The Marvel comic-book brand was defined with Stan Lee’s creation of Spider-Man. Whereas Batman and Superman were obsessed with, and defined by, their jobs, Spiderman (excuse me, Spider-Man) was a college kid (or is he in high school?) dealing with the typical problems of youth… he just also happens to be a crime-fighter on the side.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at its best when realizing this idea. In this version of the franchise, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) deals with his on-again-off-again romance with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, who is effervescent in the role). Meanwhile, he must hide his secret identity as Spider-Man while sharing an apartment with his Aunt May (Sally Fields). One flaw in the film—although this is a quibble—is that Peter and Gwen are supposed to just graduating high school, which would make them, what? Eighteen? But they seem at least a few years older than that.
Some of the scenes between these people are beautifully acted, more so than you’d expect for a comic-book franchise. The superhero gig, at times, seems not to distract from the problems of a typical youngster, but to shine a light on them… in the same way that The Godfather films were really about family, sibling rivalry and inheritance, just played out on a larger scale. In the case of Peter Parker, the problems of a kid arguing with his parent/guardian about laundry are enhanced by the fact that he has to wash his Spider-Man outfit himself or else give away his identity. “Give me that bag!” demands Sally Field as Aunt May. “There’s no reason I can’t wash your underwear!” “No,” Peter insists, “I’ll wash it myself!”
Then there’s that off-again-on-again romance. The problems are magnified by Peter’s knowledge that by having a girlfriend, he may be putting her in danger. We’ve seen that before, of course, but the scenes between these two leads, where they can’t help flirting with each other, are very well done.
All this is fine, but this is also a superhero movie, and such movies are only as good as their villains—the exception being Iron Man, in which Robert Downey Jr. is able through his wit and bravado to transcend the material. Andrew Garfield is just right as Peter Parker / Spider-Man, but he can’t save a movie weighed down by too many villains, too many CGI effects, and too many subplots.
A great villain is needed. The first two movies in the previous Spider-Man series (starring Tobey Maguire) were aided by Willem Defoe and Alfred Molina, respectively, as the Green Goblin and Doc Ock. But to my way of thinking, none of the films in the Marvel franchise – despite how much money they’ve made – can compete with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, or even some of the Superman films.
Does that mean DC is better than Marvel? Not necessarily, but those other films had great villains. In Amazing Spider-Man 2, there are several villains, but none of them are memorable. The main baddie is Electro, who is born when a nerdy Jamie Foxx falls into a tank and is bitten by an electric eel. Spider-Man once insulted him by forgetting his name, and so now Electro wants revenge. Glowing blue, and zapping people with lightning like Palpatine in Star Wars, Electro will short-circuit the entire power grid of New York City just to show how bad-ass he is. The scenario being played out here is the same one we see in nearly every comic-book film: someone falls into a vat of magical goo or gets zapped by radiation and… Viola!… they are transformed into the Villain of the Week!
The best villains, by far, are not the ones that are transformed by forces beyond their control but created by their own will. The greatest of them all, Heath Ledger’s Joker, may have suffered from his father carving up his face (we never learn for sure), but aside from that, his Joker persona is really self-created and self-defined. He’s the perfect opponent for Batman, because the Batman persona is equally a creation of Bruce Wayne. The psychological forces were in place long before the adversaries put on their costumes. The costume is merely an expression, a representation, of something much deeper and pre-existing. And so we get the Joker, a sociopath who decided one day not to play by anyone’s rules… and Tom Hardy’s Bane, a man so mistreated and abused in his early life that now he lives in Darkness—literally and spiritually—and is totally comfortable with it.
In this way, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the earlier Spider-Man flick – although still a creation of technology – is more convincing than the Green Goblin we see in Amazing Spider-Man 2… because with Dafoe’s characterization, the Green Goblin persona was more a logical extension to his obsessed billionaire industrialist. He was already walking along the Dark Side.
In the newer film, Dane DeHaan plays Harry Osborne, the doomed heir to the Oscorp fortune and Peter Parker’s best friend. The interactions between the two friends are interesting, but DeHaan’s transformation into the Green Goblin, after being injected with serum, is unconvincing. It’s like someone spray-painted his hair and put Halloween make-up on him. He appears for ten minutes in an action sequence, after which we then get a third super villain played by Paul Giamatti.
The action sequences are good, but after the introduction of a third villain, you’re liable to feel exhausted.
One redeeming feature is Andrew Garfield’s characterization of Peter Parker. Tobey Macguire was perfectly fine in the role, but Garfield is particularly good at playing the dissatisfaction of youth along with youthful insecurity, all with a sense of humor and good will. He’s got a hint of wit and sassiness that Macguire didn’t quite have. Garfield’s Peter Parker walks around with these traits despite the knowledge that he’s a superhero who saves lives on the weekend.