You'd think that super-hero movie makers would have learned some lessons from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3. Specifically, you'd have hoped that they'd have learned not to throw too many villains into one movie - especially if you have to cover the origin of all of them. As I stated in my review of the first Amazing Spider-Man, it was too soon to reboot the Spider-Man movie franchise. After Spider-Man 3, that franchise could have used a new cast (Tobey Macguire was starting to look flabby in the Spider-Man tights), but a complete reboot was unnecessary and premature. Andrew Garfield could have filled Tobey's shoes as an older, more mature, confident Peter Parker without the need to reboot the franchise and retell the origin story.
The first movie felt completely unnecessary and just didn't look or feel right. This movie is at least brighter and more colorful. It isn't visually as dull and washed-out as the previous movie. Garfield continues to excel in the role of Spider-Man with witty chit-chat, and the costume looks absolutely brilliant! He still doesn't sell himself as Peter Parker though, and his voice sounded muffled in his mask at some times, but if you could understand Bane, then you can follow along with Spider-Man.
So while it looks and sounds good, Amazing Spider-Man 2 just falls completely apart in its narrative.
The villains' motivations are laughable
Electro's motivation for being a villain basically boils down to: he wants revenge on Spider-Man because Spider-Man didn't come to his birthday party. There's some other stuff about people ignoring him and picking on him his entire life, and now people are finally paying attention to him, but they hate him for things that are not his fault. This could have worked really well if the entire movie had been about Max Dillon's slipping humanity. He would have been a great counterpoint to Spider-Man: both he and Peter Parker were nerdy nobodies who were social outcasts; and while Spider-Man was lead to a path of virtue by the wisdom of a loving uncle, Electro had no such positive role model and turned to a life of villainy. There could have been a solid and poignant message here about the value of positive role models and how two people with similar histories could follow different paths based on the influences of the people around them.
But no, we get a primary villain who is nothing more than a bottled-up temper tantrum.
I've heard some people defend the movie's dumb-as-a-doorknob writing by saying things along the lines of "But Electro was never a sophisticated villain to begin with" and "Electro was always a dull villain anyway." To which I respond: so what?
If the movie makers want to use a dull villain, then it is the responsibility of the writers (good writers, anyway) to make the villain interesting. To see how this is done, one should look no further than the the 1990's Batman: the Animated Series and it's episode "Heart of Ice".
An "unsophisticated villain" turned into quality dramatic material by the writers.
This episode included a revamp of the Batman villain Mr. Freeze, including a completely new backstory that changed the character from a boring bank robber with an ice gun into a tragic and sympathetic villain. This episode is brilliantly written, beautifully animated, and exceptionally well voice-acted. It tugged at the heart-strings of its audience, and it's popularity lead DC to retconn the origin story of the comic version of Mr. Freeze in order to be more consistent with this episode. This episode has been voted as the most popular episode of that entire series.
If the staff writers of a children's Saturday morning cartoon could successfully revamp such a character, then surely the "talented" screenwriting duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci should have no trouble doing the same for Electro. There is no excuse for buying into the "Electro is a boring villain anyway" defense that apologists are offering for this movie.
Sadly, the secondary villain - Harry Osborn - isn't much better. At least he has a more meaningful reason to dislike Spider-Man, but his whole arc feels contrived. He just shows up midway through the movie, so that he and Peter can talk about how they're old best pals from way back. Whatever. He suddenly develops a terminal illness (seemingly on a cue from his dying father), and Spider-Man refuses to help him with it, so he turns into a super villain so he can fight Spider-Man for all of two minutes before being buried under rubble and sent to the looney bin. Again, whatever. I felt like the only reason that he was in this movie was so that he could drop Gwen Stacy to her death.
Finally, Paul Giamatti makes a bit appearance as the tertiary villain, the Rhino. And he's just a gangster with no motivations given at all. His dialogue is also laughably bad, but this seems to be intentional ham from the actor and writers. This villain isn't meant to be taken seriously to begin with, and his only reason for being in the movie is to open and close Peter's character arc with action scenes.
So now I am forced into the thoroughly unpleasant position of citing Spider-Man 3 as a positive example: as bad as Spider-Man 3 ended up being, at least they managed to put together one compelling villain in the Sandman (along with a touching and visually-interesting transformation scene).
Good action; poor pacing
The action scenes were at least enjoyable to watch. The movie goes out of its way to show Spider-Man saving civilians and showing concern for the well-being of the general public. There are many slow-motion shots showing Spider-Man preventing civilians from suffering harm, even if it means that he has to disengage from the villain or risk injuring himself. The movie even shows scenes of Spider-Man manipulating controls on his webshooter in order to create different kinds of webs for different situations!
As a long-time Spider-Man fan, I really enjoyed seeing these action scenes in the movie because it's the first time that I've ever seen Spider-Man depicted in such a way in live action. The concern for the civilian population in this movie definitely puts the disaster porn of Man of Steel to shame!
At least it was better than the immoral destruction porn of Man of Steel.
In fact, once the stupid prologue scene was over, I was really enjoying the first 20 minutes of this movie! I actually started to think that this movie might turn out alright. I had the a similar feeling at the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness. This feeling did not last, and as soon as Max Dillon and Harry Osborn started getting significant screen time, the movie went down hill very rapidly.
