Marc Webb's Silly "Spider-Man" Sequel Frequently Dazzles

Picture a group of Sony executives huddled around a conference table, each one an untapped stream of filmmaking prowess – in their own minds, at least. As they bandy about ideas for one of the studio’s few billion-dollar film franchises, one of the execs enthusiastically pipes up. “What if we make Peter Parker’s cell phone ringtone the old ‘Spider-Man’ theme song? Get it? You know, because he’s Spider-Man!” The man’s peers chuckle, nodding their heads in agreement. In the corner of the room, director Marc Webb (“500 Days Of Summer”) palms a Spider-Man stress ball, mentally ceding another battle not worth fighting. He squeezes harder still when another exec suggests that the pic’s villain whistle the “Jeopardy” theme song at a climactic point in the story – an impossibly dated pop culture reference that somehow makes its way from bad idea to something that actually happens in the final cut of the film.

Webb’s position is an unenviable one. Talented but inexperienced filmmaker gets handpicked to helm massive film series, ends up handcuffed in every way imaginable. This isn’t an uncommon proposition in Hollywood, but Sony’s – and accordingly, Webb’s – situation is a unique one. If Sony stops making Spider-Man films, the rights revert back to Marvel. More succinctly, the series’ continued financial success is an absolutely necessity, lest Sony drive its value into the ground and lose it for nothing. But it’s hard to grow the popularity of something already so popular, meaning that Sony can only hope to ride the wave as long as it lasts. This makes Webb’s “Spider-Man” gig an inimitably high pressure one, all while the studio’s money people peer over his shoulder, presumably micromanaging his every move. It was to the surprise of no one, then, that 2012’s Spidey reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” was safe. Adequate. Hard to dislike, impossible to love. Accordingly, the smart money was on more of the same from its obligatory sequel.

But “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” quickly makes it clear that it wants nothing to do with smarts, nor the legacy of its predecessor. It’s a spectacularly silly 150 minutes, playing like the work of a filmmaker with everything – and, paradoxically, nothing – to lose. Gone is the brooding, fitfully thoughtful hero of the 2012 film in favor of goofy, cartoonish theatrics and inexplicably campy asides. The pic’s loose plotting – courtesy of oft-maligned screenwriting duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann – is stitched together by remarkable visual pomp and an abundance of charismatic performances, making for an undeniably memorable summer moviegoing experience – one that’s sure to divide fans for years to come. Its pleasures are in its imperfections, its impact felt through its dizzying swings from peak to valley and back again, both its highs and lows unmatched in previous Spidey films.

Despite the story’s ultimate convolutions, it’s fairly straightforward. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is still in love with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), but the danger inherent in being Spider-Man – and the accompanying promise he made to Gwen’s late father to stay away from her – has prompted him to break up with her. Over and over again. As the two dance around the issue of their coupledom, a new supervillain literally rises from the ashes of an industrial accident at Oscorp Industries. Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) – electrical engineer, Spider-Man fanatic, and social pariah – is electrocuted on the job and, upon being left for dead, begins to glow an electric blue, effortlessly manipulating electricity on a massive scale. Concurrently, Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), head of Oscorp, is dying from a mysterious disease, leaving his son, Harry (Dane DeHaan), to deal with the prospect of a similar fate.

The chemistry between real-life couple Garfield and Stone is almost too easy, the kind of magnetism that the best actors in the world can’t fake. Whenever the story around them falls short, Webb reliably falls back on the spark between his two stars. It’s hard to tell if the couple’s work here is that good or if they simply enjoy each other and the material that much, but it doesn’t matter. They’re exquisite, providing their co-stars plenty of room to dabble in the kind of ridiculousness inherent in comic book movies. DeHaan in particular relishes some absurdly bad dialogue, while Foxx’s innate charm allows a criminally underwritten character to pop out of the screen.

Many of the film’s narrative developments are cursory – see Harry’s role as a lifelong but estranged and previously unmentioned best friend to Peter – but seemingly random, convenient happenings are commonplace in the comic book world. To criticize a Spidey film for its “comic book logic” would be pointless, and little of the film’s arbitrariness holds it back. However, Orci’s and Kurtzmann’s lazy scripting is a problem. In connecting all of the film’s main players through Oscorp, Webb’s vision of New York City is rendered irreparably small. Gwen and Max are Oscorp employees, Harry’s father owns the place, and Peter has a long history there, setting a weirdly small stage for a film with a thirst for hugely ambitious action set pieces.

Those set pieces, headlined by a stunning showdown between Spider-Man and Electro in Times Square, are some of the most kinetic in film history. The Times Square battle is a CGI-heavy blur of light and sound, but one that’s remarkably well staged and cleanly edited. Webb’s enormous talent for action becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on, with the pic’s most cartoonish moments coming through on style alone. Every penny of the $250 million budget is on screen, never leaving any doubt as to how much Sony has riding on the franchise. It’s a terrific looking film, making its narrative shortcomings that much more unfortunate.

Hans Zimmer’s score is just as memorable, going as far as mixing hokey incantations with dubstep cliches to shepherd along Electro’s underexplained transformation from Spider-Man groupie to arch enemy. The track is bizarre but inspired work, as is the composer’s attempt to finally give Spidey a proper orchestral theme. Seeing Zimmer’s usual half-baked approach cast aside in favor of broad, bold strokes is a surprise, but a welcome one, and with major input from hip-hop superstar Pharrell Williams and alt-hero Johnny Marr, the score perfectly captures the charmingly slapdash nature of the film.

In that way, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” might be the first of its kind – crowdsourced blockbuster filmmaking. It certainly plays like it. Movie stars, burgeoning actors, special effects wiz kids, dubiously talented screenwriters, a cavalcade of world-renowned musicians, and an army of Sony executives all corralled by an indie filmmaker, making for a uniquely esoteric patchwork of comic book clichés. Love it or hate it, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is compulsively watchable and ceaselessly fascinating, screaming out to be seen. For every entirely useless passage – e.g. everything involving the disappearance of Peter’s parents – there’s a moment that perfectly captures the snarky, playful Spider-Man of the comics. For every line delivery worthy of eye rolls, there’s a moment sure to quicken pulses.

The film may be too slick for its own good, overcorrecting the earnestness of Raimi’s series, but it never poses as anything other than sensory overload. It’s a confectionary creation that’s likely to drive kids wild, and plenty of adults, too. As an adult, I’ve rarely fallen victim to my inner 10 year-old, but “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” consistently broke down the critical barriers that I’ve honed throughout the years. It’s a sugar rush of a film and, quite simply, I liked what it did to my brain. It’s often not able to see past its own nose, content to exist forever in the moment, but it’s popcorn filmmaking in its purest form, and Marc Webb deserves all the credit in the world for making such a delectable cinematic cake from a line of incongruous ingredients. It’s a wonderful mess of a film – as lovably neurotic and unstable as the webslinger himself.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Also watch: “Speed Racer”

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Marc Webb
Screenwriter: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action/violence)