Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

The Marvel Comics mutant super-team known as the X-Men have had hundreds of adventures since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them in 1963. But few of these adventures are quite as famous as the 1980 story "Days of Future Past." Part of Chris Clairmont and John Byrne's legendary run on the Uncanny X-Men comic during the '70s and '80s, "Days of Future Past" has earned notoriety over the years as not only one of the X-Men's greatest tales, but perhaps one of the best stories Marvel has ever published. And once 20th Century Fox began producing movies based on the X-Men, most fans assumed it was only a matter of time before the story would have some influence on the franchise. And fourteen years after director Bryan Singer helmed the first X-Men movie, he returns to the franchise to translate "Days of Future Past" into cinematic form. And it's actually not a bad flick at all.

By the year 2023, the world will have become a dystopian wasteland. Mutants have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Those that remain, along with their supporters and sympathizers, have either been shuffled off into concentration camps or are killed on sight. The few that remain free have become refugees, constantly on the run from the unstoppable Sentinels, massive robots designed solely for mutant extermination.

With the revelation that Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) has developed the ability to project someone's consciousness back in time into their younger bodies, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) formulates a plan to swing things back to mutantkind's favor. That plan: to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back fifty years to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). An anti-mutant government scientist who began engineering the Sentinels in response to the events of First Class, Trask's murder would lead to widespread support of the Sentinel project. Mystique, meanwhile, would be taken into custody after killing Trask and experimented on while in captivity, her shape-shifting ability allowing Trask's colleagues to develop Sentinels able to mimic and adapt to any and all mutant abilities.

Upon his arrival in 1973, Wolverine finds a younger Xavier (James McAvoy) left emotionally devastated by his school's failure, the majority of the students and faculty having been drafted into the Vietnam War. He's also begun abusing a serum developed by Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), one that negates both his psychic abilities and his paraplegia. Xavier wants nothing to do with Wolverine, even less so once Wolverine suggests they break Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) out of his maximum security prison in a bunker beneath the Pentagon. But Wolverine ultimately talks him into it, their mission proving to be a race against time. Not only does Mystique killing Trask loom ever closer, but the X-Men in 2023 must prevent an approaching Sentinel attack from interrupting an increasingly exhausted Kitty before Wolverine is able to complete his mission.

The "Days of Future Past" story is one of the most popular in the long history of the X-Men, one that many comics devotees were eager to see translated into a movie. And while elements of the story were changed to fit the movie franchise's convoluted canon, X-Men: Days of Future Past is still a pretty cool movie. The franchise has had its ups and downs over the last fourteen years, with missteps like The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine seriously damaging one's perceptions of the series. But Days of Future Past holds up as one of the better entries in the saga.

As I stated earlier, the movie was helmed by Bryan Singer, whose last directorial effort in the franchise was all the way back in 2002 with X2. His name in the credits alone is a welcome sight, but having him at the reins of Days of Future Past actually helps make the movie better. Singer brings an energy and tension to the movie, making it feel like everything is important and that everything matters. The movie stays intense throughout, even as Singer gives us the occasional lighthearted moment to take some of the edge off. (The sequence that sees the super-fast Quicksilver knocking out prison guards while listening to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" is the movie's funniest moment and perhaps its biggest highlight.)

Singer also successfully blends the futuristic tone of his prior efforts in the franchise with the retro feel Matthew Vaughn brought to First Class, surely aiming to please fans of both. And it never feels choppy or inconsistent or jarring, the two styles coming together in a way that feels organic.

Singer makes good use of the movie's conversion into 3D as well. The movie didn't need to be in 3D (does any movie?), but Days of Future Past looks good in the format. It's honestly one of the better 2D-to-3D conversions I've seen in a while, truthfully. A number of elements ― the "Time in a Bottle" sequence, Blink's usage of her portal-generating power against the Sentinels, Magneto picking up a baseball stadium and dropping it over the White House ― look particularly cool. I haven't seen the 2D version and I'm sure it's still visually stunning that way, but I definitely enjoyed the 3D experience for sure.

While Singer's direction puts the movie on solid footing, Simon Kinberg's screenplay is a bit shaky. The story remains faithful to the original comic while still forging its own path and conforming to the realm of the movies. Kinberg does an admirable job adapting the story, making it feel epic while also moving things along at light speed so that it never allows for anything to feel dull or boring.

