There’s an early scene in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” in which Electro, still discovering his electrical superpowers, accidentally causes a disaster in Times Square. Web slinging superhero Spider-Man tries to defuse the situation by talking to Electro, who explains that he doesn’t understand what’s happening to himself, that he needs help. Both of these dynamic super-powers are on the same side.
The nervous Electro suddenly twitches at a surge of energy, and a police sniper takes the shot. It’s a cavalcade of misunderstandings that – at a moment’s notice – turn a good person into a villain. Electro reacts to protect himself, and Spider-Man has to save bystanders who are in the way. Suddenly those Times Square billboards that were zooming in on Electro’s face are zooming in on Spider-Man’s. Electro sees them. Where there wasn’t a fight before, where Spider-Man and Electro were on the same page in a tense situation, suddenly they’re presented in the media capital of the world as opponents. A serious event where lives are at stake has suddenly become a carnival, a conflict imagined from thin air. It’s no mistake that the African-American actor who plays Electro, Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, is dressed in a hoodie for this scene.
Spider-Man still tries to talk with Electro, to calm the situation down before more people get hurt, but when you tell two people they’re in a fight for their lives, the one with less power is likely to believe you. Very few movies can so elegantly teach how national news media gets us to tune in, click links, and get angry about imagined conflicts – between race, religion, and even entire countries. Enough public pressure, and sometimes those imagined conflicts even become real.
It’s a powerful statement in a surprisingly sophisticated superhero movie, and it works because the film is always finding new ways to capture your attention. Spidey’s crime-fighting antics and soaring journeys through the New York City skyline are realized as beautifully as they’ve ever been. The fights are pumped up to cartoonish levels of color and acrobatics, yet they’re always anchored by a sense of what’s at stake.
While “Amazing Spider-Man” can deliver stupendous action and smart social metaphors, it doesn’t seem interested in a complex overall story – evil characters become evil because you know they’re going to, not because they’ve taken every step on the path to get there. While the movie’s capable of delivering captivating and emotional individual scenes, you could take those scenes and rearrange them and it wouldn’t make much difference to the plot. This would be far more glaring a flaw if it weren’t for the movie’s beating heart – the complicated relationship between Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone.)
That relationship works because actor Andrew Garfield’s superhero is so different from Tobey Maguire’s reserved, socially awkward Spider-Man of a decade ago. Garfield’s Spidey is a class clown. He’s more emotionally raw, and his quick wit is only abrasive until you realize what a defense mechanism it is. Gwen is much more central to the plot than most superhero girlfriends get to be. In a twist on conventional superhero roles, it’s Spider-Man who’s faced with uprooting his life and following Gwen as she pursues her career. It’s nice to see a superhero plot that acknowledges this modern reality.
In the end, this entry is a structural mess, disjointed and uneven. It’s also a stylistic success, brimming with color and ideas and barreling ahead with tremendous energy. There’s one more lesson here, most consistently voiced by Spider-Man’s Aunt May, who raised him. She’s played by Sally Field, who can make any character feel so real you think you’ll see them leaving the theater afterward. The message is that, in difficult times, it’s not enough to just keep up hope. We need to exemplify that hope through action, by helping the smallest and weakest among us, by giving them hope. Spider-Man, Electro, and Green Goblin are all disowned, bullied, and betrayed both by loved ones and the world around them. The difference is that one of them has an Aunt May. She’s the real hero of the piece, although “The Amazing Aunt May” probably wouldn’t draw so many crowds. We all get a chance to play that role for someone, though, to help create a hero for tomorrow instead of a villain, so we can have a world that talks before shots are fired, and that doesn’t make a carnival out of conflict.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action.