Web-slinging superhero Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) a.k.a. The Amazing Spider-Man continues fighting crime on the streets of New York though with a guilty conscience as past events cause him to worry he is endangering devoted girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). While they struggle to repair their relationship an industrial accident transforms nerdy electrician Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the volt-spewing supervillain Electro. This sparks a series of events including the return of Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), ailing heir to the multi-billion dollar Oscorp empire, that come to threaten the entire city.
Although The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) established Andrew Garfield as a more than credible web-slinger an awkwardly rebooted narrative coupled with a sub-Christopher Nolan conspiracy back-story led more cynical Spidey fans to conclude Sony Pictures hastily made the movie to hang onto the screen rights. With the sequel returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci - veterans of Star Trek (2009) and Transformers (2007) - and Jeff Pinkner latch on to one of Marvel Comics' best known and most controversial storylines, whose title alone would lead us into spoiler territory. As with the first film the chief strength of Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the sparkling chemistry between Garfield and Stone. The filmmakers wisely ensure that the Peter-Gwen dynamic remains the emotional backbone, the prime source for much of the ensuing drama as it was in the original comic. Garfield remains a charismatic presence but one must single out the screenwriters and Stone for re-crafting Gwen Stacy, hitherto an engaging but one-dimensional victim on the printed page, into such a gutsy, outspoken and capable heroine. As the person that routinely inspires Garfield's boyishly ingratiating Peter Parker, Stone's Gwen more than proves her worth.
A suspenseful prologue once again evokes Nolan as a private jet plummets from the sky along the lines of the curtain-raiser to The Dark Knight Rises (2012) but this time around the labyrinthine mystery involving Peter's missing parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) is more deftly interwoven with the main narrative. Kurtzman, Orci and Pinkner craft an ambitious, occasionally awkward plot that involves three overlapping threads: the mystery of Peter's parents, the Peter-Gwen relationship and Spidey's battles with not only Foxx's Electro but Dane DeHaan (bringing his by now trademark squirmy intensity to tortured Harry Osborne) each of whom bring their own sub-plots. We also get a special guest turn from Paul Giamatti and Felicity Jones in a two-scene cameo as future Black Cat (and yet another Spidey love interest), Felicia Hardy. An unfortunate side-effect of these tonal shifts is that Jamie Foxx's broadly tragi-comic turn sometimes feels like it belongs in a different movie. He remains sympathetic although short-shrifted towards the finale.
It takes an hour for Webb and his writers to ensure every keenly honed element is in place but this stab at complexity remains laudable and the weightier drama pays off in a livelier second half. As a stylist Webb is no Sam Raimi but serves up vividly nightmarish origin sequences for each of the principal villains and executes the action sequences with considerable bravura. Spider-Man's Times Square face-off with Electro is especially well handled though the musical voices inside the villain's head are a misguided conceit. Garfield's Spider-Man tends to surf the skies more like Superman rather swing on webs (any size!) but the film features the welcome return of those winning Spidey one-liners and also Peter Parker, science whiz. Drawing relationships are where Webb really excels as a filmmaker. The various entanglements are strongly detailed, not just Peter and Gwen but his friendships with Harry and beloved Aunt May (Sally Field). Thematically Webb yokes interesting tension contrasting his movie's ebullient surface (vibrant comic book colours, romantic sparring, likeable jokes) with an underlining sense of unease with Peter haunted from the get-go by the dying words of Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary): "Leave Gwen out of this." Yet even as Peter inadvertently spawns his own lifelong adversaries the film details how Spider-Man proves a healing force for New York city, crucially through his gentle encouragement of a young bullied boy. It still falls to Gwen to deliver the keynote speech to her graduating class: "Fight for what matters to you."
Again to its credit the film avoids the Man of Steel (2013) trap and never forgets that a hero is defined by his willingness to risk his life to save others not blasting villains to smithereens. Staying largely true to the comic the climax is beautifully executed. Taken as a whole the film falls just a little short of the operatic impact of Raimi's superb Spider-Man 2 (2004) but with Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Alicia Keys on soundtrack duties this can boast the best theme song of any Spider-Man movie. And listen out for Peter's ring-tone.
Well, this was a bit more like it, a big improvement over the mediocre first instalment though I still felt the weighty relationships proved more stodgy and leadfooted than inspiring. When it gets into high gear, however, it's like a 1940s mad scientist movie remade with a blockbuster budget - three mad scientist movies combined in fact, nice to see Peter's aptitude with his lab skills brought so much into play.
Is Gwen's trip to Oxford the equivalent of the cop just days away from retirement in action thrillers? Anyway, it looks like we won't be seeing AS-M3 for a while now, if at all, which is a pity as it was finding its feet here.