This review contains spoilers for The Amazing Spider-Man and for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Read at your own risk.
Let me say this to start: I loved The Amazing Spider-Man. The first one. I loved that film. It had problems, yes, but it also had something that the first Sam Raimi film lacked, and that was characterful heart. What I mean by that is that this movie told an origins story for the Spider-Man character that I felt was lacking in the Raimi film. That film focussed on the powers, the spectacle, and the action more than it ever did the Peter Parker character. That's a real shame, because Peter Parker is a great character. But The Amazing Spider-Man did focus on the character of Peter Parker, and what's more, it showed what the Spider-Man powers were doing to Peter. This showed what he was going through in learning all of this new stuff, instead of just showing us Spider-Man do Spider-Man things.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 tried to do a similar thing. It really did. And for the first act and even a little bit into the second, it did it quite well. After a brief prologue (which I'll get into later), we pick up with Peter and Gwen in a kind of awkward but manageable relationship, but something is tugging at Peter's conscience: see, in the last movie (spoiler alert), Gwen's dad died, and his last wish for Peter was that Peter not involve Gwen in his life, that he keep her out of his life so as to protect her from Spider-Man and the harm that this persona poses to her. And we see here that Peter and Gwen are together... but this is tearing Peter apart on the inside. He feels like he's betraying what Gwen's dad had made him promise to do. This is great! The character-centric elements of this were awesome, and we see this really well in the relationship between Gwen and Peter, and what the Spider-Man persona is doing to them. That is such a strong thematic and story-worthy development, and I absolutely loved this part of the movie; really this whole theme could have been the heart and soul of the work, and to a certain extent it was, but not to the degree that I think it could have or should have been. There's a boat-load of extra stuff going on around this, most of which doesn't work.
Along with this, we have the introduction of Harry Osborne, solving the mystery of Peter's parents, developing the character of Electro... you can see that this movie is trying to do a whole lot, and all of this is in the first two acts. And I know you wouldn't believe me if I told you, but there's still other stuff that they set up in the third and, need I remind you, closing, act of the film! Okay, did these people watch Spider-Man 3? Did they learn nothing from that film? Ambitious though this may be, Amazing 2 feels very crowded, too fan-oriented, and far too focussed on spectacle over substance.
To the film's credit, this one does have one element that all other Spider-Man films lack (even the last one), and that's the off-the-cuff wisecracks that Spider-Man is so known for cracking while in battle. Here, we see him not only fight, but also offer jokes and mockery to his villains, and we also see him save and interact with civilians as he does this. Spider-Man's dialogue while in costume was really amped up for this film, and this really made you feel like you were watching an issue of the comic book! That was great! The action too is plentiful, and looks great! If you're in here for an action flick, then you'll get plenty of that.
But I'd like to talk about the problems that I had with this because there are a great many. First off, let's talk about Harry Osborne and his introduction and character interaction with Peter Parker. This Harry sucks. He sucks as a civilian, he most definitely sucks as a friend of Peter Parker's, and he sucks as the not-villain that he was in the end (more on that later). In this universe, Harry is a long-lost friend of Peter's, much like Eddie Brock was in the Ultimate Spider-Man universe. The problems here are that first, Harry Osborne is not Eddie Brock, and that second, Harry and Peter only share three scenes together (five if you count Harry meeting Spider-Man for the first time, and the final battle). But in terms of character-building scenes, we get only three scenes of these two friends interacting. What makes this bad is that we don't know Harry yet, and yet the film expects us to understand what he and Peter mean to one another right off the bat. I really hate it when superhero films rely on past knowledge of the comics in order for the audience to get through the film. If you want us to know Harry, or to know Peter and Harry's relationship, then you must show us these things in your movie! This didn't do that. It threw Harry in there and then tried to shuffle him in with all the other stuff going on. And the real killer here is that we don't even get to know Peter any better when looking at his character through Harry! These two have no chemistry on screen, and their relationship is entirely at the expense of the plot. Not at all how I like to see writers set up or evolve their characters.
