In some ways, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the Man of Steel of 2014: a highly anticipated summer blockbuster that ultimately got a mixed critical reception, despite the existence of a sizable core fanbase singing its praises. The difference between the two is that while I was one of Man of Steel‘s detractors, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has me mostly in its camp.
I started my last superhero movie review by admitting that Captain America was far from my favourite superhero. This time, however, I will begin by noting that Spider-Man is far and away my favourite Marvel character—and, after Batman, my second-favourite comic book character of all time. And it so happens that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was rife with moments that seemed tailor-made to appeal to a Spidey fan like me. So while it had some noteworthy flaws as a film, I found that it ultimately succeeded both in terms of sheer entertainment value and in providing the best live-action adaptation of the Spider-Man character to date.
Before I dive into what I enjoyed about the movie, I want to get the film’s weaker elements out of the way: most prominently the clutter and tonal inconsistencies.
For a movie that’s a bit over two hours long, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had too much going on. There were simply too many threads running concurrently: Peter and Gwen’s relationship, Peter and Aunt May’s relationship, the continuing and frankly needless mystery of Peter’s parents, the introduction of Max Dillon and his transformation into Electro, and the introduction of Harry Osborn as well as his entire plot thread, which among other things included establishing his friendship with Peter despite not being present before, as well as his relationship with his father Norman. That’s not to mention the minor appearance of Rhino and the obligatory seeds to set up the Sinister Six. I don’t care what movie you are, that is a lot to juggle, and the film feels a bit overstuffed as a result. I enjoyed most of these subplots, but the problem is that they were competing for attention, which resulted in none of them getting enough.
Which brings me to my next, somewhat related point: the movie is tonally uneven. This is a consequence of all the clutter, but it’s one of the things that plagued the first Amazing Spider-Man film as well, which wavered between “gritty and realistic” (oh boy) sequences, personal and heartfelt moments like those with Peter and his family or with Gwen, and campy, over-the-top scenes with the Lizard. In the sequel, it’s again the shift from real and very human scenes that tug at all the right heartstrings, to dazzling and elaborate action sequences, all the way to some cartoony scenes, especially those involving Electro. It sometimes felt like they were each written by a different writer.
Despite this, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 won me over. From the very first action sequence that opened the movie, with Spider-Man swinging through New York, chasing down armed robbers, firing even more quips than webs, using his powers in more and more creative ways, and, most importantly, saving several civilians along the way, I knew there was no way I could dislike this film. That sequence alone exemplified everything I could ever want in a Spider-Man adaptation.
One of the things that make Spider-Man so iconic is his uniqueness as an everyday sort of hero. He’s not the godlike being that Superman is, nor is he a confident and intimidating brawler like Batman. His antics in this opening chase sequence wavered between casual, joke-throwing ease on one hand, and an agitated, Jackie Chan-like bumbling on the other. There aren’t any other heroes who behave quite like this, and boy is it fun to watch.Another aspect of Spider-Man’s ‘everyday man’ brand of heroism is his kindness and caring. Compare, for instance, the number of times Spider-Man went out of his way to save random civilians in jeopardy in the middle of this chase alone, or how he even helped out a kid being bullied at one point, to how Man of Steel‘s Superman smashed through buildings seemingly with no regard for how much damage he caused in his battle against Zod. Man of Steel tried hard to sell Superman as humanity’s saviour, but out of the two of them, Spider-Man is the one who felt like a true hero to me.
Truly though, the highlight of the entire movie for me—just as in the first movie—was Peter and Gwen’s relationship. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have such great chemistry together, and they play so well off each other, both in the lighthearted scenes and the emotionally charged ones. They had me totally engrossed and rooting for them from start to finish, which is something I can’t say for Peter and MJ’s romance in the original Sam Raimi trilogy, great as those films mostly were. It also helped that Gwen Stacy herself was a great, enjoyable character. A good chunk of that was thanks to the talented and very likable Emma Stone, but credit also goes to the fact that Gwen was not a run-of-the-mill action movie love interest; she was a strong character in her own right, with a refreshing degree of agency. But more on that later.
