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'Spider-Man 2' offers great romance, too many villains

Friday - 5/2/2014, 8:35am  ET

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This photo provided by Sony Pictures shows Jamie Foxx, as Max Dillon, left, and Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, in Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." Sony Pictures debuted 30 minutes of 3-D footage of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" at the movie-theater convention, CinemaCon, in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures, Niko Tavernise)

WASHINGTON -- It might be time for Spidey to slow down.

While "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012) had the fuel of the comic book's compelling origin story, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" begins to reveal the dangers of following so close in the shadows of a cyclical franchise, yet manages to counter its overblown action flaws with plenty of believable romance.

During the last "Spider-Man" trilogy (2004-2007), the second installment was the best of the series. Perhaps that's because it was directed by Sam Raimi, who had already shown he could top his originals in "Evil Dead 2" (1987).

Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" was a great action flick, as Oscar-winning effects created a memorable Doc Ock villain, James Franco found the Green Goblin gear of his father Willem Dafoe and Kirsten Dunst ditched her wedding to express her true feelings for Tobey Maguire.

Talk about a high bar for the second installment of Marc Webb's too-soon reboot, for which Sony has already announced part three in 2016 and part four in 2018.

The current plot is a web of daddy issues. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) continues to be haunted by a "Cat's in the Cradle" quest to figure out why his father abandoned him as a child. His relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is on the rocks due to a promise he made to her police captain father (Denis Leary). And Peter's old pal, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), is waiting to take over Oscorp from his ailing CEO father, Norman (Chris Cooper).

The father-son transition creates boardroom conflict at Oscorp, which remains on the hot seat after two freak accidents last film -- one turning Peter into Spidey, another turning Dr. Curt Connors into The Lizard. Sure enough, this film's premise features another freak accident, transforming lowly electrician Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into Spidey's new supercharged villain, Electro.

The addition of the Oscar-winning Foxx ("Ray") highlights the film's strongest element: its cast. Foxx seems to enjoy his dual role, first as a gap-toothed Poindexter with creepy Spidey-worship tendencies, then as a scorned foe who enjoys the limelight of Times Square Jumbotrons. DeHaan also boasts a strong screen presence, with the look of a young but devious Leo DiCaprio, although it's doubtful he'll rise to the same stardom that Franco enjoyed after playing the same role.

While DeHaan is no Franco, Garfield ("The Social Network") puts Maguire to shame as Spidey with biting humor in the face of crisis. When Harry asks what Peter's been up to lately, he responds with a web-slinging pun, "Designing web sites." When Harry admires Peter's ability to skip rocks across a pond, he responds, "It's all in the wrist."

But this sequel is less "When Harry Met Spidey" and more "When Harry Met Sally." Garfield's romantic scenes with Stone are entirely believable, which should be no surprise, as the two are real-life sweethearts. As they flirtatiously point out each other's irresistible idiosyncrasies, we wonder if we're even watching a movie anymore or if we've become flies on Spidey's real-life wall. As they enter a skyline kiss with the touching line, "You are my path," it may be the best superhero embrace since Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder among the clouds in "Superman" (1978).

Director Webb understands the thin line between heartstrings and utility belts, having Joseph Gordon-Levitt fall for Zooey Deschanel in "(500) Days of Summer" (2009) before his sidekick role in "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). In "Amazing Spider-Man 2," Webb dials in for the romance, particularly during a scene where Garfield and Stone grab dim sum in New York's Chinatown. Watch how he shows Stone's emotional distance by shooting her over the shoulder through a window pane while shooting Garfield's shots without the pane. Yes, symbolic mise-en-scene can be done in superhero movies.

This attention to the romance is precisely what was missing from "Man of Steel" (2013), which decided not to explore the Lois-and-Clark love affair and instead focused on the battle with General Zod, featuring unforgettable superhero tackles that lasted the length of entire football fields.

"Amazing Spider-Man 2" has the opposite problem. It fully explores its intimate moments, but overloads its bench of action antagonists. After opening with a flashback airplane sequence, we meet the film's first villain as Spidey chases Paul Giamatti's Russian terrorist in a runaway truck through New York City. Webb begins the sequence effectively, allowing Spidey to fall in 3D slow motion to make us feel like our stomachs are dropping on a roller coaster. But as the scene wears on and the collateral damage piles up, Giamatti's character comes across as way too cartoonish, even for a comic-book movie. He then takes a back seat to a new slate of antagonists: Electro and Harry.

By the midpoint, Spidey's big Times Square showdown with Electro is a mixed bag. On the plus side, Webb slows time to draw out the suspense and composer Hans Zimmer teams with The Magnificent Six, Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr to express Electro's inner thoughts with the song "My Enemy (Paranoia)." The whispered refrain, "He lied to me! He's dead to me," brilliantly blurs the line between diegetic (on-screen) and non-diegetic (off-screen) sound. Unfortunately, the sequence runs too long, while establishing a ferocious villain that the script largely ignores in the second half of the film.

Even Webb's sturdy web can't hold the overcrowded Act Three. The final showdown is visually electrifying but narratively messy, inserting an airplane close-call that lacks the moral quandary of the dueling ferry boats in "The Dark Knight" (2008) and undermining an emotional peak with a rushed epilogue. In the final minutes, Spidey faces not one, not two, but three baddies. It's cool to lay the villain groundwork for future sequels, but it's awkward to thrust them all in at the last minute.

No doubt this reboot franchise will do well for all involved, making plenty of money, elevating the careers of Garfield and Stone, providing great exposure for DeHaan and adding impressive shots to Webb's directing reel. Just don't be "amazed" if it's soon forgotten by movie history.

★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason's 2013 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our "Fraley on Film" page.

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