To begin a review by saying Hollywood is out of ideas is a sign that a reviewer is out of ideas. It also happens to be technically incorrect. If The Amazing Spider-Man 2 proves anything, it is that Hollywood does have one very powerful idea, and is consciously engaged in turning that idea into reality, i.e. money. The film industry, or at least its summer-superhero-blockbuster wing, is intent on making essentially the same movie over and over again. Far from being timid or uncreative, there is something brash and bold about such shamelessness. To attribute it to laziness is to miss the point entirely.
In better, simpler times, Hollywood traded in formulas. Take the James Bond series. The Bond films would start with a big action scene, fade into sexy titles, follow-up with Bond getting the latest information about his mission, and continue by introducing 007 to the villain, whom Bond would normally beat at some sort of sport or game. Viewers might have found this tiresome, but the opening action scene was almost always fresh and new, and the game Bond would play with the villain (baccarat, golf, etc.) would change from one film to the next.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not a new approach to the same old formula: no, it is basically a remake of other recent and derivative films. The dialogue is carpentered from previous movies. The action scenes are almost shot-for-shot retreads. The characters go through precisely the same motions, or trace the same “arcs.” This is plagiarism, not filmmaking.
This Spider-Man was directed, like its predecessor (which came out only several years after Sam Raimi’s trilogy), by Marc Webb, who also made the low-budget, critically acclaimed (500) Days of Summer. The decision to take an artier director and hand him the keys to a billion-dollar franchise ostensibly has something to recommend it. (Christopher Nolan managed to make one-and-a-half terrific Batman films before sputtering out in the middle of The Dark Knight.) The problem, I would guess, is that when multinational corporations get into the business of making giant films with giant budgets, there are so many “creative voices” (which must go all the way to the top of the corporation) that all hints of originality or life manage to evaporate. This merely begs the question of why Webb is directing this series. The studio might as well do what the Bond films did and hire pros who could at least direct action scenes with some flair. (Zack Snyder, in his Superman reboot, managed to bring all of Nolan’s philosophizing without any of his style or ability to shoot chaos and violence.)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 begins with a conventional chase scene (which does have the benefit of a non-conventional, embarrassingly horrible Paul Giamatti performance) before returning to the love story between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Into this mix are thrown two villains, namely Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a pathetic employee of the big Oscorp company who, after some laboratory problems, turns into the super-villain Electro. (How do you establish that someone is a loser? Well, in the character’s opening scene, you have him say, apropos of nothing in particular, “I am a nobody.”) Foxx is neither good nor bad in this dreadful role, but the Electro makeup/effects are simply unpleasant to look at.
Peter Parker, meanwhile, is not just forced to battle Electro, who eventually emerges in a technically proficient, overlong scene in Times Square. He also has to try and maintain his relationship with Gwen, and offer support to his dead-broke aunt, played by Sally Field. Parker/Spider-Man, you see, is such a decent and kind soul that he has found no way to financially support the aunt who raised him, even though he has superpowers. Did he never consider, I don’t know, taking a few thousand dollars from the drug dealers he regularly foils? (Garfield isn’t a bad actor but his goofiness here is so mannered and overdone that the character provides absolutely no rooting interest.)
The plot makes the (same) mistake that earlier films in the series have made by introducing a second villain, played atrociously by Dane DeHaan. Not only is he a poor reprise of the James Franco character in the earlier round of Spider-Man movies, but his relationship with Parker makes no sense as presented. Pretty soon Gwen is being chased around her office after inspecting forbidden documents (helpfully saved by the villains in a folder labeled “secret projects”).
As you might have predicted, the film is another in a long line of superhero movies that presents its audience with bogus moral dilemmas and high-school-philosophy-level discussions on good and evil. “People will say I am a monster,” one character intones gravely, before presenting some dastardly scheme or another. Hold it right there. How many films have you seen with essentially this same line in the past five years? It’s followed up when another character states, as if for the first time, “Maybe everyone has a part of themselves they hide even from the people they love.” The characters began to remind me of figures from a Graham Greene novel—men and women who force themselves to feel guilt and shame because of phony and contrived moral dilemmas.
The final action scene does not merely have Spider-Man trying to rescue his love interest. It also...sorry, I just can't say any more. Every single reader knows exactly what they are in for. (One tidbit: Garfield is forced to tell the villain that, yes, “This is between you and me. Let her go.”) By the end of the film, which runs over two hours, the audience is likely to feel some combination of boredom and anger. (The latter arising from arguably the worst montage in film history, set to ‘Gone, Gone, Gone.’)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t have The Dark Knight’s powerful atmospherics or Iron Man’s sense of humor. It would of course be too much to expect that this half-baked product could plagiarize those things. If the movie were a little better I might suggest watching it once it comes out on video. But even that doesn't really make sense. There have been four Spider-Man films in the past 15 years and they are already on video. You might as well just watch them.