Let’s talk about Dane DeHaan, who was really good as Harry Osborn. Anyone who’s seen him in Chronicle can attest to DeHaan’s talent, but I really enjoyed his performance in this movie. In fact, Harry’s role was great for the most part, in my opinion, with a few weaknesses. For instance, his introduction maybe should have taken place in the first movie, because the sequel didn’t have enough room to adequately set him up as a long-time friend of Peter’s, and, despite a few attempts, we kind of had to take the script’s word for it. In that regard, the James Franco iteration of Harry has the upper hand, in that his downfall feels more earned because we saw his friendship with Peter properly. Another flaw in his character arc is also caused by the clutter, in that his endgame was fairly rushed and not nearly as fleshed out as it should have been. Despite all that, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of screen time and attention Harry got, and DeHaan really should get a lot of credit for selling the character, and carrying the weight of Harry’s arc, flaws and all, on his shoulders.
In hindsight, I really wish the movie had the guts to drop Electro altogether and focus solely on Peter, Gwen, and Harry, because those three were easily the strongest elements in the film. Of course, that would have gotten rid of the bulk of the action scenes, which is a risky move, though I’m convinced the other plot threads were strong enough to carry the movie alone, especially since they could have used the extra screen time to flesh out properly. On the other hand, I must admit that the fight scenes with Electro were really good, so I’m a bit conflicted and hesitant to let them go. The scene in Times Square in which Electro first unleashes his powers was especially good.
I focused on the positives of this film because I really enjoyed it as a fan, but from a more objective standpoint, its notable flaws (the clutter, the cheesy Electro scene, and the needless elaborate subplot with Peter’s father) are quite prevalent and they do drag it down. I don’t think it will remain as fun to watch upon repeat viewings. I would have liked to give it a 3.5, but once the excitement dies down, I believe a 3 would be more fair.
Rating: 3/5 (Passable)
Final warning! If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now, because the rest of this post contains spoilers!
OK, enough stalling; let’s get right to it. How amazing was Gwen Stacy’s death scene? I think anyone familiar enough with the comics knew that Gwen had to die at some point, preferably at the hands of the Green Goblin. And as soon as Harry showed up on the glider, laughing maniacally, I tensed up, knowing it was coming. Heck, she was even wearing the same clothes that her comic book self was in Amazing Spider-Man #121. And the film kept me on edge the entire time. Goblin dropped her. But Peter caught her. But then she slipped again. And again Peter caught her with his web. And throughout the whole battle between Spider-Man and the Goblin, she hung on for dear life as the scene teased us and teased us until, finally, the web snapped, and she fell. Silence, except for her gasp. She fell slowly, and Peter fired a web that raced with gravity in an attempt to catch her. It extended, in slow-motion, the tip forming the shape of a desperate hand, reaching, narrowly avoiding so much debris that almost blocked its path, as if to give us hope. And he actually caught her—but it was too late. The split-second relief we felt when the web connected instantly vanished as her body viciously bounced against the floor and hung lifeless in the air.
I totally lost myself in the description, but that scene was near-perfect. To me, it captured all of the right emotions, everything people must have felt reading that issue of the comics many decades ago. And it hit extra hard because both movies had so successfully sold us the Gwen and Peter relationship, and made us like Gwen so much, before ripping it all away. She was such a real character, and their relationship rang so true. Say what you will about this reboot, but they earned that death scene.
Let’s talk some more about Gwen. I have to say, I loved how strong a character she was in this film, especially compared to her comic book counterpart. They could have easily gone down that route, having her be nothing more than a love interest whose primary role is to die and provide angst-fuel for Peter. Instead, she took an active role in the film’s climax, not only volunteering—or rather, vehemently insisting—to be part of it, but actually managing to successfully help Spidey save the day, which he couldn’t have done without her. Some would argue that just the very notion of killing her off, especially when she was such a promising character, is a case of “women in refrigerators”, a name given to the tendency of comics to disable or kill female characters just to make the male ones feel bad. I would say that Gwen’s death in the comics was definitely a case of that, but perhaps was too iconic to leave out of the films. But I’m glad they at least made her as strong a character as possible before her death.
