Heroes belong to everyone, and thus to no one in particular. They save people, but they're not saviors. If you depend on them to redeem your personal life, you should prepare for disappointment. But that fact cuts both ways. The superhero, in particular, rescues people as he or she encounters them. That doesn't mean the hero can take for granted that he can rescue or redeem whom he will, when he wants. That's the moral, or the closest thing to one, of the second film of Marc Webb's Spider-Man series, written by many hands -- too many, in fact. There are parts of the film that have nothing to do with what I just wrote, and they're the worst parts. Anything with Paul Giamatti, who plays a Russian crook who later becomes the Rhino, one of Spidey's canonical enemies, is not only awful but embarrassing for the actor. These scenes unfortunately bracket the film proper, Giamatti's first appearance following a prologue furthering the Parker Family Backstory, and they create an unfair first and final impression. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is actually a little better than his predecessor -- I liked it better, at least -- if only because Webb is no longer going over old ground. The new series's approach to the Osborn family and the Green Goblin is different enough from Sam Raimi's to qualify as a real reboot, while the new movie blazes fresh territory by giving us another classic Spidey foe, Electro, for the first time in theaters. I don't think the Webb treatment of the Osborns -- tycoon father Norman (Chris Cooper) and misfit son Harry (Dane DeHaan) -- surpasses Raimi's, and I don't really care for much of their ideas about Electro (Jamie Foxx), but they all serve their story purposes adequately, while the Giamatti scenes reek of afterthought, as if someone at Sony thought there hadn't been enough action in the real film.
Max Dillon and Harry Osborn embody the theme I described. Max, the future Electro, is some sort of idiot savant and borderline crazy loner whose life changes when Spidey (Andrew Garfield) rescues him in passing during the first Giamatti sequence. Max is the kind of guy who sees this as the forming of a personal bond with the gregarious web-slinger, whose heroism and popularity he envies. Max is conceived, and performed by Foxx, as something between Richard Pryor's character from Superman III and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman from Batman Returns -- a pitifully awkward creature of largely untapped gifts and depthless rage unleashed by the trauma of victimization. Amazing 2 even takes up the Batman Returns linkage of its heroes and villains with animals, Norman Osborn and Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) having experimented on splices of human and animal DNA. Max himself is superfied by falling into a tank full of electric eels after an industrial accident. He feels betrayed when Spidey seems to turn on him after Max blunders into Times Square in search of power to feed upon. This fight is the film's best sequence as a confused Max is mesmerized by his own transformed face filling every HD screen on the square, his dream of fame realized, while cops prepare to shoot him down if Spidey fails to talk him down. That Jamie Foxx is a black man, though blue as Electro, compounds the tension and relevance of the standoff before the inevitable explosion. In any event, Spider-Man fails to save Max and fails to live up to Max's delusion of their intimate friendship. That makes Max willing to listen when Harry Osborn airs his disappointment with Spider-Man. Having inherited the family disease that killed Norman -- it makes you blotchy and turns your hands into claws -- and having deduced from confidential info on Oscorp research that Spider-Man is somehow a by-product of that work, Harry hopes that his old school buddy Peter Parker, who gets the best shots of Spidey in the local papers, can persuade the web-slinger to donate some blood, which Harry expects will cure him. When Spidey himself raises the reasonable objection that their blood types might not match, and the equally reasonable possibility that his mutated blood might make Harry worse, young Osborn concludes that the vaunted hero is a big fraud. He's no hero if he won't help me, you see. Both Harry and Max see themselves as betrayed by Spider-Man and as victims of Oscorp, Max as an exploited employee, Harry as the rightful heir being shut out of his birthright by the firm's unscrupulous bureaucrats and researchers. They share a vision of scorched-earth vengeance, while Harry, having guessed at last that Peter is Spidey, strikes at Peter's brainy girlfriend Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) out of spite. Gwen's proximity to the putative Green Goblin -- Harry never calls himself that as far as I can recall -- has raised alarms among longtime comic book readers. All I'll say about that is that Marc Webb has some kind of audacity to even tease a recreation of one of the darkest moments in American superhero comics while paying homage to The Hudsucker Proxy at the same time.
Given how many people compared the contemporary feel of The Amazing Spider-Man favorably to Sam Raimi's slightly retro, ever-so-slightly campy vision, it's surprising how oldschool Amazing 2 feels for a superhero movie, how I reach for comparisons to movies 20 years old or more instead of recent stuff like the Marvel Studios productions or Christopher Nolan's Batman films. Amazing 2 has problems of pacing similar to Tim Burton's Batman films, while both Webb films aim more for pathos than other current superhero movies, which also makes them reminiscent of Burton.Webb isn't the kind of cinematic visionary Burton is at his best, however, and there are points in the action this time where the effects seem little improved, if at all, from what Raimi's team was doing a decade ago. The final fight with Electro seemed particularly weak, even compared to the earlier Times Square rumble, but the filmmakers probably undermined themselves by turning Max into an essentially incorporeal energy being -- and in their minds that may have excused any sloppiness in the CGI. At other times the effects are quite nice; I'm impressed by the dedication to detail that shows the fabric of Peter's homemade Spidey costume bunching up realistically as he goes through his contortions. While the effects are hit or miss, Webb and his writers hit the emotional notes they aim for more often than not to make up even for the raspberry-false note of the very last scene, which has a moment of almost unimaginable corniness for 2014. While this film arguably just gets by, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the next sequel or the spinoffs that already have been announced. To suggest that Paul Giamatti is part of this franchise's future isn't necessarily Webb's best move. Instead, it might be said, as many did after The Dark Knight, that the director has said all he needs to, or can, about the character in two movies. Things never end that simply, however, when there might be billions at stake. Billions in money, that is; that's what makes Spider-Man a hero to Sony, after all.