But that's not to say there aren't any problems with the script. Much like the other X-Men movies, we're overloaded with characters. It seems like every movie in this franchise introduces a bunch of characters from the comics only to bolster the number of people involved in the fight scenes or have someone to kill other than the primary characters, and Days of Future Past is no different. I mean, unless you're a fan of the comics, are you going to recognize Bishop, Blink, Sunspot, or Warpath? This is their first appearance in the movies, and all they do is engage in some action scenes and that's it. I don't think they even mentioned Blink, Sunspot, or Warpath's names outside of the end credits.

I also thought the dialogue was a bit clunky at times, and there's not really a lot of character development. Instead of really building the characters, someone just gives the occasional motivational speech before we move along. Some of the characters are also wasted, especially Quicksilver. I get why they wouldn't want to keep Quicksilver around for long, since, as many other reviews I've seen have pointed out, his powers could have allowed him to solve nearly every problem in no time and the movie would have been an hour long at best. But after that awesome "Time in a Bottle" scene, I wanted to see more of him. Then again, with Marvel Studios able to insert their own take on Quicksilver into next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron thanks to a legal technicality, we won't have to wait long before he turns up again. Though whether or not their version is anything like this one remains to be seen...

But those flaws are all relatively minor in the movie's grand scheme, and could be easily overlooked depending on how into the movie you are. It helps that they've assembled a great cast, though more is asked of the stunt people than the actors. Leading the way is Hugh Jackman, who once again hands in an enthusiastic performance as Wolverine. He obviously loves playing the character no matter how good or bad the movies might be, and that affection makes him a ton of fun to watch. I can understand why people might be getting a little tired of seeing him, considering he's either been the main focus or a crucial part of six of the seven X-Men movies (and his cameo in First Class stole that one). A little Wolverine burnout is understandable. But Jackman gives it 110% here, and it's hard to really dislike him.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender handle the rest of the movie's heavy lifting with their strong turns on Professor Xavier and Magneto. While I still don't think they have quite the same chemistry as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (whose appearances in this movie are welcomed despite their unfortunate underutilization), but both McAfoy and Fassbender bring plenty of emotion to their characters and once again make them their own.

Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, seems hampered by a bit of lukewarm writing. She's an immensely talented actress, but Mystique's struggle, her inner debate between being redeemed in the eyes of those who care about her or fully turning to the dark side by killing Trask, doesn't feel like it was written very strongly. It comes off a little flat, though Lawrence does her absolute best with it regardless. Also contributing his best was the actor playing Mystique's target, Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask. Dinklage isn't given a tremendous lot to do, but he's still very impressive. He never goes over the top or overly malicious to the point of being cartoony. Dinklage plays Trask not as a crazed mad scientist, but with a cold edge, almost detached from it all, and makes for a fine villain when it's all said and done.

Much like how Professor Xavier continues to have hope for Mystique and refuses to believe that she is too far gone to be redeemed, X-Men: Days of Future Past continues the spark lit by First Class and pushes the franchise back towards greatness. It isn't a perfect movie, but it's a satisfying one, and it leaves me looking forward to seeing where the franchise goes from here. And if the post-credits stinger, one that hints towards the next sequel, is any indication, there are bigger things ahead. As far as Days of Future Past goes, it's a big help in restoring my faith in the franchise. And assuming things go well in 2016 when X-Men: Apocalypse hits theaters, The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine will be all but a faint memory.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

The legendary beast Godzilla has appeared in thirty movies during his six decades of cinematic existence. Some have been good, some bad. But few have been quite as infamous, at least among Americans, as Roland Emmerich's attempt to bring Godzilla to the United States in 1998. The movie was a complete disaster, panned by critics and moviegoers alike. Rumor has it that the movie was so embarrassing that Toho Company vowed to never again let Hollywood sink their hooks into Godzilla.

But sixteen years have passed since then, and a full decade since the big guy's most recent appearance in Toho's Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. And now, as fans celebrate Godzilla's sixtieth anniversary, Hollywood has gotten a second chance to not only revive him, but reintroduce him to American audiences. This time, there's no Matthew Broderick, no Puff Daddy sampling Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack, no velociraptor-like baby Godzillas rampaging through Madison Square Garden. There's just the King of the Monsters, come to reclaim his throne with one hell of an amazing movie.