Others would argue that having her insist on being involved relieves Peter from some of the guilt for her death, which is a defining character trait in the comics, but I think that’s a worthwhile trade-off. Too often in these sorts of movies do love interests exist only as an extension of the main character, victims to their every whim. Not so in this film. Yes, her father had made Peter promise to break up with her, but she is her own person, capable of making her own choices without being beholden to her boyfriend and her father’s wishes, and I loved that. When Peter was feeling angsty, it was Gwen who took charge and said, “I break up with you.” When Peter was giving her the stay-away-it’s-too-dangerous speech, she berated him for even suggesting it. Heck, she was going to Oxford, and it was Peter who wanted to follow her. Her strength and her agency played a major role in why I liked her so much, and I’m glad that her death was also partially on her. After all, Gwen is a person, not just a plot device.
The only thing I didn’t like about her death was, sadly, yet another result of the film’s overstuffed runtime: I wish the scenes after her death were longer. I liked the 5-month jump cuts when Peter was standing at her gravestone, and the fact that he almost gave up being Spider-Man until the Rhino returned. That was a great final scene. But I would have liked it even more if we had spent more time processing Gwen’s death and, more importantly, Peter’s absence as Spider-Man, which would have made his return more impactful. I’m yet again reminded of Spider-Man 2, in which Peter lost his powers for a good chunk of the movie, and how awesome it was when he regained them. Still, I appreciate what they tried to do.
Another victim of the clutter in this film is the Green Goblin. Now I’ve been a fan of Norman Osborn ever since I saw Willem Dafoe’s portrayal in Sam Raimi’s trilogy. That being said, I totally understand why they chose not to have him be the Goblin and gave that role to Harry right away, and I support it even more thanks to Dane DeHaan’s performance. And I really liked how they portrayed Norman in this film—not insane, but villainous, and responsible for pretty much everything in this film series, thanks to his ongoing attempts to save himself from dying. He may not have hopped on the glider and fought Spider-Man, but he definitely was the man behind the curtain, and that was great. What was also great was Harry’s character arc, but my only regret is that his final transformation into the Green Goblin and the subsequent scenes were a bit rushed. The Goblin is Spider-Man’s ultimate nemesis, and I wish he’d gotten a bit more. My hopes are high for his role in the sequels.
- The clock struck 1:21 after Gwen’s death. Amazing Spider-Man #121 is the issue in which she died in the comics.
- Spider-Man first defeated Electro using a fire hose, just like their first encounter in the comics.
- There were many namedrops in this film. The Felicity Jones character to whom Harry takes a liking is Felicia Hardy, a.k.a. Black Cat. B. J. Novak plays Max’s Oscorp boss, Alistair Smythe, another major villain. Ravencroft Institute also takes its name from the comics.
- We also got cameos of Doc Ock’s tentacles and Vulture’s wings. No surprise, since Sinister Six is coming up.
- Speaking of cameos and namedrops, J. Jonah Jameson! Peter being a photographer for the Daily Bugle isn’t elaborated on, sadly—the movie had enough going on as it is—but it was really cool to have Jonah’s trademark stinginess mentioned and to see the email exchange between him and Peter (“WRONG!”). I hope we get to actually see Jolly Jonah soon—preferably again played by J. K. Simmons.
- The “you’re my boy” exchange between Peter and Aunt May was a perfect example of how human this film felt at times, as I mentioned earlier. It was a touching and heartfelt scene, and Sally Field was great in it.
- Slow-motion scenes are usually hit or miss, but in this film they gave the action scenes a comic book-like panel-to-panel feel, which felt appropriate.
- Spider-Man’s ringtone is the theme from the old animated series, because of course it it.
- Speaking of music, during the climactic battle with Electro, the power conduits play The Itsy Bitsy Spider, prompting Peter to grumble, “I hate that song!” Thought that was funny.