Necessity is the mother of invention, which is why Marc Webb’s 2012 superhero do-over “The Amazing Spider-Man,” for all its polished proficiency and kicky star casting, felt so perfunctory: Rebooting the blockbuster Marvel franchise just five years after Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3,” it couldn’t claim to be a film anyone needed. The swiftly delivered “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” finds no solution to that redundancy, but it acrobatically spins enough sound and fury to distract from the issue, while the tinderbox chemistry between leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone delights once more. Continuing Peter Parker’s investigation of his shady family history while serving up a pair of villains — one more familiar than the other — for him to contend with, this bloated but enjoyable outing will pull in enough crowds to justify Sony’s reluctance to relinquish this heavily built-up creative property.
Perhaps one reason the studio preferred to return to the source, rather than issue a third sequel to Raimi’s series, is that Parker’s origin story is emotionally compelling in a way that can’t quite be repeated or sustained. The transformation of a shy, awkward teenager into an all-but-indomitable supernatural being, and the boyish joy and grave sense of purpose he finds in his newly acquired powers, form a richer, cleaner story arc than even the most narratively dense follow-up can provide. Raimi’s marvelous, benchmark-setting “Spider-Man 2” (2004) got around that by complicating the core romance and introducing a genuinely charismatic foe in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus.
Scripted by a team of four — including returning scribe James Vanderbilt on story duty, but not franchise mainstay Alvin Sargent — “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is less successful, despite a critical third-act development that upsets the reborn franchise’s apparent status quo. Though played again with wiry charm and a streak of goofy humor by Garfield, Parker enters and exits the film a hip, relentlessly resourceful crime-fighter — his gangly diffidence has been replaced by slick, in-action patter, and even his trendily quiffed hair stands a little taller — with little development in between.
His relationship with brainy, Oxford-bound g.f. Gwen Stacy (Stone), meanwhile, is here an on-again-off-again thing, burdened by the promise he made to her late father (Denis Leary) to leave her alone for safety’s sake — a concern that teasingly telegraphs a damsel-in-distress finale nearly from the get-go. His ongoing inquiry into his parents’ enigmatic death (the circumstances of which are depicted in a high-octane, mid-air prologue) uncovers little that attentive viewers wouldn’t have deduced from the first film, particularly given that the evil dealings of scientifically restless mega-corporation Oscorp are by now comfortably established.
With Gwen and Parker’s Aunt May (the ever-redoubtable Sally Field) both resiliently enduring psychological wounds from recent family deaths, carrying on regardless appears to be one of the story’s underlying emotional themes, as well as its commercial rationale. The film’s New York City, furthermore, appears bruised but not broken in the face of an uptick in criminal activity, triggered by the events of the previous pic, and increasingly reliant on the yet-to-be-unmasked Spider-Man to supplement the police force’s lawkeeping. This emphasis on the necessity of heroism in contemporary society is strongly reminiscent of the reactionary post-9/11 subtext of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films; indeed, this is a more Nolan-esque effort all around than its lighter, fleeter predecessor, down to the booming, house-infused score by Hans Zimmer (replacing the more traditional orchestral work of James Horner).
The most immediate threat to the Big Apple’s well-being arrives in the unlikely form of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nebbishy, Spidey-worshipping Oscorp employee who, following a lab accident involving a loose fuse and a gigantic tank of electric eels — just another day at the office at this particular company, in other words — mutates into the iridescent, spark-wielding monster Electro. He’s an elaborately conceived antagonist, though the naturally dynamic Foxx never seems comfortable with the workplace-wallflower characterization. After a high-voltage Times Square faceoff against our hero that represents the effects team’s flashiest coup, it emerges that he’s little more than a warm-up act for the more serpentine villainy of Dane DeHaan as Oscorp heir (and Parker’s childhood pal) Harry Osborn.
Reintroducing the Osborn character (played by James Franco in Raimi’s films) may seem another insecure move on the part of writers already short on fresh ideas, but it’s a tidily scripted return, and one that DeHaan’s louche, faintly lascivious performance makes worthwhile. His facial and vocal mannerisms more evocative than ever of the younger Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor plays Osborn with much the same beautiful-but-damned slyness he brought to Lucien Carr in “Kill Your Darlings”; the promise of his continued presence is the chief reason to anticipate the already-scheduled “Amazing Spider-Man 3.”
The clutter of opposition in the script puts the Parker-Stacy romance on the backburner for much of the middle section, which is where editor Pietro Scalia — in unusually choppy form, particularly in the fight sequences — could have pruned this 141-minute film most liberally. Garfield and Stone continue to make a winning, plausibly playful screen couple, though the latter’s role is disappointingly curtailed until a finale that encouragingly places her in the thick of the action, only to penalize the character for her feminine pluck. Women, as ever, come up short in Hollywood’s version of the Marvel universe: The gifted Felicity Jones is handed little more than a bit part as Osborn’s slinky assistant.
Electro may prove a secondary villain, though he’s the character who most appears to have informed the film’s aesthetic. Taking over from John Schwartzman, d.p. Daniel Mindel introduces a more radioactively luminous palette to proceedings — one of several ways in which Webb has dropped many of the real-world affectations of the first film (gone is Parker’s skateboard, though he still has a “Dogtown and Z-Boys” poster on his wall) in favor of a more high-key comicbook story world. Effects work is brasher and more crunchily metallic than in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” though the use of 3D remains pleasingly restrained.
Zimmer’s aforementioned score has been produced in collaboration with a bespoke collective, the Magnificent Six, that includes ubiquitous hitmaker Pharrell Williams; electronic flourishes abound, though the film remains sonically unsurprising. Tellingly, when Webb decides to introduce a little acoustic earnestness to the soundtrack, it’s with a guitar ballad from “American Idol” champ Phillip Phillips; it may name Oscorp the enemy, but this franchise remains corporate to the core.