We begin in Japan circa 1999, at a nuclear power plant near the town of Janjira. Bizarre seismic activity originating in the Philippines has worried Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), the plant's American supervisor. While his superiors dismiss his fears that it's just aftershocks from a recent minor earthquake, Joe's research leads him to believe that it's not that simple. He warns that the plant should be shut down until these tremors pass in the event that something dangerous occurs, but he's brushed off and told there's nothing to worry about. But when you're told you don't have to worry about anything, that's when you have to worry about everything. The plant is struck by what a massive earthquake that ruptures the reactor core, killing Joe's wife in the process. The accident is attributed to earthquakes, and Janjira is quarantined as a result.

Fifteen years pass, and Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning home to his family from a fourteen-month tour of duty with the U.S. Navy. But no sooner has Ford started settling in with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) than he has to leave again, this time called away by the news that Joe has been arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area. In the fifteen years since the Janjira incident, Joe has become a crackpot conspiracy theorist, convinced that there's more to the story than a simple earthquake. He's been studying every scrap of information and following every clue he could find in regards to what happened, his search for the truth having left he and Ford estranged from one another.

Ford fears for his father's sanity, but agrees to help him sneak back into Janjria and retrieve some vital data from a set of computer disks left behind in their old house. Things get off to a bizarre start when Joe notices that there are no traces of radiation in the area, but when they're busted by a team of security guards shortly after retrieving the disks, things almost immediately get weirder. Joe and Ford are escorted to the nuclear plant, learning in the process that the whole earthquake thing was indeed a cover-up. The quarantine was not to keep people away from radiation, but to allow a multinational team of scientists to study the true cause of the Janjira accident: a massive chrysalis that has formed in the middle of the facility and has effectively consumed all of the toxic radiation in the area.

It is not long after the Brodys arrive that the chrysalis hatches, unleashing a gigantic, ferocious monster that lays waste to everything surrounding it. It escapes to the ocean and heads for the United States, where its mate has awakened from its slumber in the Nevada desert. As the military scrambles to find a way to kill what they've nicknamed the "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms," the mating call of these beasts has roused another creature from its long dormancy deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. The legendary beast known as Godzilla is once again on the prowl, on a warpath that will intersect with that of the MUTOs in San Francisco.

If you're a fan of Godzilla, then allow me to bring you some good news: This movie is nothing short of awesome. It perfectly combines the awe and spectacle that the best big-budget summer blockbusters have to offer with the fear and dread of the original movie from 1954. Godzilla is an utterly amazing experience from start to finish, one that makes going to the movies totally worth it. I know this sounds hyperbolic, like I'm trying to get this review quoted in one of the commercials or on the DVD cover. But Godzilla is the kind of movie that's sure to please fans of action, science fiction, and disaster flicks, and especially those who love Godzilla and giant monsters in general.

This new take on Godzilla was brought to the screen by Gareth Edwards, who is no stranger to monster movies. His feature film debut, in fact, was the critically acclaimed (and appropriately titled) film festival favorite Monsters in 2010. Armed with a budget that makes the one he had for Monsters look like pocket change, Edwards makes the absolute best of it. He puts forth a fabulous effort, building a tense atmosphere that makes the movie feel like danger is around every corner waiting to pounce.

Edwards is constantly building here, seeming as if he's trying to outdo himself with every scene. He not only ups the ante with each big action sequence, but he also maintains the suspense in the scenes between these action sequences. The characters remain in danger for practically the entire movie, the monsters threatening to take them out at every turn. It is the growing feeling of dread caused by this danger that I thought made the movie more satisfying. It brought a sense of urgency I felt was sadly lacking from other big-budget monster movies in recent years.

Edwards also makes sure that the movie's post-production conversion into 3D was a successful one. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shoot the film in such a way that it still looks great whether you see it in 3D or its 2D counterpart, but having seen the 3D version, the added depth really adds to the theatrical experience. It makes the monsters feel bigger than life, almost as if they could have reached out and squashed you if you saw it on a big enough IMAX screen. There's something about it that makes the movie feel more epic as we're immersed into the world Godzilla and the MUTOs occupy. And I know 3D movies aren't for everybody, but it's worth it for Godzilla.

