It is a truth universally acknowledged that the middle film in a trilogy tends to be the best.
Movie lovers may be torn between The Godfather and Godfather, Part II, but the rule certainly holds true for The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, The Dark Knight. The first film sets the scene, the second ups the stakes before entering the endgame of part three.
After the mixed bag that was The Amazing Spider-Man – Andrew Garfield & Emma Stone, great; The Lizard, underwhelming – does Marc Webb’s second effort stand up to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, the best in the series to date? No, but not for lack of trying.
Unlike the previous film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is at its best when playing around with comic book lore. If you’re a fan of Stan Lee – who, of course, gets his obligatory cameo – you’ll get a lot more out of certain sequences that seem to mimic famous events from the series’ history.
Compared to, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is pure comic book entertainment. It delves into Peter Parker’s past, more specifically what happened to his parents, but, a few teary scenes with Aunt May aside, it doesn’t pack as much of an emotional wallop as you might hope.
More so than anyone else in Marvel or DC, Peter Parker is a casual hero, one whose pitched battles on the streets of New York have become a part of everyday routine. He is, after all, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. However, with this level of exposure come whole new problems.
Still conflicted over the promise he made to the dying Captain Stacey to stay away from his daughter, Gwen, Peter also has to deal with the likes of hammy Russian thug Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti, clearly enjoying himself in the role) and obsessive hanger-on Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx playing against type).
While it initially seems that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may suffer from the same complaint that brought down Raimi’s final film, namely a superabundance of villains, it manages to juggle them fairly well. Giamatti’s Rhino mostly serves to bookend the film while the reborn Dillon, self-christened Electro, gets the majority of the set-pieces, like blacking out Times Square.
Peter also has the return of former best friend Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan oozing understated menace), whose desperation to avoid his father’s terrible fate may make him the most dangerous villain of all.
Nevetheless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is lightweight. Even though it packs in more character development than most Marvel productions, as well as a hell of a third-act twist, it manages to feel throwaway.
Garfield remains eminently likeable in the lead – there are few actors who could manage to make Spidey’s glib wisecracking endearing rather than annoying – while Stone is breezily charming. They have great chemistry, too, and both bring a quiet sense of devastation to the growing breach between them. As teenage relationships go, this is emotionally mature stuff.
The film’s greatest strength and weakness is perhaps its 142-minute runtime. The Dark Knight Rises only came in at twenty minutes longer and that was, by comparison, an epic. More time does, of course, mean more opportunity to explore themes, but, as always, the narrative about the cost of heroics always has to lead to the hero’s choice to soldier on.
After all, there can be no third film without the costumed protagonist. Like the best of midquels, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is darker than what’s came before, but what ultimately lays it low is its unwillingness to be downbeat, instead choosing to launch into a coda that undermines the gravitas of what’s come before.
In the end, it just could have been so much more.