Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man,’ which made its debut in 2002, proved (along with Brian Singer’s ‘X-Men,’ released in 2000) that superhero movies could appeal to the mass market, provided they were done right. With or without his Spider-Man mask, Peter Parker (played in Raimi’s movie and its two sequels by Tobey Maguire) made for an appealing presence, earnest and kind-hearted even as he punched and trash-talked villains.
A few years after the debut of ‘Spider-Man,’ Christopher Nolan began his ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, and everything changed for the current iteration of superhero movies. Now Spider-Man’s earnestness seemed a bit passé, overshadowed by Christian Bale-as-Batman’s moral ambiguities and dour growl. With subsequent movies such as ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and the ‘Iron Man’ trilogy, the genre deepened still further, more willing to reflect—as Raimi’s Spider-Man never had—real-world issues such as terrorism, surveillance, and drones.
‘Spider-Man 3’ (2007) tried to get with the times by giving Maguire a black suit (courtesy of an alien symbiote) and a little bit of an attitude, an effort that pretty much everybody seems to view as a failure. As a character, Spider-Man needed to undergo a more careful revision—to become more nuanced and grounded, all without stripping the character of his agreeability. With ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012) and the new ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2,’ director Marc Webb attempts to strike that balance, and for the most part he succeeds. His Spider-Man, as played by Andrew Garfield, comes off as a little more street-savvy and a whole lot less emo than Maguire, even if he does shed tears at key moments.
‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ features Spider-Man squaring off against Electro (Jamie Foxx) as well as the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) and, briefly, the Rhino (Paul Giamatti). If you think that’s too many villains for a feature film, you’re right, although Webb manages to weave them into the plot with a bit more finesse than Raimi shoving a trio of wrongdoers into ‘Spider-Man 3’ (and at least the Green Goblin doesn't look like a Power Ranger this time around). Webb’s other thread is the romance between Parker and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), which benefits from chemistry between the two leads, although it’s ultimately eclipsed by the inevitable explosions, super-fights, and stunts. As Gwen, Stone gets the chance to play a role with a little more dramatic weight than the standard-issue damsel-in-distress, and late in the movie she gives a speech that virtually breaks the fourth wall to call out superhero movies on their tendency to reduce female characters to little more than eye candy... a speech that's interrupted within seconds by yet another super-powered brawl.
Webb tries to give his new movie some additional weight by making time a major theme. Characters mention they’re running out of it; the first shot zooms out from a micro-shot of a wristwatch’s gears; much later, the final battle takes place in a clock tower (and ends on a decidedly pessimistic note). In order to prevent the narrative from tumbling into a dour hole, Webb and Garfield try to give Parker some levity, whether he’s taunting a would-be super-villain with a bullhorn or engaging in a webbing-powered slapstick routine right out of Buster Keaton. “He’s releasing himself into the symbol that he’s created,” Garfield said in an interview. “He’s enjoying the hell out of it while he’s doing it.”
Spider-Man will never be dark like Nolan’s Batman—these movies have an obligation to be colorful and bombastic. But at least this new one gives the web-crawler some shading.