Since 2002, the year Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man hit theaters, the other Spider-Man, the hero of the actual comic books, has joined the Avengers, revealed his secret identity to the world, and become a highly paid inventor who has engineered, among other marvels, a limitless energy source science has dubbed “Parker Particles.” He’s met President Obama, traveled through time, and adventured with his counter-earth alter-ego, a teenager of Latino and African-American descent. He’s built Spider-Armor and a half-dozen new costumes; he’s seen every single person in Manhattan develop spider powers at the same time, and endured flat-topped sumbitch newsman J. Jonah Jameson’s election as the mayor of New York. (That happened while Spidey was larking about the Negative Zone with the Fantastic Four.) For the last 30 issues of Superior Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s body and life have been taken over by the consciousness of Doctor Octopus, who, while wreaking consummate havoc, found time to earn Parker a Ph.D. and fall in love with a comely dwarf.
Movie Spider-Man, meanwhile, is still stuck solving the mystery of how he got his powers. Already as swollen as the liver of a foie-gras goose, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 devotes some 25 minutes to Peter Parker discovering the secret history behind the science-magic spider bite that made him Amazing. “His greatest battle begins” promise the posters for this installment, which perfectly illustrates the problem: five movies in 12 years, and he’s still beginning. The clever, inventive, ridiculous variations that comic-book writer Dan Slott pulls off in print each month seem impossible for Sony’s big-screen take on the character. Here again he learns that those he loves most are in danger, and that with great power comes you-know-what, all while his rich-boy pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) struggles with the troubled inheritances — madness and Oscorp — that you may remember from Spider-Man 3, just two movies ago. It’s not the greatest story ever told, but it feels like the most-est. Couldn’t we just get to that greatest battle now? And then, in this sequel’s sequel, aim for an even better one?
So, this Spider-Man does whatever a Spider-Man’s done before — and during the cluttered, confusing, back-to-back climactic villain fights, he just does whatever. As he and its-complicated girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) manipulate New York City’s power grid to somehow bring down Electro (Jamie Foxx) , the movie leaves it to you to figure out what’s going on.
Still, not all is lost in this latest Spider-Man rebuilding year. The movie improves in most ways on its predecessor, whose most interesting feature was the gulf that yawned between the gawky effervescence of the character scenes and the drab and mechanical sequences whipped up by the pre-vizualization crew: Watching it was like alternating sips of a crisp Riesling with chugs of Mountain Dew. This time, that crispness — the teenage joy of life ahead offering nothing but possibility — edges much more of the web-slinging, especially in the film’s first third. Webb and Garfield give us a quipping Spider-Goof, a hero who’s more a Bugs Bunny trickster than a grim ass-kicker. In a welcome corrective to Man of Steel, this Spider-Man’s always risking defeat in battle to save strangers’ lives, and he even takes the time to fix a bullied kid’s science project and offer some buck-up encouragement.
His love life has brightened, too. While they continue their maybe/maybe-not romance, Peter and Gwen aren’t mopey and inscrutable, as Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were. Instead, they twitch and blush, joking about how achingly hot they are for each other even as they try to will themselves apart. These two feel so much at once that all the emotion bunches up in their faces, like they’re about to sneeze; both then take turns bending over, expelling a raw giggle, sneaking a frisky glance at the other. It’s like the most crushed-out moments of first-rate indie romances The Spectacular Now or Webb’s own (500) Days of Summer but woven, with some emotional coherence, into a movie where a lightning-coughing Jamie Foxx kablooeys Times Square in an emo rage.
Of the three supervillains who turn up, Foxx’s makes the least sense: He’s an angry “nobody” — the movie’s word — whose plans for a citywide power grid were stolen by Oscorp, his employer. (Why the company wouldn’t encourage so gifted an engineer is the rare mystery that the script doesn’t over-explicate.) He carps that nobody in the world “sees” him, but instead of writing Invisible Man, he rampages after gaining ill-defined electricity powers from one of those high-tech cock-ups that should make scientific experimentation illegal in Spider-Man’s Manhattan. His entire motivation seems to be getting people to notice him, which he doesn’t quite pull off: A week after seeing the movie, you probably won’t remember him.
Eventually, the sparkling lightness of the first hour darkens. Then the movie bloats up with mysteries and emotional crises, few of which develop with much power. In the long, sagging middle, there’s no urgency connecting one sequence to the next, although the actors manage some grace notes — savor DeHaan’s Harry Osborn turning from nice friend of Peter Parker to a wolfish loon demanding Spider-Man donate him some blood. Never a disaster but only fitfully inspired, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t quite end well, but it does end promisingly, with hints of a huge supervillain team-up to come. The next one probably won’t be his greatest battle. It probably won’t even be as good as Garfield’s scenes without the mask. But at least it will be something new. If the last minutes of this had been what 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man had started with, Movie Spidey might be getting somewhere by now.