If your poster boasts of something ‘Amazing’, what you’re selling needs to be, at least, better than good. But so far, that’s the problem with Marc Webb’s Spider-Man franchise, embodied by Andrew Garfield as the sticky-fingered vigilante. He swings around New York like he owns the place – thinking he’s all that – when, actually, Tobey Maguire kicks his silk-spinning butt in the preceding franchise. Which by the way, hasn’t even reached the end of its shelf-life yet.
Fortunately, Garfield isn’t quite as cocky in this sequel as the story begins a gradual descent to a shadowy place, where the ghosts of Peter Parker’s past return to haunt him. A mute and moody Denis Leary keeps popping up from beyond the grave (gosh, the silence must have killed him!) to remind Parker that his onscreen daughter Gwen Stacy (a perky yet assertive Emma Stone) is in mortal danger, as long as he keeps hanging around her. Consequently, there’s a lot of push and pull between the couple with Parker fighting against his feelings.
At this stage, Parker is still a bit too brash, given to swooping Stacy up and smooching her in the middle of heavily populated areas. When he’s got the spandex on, he’s even more insufferable, swaggering about Manhattan like one of the Beegees in tight pyjamas. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx gets into one of those freak accidents that tend to happen in the Marvel universe – falling into a tank of electric eels and coming out with a frightening glow. Imagine one of the Blue Man Group after sticking his finger in a socket and you’ll get the idea. Really creepy.
Electro – as he now feels obliged to call himself – is bent on tapping into the grid and throwing New York into darkness. It’s fair to say he’s drunk on power after years of being ignored as a low-level employee at Oscorp. His first skirmish with Spider-Man under the bright lights of Times Square is a spectacle to behold and his handiness with a lightning bolt plants an itty bitty seed of doubt in the mind of our hero. But, the overriding sense is that Electro is just a minor distraction in the grand scheme of this franchise, which is building towards a climactic showdown between Spidey and his old pal and heir to a biomedical empire Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan).
DeHaan, previously seen in The Place Beyond the Pines, is the one part of the formula where this franchise has improved on the last. James Franco was okay – doing his ersatz James Dean in Sam Raimi’s films – but DeHaan has the edge; he burns with intensity, more quietly than his peers, giving a truer psychological picture of the slowly emerging villain. He is battling daddy issues (Chris Cooper in a short but stinging scene) and the prospect of an early death thanks to the genetic mutation he has inherited, which is slowly turning him green and goblin-like…
You feel Osborn’s pain and that’s important. That’s what Garfield, as Spider-Man, is lacking, along with humility. Tobey Maguire was a deeply vulnerable superhero, but Garfield comes off like a self-indulgent teenager, swinging from one mood to the next like so many skyscrapers on his daily commute. That’s only partly his fault because the writers have tried too hard to ‘reimagine’ the character as a chic geek skateboarder and therefore justify the decision to spin out a new franchise only five years after the last one. Fortunately, here, Parker begins the process of putting away childish things, including that skateboard.
As he delves into the mystery surrounding his own father’s death (Campbell Scott) and its implications for world peace, the weight of responsibility gradually brings him down to earth. Still, Webb could have done more to illustrate the trauma that gave rise to the wisecracking superhero façade and join the dots with Peter’s current crisis (one that means he might put away the Spidey suit for good). At the same time, there’s a lot of emotional to-and-froing between the characters that slows the pace, although the ongoing tussle with Electro supplies a much needed jolt whenever required. Also, Webb sets the stage for what’s to come with a suitably high-octane, high-stakes finale.
Ultimately, Webb may prove that some franchises get better as they go along, so think of this as the adolescent part, where Peter Parker is caught in that sticky place between being a boy and being a man – and maybe even, a truly ‘Amazing’ Spider-Man. We’ll have to wait and see.
The Amazing Spider-Man is in cinemas from April 16