From here on out, the movie suffers from severe pacing and tone issues. Dumb villains, campy action scenes, and comedic mushy romance are mixed in with serious adult topics such as: deaths of family and friends, corporate politics, international industrial espionage, complex relationship problems, and so on. But these different elements all feel so disjoint, like a collection of loose threads that the writers either didn't want to [or couldn't] figure out how to tie together beyond just putting them all on a timeline one after the other. You feel like you're watching four or five different movies running in parallel, and the only one that even remotely held my attention was the relationship drama between Peter and Gwen.
As I mentioned above, the villain subplots are horrible. There's also a subplot about Aunt May that goes nowhere and seems designed solely to give Sally Field some requisite contractual screen time.
Things get really dull during entire middle act after Peter and Gwen "break up", and the film starts rehashing stuff from the first movie. Peter starts looking for clues about his parents again, but it's all boring for the audience because we don't learn anything that we didn't already know from the prologue scene and the previous movie. And this stuff doesn't add anything to the narrative of this film! It's all just meta-content in preparation for the final act of the trilogy, but it still doesn't seem to be going anywhere unless you already know how things are going to end (because you're familiar with the source material from which the mystery villain is derived).
The movie really bogs down after Peter stops fighting bad guys and starts looking for his parents. Didn't we already see this exact same stuff in the last movie?
I think the writers were trying for the same kind of slow, introspective structure as Iron Man 3. It just doesn't work because it suddenly feels like you're watching a different movie. The events of the first act don't really lead to the events of the second act, so the audience doesn't have any investment in it. On top of that, none of it really goes anywhere. Harry descends into evil, but his role in the overarching movie is arbitrary. He's only there to kill Gwen. Electro could just as easily have done it without changing the movie's primary narrative at all. So all of Harry's scenes are also just meta fluff content. This part of the movie really drags, and when the stupid, special-effects-driven finale finally comes up, I was wishing the movie would just be over.
And despite all these disparate plot threads, there is no reference to Peter's hunt for Uncle Ben's murderer, which is a plot thread that is still dangling from the first half of the previous movie.
The faithful farewell to Gwen that was lacking from the Raimi movies
To its credit, Amazing Spider-Man 2 does treat Gwen Stacy with a great deal of respect and faithfulness to the source material. Unfortunately, the first movie already screwed up by making Gwen explicitly aware of Peter's identity as Spider-Man, and this sequel wasn't going to backpedal on that. But other elements of the Gwen Stacy subplot were heavily inspired by her character arc in the comics. In the comics, she held Spider-Man personally responsible for her father's death, and it put a great deal of stress on Peter and Gwen's relationship (with Peter having to hear her berate Spider-Man and having to bite his tongue, and her disliking him for publicizing Spider-Man in the papers). In this movie, that is turned around so that Peter feels guilty over allowing her father to die and breaking his promise to stay away from her, and this leads to complications in their relationship. I thought this was a clever way of keeping consistent with both the comics and the previous movie, and it was mostly well-executed.
In addition to that, Gwen toys with the idea of moving to England to go to school; just as her character in the comics actually did move to Europe for a year in order to "take a break" from Peter and life in New York. So again, this was a well thought-out parallel to the comics in a movie that was sadly lacking in well-thought-out material.
Spider-Man's grieving of Gwen's death was witnessed in the comics by police and onlookers.
Gwen's death is also handled with thoughtfulness and reverence, even though her appearance in the climactic scene is contrived. Some fans may complain about how explicit the movie is with regard to the immediate cause of Gwen's death (since there has been debate about whether the comic Gwen died as a result of shock from the fall or from a broken neck/back as a result of the sudden stop imposed by Spider-Man's web line). This movie leaves no ambiguity with that regard. I only wish that the death had happened in a more public setting with police and other onlookers witnessing Spider-Man's attempt to save her and reaction to her death (as it happened in the comic). Of course, this would have necessitated that Peter keep his mask on, which would have prevented Andrew Garfield from showing off his sad face. This is an unfortunate concession from the film-makers.
Overall though, awkward dialogue and stalking scenes aside, the Gwen sub-plot was the highlight of an otherwise pointless film and was a dramatic improvement from the previous film's depiction of the characters. Her death is much more tragic than her father's because the whole movie is spent building up her potential and the life she could have had (with or without Peter). Gwen felt much more like a fully-developed character, and less like she was just here to be the hero's girlfriend.
I don't know how many movies Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have to blunder before people start to realize that the two just aren't that good. Unfortunately, their movies keep making money, so they keep getting more jobs. It's a shame, because it seems that eventually, there won't be any nostalgia franchises that will be left untouched by their sloppy script-writing. If you can shut off your brain completely, then you might be able to enjoy the action scenes assuming you didn't fall asleep during the middle hour of the movie in which nothing happens.
I'd be more willing to look past the poor villains if the central personal plot was better, and if Peter's hunt for his parents didn't drag down the movie so much. If that subplot and Harry's subplot had been dropped, and if the focus was on Peter balancing his life as Spider-Man with his obligations to Gwen and Aunt May, this would have been a much better movie. There's nothing inherently wrong with making a Spider-Man movie that is about Peter Parker's personal life rather than about Spider-Man fighting villains. This movie executes this a little bit better than the previous film, in that the personal drama is actually the better half of the movie. The problem is that this movie puts too much narrative focus on its under-developed villains. If the villains are just challenges for the hero to overcome, rather than an integral part of the story itself, then their origins and motivations are irrelevant and don't even need screen time (Rhino's appearance is a perfect example). But if you're going to give them screen time, then it needs to at least be competent.
Anybody looking for a super hero story as compelling as The Avengers or Captain America 2 will find this Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be immensely disappointing.