Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like four or five movies jammed together. The good news is, two of those movies are really, really good. The bad news is, the bloat and extra subplots get in the way of the storytelling, and feel like harbingers of overstuffed superhero movies to come. Minor spoilers ahead...
And by "minor," I mean "vague generalizations, plus plot elements that are fully revealed in the trailers."
Amazing Spider-Man is the sequel to 2012's sturdy reboot, which rested on the chemistry between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), plus an assortment of well-cast father figures. The sequel still gets a lot of mileage out of the chemistry between Peter and Gwen, but it's also the most sequel-y sequel in the history of sequels.
Part of the charm of the first ASM was its slight "indie movie" feel thanks to (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb. There were a fair number of intimate scenes involving Peter, Gwen and the people in their lives. That, plus the emphasis on Peter learning to be a real hero, save innocent people and earn the trust of New Yorkers, helped Amazing Spider-Man to overcome some notable flaws.
The best parts of ASM2 still have some of that "indie movie" feeling, as Peter and Gwen work out their relationship in the wake of Peter's promise to Gwen's father to leave Gwen alone. Whenever Garfield is in a scene with Stone, or with Sally Field (Aunt May), the drama feels real and personal.
A lot of the rest of the film, though, feels rushed and fake — a deadly combination for this sort of movie. In particular, there are a million subplots. Every time you start following one of the movie's countless storylines, it switches over to another. At times, the film cuts back and forth between two subplots in progress. It's not that they're confusing or hard to follow, but it's hard to care, and some of them are painfully underdeveloped and seem tacked-on.
Textbook example of crap villainy
This film has a lot of track to lay on introducing two new major villains, the Green Goblin and Electro, but also laying the groundwork for multiple sequels, because Sony wants to put out a Spider-Man movie every year.
There are a few problems with this: First, neither of the film's villains are compelling enough to justify the amount of time we spend with them. The film obviously wants to flesh them out, but in fact both Goblin and Electro remain one-dimensional cardboard characters, for the most part. Dane De Haan (Chronicle) does a valiant job to bring a bitter wryness to Harry Osborn, but is stuck with a mostly one-note character. And Jamie Foxx, as Electro, seems to be in a very different movie than everybody else — he's a campy caricature of a pathetic loser who obsesses about Spider-Man until he gets superpowers.
In fact, Electro (and to a lesser extent Green Goblin) feel like throwbacks to 1990s superhero movies. Foxx's performance doesn't feel that different than, say, Jim Carrey in Batman Forever. Neither of them feels like the kind of villains we've come to expect in the wake of Heath Ledger's Joker, Tom Hiddleston's Loki, or even Frank Grillo's Crossbones.
Secondly, the problem of rushed subplots is especially acute with some of the villain setup — there are a ton of scenes, especially setting up Harry Osborn's character, that feel like shorthand. The contrast between the Peter-Gwen scenes, which feel like the way people actually talk to each other in real life, and almost any scene involving the villains, in which the dialogue and acting are stylized and expedient, is especially telling. Garfield is good enough that he raises the villains' game on any scene they share — but it's not enough.
And finally, the villains don't have anything interesting to do in this film. Given how much of its running time they occupy, they ought to have something more going on. In fact, if you diagram the villains' progression in this film, it closely mirrors the way Sandman and Venom were used in the much-maligned Spider-Man 3.
The Lizard was also kind of a crap villain in the first movie, but I at least liked his moments of being a mentor to Peter and Gwen, and his final scheme was sort of amusingly weird.
The weakest subplot in the film is the one in which Peter searches for the truth about his father (both his parents went missing at the same time, but this is Hollywood, so we get daddy issues.) This subplot has a few potential pitfalls, chief among them the danger of cheapening Peter's heroism by pushing the focus onto how he got his powers, as opposed to what he chooses to do with them. But mostly, it's boring, and serves as an excuse for cheap "buried mystery" tropes.
The hero and his city
It's too bad Spidey is weighed down with so much excess baggage this time around, because the film at the center of all this mess is pretty solid. Not just the Peter-and-Gwen stuff, but also all the stuff that worked in the first film, about heroism and the city.
Once again, New York is a full-fledged character in the film, and some of the best moments involve ordinary New Yorkers interacting with the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Marc Webb really gets what makes Spider-Man work as a character, more than Sam Raimi ever did.
And Webb goes even further towards showing the skyline and the heights of the huge buildings. Spider-Man's swinging from the building tops is still one of the most thrilling effects in film — see this in IMAX if you can — and a lot of the best visuals in the movie involve swooping from great heights, or standing on top of a tall suspension bridge.
At the same time, the emphasis on dull subplots and villain origins drags the film down, both metaphorically and literally — you can't help but notice that the city feels smaller, squatter and less expansive, any time Webb is forced to employ a lot of greenscreen and CG. The angles get lower, the shots stuck at ground-level. At just the moment when the movie ought to be opening out and getting larger than life, the canvas paradoxically seems to shrink.
Christopher Nolan thought very consciously about the vantage points of each of his three Batman films — the first was in the tops of the skyscrapers, the second at ground level, and the third subterranean. Here, the disconnect between vantage points in the film feels both accidental and symptomatic of the larger problem of muddle. (And Nolan, too, had a flair for making an overstuffed film feel like ambition and a broad canvas, rather than just studio-mandated toy advertising.)
Final thought: Amazing Spider-Man 2 is mostly enjoyable enough, in spite of a somewhat underwhelming final act that feels like the logical result of the rushed storytelling earlier in the movie. But this movie's weaknesses feel like a taste of the "megafranchise" era to come — when you sacrifice basic storytelling in the name of cramming in as many characters and hints for future projects as possible, your film inevitably suffers.
Or to put it another way — when it comes to storytelling, with great irresponsibility comes a lack of power.