But while Edwards tries setting the movie apart with his direction and the 3D effects are fantastic, the screenplay has some of the same flaws as other, similar movies. Written by Max Borenstein (with some uncredited contributions from David Callaham, David S. Goyer, Drew Pearce, and Frank Darabont), the script's biggest problem is that we're stuck spending so much time with dull, underdeveloped human characters while Godzilla and the MUTOs feel secondary. A lot of monster movies will try emphasizing the human drama in an attempt to give them a little more emotional weight. But a lot of times, it's hard to really give a crap about the characters when all you really want to see are cities getting destroyed. The idea of balancing the human drama with the thrills of sci-fi chaos has might have worked in Independence Day, but that was an exception rather than a rule.

And this is particularly frustrating with Godzilla. The character of Joe Brody is really intriguing, and the idea of him following the clues of a conspiracy that's been covering up the existence of these monsters for decades is actually a pretty cool setup for a movie. But without giving away too much, the character disappears from the movie at the end of the first act and we're stuck with the typical monster movie format where we just tag along with some boring, one-dimensional characters when we could be watching giant monsters trashing Las Vegas and San Francisco. You've got a fascinating character that's worth following and is played by a talented, award-winning actor who's just come off one of the hottest shows on television, so why not keep him around for longer? Surely someone who worked on the script could have added more scenes with him, just to shake things up rather than run with the clichéd "military vs. the monsters" routine.

The lack of depth in regards to the characters also has an adverse affect on the cast's performances. Elizabeth Olsen suffers the worst from this, as she's given absolutely nothing whatsoever to do. They could have nearly edited all her scenes out of the movie and nobody would have noticed, because Olsen doesn't contribute anything of note to the movie. She's a talented actress, and not giving her at least a little something, even a lame "damsel in distress" moment, is a real waste.

Ken Watanabe suffers a similar fate, in that outside of delivering the occasional expository or pseudo-philosophical monologue, he doesn't have a lot to do either. A few scenes where his character, a scientist working with a multinational conglomerate tasked with studying the monsters and keeping their existence a secret, meets Bryan Cranston's character would have been great. But alas, that was not to be.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile, is also stuck in a weakly written role. But to his credit, he's given some plenty to do and is trying his hardest to make a go of it. I've only seen Taylor-Johnson as the dorky title character from Kick-Ass and its sequel, so I wasn't sure what to expect of him as a tough, monster-fighting soldier. But he's decent enough in the role, even if pretty much anybody could have played his character.

But one actor stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, that being Bryan Cranston. It's a real shame that Cranston's character exits the movie so early, because he really should have been the main character. Cranston is so good that he steals the entire movie, leaving one pining for his return whenever anyone other than Godzilla and the MUTOs are on the screen. His performance is captivating, pulling you in and making you want to see more of him. It actually makes me wonder why I've never watched Breaking Bad, because if Cranston is this good here, I'm sure I'd be even more impressed there.

I know I've spent the last little bit pointing out everything I didn't like about Godzilla, but the truth of the matter is that the movie is one of the most fun, exciting spectacles I've seen in a long time. You're really missing out on something awesome if you choose to skip it. Godzilla is the kind of summer blockbuster that makes it fun to go to the movies this time of year. So what if the script is a little weak? You're not seeing this movie for the script. You're seeing it for monsters raising hell on large metropolitan areas, and Godzilla delivers in spades. And finally getting to see Godzilla up on the big screen in an American-made movie that's actually good? That's a great feeling. So get lost, Pacific Rim. Suck it, Cloverfield. Long live the king.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla (1954)

Giant monster movies can be traced as far back as the 1930s if not earlier, but the threat of nuclear warfare brought the genre into a new era with the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953. The movie introduced the idea of atomic-created creatures wreaking havoc on mankind, an idea that would fuel many a Hollywood sci-fi flick during the '50s and '60s. It would also bring us one of the most enduring and beloved icons to ever come out of Japanese pop culture: the one and only Godzilla. Inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Japan's still tender wounds following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monster known in his native land as "Gojira" has appeared in no less than thirty movies over the years. But every legend has to begin somewhere, so let's go back in time sixty years to Godzilla's first appearance in 1954 and see where the "King of the Monsters" got his start.

With a flash of light and an ominous roar, a fishing boat off the coast of tiny Odo Island is destroyed. A rescue vessel sent to investigate meets a similar fate, its survivors returning to the island swearing that they'd encountered an enormous beast. Their story oddly parallels old local legends about villagers who, long ago, would make sacrifices to appease an ancient sea monster named "Godzilla." Common sense might dictate that these stories are indeed just that, stories. So when these old tales prove themselves true and evidence of Godzilla's existence appears on Odo Island, everyone is naturally taken off guard. But no one is truly prepared for what happens when he surfaces in Tokyo.

