See, there's this bright, nerdy high-school kid, who gains superhuman powers after he gets bitten by an altered spider. Initially, he wants to use his abilities for personal gain, but after the death of someone close to him.... Wait, you've heard this story before?
So has everyone. Spider-man has become one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world, holding rank with Superman and Batman. Sony bought the rights to use the character in film some time ago and, in 2002, found wild success with a movie starring Tobey Maguire, directed by Sam Raimi. They went on to make two more sequels, each less impressive than the last. The series stalled after that; a fourth picture never materialized. Sony was about to lose their rights. They had to make some kind of Spider-man movie. Many people expected the shaken company would be stirred to recast the lead actor and just pick up where they left off with a new adventure and some fresh ideas.
Instead, they decided to start over and retell Spidey's origin, a mere five years after the last Raimi Spider-man swung through theaters. It becomes impossible to review 2012's The Amazing Spider-man without (1) inquiring if a reboot was the best approach to take and (2) comparing Marc Webb's film to Raimi's. Nevertheless, better questions remain: Does this Spider-man hold up as a film? How will the fans feel about it? And, is it worth staying for the credit sequence teaser, now as obligatory to Marvel Comics films as a cameo by Stan Lee?
Just as Stan Lee wanted to take the comic-book superhero and make him slightly more realistic, so this film better grounds Spider-man in something a little closer to the real world, without losing sight of the comic-book origins. Raimi crafted a film with a more comic-book sensibility, colourful, bold, and a little hyperbolic. Raimi's Spider-man, the first for the big screen, was an event in the way this film could not be. It gave us a couple iconic movie moments (something this film lacks), and it did a better job of introducing the various familiar elements of the Spider-man mythos. Webb's film more clearly captures the essence of the central character, and it does a better job of setting up for future sequels—in part, by leaving so many familiar elements out of the first film: no photographer's job at the Bugle, no Osborn family with tortuous dynamics (Osborn is a reference, but not a character), no trace of MJ, and no echoes of the cartoon theme song. Nobody says "With great power comes great responsibility," and Spidey's early efforts at being a superhero have to do with revenge, not living up to a moral precept. Indeed, Spider-man takes some time to make an appearance; much of the film concerns Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone do an excellent job capturing the essence of these characters. Behind the mask and the quips, the original, classic Spider-man was a broody guy who took a lot of punches. The comic-book Gwendolyn (pre-J. Michael Straczynski retcons) had a core of innocence and tragedy. We see all of those elements here, played convincingly.
Strong though these actors are, however, Hollywood really needs to stop telling us 29-year-olds are 17. This becomes especially annoying, given how much this film takes on the ethos and angst of teendom. I can suspend disbelief, of course, but if the plan is to give us a teenage Spider-man-- not even a high school senior yet-- take the risk and give us teen actors. That would be fresh and original.
The supporting cast members also turn in impressive performances. Moody Rhys Ifans is strong, if a bit Marvel-melodramatic and inconsistent, as Curtis Connor. I was leery of the performer they cast as Captain Stacy, but he turned out to be not too much of an asshole, and he had good repartee with Garfield. Chris Zylka only appears briefly, but he's far more the Flash Thompson of the original comics than Joe Manganiello was in Raimi's films. Speaking of Raimi's films: Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson were perfect in those as Aunt May and Uncle Ben, but Sally Field and Martin Sheen bring weight to the roles (and I can't wait for the future moment when Spider-man realizes his aunt also has super-powers). Stan Lee, meanwhile, gets his funniest cameo appearance to date.
The characters have a little too much exposition to deliver, but that problem emanates from the script, not the actors-- which brings us to the plot.
The movie's first act does a great job grounding the characters and their world. Parker reacts to his newfound powers like an adolescent to puberty: with awkwardness, humour, and bravado. He's a good person, but the emotional turmoil of his situation often overwhelms him. There's a scene in a New York subway, heavy on goofy laughs, in which Parker accidentally beats up a crowd of people while apologizing. A woman also loses her shirt. It feels very adolescent, and that is not a criticism.
The film struggles to keep its balance and often falters. Peter wanders into OsCorp on flimsy premises and then sneaks into a high security area, where he can tamper with a delicate experiment. Later, the 17-year-old intern of a man who has been sacked has full access to sensitive equipment. Seriously, most modern high schools have better security than OsCorp.
The Amazing Spider-man fails mostly in its third act, which relies heavily on implausible developments, even for a film where altered spiders convey superhuman powers. The film also throws out a lot of problematic threads it fails to resolve, and I frankly dread the moment in, presumably, the next film, when the conspiracy involving Peter's parents will resurface.
Special effects form an important part of the supehero movie, and this one features excellent wallcrawler visuals. I never felt like I was watching excerpts from the videogame. The lizard CGI work well, never entirely erasing the humanity of the chimerical villain.
Spider-man also plays theaters at what I hope against evidence is the end of the millennial 3-D craze. For all of the impressive shots of Spidey swinging over NYC, this film gives us little reason to be in 3-D, even if you're among those who still think 3-D movies are a pretty nifty idea.
The Amazing Spider-man then, is a good summer film, not a great one. It features some strong performances, and it distances itself enough from its predecessors to be worthwhile. Despite changes to the origin, it establishes (along with artificial web-shooters) a tone and continuity a little closer to the original comic book. This Spider-man can still outswing the previous one-- if the story and characters grow with the sequels.
Pity, though, that Sony retains the rights-- since it means Spidey likely will never meet the Avengers.1
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Knowles, featuring characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man / Peter Parker
Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy
Rhys Ifans as The Lizard / Dr. Curt Connors
Denis Leary as Captain Stacy
Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben
Sally Field as Aunt May
Irrfan Khan as Rajit Ratha
Campbell Scott as Richard Parker
Embeth Davidtz as Mary Parker
Chris Zylka as Flash Thompson
Max Charles as Peter Parker (Age 4)
Kari Coleman as Helen Stacy
Leif Gantvoort as Fateful Criminal
Stan Lee as Librarian
The closing credits teaser is not very interesting.
1. UPDATE: Due in part to the fact that the sequels grew worse, not better, the movie companies struck a deal and Spidey finally swung into the cash-cow that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.