Because we live in an era in which over-long, absurdly expensive superhero fantasies drive our entertainment culture — a testament, perhaps, to the super-anxieties that keep us awake at night — those fantasies have to differentiate themselves. You can’t just keep destroying Manhattan over and over, although the movies do, and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is no different; Times Square, in particular, takes a licking and almost stops ticking.
No, to seem relevant these days, a modern mega-blockbuster has to go trenchantly bleak (the “Dark Knight” series), superficially topical (the latest “Captain America”), or stridently earnest (last year’s misfired “Man of Steel”). Or just make fun of everything, the way “The LEGO Movie” razzes its corporate cake and eats it, too.
Curiously, “Spider-Man 2” differentiates itself by injecting shaggy mumblecore naturalism into the veins of its pop-Wagnerian genre. The transformation doesn’t take — at times the movie seems to be writhing on the ground like Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) turning into the Green Goblin — but points for trying. And it definitely counts as an improvement over 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” whose chief distinction was that it was the sloppiest, least inspired, most cynical franchise reboot ever.
I’m still not convinced we needed a new “Spider-Man” series, but at least this installment is interestingly mediocre instead of actively bad. Star Andrew Garfield seems more than ever to be channeling the spirit of the late Anthony Perkins — he’s rail-thin and stammering — and the idea that Peter Parker might have a little Norman Bates in him is perversely cheering.
Actually, it’s Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy who has the hero tripping over his words. That’s understandable, since Stone has the eyes, the intelligence, and that great gravelly voice to get you to buy into all this nonsense. The two actors have figured out how their characters relate to each other emotionally by now — possibly because they’re an offscreen couple as well — and there’s a glow that the first film lacked. True, the scenes between Peter and Gwen feel shockingly underwritten and flabbily edited, as though cast and crew were making it all up as they went along, but when was the last time you saw one of these Marvel juggernauts where every last digitized rivet didn’t seem obsessively fussed over? The aimless drift of the Peter-Gwen scenes, their dazzled banality, almost feels like something new.
Almost. And there are the action sequences, which are as horrendous as last time. Director Marc Webb (you make the joke; I’m too tired) earned his rep with the stylish indie romance “(500) Days of Summer,” and he still doesn’t have the knack for choreographing heavily computerized mayhem (in 3-D or not, depending on the theater). After opening with a flashback to the airborne demise of Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), “Spider-Man 2” gets properly started with a headache-inducing midtown pile-up, cop cars crushed like tin toys, a bald Paul Giamatti spewing spittle as a Russian terrorist, portentous slo-mo “moments,” and Spider-Man dispensing limp one-liners while swooping through a patently fake forest of skyscrapers. The hero’s a snarky jerk, the scene beats you down, and the movie has barely begun. You settle in for what looks like the quintessence of modern multiplex vulgarity, a bankrupt entertainment for a bankrupt pop culture.
But then things get weird. Not a lot, but enough. There are YouTube videos of science lectures. The musical score is an eccentric mash-up of Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and the Smiths’ Johnny Marr that feels decidedly un-blockbustery (a good thing). Jamie Foxx wanders through with a terrible comb-over, playing a rageaholic engineer named Max Dillon who only wants to be noticed. After he falls into a tank of electric eels at Oscorp headquarters, he’s definitely noticed: Transformed into the floating blue supervillain Electro, Foxx becomes the eeriest special effect in the movie, disembodying and reincorporating at will. He’s much more fun to watch than Peter’s old friend Harry, despite the latter being played by DeHaan, a demonic imp of an actor. DeHaan has done mesmerizing things in films like “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Kill Your Darlings,” but he can’t do much with lines like “Argh! You’re a fraud, Spider-Man!”
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” wastes DeHaan, it wastes Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) in a tiny role that promises to expand in later chapters, it wastes a way-cool secret laboratory in an abandoned subway station. It doesn’t waste Sally Field as Peter’s Aunt May, but only because that actress has been making somethings out of nothings since the days of “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.” Finally, for all the pleasant improvisatory strangeness of the romantic scenes and the lumpy but inevitable big-ticket battles, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” wastes our time, because it’s merely a tap dance to keep us around for “The Amazing Spider-Man 3.”
Good luck with that. If you know your classic Spider-Man chronology, you won’t be terribly surprised by this film’s climactic twist. If you’re coming to the franchise cold, though, prepare for a downer that the filmmaking just isn’t adroit enough to support. The denouement bodes especially ill for the next installment, since it removes the only element of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” that keeps the movie from sinking beneath the waves like a 10-ton chunk of cubic zirconium. When “Spider-Man 3” opens, don’t be surprised if there are more cobwebs in the theaters than onscreen.