Awakened by the recent nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean, the arrival of this prehistoric, dinosaur-like creature sends the people of Japan into a panic. Godzilla proves to be unfazed by every attempt to combat it, shrugging off the military's heavy artillery as he rampages through Tokyo. The government turns to renowned scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has developed a powerful, top-secret weapon ominously named "the Oxygen Destroyer." Dr. Serizawa is extremely hesitant to allow it to be used, fearful of the dire consequences that would incur if it were to be used for the wrong reasons. But as Godzilla continues his reign of terror, the Oxygen Destroyer might be Japan's only hope.

When most people nowadays think of the classic Godzilla movies from Japan, they think of campy movies with bad English dubbing and actors in rubber suits stepping on cardboard buildings and fighting military vehicles that look like toys. But the original movie is actually different from the silliness from the '60s and '70s that most American audiences might be familiar with. It's in truth really more a blend of drama and horror than anything else. The titular monster is a walking, living, fire-breathing embodiment of the atomic bomb, the personification of a fiery nuclear terror and of a fear that said terror could potentially return. This is reflected in the movie's somber atmosphere, one that makes the movie feel as if a dark cloud were hanging over it.

Much of this is thanks to the skillful direction courtesy of the late Ishirō Honda, who would direct six more Godzilla movies (and in the process helped to introduce the world to other classic creatures like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah) before his retirement in 1975. But movies like this weren't so common in 1954, their tropes and clichés not really fully defined yet. That put Honda in relatively uncharted waters with Godzilla, which really helps it to stand out from the multitude of other giant monster movies. It doesn't bend of break any of the genre's rules because there aren't any to be bent or broken. The movie is instead helping to establish them as it goes.

I was thoroughly impressed with Honda's direction because of how well he builds and sustains the movie's mood and atmosphere. He isn't making some summer blockbuster, something we'd expect out of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay. He's not making some campy, corny monster movie. Instead, he is more intent on making absolutely sure we know that Godzilla is to be feared. This couldn't be more evident than in an especially chilling moment where we see shell-shocked survivors weeping as Godzilla marches through the fiery rubble that was once Tokyo as if he were a king surveying his domain, holding dominion over all he sees. He's a destroyer, a horrifying force of nature that seeks only to crush everything in its path. That is the movie Ishirō Honda wanted to make, and he was more than successful.

And looking back at the movie so many decades after its release, the effects do indeed look dated and at times a little hokey. But much like King Kong and its stop-motion ape before it, there's something to Godzilla that makes them effective. You never question it, but sit back and watch with amazement. I would credit a lot of this with how Honda crafts the movie, using the cinematography, editing, and Akira Ifukube's now iconic music to make something that's greater than the sum of its parts.

The movie's script also surprised me. Written by Honda and Takeo Murata, the story does feature some of the same tropes that would come to be seen in future monster movies. But unlike many of those others, Honda and Murata handle them well. For starters, the characters are all written smartly. There's a shock and a horror that surrounds them, and each one is affected by it in a believable way. A lot of movies within the genre just don't care about the characters yet still try cramming down our throats anyway. Writers just keep trotting out the same clichéd crap time after time because they think audiences won't care either. Just as long as the monster occasionally wrecks stuff, who gives a damn about the characters?

But Honda and Murata make us care. The characters don't get caught up in their own pointless drama or put themselves in potentially harmful situations just to set up action sequences. Instead, the characters are intelligent and have a believability that is refreshing to see. Even the movie's love triangle is treated with a certain amount of class, as all three parties realize the gravity of the situation in front of them and all but say they've got bigger fish to fry than their own problems. This subplot is handled delicately enough that the characters all stay reasonable and unlike a lot of monster movies, the audience never wants Godzilla to squash them as soon as possible.

Secondly, Honda and Murata find a way to equally balance Godzilla and the human characters. I've seen more than a few instances where they spend so much time focusing on uninteresting people and petty squabbles with one another when you'd think they'd be more worried about the monster. But Godzilla rightfully remains the focus of the movie, while never sacrificing the characters either. We don't see a bunch of boring nitwits trying to deal with their love lives or a platoon of meathead soldiers who squabble amongst themselves too much. Instead we're given characters who have their own lives, their own ordeals, only to have everything shaken up by the arrival of Hell itself. Considering the movie's allegorical nature, it makes a lot of sense to tackle the idea this way. And you know what? It worked. It really worked.

