Superheroes have it rough these days. Even when they prevent a citywide cataclysm, save countless lives and dispatch psychopathic criminals, basically unharmed, into the hands of the proper authorities, they get flak for it, because they cost taxpayers some money by causing a new pothole in the street, or opening a fire hydrant. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight before him, the Spidey of Marc Webb’s "Amazing Spider-Man 2" franchise begins his second movie as a frenemy to crime-addled New York City, using his superhuman abilities to deter the crimes normal humans can’t, while suffering from bad p.r. in the process.
We’re a far less innocent time than in the 1940s and ‘50s, when most of these superheroes were introduced (Spider-Man’s origins date to the early ‘60s), and I guess we’re far too cynical to accept heroes like Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) on face value. Appropriately enough, his villains this time around also occupy a nebulous space, turning to dark forces only when dark forces ruins their lives: I’m speaking of Electro – played by a cast-against-type Jamie Foxx as a delusional, bullied, gap-toothed electrical engineer who gains the ability to control the power grid, and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne, the prodigal son of a corporate titan whose debilitating genetic disease, and the nefarious forces within the corporation he inherits, are out to kill him. These pitiful enemies are really anti-corporate crusaders protesting an even greater enemy, with their only flaw being their preference for violent action. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," with its layers of darkness seething under a pop-cinema varnish, is all about the blurry distinctions between good guys and bad guys.
It’s also a heartbreaking romance. Webb, who directed the fey hipster anthem "(500) Days of Summer" before signing on to the Spidey franchise, knows a thing or two about bumbling teenage angst. About couples whose love can’t seem to overcome the intangible problems of their brains and their circumstances. About the “It’s Complicated” relationship status. It’s worth noting that Webb also gets the small things right, in terms of a production design that relates to Peter; a copy of Infinite Jest sits by his computer, and a poster for Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” lines one of his bedroom walls, along with posters of bands like The Ramones and DIIV; with tastes like that, if Peter Parker were real, I’d like to hang out with the guy.
Anyway, while he’s busy fighting crime, graduating from high school, snapping freelance photographs for the local paper, still trying to solve the mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance and, perhaps most importantly, keeping his secret identity from his caretaker, Aunt May (Sally Field), Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) assess, re-assess, nearly terminate and nearly consummate their relationship, and their squabbles become the fickle heart of the film. More so than you want to see Spider-Man send the evildoers back to where they came from, you want to see these two make it, and Garfield and Stone’s earnest, engaging performances go a long way toward selling the idea.
Then again, everybody cast in this film is pretty excellent, right down to a desiccated Chris Cooper as Oscorp’s dying founder to an almost unrecognizable Paul Giamatti as a Russian mobster whose brief appearances bookend the movie. And Sally Field brings poignant humanism to Aunt May. Together, this ensemble is of a higher pedigree than we’re accustomed to from superhero blockbusters.
Forgive the movie its rather presumptuous overlength at two hours and 22 minutes, the last 15 of which seem to be lifted from the inevitable "Amazing Spider-Man 3;" and some of its by-now tired themes, like the monolithic corporation genetically modifying humanity for its own self-interests. By and large, this sequel is every bit the equal of its predesecor. It respects the integrity of its series arc, even if it means depressing us from time and time, and it utilizes 3D photography to exciting effects and even poetic grace; the scenes of Spider-Man hurtling through the air feel like aerial ballets – a few precious moments of exhilarating freedom for the busiest, most put-upon hero in the five boroughs.