The main villain of the piece is Max Dillion, aka Electro, and he barely fairs better than Harry does in the fleshed-out character department. We're introduced to him very well actually, with Spider-Man saving Max's life. Max is thrilled about this because he's a huge Spider-Man fan... like it's actually one of the creepiest things about the movie! This character is a little bit crazy, but one thing that he's clear on is that Spider-Man is a force for hope and good. This establishes the theme of what Spider-Man means to the people, but the theme is so quiet compared to the rest of the movie that it never gets a chance to resonate with the audience. Much like Peter's guilt over Gwen's dad and the promise he made to him, the theme of what Spider-Man is for never really lifts it's head above water because of all the other things it must contend with. And after Max gets his Electro powers, his character just becomes a bad guy who shoots at you. They did have a nice scene with he and Spider-Man battling and then Spider-Man having to talk to Max to try to calm him down, but that went nowhere and Electro, the script, and supposedly the audience, just forgot about it. I didn't, because that scene was good, so it stuck out in my mind. But Electro's character didn't really learn anything from this encounter. He sees the public cheering on Spider-Man in the wake of this conversation and then has a tantrum and starts attacking people again. So, what was that great conversation for? Electro's theme in the film is that he wants to be noticed, he wants to be somebody. That conversation tried to bring that home for Spider-Man as well, but it didn't do it very well, and after this, the theme is dropped almost entirely. Actually, no. It's dropped, period. Any time it's brought back it is in service of the plot, and so it ruins it's return and resonance with the audience.
It may seem like I'm bitching about the movie (and I am), but I'm not mad at it. I'm more disappointed in it than anything else. That is, I was until the climax... then I got really pissed off. Harry Osborne frees Electro on the grounds that he needs him to get back into Oscorpe after having been kicked out, and Electro needs Harry to get to the power grid that he designed but then had taken from him by the Oscorpe business people... I'm not sure how getting to the physical grid will make you reclaim it legally, but whatever. And then we reach the climax. Electro fights Spider-Man while Gwen tries to shut down the grid to cut off power to Electro (I think... it was kinda complicated), and then once Electro's defeated, out of nowhere comes Harry Osborne in the goblin armor and glider! Okay, so where was the setup for that? Oh, it was in a one-off comment by a computer?! WHAT??? So, what does this say about Harry's character? Absolutely nothing. He's hear because they needed to cram the Green Goblin in here so that Gwen can die.
Let's talk about that death and the lead-up to it. Gwen Stacy's death in the comics is one of the most profound and powerful deaths in all of comic book history, and she is one of the few characters who hasn't been brought back in the 616 continuity as far as I know, because that death was so powerful, so shattering to Peter Parker, that no author could possibly bring her back and do it justice without lessening that death's power. Well, maybe no one's tried to bring her back, but by God that won't stop this film from doing the death again... except so, so, so much worse. And it isn't even the death itself that's bad. It's the setup and the thematic follow-through that is lacking here. What the Green Goblin in the comics was doing to Peter was making him suffer. He was making Peter suffer emotionally as well as physically, and that meant going after his love, Gwen Stacy. Targeting her was to target Peter's life, and that's his greatest weakness. Here, they try to do that, but the Green Goblin was introduced literally seconds before this battle, so it loses any and all hope of having meaning to the audience. And Harry's character throughout the film didn't demonstrate any desire to make Peter suffer; all of his actions geared towards taking Spidey out were for the purposes of the plot, and not in any way related to his character. Because Harry sucked as a character, so too does he suck as a secondary villain who is now apparently the main villain as he and Spidey fight. There was no build-up to he and Spidey being enemies, and there was even less build-up to him wanting to ruin Peter's life by going after Gwen. From here, the expected happens (with a little fake-out that was kinda cute before moving on with the actual death). The death itself was handled actually pretty well. They do make Gwen's death a snapping of the neck like in the comics, and the web forming an outstretched hand was a nice touch, but it didn't mean a whole lot beyond the fact that Gwen was dead; what was the point of it? There's no thematic tie-in with this, no character-driven motivation for this beyond Peter not wanting her to die- they try to bring back Peter's guilt over his betrayal of Gwen's dad in order to foreshadow this, but that theme was dropped an act and a half ago! Really, this whole thing was in there just for fan service, and like Into Darkness's Kirk dies scene, this aped the source material and went through the motions without any thematic- or character-relevance.
Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an ambitious film that tries to hit every Spider-Man mark possible for no reason. It didn't need to be this crowded! We already know that we have at least two more of these things planned; why not save a few of these plots for later films? Have this one be centered on Peter's and Gwen's relationship struggles and Electro's desire to have meaning, cut out Harry and Oscorpe and Peter's parents (which I didn't even touch on because it was such a small part of the film), and just have a solid Spider-Man character-driven movie like the last one. This one feels stuffy and while not as bad as Spider-Man 3, is still a poor successor to the breath of fresh air that was The Amazing Spider-Man.