But I won't lie and say everything about the movie is top shelf. In truth, some of the acting is a little on the hit-or-miss side. Nobody's awful or brings the movie down, but like a lot of movies, some actors are just outshined by others. Momoko Kōchi isn't particularly memorable, while Akira Takarada is solid yet at the same time just kinda there too, if that makes any sense. Meanwhile, Takashi Shimura (an actor known for his frequent collaborations with legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and fresh off a starring role in Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai a few months prior to Godzilla's release) brings a level of gravitas to his role as a paleontologist that wants not to kill, but to study Godzilla.

But they're all topped by Akihiko Hirata's strong, resonating performance. The character has a massive weight on his shoulders, and Hirata makes it believable. The way he approaches the role makes him fascinating to watch. He plays it with a stoicism that belies an inner struggle and turmoil. You can tell he's scared to death but tries to stay cool and keep it together. It's an impressive bit of acting that I really, really liked.

Of the thirty movies Godzilla has starred in over the past six decades, I doubt many of them could hold a candle to the sheer power of the original. It gives us a Godzilla that is a natural disaster on two legs, an amphibious nightmare as devastating as the nuclear weapons his creators intended for him to represent. No one could have possibly foreseen the impact that Godzilla would have on monster movies and pop culture in general, but regardless, he got off to a truly amazing start. Happy anniversary, big guy, and here's to another sixty years.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

When Sony Pictures announced in 2010 that they would be rebooting their Spider-Man film franchise after a fourth movie in Sam Raimi's series just couldn't get made, the response was mixed. Fans just didn't want to see the story start over. And that reboot, titled The Amazing Spider-Man, still managed to be a big hit in spite of some lukewarm reviews. But I enjoyed the movie and anticipated where the story could go. And two years later, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has arrived to more lukewarm reviews, and I still had to see it anyway.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is having the time of his life being Spider-Man. He gets to help people, much of New York City loves him, and even the cops have began to mellow out in regards to his presence. The catch, though, is that it's started to strain his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). They're madly in love with one another, but Peter is troubled by the promise he made to Gwen's father as he died, a promise to stay away from her before she too incurs the wrath of Spider-Man's enemies. This causes more and more tension between them despite their affection for one another, with Gwen growing more and more frustrated by the feeling that Peter is keeping her at arm's length.

But as is the case in most superhero movies, things quickly get more complicated than the protagonists would prefer. It begins with Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nerdy, socially awkward electrical engineer at Oscorp Industries. The frequently mistreated Max idolizes Spider-Man after the friendly neighborhood web-slinger saved him from being hit by a car. But Spider-Man can't save him from another accident, one that sees Max slip while repairing a damaged power line in an Oscorp laboratory and fall into a tank of genetically-altered electric eels. Now imbued with the ability to absorb, discharge, and manipulate electricity, an increasingly paranoid Max ― now answering to the name "Electro" ― now has an outlet with which to strike back against all those who have wronged him... including Spider-Man.

The arrival of Electro in Spider-Man's life is mirrored by the return of a childhood friend into Peter Parker's. With the recent death of his estranged father, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) has inherited the position of CEO of Oscorp. But he has also inherited the rare, strange disease that killed his father, and Harry believes that the experiments with spiders that led to Spider-Man gaining his powers could also cure him. Those spiders were thought destroyed after a number of lawsuits against Oscorp, so the only way to acquire the necessary elements to create a cure would be through Spider-Man's blood. But Spidey shoots him down, claiming that nobody's certain if that would work at all. The further bad news that Oscorp's board of directors has framed him for several acts of corporate malfeasance and voted to have him ejected from the company drives Harry over the breaking point. His anger with both Spider-Man and Oscorp lead him to seek an alliance with Electro and bring their enemies to their knees.

I'll admit to entering The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with a wee bit of trepidation. I enjoyed the first one for what it was worth, but still left the theater thinking it was okay but not great. And I fully expected the sequel to be more of the same without bothering to improve or anything like that. Basically, I thought it might get hit with a devastating case of "sequelitis." But much like its predecessor, I was actually rather surprised by how well The Amazing Spider-Man 2 turned out. It's got its fair share of flaws and imperfections that keep it from being all that it could be, but I still thought it was entertaining. And sometimes, isn't that really all you can ask for?

