Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to monetize a vertically integrated mass-entertainment franchise within a rapidly expanding global marketplace.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the sequel to the reboot of the series based on the comic book, is one of those movies that insiders used to describe as “critic-proof.” But director Marc Webb and his flotilla of screenwriters seem to want to go one step further and create a movie that’s audience-proof. With studios now gleaning most of their revenue not from Americans steeped in Marvel mythologies and arcane origin stories, but from filmgoers from Brasilia to Beijing with new Imax 3-D theaters to test- drive, the point of filmmaking is to create an experience so insistently bombastic that novelty-starved audiences simply can’t not go.
In the right hands, that imperative can co-exist and even help create coherent, artful storytelling — last year’s “Gravity” being just one superb example. But more often, it results in movies comprised mostly of turgid expository scenes of two people talking, occasionally interrupted by frenetic, blurrily choreographed action sequences.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” a strenuously chipper but nonetheless saggy, baggy and mostly ho-hum addition to the Spider-Man canon, belongs to the latter category, with the added asterisk that what was once its greatest strength — its casting — is on the verge of becoming its biggest liability.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” takes up pretty much where 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” left off, with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), graduating from high school. After a grisly prologue revisiting the death of Peter’s parents years earlier, we’re shown that he’s still pursuing his extra-curricular hobby of saving New York as Spider-Man, the super-cool wall crawler sheathed in a blue-and-red bodysuit and blessed with super-human spider sense and web-spinning savvy.
Presumably, Peter and Gwen are heading into new and unchartered futures, but soon enough Peter is visited by his past, when Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns to Manhattan to visit his father’s deathbed and take over the sinister family business. As a corporate hegemon that would make Donald Trump blush, Oscorp reigns supreme over the New York skyline, employing not just Gwen, but also an engineer named Max (Jamie Foxx), who crosses paths with Spider-Man in an encounter that will have fateful, if not fatal, reverberations.
Webb’s primary screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, wrote the bracingly clever “Star Trek” reboot a few years ago, but be forewarned: They also wrote “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and it’s that clunky amalgamation of seen-it stunts and talky exposition that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” most closely resembles. Granted, there are at least two genuinely breathtaking set pieces to be admired here, including a climactic, emotional gut-punch of a scene set in a clock tower toward the end of the film, and the transformation of Max into his own shimmering, translucent alter ego. (Both Foxx and DeHaan deliver promising turns in their respective good guy/bad guy personas.)
But those moments are nearly lost within an unforgivably long assemblage that never coalesces into a compelling story. Such niceties are certainly beside the point in a film whose aim is purely utilitarian, in introducing some important new villains, disposing of one beloved character and otherwise ensuring a market for the planned sequels and spinoffs.
Can Spider-Man go that distance? So far he’s been the easiest Marvel superhero to love, but in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” some cracks are showing in the character’s internal dynamic. Spider-Man’s cheeky one-liners have always carried the ring of giddy liberation, the gee-whiz expressions of a shy teenager in the throes of newfound power and freedom. In “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” they just sound snarky. Similarly, when Peter makes a dramatic entrance at his high school graduation, he looks less like a goofy adolescent than a cocky, self-entitled jerk.
Whereas the chief pleasure of the first “Amazing Spider-Man” was the cuddly chemistry between Garfield and Stone, here they generate fewer sparks than questions, namely how a 30-year-old and 25-year-old (respectively), despite their proven and prodigious talents, can be expected to play recent high school graduates with any degree of credibility.
Narratively and chronologically, that’s less of a problem for Stone, who once again delivers a winning and mostly believable performance as the smart, self-possessed Gwen. As for Garfield, the future’s less certain. He’s one of the finest actors of his generation, as anyone who saw the shattering 2007 drama “Boy A” will attest, but the acrobatics he’s asked to do in service to “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” — physically, and in submitting to such a narrow emotional range — are looking increasingly uncomfortable.
Despite all the swooping and spinning and swinging in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Garfield looks less like a kid having fun than like an actor entangled in a corporate web that, at least for now, he can’t escape. But with at least three new villains barreling down the Manhattan streets with Spidey firmly in their crosshairs, it may be too late.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of sci-fi action and violence. 142 minutes.