The second chapter is always the most crucial one to nail in any blockbuster franchise. After all, the first tends to be so loaded down with obligatory backstory or, in the case of superhero movies, their origins. There’s hardly any room to hint at the bigger picture, where the whole thing is headed. Part two is like a pivotal second date, where a director can stretch out and show his or her intentions. Sometimes this means revealing deeper, darker layers like The Empire Strikes Back; or sometimes it exposes the muddled confusion at the heart of the endeavor like The Matrix Reloaded.
In other words, there’s a lot riding on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not just commercially (although there is that) but also as a signpost of what lies ahead. Thankfully, director Marc Webb‘s dizzy, slickly enjoyable sequel gets a ton right. It’s a Marvel Comics spectacle that manages to deftly balance razzle-dazzle, feel-it-in-your-gut slingshot moments of flight and believable human relationships. There’s psychological weight to go with all of the gravity-defying, web-slinging weightlessness.
After kicking off with an action-packed flashback that shows Peter Parker’s late father (Campbell Scott) and mother (Embeth Davidtz) on the run from Oscorp heavies and meeting their fate, Webb picks up where he left off at the end of the first movie. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) are a couple as adorable as a box of kittens, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is dead, and Peter is moonlighting as a jokey, quippy crime fighter in red-and-blue arachnid spandex (some might say a bit too jokey and quippy). Following a face-off against a Russian thug (Paul Giamatti), Peter grapples with a promise he made to Gwen’s dad (Denis Leary) to protect her by leaving her alone. Of course, we know the chemistry between these two won’t let any breakup stick, so they spend a lot of time in a flirty, will-they-or-won’t-they dance straight out of a Cheers episode. Meanwhile, Spidey saves nerdy, mentally unhinged Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) from going splat under a taxi, and Max becomes obsessed with him. In the Marvel universe, this is what passes as ”foreshadowing.”
Soon enough, after a freak accident at Oscorp, Max transforms into a recluse-turned-power-conductor named Electro, who’s like a high-voltage cross between The King of Comedy‘s stalker Rupert Pupkin and Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. Because one or two baddies aren’t enough, there’s also Peter’s boyhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) which sets the table for a third-act battle-royal climax. And this is where the overstuffed, sequel-setting film goes a bit pear-shaped and dips into a wide variety of subplots, and never comes together as a story. While it’s always a blast seeing comic-book heroes and bad guys square off in an F/X smack down, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t know when to end. The busy finale or rather, finales — keeps coming until you want to blow a whistle and call it a draw just to make it stop. It’s a minor beef for an otherwise really fun movie, but hopefully Webb will learn that less is often more before swinging into action on Spidey 3.