Returning to the franchise is director Marc Webb, who once again makes the movie feel like everything that happens is a grand adventure. He finds a nice balance between the slower, character-driven scenes and the fast-paced action sequences that allows both to have a bigger-than-life scope. Everything feels grander than it probably really is. And those action sequences, oh my goodness. They're exciting, fun, and engaging, and while the movie doesn't really match the intensity of last month's superhero epic Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Webb still hits the right notes when it comes to putting together something cool.

Webb also tries to duplicate his success from the previous movie in regards to the 3D effects, but here, the whole effort just seems pointless. There are some moments that look really cool in 3D, but it never really strikes me as something that contributes to the movie. I just came away with the feeling that the movie was only in 3D because the first one was, so they might as well keep going. Besides, every summer blockbuster nowadays has to be in 3D, right? That's how it works, isn't it?

But that's easily overcome by just watching the 2D version instead. Where the movie really starts falling apart, however, is its script. Credited to Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner, the script gets bogged down because way too much is going on than needs to be. It gets exhausting after a while because there are a few too many plot threads being strung along. We've got Peter and Gwen's love story, Peter learning more about how and why his parents died, the genesis of Electro, and the downfall of Harry Osborn. All we needed was to bring back the whole subplot of Peter trying to find Uncle Ben's murderer from the first movie and we'd have been set. It never really seems focused on telling one succinct story and suffers because of it.

I also thought the introduction of Harry and his quick evolution into the Green Goblin was handled all wrong. The character feels like he was added into the movie as an afterthought, as if Kurtzman, Orci, and Pinkner were told they had to include him by the studio and/or Marvel Comics. He and Peter never really feel like they're old friends at all, and the decision to rush him into villainy so quickly rather than build any relationships with the characters outside of "good guy vs. bad guy" makers the whole thing feel like a waste. Did your movie absolutely need to have two villains? I know Sony wants to make a movie based on the "Sinister Six" gang of villains sooner rather than later so they'd want to start introducing its members as quickly as possible, but come on now.

But the movie at least benefits from some very good acting. The weakest of the cast is Dane DeHaan, who I didn't think was particularly bad, but just okay at best. I actually didn't think he had a believable chemistry with Andrew Garfield at first, but upon further reflection, that awkwardness in their scenes actually fit how the relationship between the characters was supposed to be. On second thought, DeHaan's performance might not have been as weak as I believed at first. Perhaps those weaknesses could be more easily blamed on how poor the script is and what DeHaan had to work with.

Moving along to the movie's other villain, I really liked Jamie Foxx's performance. The whole "tread-upon nerdy guy is corrupted by power" thing is kind of a cliché (DeHaan actually played a similar character in Chronicle two years ago), but Foxx still pulls it off with gusto. He's obviously having a great time playing the character, and his sympathetic portrayal of Electro both before and after he acquires his superpowers makes one want to follow his every move.

But the true highlights of the movie are Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Both are immensely likable and engaging, and they have a cute, believable chemistry together. Individually, they're great as well. Stone gives Gwen a bravery, strength, and intelligence that are really great to see from a love interest in a superhero movie. Gwen is no damsel in distress, and it's through Stone's performance that one could understand why Peter would love her so much.

Garfield, meanwhile, is fantastic as Spider-Man. He's very charismatic in the role, effortlessly balancing the movie's action, drama, and humor. Garfield approaches Peter in a way that makes him feel like the character's actually stepped out of the comics, always making jokes to throw his enemies off-guard and diffuse tense situations while struggling with a rocky personal life. He plays it very well, like he was born to be Spider-Man. And no matter what flaws this movie or its predecessor may have, they're both far better for having Garfield and Stone in front of the camera.

I won't lie, I did enjoy much of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I thought it was really entertaining for the most part. But the problems I had with its script held it back from being the wondrous spectacle I thought it could have been. I guess I've been spoiled by Sam Raimi's first two Spidey movies, but it just feels like there's something lacking here. There's slick direction and some fantastic acting to be found here, but at the end of the day, I thought it was just another sequel that felt like more of the same. The movie could have been more than just "not bad." It could have been great. I can settle for not bad, but I shouldn't have to. I do look forward to seeing where the franchise goes from here, especially considering how this movie ended, but all I can do with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is just shrug and say, "Eh, it's alright, I guess." And as much as I hate to say it, sometimes that's the best you can ask for.

Final Rating: ***