Despite standout performances from Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Dane DeHaan, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" gets tangled up in a web of its own devising.
There's a lot riding on this sequel, which brings back Garfield and Stone as the too-cute-for-words comic-book couple Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. Here, the lovebirds with the complicated relationship confront dicey new developments in their on-again/off-again romance. And as was the case in 2012 with director Marc Webb's first Spidey venture, the best scenes in "Amazing Spider-Man 2" occur when they -- along with newcomer to the series DeHaan as Harry Osborn -- appear on screen.
The villain, or rather villains, foiling this big-budget 3-D production include the lackluster character of Electro and an unfocused screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner. There's an overriding sense that a lot of taste-testers were called in, resulting in too many ingredients in the soup. As a master chef like Alice Waters would point out, simplicity often nets the best results.
What should have been taken off the menu is the undercooked character Electro (played just adequately by Jamie Foxx). He originates as electrical engineer Max Dillon, an "invisible" employee working for the powerful Oscorp Industries, a shady New York company that conducts questionable military and genetic research. An accident turns him into the blue Electro.
He is creepily obsessed with Spider-Man after our hero saves him, and Dillon's motivations, like those of many characters here, are insufficiently explored and lead to actions that make little sense. Even when he pulls the plug on Manhattan -- a big action sequence that is merely serviceable -- Electro's a dim bulb.
A stronger foe comes in the familiar form of Harry (DeHaan of "The Place Beyond the Pines"), Parker's sullen Richie Rich boyhood buddy and heir to Oscorp, where Peter's dad used to work. The icy DeHaan puts a unique stamp on Harry, making him a depressed loner with daddy issues and dark circles under his eyes that are prone to penetrating stares. (James Franco played Harry as more of a charmer in the earlier Sam Raimi films. Both approaches work.)
DeHaan is one of the film's most interesting characters, but he's not given free range to do what he does best. The same could be said for director Webb, who tries his darndest to convey an emotional resonance with heartfelt moments but seems hemmed in by an overly cluttered screenplay that shuttles us off to more Electro or uninspired quips from Spider-Man as he takes on, briefly, the Rhino (Paul Giamatti). Even Aunt May (Sally Field) is given short shrift, her character left to jabber on about Peter's laundry habits instead of anything of startling significance until late in the game.
Where the movie and Webb are most confident and comfortable is in the romance between Peter and Gwen. Garfield conveys with conviction how tortured and conflicted Peter feels, his character trying to figure out his parents' mysterious deaths while being both attracted to Gwen, played with feistiness and radiance by Stone, and haunted, literally, by the image of her protective dead father (Denis Leary). The scenes between real-life couple Stone and Garfield are sweet, genuine, and -- again -- not given enough time to deepen as much as they should.
That's what stings the most about "Amazing Spider-Man 2." You sense a struggle playing out on the screen, as the movie tries too hard to please comic book fans, to one-up the action of the first film and to advance the story.
That straining effort has "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" jumping around so much that it not only lacks a true identity but loses its footing.
'The AmAzing Spider-Man 2'
* * ½
Rating: PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action/violence)
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field
Director: Marc Webb
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes