For all the kvetching about the needlessness of a cinematic Spider-Man reboot so close on the heels of Sam Raimi's polarizing trilogy, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man was promising. Very promising, in fact. It wandered off a bit once Spidey got down to the business of dispatching his first supervillain (Rhys Ifan's Lizard), but it laid the groundwork for what might have been a solid franchise.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn't exactly represent a nosedive, but it does place the budding series on a downward trajectory. The first installment worked better as a charming teen romance than as a superhero movie, and that problem is exacerbated now that Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) can't put on his socks without running into a super-powered lunatic who wants to smear him all over the streets of New York.
This time, Peter's primary would-be ticket puncher is Electro, a character who embodies one giant misstep after the other for Webb and a cadre of screenwriters that includes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the latter of whom, incidentally, is attached to direct Sony's upcoming Spidey spinoff Venom). Spider-Man first encounters Electro in the form of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a painfully lonely electrical engineer who develops an obsession with Spidey after the hero saves his life. Max works for Oscorp, an industrial conglomerate that specializes in driving people insane and endowing them with freakish super-powers. Max draws the Electro card when he accidentally falls into a tank full of super-eels and soon finds himself causing mayhem in Times Square, where he comes to the attention of his costumed idol.
If you thought Curt Connors/the Lizard was clumsily drawn in 2012, wait until you get a load of Electro. Foxx's character is off-putting from the get-go—and when I say "off-putting," I'm talking Schwarzenegger-as-Mr. Freeze bad. The character design is better than pre-release stills indicated, and Electro's ability to drain and redirect juice from New York's extensive power grid—which, in case you didn't know, is controlled by a single switch in the Oscorp Tower—makes for some genuinely memorable imagery. But the character, particularly pre-eel attack, is rendered in the kind of goofy strokes that make him better suited to harassing Power Rangers.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gets by almost entirely on the charms of the three young people at its center: Garfield as the gangly, insanely likable Peter, Emma Stone as whip-smart love interest Gwen Stacy, and series newcomer Dane DeHaan as Peter's best pal and nascent nemesis Harry Osborn. At nearly two and a half hours, there's plenty of time to develop the increasingly complicated romance between Peter, who has certain responsibilities thanks to his powers, and Gwen, who wants (and deserves) to be more than Spider-Man's lady. The moments they share are terrific; when the movie's charms wane, it's never for lack of chemistry between those two. DeHaan is also top-notch as the young Oscorp heir who slowly loses his marbles as he succumbs to the same genetic malfunction that killed his father. Harry thinks an infusion of Spider-Man's blood might save him, and enlists Peter to help "find" the costumed hero.
Webb really lets his roots show this time, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Before he turned to slinging out superhero films, he was best known as a maker of music videos; on the off-chance that you've seen a music video at all in the past few years, odds are good that he directed it. His only non-Spidey feature to date is 2009's (500) Days of Summer, in which Webb proved himself to be a canny observer of human foibles, particularly the kind that involve the opposite sex. So he clearly has the chops for both the visual razzle-dazzle and the human elements that make certain other Marvel films so successful. As a romance, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is really quite good. The action sequences are nicely staged, and the visual effects, though overwhelmingly digitized, are mostly excellent.
But with the exception of an early, playful scene that pits Peter against a criminal who will eventually become yet another supervillian, the film's many battles feel at once chaotic and empty. There's a jarring disconnect between the character-driven moments that make up the film's highlights and the hyper-frenetic hodgepodge it eventually becomes. By the time The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gets around to its third hero/villain showdown, so much has been thrown at the screen that nothing stands out, and it feels too much like what it is: a mechanical attempt to keep the Spidey ball in Sony's court so no one else can play with it.