Silver Screen: The Amazing Spider-Man II ***1/2
At this point, Spider-Man’s greatest foe might be déjà vu.
It was just seven years ago in Spider-Man III that Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborne, took over for his deadly departed dad and strapped on the Green Goblin costume to go terrorize Parker and his girlfriend. It’s all happening again, in more or less the exact same way, in The Amazing Spider-Man II, with Tobey Maguire, James Franco, and Kirsten Dunst swapped out for Andrew Garfield, Dane DeHaan, and Emma Stone. The newer version is a great deal more fun, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that it is, ultimately, just another version of a story we’ve already seen.
If there’s one defining difference between the new Marc Webb-directed Spider-Man series and the Sam Raimi trilogy, it’s that Webb’s version makes less of a distinction between Peter Parker (Garfield) and Spider-Man. In the Raimi movies, Mopey Maguire did a lot of pining, whining, and staring off into the distance, moving so slowly out of costume that he seemed totally unrelated to the computer-generated cartoon character who swung around the city. Garfield’s incarnation of the character is a good-humored kid who still seems like a good-humored kid when he slips on the spandex to sprint across rooftops.
True to the soapy, neurotic comic-book stories that inspired the characters, Parker still has more personal problems than superpowered foes. He’s not only lugging around the guilt of not saving his Uncle Ben, he’s burdened by a promise he made to his girlfriend’s dad (Denis Leary) not to involve her in his increasingly dangerous life. Now he’s separated from his girlfriend (Stone), living with his kindly aunt (Sally Field), and about to graduate from high school with no apparent plans for the future while his ex-lady plans to study abroad in Europe. Peter is also still struggling to uncover the mystery of what caused his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) to abandon him shortly before dying in a mysterious plane crash.
Meanwhile, lonely, deranged scientist Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) suffers one of those patented Marvel Comics science accidents that either transforms you into a selfless vigilante or a power-mad monster. He opts for the latter as Electro, a being of sentient electricity fueled by the city’s power grid and a heaping helping of nerd rage. Meanwhile, in a rushed subplot, DeHaan’s Harry Osborn reconnects with his old pal Peter just as he discovers he has the same genetic condition that killed his industrialist father (Chris Cooper). He becomes convinced that the only way to reverse his terminal illness is to experiment on the blood of Spider-Man.
As superhero movies go, there’s nothing terribly unique about this fifth Spider-Man movie, especially as it covers so much familiar ground. But what sets it apart from the pack is its zippy execution and tendency toward good humor and good manners. Superman barely notices as all of Metropolis is reduced to rubble, and Batman glowers and grumbles at everyone he saves. Spider-Man, on the other hand, is presented as a man— or super-man— of the people, happily interacting with New Yorkers, from the cops he helps out to the kid whose science project he fixes. He helps people, and he has a good time doing it.
What are we doing, sitting through a $200-million adaptation of stories written to entertain ten-year-olds in 1965, if not having fun? So many of the summer blockbusters have become relentlessly somber that it’s a relief to find a blockbuster with some levity and humanity. It’s still loaded with action, and overloaded with plot, but the movie’s primary function is to generate smiles without a lot of grimness and gore. It’s also much brighter than Webb’s last effort, more fluid and confident.
There’s plenty to nitpick. Webb is still zero out of three on villains, with nary a compelling antagonist to be found. The movie tips a little too far into silliness at times, as with not one but two superfluous mad-scientist characters, one played by The Office’s B.J. Novak and the other doing a nefarious German-accented shtick that would be right at home in a level-one improv class. As with the first Amazing Spider-Man, there’s so much concern with setting up subplots to play out across the sequels and establish a franchise that the movie never really gets to begin or end on its own terms. But overall, it’s big, shiny, popcorn-movie fun. Webb may not have gotten it perfect, but hopefully he nailed it well enough that we won’t have to do it all over again in seven more years.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.