There's a scene about halfway through The Amazing Spider-man 2 where a nerdy 9-year-old kid being bullied is saved when Spidey swings in, scares the bullies, fixes the nerdy kid's science project with a little webbing, tells him he's a super smart kid, and walks him home.
It was in this dawwwww inspiring moment that "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" - the second movie in a franchise reboot made only to hold on to valuable movie rights, stumbled upon a soul. The movie nails the interpersonal relationship between hero and civilian, ultimately arriving at the very core of what makes superheros timeless and inspiring - hope.
What kind of hope? Well, that depends on you. For many it's hope that there are truly good people out there doing the best they can to make the world a better place. For others it's the hope that one day, they too, will be a hero, inspired by the actions of others to make their own mark on the world.
And For Max Dillon and Harry Osborne, it's hope that Spider-Man can save the already damned.
When we last saw Spider-Man, he was in a relatively dark place - "The Amazing Spider-man" was a dour movie, filled with oddly grotesque shots of bullet wounds, carnivorous rats, strange web-pimples, and increasingly poor choices that really made you question why, exactly, Spider-man would keep being Spider-man considering how poorly his first 'adventure' really went. Worse, the movie felt unnecessary and awkward - especially during a "turn the cranes" sequence where capital N capital Y New Yorkahs helped Spider-man save the day as Spidey lingered in front of an American Flag for an extra half second.
And first impressions of "The Amazing Spider-man 2" are actually pretty poor, starting with a relatively long introduction involving Peter's parents going on the lamb in an effort to avoid being captured and killed for 'treason'. The high-altitude brawl involves some pretty good action, but feels strangely disconnected from what we'd expect from a typical super-hero movie these days - though it's paid off in a way that's pretty creative - but likely annoying to long-time fans.
Following that sequence, the movie begins proper with some astounding Spider-man action. All the credit in the world goes to Marc Webb who remembered that Spider-Man should be fun.
This is the most creative Spidey has been in combat since "The Spectacular Spider-Man" TV show. He uses web, acrobatics, and cunning tactics to disarm and subdue enemies in creative ways that leave you smirking. In fact the movie ends on such a BAD ASS MOMENT I let out a "Fuck Yeah!" to laughter of the theater.
But better than that, Spidey's a smart-ass in the best of ways - the opening sequence featuring several laugh-out-loud quips.
These quips are so omnipresent (and so good) that even the requisite, "FDNY / NYPD huzzah!" moment is played for yucks, with Spider-man high-fiving first responders like they won a baseball game after using a fire-hose to great effect. The whole scene is played with familiarity, like Spider-Man has been helping New York's finest forever, and knows most of them on a nickname basis.
There's an optimism inherent to this movie's Spider-Man. He's kind. He's compassionate. He opts for a peaceful solution first - in fact attempting to talk down pretty much every person he fights in this movie in a very calm and understated and believable way that endears you to the character.
Because Spider-man feels right, a lot of the other stuff in the movie that feels a little hammy / campy / over-the-top is easier to swallow.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sets up three separate story threads threads and intertwines them in relatively creative ways. Despite what you may have heard about this movie being 'packed' with villains and shoe-horning in Rhino, a Green Goblin, references to Vulture, Dr. Octopus, and others - the real conflicts in the movie are interpersonal in nature.
The first of these threads is the arc of Jamie Fox's Max Dillon. Max has such crippling social anxiety that it hurts to watch - His first solo scene involves him monologing to a cut-out poster of Spider-Man the day after Spider-man saved him from certain doom while singing happy birthday to himself. Fox plays this scene with a hint of a wink - Max knows that talking to a fake Spider-man poster to start his day is weird, but is too emotionally crippled to care. Dillon is balding, socially inept, has no friends, and is constantly bossed around by the far younger, far bossier, far-more-confident Alistair Smythe (played wonderfully by BJ Novak of "The Office" fame).
It seems Marc Webb and Jamie Foxx were trying to say something about specific about hero worship with the Dillon character, an inverse of the old "If God is your Co-pilot, switch seats" adage. In this case, Spider-man is Max's pilot - the thing he invests himself in 100 percent, looks up to, and aspires to be in order to get him through the day, at the expense of social interaction or actual self betterment.
Once Max becomes Electro, he maintains his humanity for a time. He just wants to be noticed. I'll leave the details of how him and Spider-Man end up fighting in Times Square in a really creative fight out, save to say that never in my LIFE did I think a dub-step-styled inner monologue for a character would be so entertaining.
Ultimately the character feels a bit like Bruce Banner's personality meets Dr. Manhattan's powers - A man once seething with inward anger he couldn't possibly begin to express - until he can.
The second of the three story threads involves one Harry Osborn - last seen thoroughly enjoying pie in Spider-Man 3. Harry is going to die unless he gets his hands on Spider-man's blood. He has the same degenerative disease that was that the thrust of Norman Osborn's research in the first movie, and is a pretty interesting character.
