guilt of an oath-breaker and the joy of someone who, albeit temporarily, finds a loophole the agreement. Stone is also perfectly comfortable adapting to these new demands, her Stacy is appealing, independent and intelligent enough to solve problems that leave Peter stumped. The level of improvisation and chemistry here is insane (few actors can make good on the ‘we need a distraction’ cinema trope, but these two crack it). Jointly, they make for a romance utterly unlike those that populate comic-book movies; it’s complex, it’s moving, and it’s full of the heartache and turbulence that characterized Webb’s 500 Days of Summer.
In a concluding bout that, up until its climax, lacks effective drama (averted crises in the skies and a hospital fail to engage) it becomes glaringly obvious how much this series relies on the potent relationship between Peter and Gwen. They are especially brilliant in those closing stages, invigorating a dud of a set piece with an offhand riff on the bickering couple dynamic. You can’t help but wonder where we would be had Webb graced his antagonists with half that level of thought, that touch of levity. We might actually, you know, care about them.
Tiredly conceived supervillains hold it back from true greatness, but as a hybrid of zippy rom-com and darker superhero elements, this rarely disappoints. Serious and smart if not consistently spectacular, Webb’s Spidey-verse finally feels like it’s coming together.