Monday, 26 May 2014

"You know what it is I love about being Spider-Man? Everything!"

Cynics suspected The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) hastily rebooted a franchise in order to retain the lucrative rights to a property which would otherwise revert back to Marvel. Marc Webb confounded them by delivering a different take on the comic books with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as an engaging, quirky couple. Ever since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the property, Spider-Man has straddled genres – science fiction heroics and grounded teen soap opera – and Webb's cleverest move was to play the angst lightly and let the kids have fun.

Unhindered by any need to rehash origin issues, this allows the still perfectly cast Garfield and sweetly determined Stone to play out a far more nuanced and complex relationship. The strength of this series' conception of Gwen, as opposed to the 'damsel in distress' women of previous Spider-Man outings, is that she insists on being an active participant in the heroics. This is now even thornier since Peter promised her dead dad (a glowering Denis Leary shows up as a ghostly rebuke) he'd keep her safe. Emma Stone is arguably the Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) of this series, doing something unexpected with an easily dismissed supporting character. Awards voters somewhere must note that she's made a love interest Marvel killed off in 1973 as relevant and potent as, say, Black Widow or Mystique – maybe more so in that Gwen's only (not inconsiderable) superpowers are intelligence and kindness.

This follows the superhero first sequel pattern – as seen in everything from The Dark Knight (2008), this years Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, indeed, Spider-Man 2 (2004) – of being longer, with more spectacular action, more complex character interplay, more confident effects and more flamboyant villains. Ultimately, it's also much tougher on the hero to propel him into further adventures. A lesson has been learned in that a plot, which seemed as if it could get into the 'too many villains' tangle that undid Spider-Man 3 (2007), is paced much better, with overlapping origins for Electro and a Goblin of sorts so that action scenes build emotionally rather than simply go on and on.

But the intention is clear – Sony want their own expanded universe to rival Marvel, since Spider-Man joining the Avengers will remain the stuff of fans dreams. Paul Giamatti's (Saving Mr. Banks) Rhino and Felicity Jones's Felicia Hardy are given glorified cameos clearly designed to pay off down the line in future releases or the already promised Sinister Six spin-off.

The bad guys too are a clear strong suit in contrast to Webb's first film. Both Dane DeHaan's (Chronicle) Harry Osborne and Jamie Foxx's (Django Unchained) Max Dillon are villains who only become so because the world has so entirely mistreated them. There's real poignancy to Max, too, a perpetually overlooked electrical engineer with no friends or family whose obsession with Spider-Man turns nasty after a workplace accident sees him transform into the super powered Electro. If Foxx overplays his pre-Electro nerdiness, his increasingly alienated and demented super threat serves to highlight the way Peter hasn't become a monster despite the accumulated personal losses and resentments. Electro, however, becomes superfluous as the increasingly unstable Harry takes centre-stage, and when DeHaan is on screen it's almost impossible to look anywhere else.

DeHaan makes Harry Osborn a fresh character, just this side of smarmy as he goes off the deep end. A childhood friend of Peter's, Harry returns home to New York just in time to be handed a poisoned chalice by dying father Norman (a malevolent Chris Cooper). Garfield and DeHaan being two of the most compelling actors of their generation, they're unsurprisingly effective together. DeHaan plays Harry like a twitchy, anguished coiled spring, every movement and sentence wound tight – it's a compelling contrast to Garfield's energy, all loose limbs and heart on sleeve emotion.

After Man Of Steel (2013), note the way the set pieces emphasise that Spider-Man's instinct during a monster rampage is to protect innocent bystanders before clobbering the bad guy. The little kid he saves from bullies is perhaps the most crucial walk-on in the series (even more so than Stan Lee), figuring in a stirring last minute of heroism. The final third act is tonally awkward, but big reveals will resonate into Amazing Spider-Man 3 – some arguably controversial, but all powerfully played.

Despite a few too-broad gags, this is a satisfying second issue with thrills, heartbreak, gasps and a perfectly judged slingshot ending.

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