(There will be some spoilers in this review. I have, however, refrained from spoiling major plot elements that you wouldn't have learned about from the trailers. I will discuss some of these elements in the footnotes, though, as they need to be discussed in the context of my rant.)
Captain American: the Winter Soldier (2014). Alas, it was not to be.
If it's not clear, I'm going to tear this film a new one. But to make you feel better, I'll start with some things that I liked about the film.
First, though I know there are some problematic gender-related issues with regards to Peter and Gwen's relationship, I can't help but admire the dedication to the complexity of their relationship. There's a sense here that their relationship is real, based on a mutual interest in what one another is feeling or desires (in life or a relationship). This contrast with the Spider-Man elements is needed to humanize the character and remind us that, yes, Peter Parker really is just a young dude. One of the things I loved about ASM2 was its brief focus on Gwen's career and the decisions she makes (a reminder that Gwen is actually a young professional on her way to bigger things than just "graduating high school" -- this film, in a way, is as much about her as it is Spider-Man, or at least feels that way). This is not a movie where the woman is asked to give everything up for the guy; instead, Gwen and Peter both understand that Gwen's opportunities abroad are one-of-a-kind, and that it would be unfair for him to ask her to stay simply for a high school romance. In the end, it's Peter who offers a solution that involves neither of them giving anything up at all: he'll move with her. I don't know how often we see compromise of this sort in film; regardless, it was an element that gave the film a bit of life.
Visually, the film is quite beautiful. I particularly liked the look of Electro and the incorporation of sounds (like a giant, walking tesla coil) into his lightning-style powers. His final fight with Spider-Man perfectly captures the flexibility and dexterity of Spider-Man and the raw, emotional fury of Electro. This is obviously a CG-heavy film, but I think they kept the CG at a minimum, allowing for enough of the real to shine through when it was needed. This is not something that happens often in CG-heavy blockbusters (the Hobbit movies are a prime example). You'll still need to suspend your disbelief more than normal, but ASM2 at least makes it (mostly) easy.
That said, this is a film that suffers from a lot of structural problems, most notably in the fact that it has so many bloody things going on. For example, there's almost no need to fulfill the "what happened to Peter's parents" narrative here, as it serves as a distraction more than anything else. The resolution isn't so much a resolution as a relinquishment to the necessity of an ending. We just get to the end and...eh, we're done with this now. Sorta. Add onto that Harry's narrative, which I'll discuss in more depth later, the relationship between Peter and Gwen, what happens to Aunt May, the Peter/Gwen's dead daddy conflict, and Electro's origin story and you have almost as many subplots as the first Hobbit movie in a space no less than 27 minutes smaller. It's a bit much, and it certainly feels overbearing here, as if the audience is supposed to keep everything cohesive in their mind as the film jumps us about between conflicts.
Second, though many have had problems with Jamie Foxx's take on Electro/Max Dillon, I personally found the character a perfect villain for Spider-Man -- he also happens to be the only sympathetic villain in this movie. The challenge he presents is psychological (an unhinged, maligned man who terrorizes the city out of fear), physical (electric shocks hurt, after all), and intellectual (electric shocks also damage Spider-Man's tech, which requires him to adapt -- see above about Gwen Stacy refusing to be a damsel in distress). If we were to leave it at these two main characters, I think the film would be better for it. Alas, that is not so.
Additionally, we have the Rhino (Paul Giamatti), who may be the worst thing about this entire film. This feels like a moment when Giamatti needed money and decided "eh, I don't need to actually act." For most of his lines, I had no idea what he meant to say. I think he might have said "spider" once. Maybe. Giamatti blurts and yells these lines in a horrendously bad Russian "accent," providing nice bookends of absolute trash to an otherwise OK film. We begin and end with Giamatti giving up on his acting career (or at least doing what may be the most brilliant piece of meta acting, in which he pretends to be an actor named Paul Giamatti who has given up on his career and accepted the Rhino role only to blurt things out like a raging drunk turd; if this is the case, I say he needs an Oscar nomination). I also have no idea what we're supposed to think about the Rhino. Is he a serious villain? Is he a caricature? Is this a new way to represent the comic book format, where a film refuses to conclude by simply throwing random villains into the mix to keep Spider-Man busy? Whatever is going on, it's not unlike getting clawed in the eye by a cat.
This is the pre-CG look. Imagine this is what the Rhino actually
looked like in the movie and you'll have a sense of how ridiculous
Paul Giamatti is in ASM2.
I really wanted to like this film. It's certainly better in places than the first film, but it is ultimately a mess that tarnishes all of its good with horrendous cinematic sins. But it made a lot of money, so don't expect the writers to do much to correct these errors in the next movie...As a thematic "ride," it is quite fun. As a film, it is subpar.
Cast: 3/5 (on the basis that Giamatti's performance is so utterly horrendous that he drags everyone else down with him, even though he's not on the same screen with most anyone else; also: the Green Goblin mostly gives me the heebee-jeebees instead of a "threatening" or "truly villainous" vibe)
Overall: 2.9/5 (58%)
Inflated Grade: C- (for a bloated plot, poor direction, and terrible performances)
: The film, sadly, shoots itself in the foot by killing off Gwen Stacy, presumably as a form of fridging. Instead of having her leave Peter for a special program in England, they opt to kill her off as motivation for Peter to, well, I guess do more of what he's already been doing. Wouldn't it have made more sense to have had her leave the relationship to pursue her own path? Wouldn't it have been a better message to remind us that sometimes relationships end? Nope. The film says "Gwen must die because she had to die." Derp derp. It basically nerfs everything Gwen did in this film, however little; she's rendered into a corpse, because corpses are less dramatic than a fully-realized woman who makes her own decisions which sometimes hurt the hero and doesn't die because of them. In effect, the message the film relates about young men learning to respect women's choices, as Peter does, is undercut by the realization that letting women do that will apparently get them killed (I'm not kidding; the film reinforces this message, probably by accident).
: Electro actually plays a version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." I don't know how many people caught that in the theater. I certainly didn't, but upon watching an online clip from the finale, it became crystal clear.
: We learn throughout the film that Max Dillon, a socially awkward fellow who wishes he were liked, has been systematically abused by basically everyone, such that his fragile trust in Spider-Man is so easily shattered along with everything else.