It is often the case that lowered expectations leads to a better than expected response. Such was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, due both to mediocre reviews and 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man being less than amazing. But I was pleasantly surprised and found the film to be an intriguing and emotional exploration of identity, esteem and choice. I was thrilled at several points, laughed and even cried. While Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man film felt somewhat underpowered against Sam Raimi’s trilogy, it did provide a solid foundation on which to build, most importantly the relationship between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Superhero dramas live and die on the tension between the super and everyday identities, and Peter’s attempts to reconcile his life as Spider-Man with his love for Gwen provides a consistent emotional throughline for the film. Nor is the angst of this throughline overplayed, as Peter and Gwen are a sparky and amusing couple (perhaps fuelled by the actors’ off-screen relationship), and Spider-Man slings as many jokes as he does webbing. Also, beautifully, Gwen is far from being a damsel in distress as, much as in The Amazing Spider-Man, she and Peter make a great team in combating the supervillains that New York throws at them.
With the romance taking centre stage, the villains could be left somewhat short-changed. The Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) only appears briefly, Harry Osborne (Dane Dahaan) spends more time being ill than goblin-ish and Max Dillon/Electro could be little more than an evil version of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. The different narrative threads often seem disconnected and the film could be accused of set-up syndrome – mainly existing to set up a sequel as well as the spin-off The Sinister Six. While it is easy for any filmgoer to suggest that they know how the film “should” have been put together, surely true appreciation is assessing whether the way it is put together actually works, and in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the disparate nature of the different narrative strands does work, because they are thematically resonant. The film is an exploration of identity, esteem and choice because these themes fuel the major characters, their development and the collisions between them. The film’s exploration of identity runs through the four major characters, each of whom make significant choices that relate to their own senses of self and how others view them.
Peter is not Spider-Man because he has to be but because he wants to be, he enjoys it, it provides meaning to his life, and so strong is this meaning that he is willing to give up Gwen for it, while the haunting presence of her father (Denis Leary) serves as a grim reminder of the great responsibility that comes with great power (if the writers won’t use the phrase, I will). Gwen makes a number of significant choices both relating to herself solely and to her relationship with Peter, which prove to have significant repercussions that are dramatically satisfying and emotionally powerful. Harry’s initial bitterness is replaced by desperation, whatever sense of identity he may have had replaced with a craving to live.
Most interestingly of all, Max only wants to be noticed, recognised and appreciated. Rather than being power mad, Max expands a brief moment with Spider-Man into an obsession that is both pitiful and endearing, before his unfortunate accident grants him immense power. The first confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro highlights the film’s concern with esteem, as Electro (who has not yet adopted this monicker) is terrified of the police but fills with delight at seeing his face on all the screens of Times Square. He only turns EVIL when his face is replaced with that of Spider-Man, this moment of recognition and attention twisted into murderous rage by being so fleeting. Yet even after he is imprisoned and tortured in an extremely dubious institute for the criminally insane, Max, now Electro, remains desirous of other people’s attention to him – what persuades him to help Harry is the plea “I need you!” Electro does go on a rampage concerned only with power and revenge, but his desire for recognition remains pertinent throughout, best demonstrated when his face is reproduced in light on the side of a building. Previously, Max was replaced on billboard screens with Spider-Man – now he creates his own screen for his image.
The conceit of how we decide who we are is so prevalent in popular culture as to be almost a cliché. It is testament, therefore, to the continued creativity of storymakers that new and exciting explorations continue to be produced, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the recent Divergent. Combinations are key to this continued innovation, as we see the quest for self-identification tied in with how others view the central characters. Furthermore, the film understands that these questions are never really answered. There is doubt, loss, revelation, rejection and heartbreak, but none of these experiences provide final resolution. As the final sequence demonstrates, even when it looks to be over, it’s good to be home.