Harry isn't evil, really, but he is entitled and is desperate. He has all the money in the world and it's ultimately worthless when it comes to his quandary. Harry and Peter have a past and they have a couple of scenes together to establish their past and it humanizes Harry in an ultimately tragic way.
As the movie progresses and he continues to make more drastic choices, you never get a sense that Harry is evil until he truly breaks bad as the movie heads into its third act. Before that, Harry is genuinely sympathetic - well as sympathetic as any multibillionaire heir to a fortune can be. He's entitled and demanding, but in a way that's understandable when you have a disease you're desperately trying to cure.
There's a scene toward the end of the film where Harry suddenly realizes an important detail and seethes with rage over the things he did to himself that could have been avoided had Spider-Man been more honest.
I did NOT go into this film expecting to like this character, and by the end of the film I didn't, but it was for all the right reasons.
The last thread is the relationship between Peter Parker and Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy. Peter Parker is dealing with abandonment issues, a dead uncle, graduating high-school, and a girlfriend who may-or-may not be leaving the country - all problems created more-or-less by his becoming Spider-Man.
Peter sees ghosts of Denis Leary's Captain Stacy giving a stern, dead-eyed, judgmental glare pretty much anytime he comes in contact with Gwen. There's one of these toward the end of the film that will rip your heart out if you have any knowledge whatsoever of the Spider-Man myths.
The chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone has been talked about endlessly in other reviews, but I will say I enjoyed what a powder keg Stone becomes in the movie's third act, becoming a hero in her own right - though she never gets super powers.
When the three story-lines converge there's a tragic element to it all. No one wants to be here. No one in this movie is set on world domination, and all the characters have traits that both define them, damn them, and make them feel human.
Which makes the resolution all the more incredible.
*SPOILERS* (highlight this text to read)
Gwen Stacy dies at the end of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and it's handled in such a brutally understated way that, hand to God, a girl in the theater started crying. But it happened, and it's heart breaking, and Gwen is really dead - until the clone saga kicks in around the fifth or sixth film, anyway.
I'll try not to spoil too much of the how and why, but eventually it comes down to a crumbling clock tower, a free-falling Gwen Stacy, and one of the most brutally under-played deaths in recent memory.
Spidey shoots a web and through slow motion we see the it grab her and start to take hold. The camera changes to a wide shot, and there's a single thud a split second before the web pulls her up - Spidey was too late. The girl behind me in the theater starts to cry immediately. Gwen's gone. Because he ignored Captain Stacy, and due to the damage of battle, the hands of time have literally and figuratively stopped for Peter Parker.
The next several minutes of the film are heart-breaking, and how Spider-Man comes out of his funk is classic comic books and a great Aunt May moment - who may or may not know Peter is Spider-Man (I think she does).
One of the most cherished Spider-Man stories of all time, "The Kid who Collects Spider-Man" is beloved because it's about as grounded as superhero stuff gets without being all 'dark' and 'gritty'. It leaves you with a bittersweet taste in your mouth and a half smile.
The best moments of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" feel like that story - it warms your heart, rips it out, but takes special care to put it back in again. This movie is personal, intimate, and familiar in a comfortable way - there are moments that shock and moments that inspire, and not only did Sony not screw up Spider-Man, they made him more tangible than ever.
The themes of obsession, corruption, and all consuming passion - Max to be noticed, Harry to live, Peter to be with Gwen are universal in a way - we've all wanted to be someone else, buy something not for sale, or be with a woman that we knew meant disaster.
Sure there are certainly dozens of cliches we've seen dozens of times in the dozens of comic book movies that have come out since X-Men was back in 2000. And it's obvious this version of Spider-Man was manufactured, not crafted. It wasn't brought to the cinema through one man's die-hard passion for the content. But then again, comic books come out every month whether or not the person writing them has a truly unique vision - and those can be pretty damn good, too.
Like a good ice coffee, it's not always how fresh the ingredients are - every coffee has beans, ice, sugar, cream, but rather how those ingredients come together to create something that's tasty in a "Well I certainly didn't expect THAT from Starbucks" sort of way. Sometimes the beauty of cliche is in its familiarity.
Of all the Spider-Man movies and TV shows, this one feels the most familiar - mixing the zany and angsty almost perfectly.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a big-budget comic book through and through - it's exciting and bombastic and bright and fun. It sets up stuff for the future, pays off stuff from the past, and is creative visually. If you're willing to give yourself to this movie and shut out the bad reviews, it's cynical purpose for existing, and enjoy its heartwarming moments like the one I mentioned in the opening paragraph, its evil German doctor at the Ravencroft institute, and crazy dub-step battles in Times Square - That Spidey Sense of yours may just get tickled in the way only a spider can.
Better than all of that, though is SPIDER-MAN KEEPS HIS MASK ON MOST OF THE MOVIE.