The great thing about this Peter Parker is that you believe it when he cries.
WARNING: Mild spoilers follow for the plot of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
I wasn't a fan of the first Amazing Spider-Man film when it came out two years ago. Director Marc Webb's initial take on Marvel Comics' renowned superhero didn't justify its existence as a reboot. It retold an origin that didn't need retelling.
Worse still, the 2012 movie tacked a destiny onto the new cinematic iteration of Peter Parker, giving him a scientist dad whose advanced genetic research and mysterious disappearance pulled him into becoming Spider-Man. The random radioactive spider-bite wasn't that random anymore. Peter Parker went from being an everyman that stumbled into heroism to a character that was fated to put on the webs.
Spider-Man doesn't need that kind of narrative architecture. Peter Parker's a character that's best realized in the swirl of the present. Yes, his catalyst moment is in a past mistake where he used his powers to look out for number one and lost his beloved Uncle Ben because of it. But, Spider-Man works because he's always figured out a way to move forward, out of guilt and circumstance. Plotlines where he's had to dig out his past—especially the ones regarding the actions of others, like the Clone Saga, for example—have felt like they weighed the character down.
So, it's not a good omen that Amazing Spider-Man 2 starts in a flashback. Before Spider-Man ever shoots his first web in the movie, viewers have to sit through a sequence where Richard and Mary Parker go on the run, leaving Peter behind. The mystery of why Richard Parker left his son forms the film's least satisfying subplot. When it finally gets resolved, you feel like breathing a sigh of relief. Peter Parker's biological parents are boring. Very few fans are sitting around reminiscing about that one time Richard and Mary seemingly came back from the dead. Spider-Man doesn't exist because his parents died tragic deaths; the webhead exists because it's how Peter copes with the tensions of his melodramatic life.
Andrew Garfield embodies that melodrama well. He's a Peter Parker who's full of nervous energy and emotional yearning. Brooding, moody and a little twitchy, Peter needs his smarter, more assured girlfriend to help him actually enjoy his dual lives.
Webb makes the most of the talents of his young cast in ASM2. Dane DeHaan does a good turn as Peter's frenemy Harry Osborn. Though all audiences get is a few quick scenes between Peter and Harry to serve as shorthand for their friendship, the breeziness between Garfield and DeHaan does enough to intimate a long-ago warmth once existed between their characters. DeHaan simmers more than he shouts and sketches out a Harry whose neglected-child wounds add a tiny bit of sympathy to his mania. He's fun to watch. However, as in the previous film, the chemistry between Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker and Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is ASM2's biggest highlight.
The banter and heartache between the two leads gives the movie an adorable emotional center of gravity, one that glosses over plot holes and the hamminess of Jamie Foxx's turn as Electro. The take on Spidey's electrical supervillain in ASM2 continues the b-movie allusions from its predecessor, with a few moments that dance over the border into campiness. Though touches like a sadistic German-accented mad scientist feel like tonal self-indulgence, none of that breaks the tenor of the what-are-we-doing-with-our-lives proceedings.
There's a better emotional core inside Webb's second go-round with the wall-crawler. Spider-Man feels like a part of this fictional New York City and his chatter with bad guys and ordinary folk alike captures part of why he's been a favorite character for so long. The three main characters find themselves at a crossroads, with life getting turbulent as they get older.
The interdependency between hero and villain that's become a tiresome requirement in cinematic superhero adaptations is still here in ASM2 but it's better executed here than in, say, Man of Steel. There's a superior balance of angst and charm in this film, including a great sequence early on where Spider-Man saves multiple lives in rapid-fire fashion. The needs that Gwen, Peter and Harry are trying to fulfill feel genuine, despite the hard-to-believe coincidences that the plot walks their characters through.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 does a great job of playing with what fans know, creating a delicious anxiety that rewards foreknowledge. The climactic moment still manages to resonate effectively even if you knew it was going to happen.
Where the Raimi/Maguire Spider-Man movies had Peter Parker as sort of perpetually naïve, Webb's stewardship introduces a more complex emotional palette. The grief and recovery in Amazing Spider-Man 2 are what finally justifies the rebooting of Marvel's flagship character. Things happen here that you couldn't have imagined happening in previous versions of a Spider-Man movie. It really feels like the wall-crawler gets his heart broken and this sequel really nails the aspirational idea that Peter Parker is someone who swings upward out of his own trauma.