The Amazing Spider-Man | Film review
The question everyone wants to know is: Why? Specifically, why reboot Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise, which kicked off to acclaim in 2002 and surpassed itself with an even better sequel (Spidey versus Doctor Octopus!)? Sure, the third film went awry in 2007, thanks to its mishmash of a script, but it made a mint at the box office. Another actor could've jumped into the spandex after Tobey Maguire quit without starting the whole shebang over.
But that's not what we get today, with the arrival of The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by the aptly named Marc Webb (a native of Madison, Wisconsin) and starring The Social Network's Andrew Garfield in a winning lead performance. While plenty of fans would've been happy just to see their hero leap into action against a new villain, the powers-that-be at Marvel Comics decided to start over again. Meaning: another origin story. It's such a strange choice. We don't need to see how and why James Bond becomes a spy every time 007 headlines a new film.
This one's different in its details, in ways that will surely upset die-hard fans, although the major brush strokes remain the same. Despite his newfound abilities, Peter fails to stop a robber who then kills his Uncle Ben (played with gentle authority by Martin Sheen). So the famous and important lesson, "With great power comes great responsibility," stands intact. But then Peter begins his Spider-Man career to track down that one specific criminal, a vengeance-fueled agenda that ignores another of Uncle Ben's lessons. Worse, it gives Spidey—who in most iterations is a lighthearted hero, despite his tragic back story—a grim-and-gritty Batman feel. Ugh.
Regardless of the shades of difference, we're all still stuck with a film that spends the first hour of its 136 minutes retreading a story that everyone basically knows. Well, everyone except the youngest moviegoers, and this PG-13 take on the legend isn't made for them. So why bother?
Beyond that glaring, inescapable problem, there's nothing horribly wrong with this particular Spider-Man movie. But the few things it gets really right don't offset the lengthy origin retread that nobody needs. And there are other the elements that go awry. Most of them are sins against logic that pile up in the last 30 minutes, when the weight of the various implausibilites threatens to crush the story. (It's the same plague that infects almost every Hollywood action movie.)
Still, fans of the character—who's conquered practically every medium in the past half-century—will wonder why the film's screenwriters fiddled so extensively with Peter Parker's identity. Before being bitten by a radioactive (or, in this case, genetically modified) spider, our often-hapless hero was simply a nerdy teenager, an orphaned bookworm who'd have no shot of getting the pretty girl or scoring a cool photo gig at The Daily Bugle. (Not incidentally, the paper and its garrulous editor, J. Jonah Jameson, are completely M.I.A. from this version.) Instead, we get a significantly different Peter. He's not so much a skinny science geek as a cool emo kid who broods a lot: His parents mysteriously abandoned him when he was a kid, then died under suspicious circumstances. (That's an unnecessary complication of Peter's back story—right down to the silly plot twist that his father's secret formula helps create the film's villain, the slow-to-arrive, genetically mutated Lizard.)
For a teenager with such emotional baggage, he's still the cool outsider. He skateboards everywhere, and plasters his bedroom walls with posters of Einstein and Hitchcock. Early in the film, when he gets beaten up by a jock bully, it's not because the thug targeted Peter to begin with; it's because Peter dares to stand up for a younger, less capable kid. Garfield makes it all work, which is a testament to his prowess as an actor.
He finds his equal in Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, another thoroughly charming screen presence who brings some levity to the heavy drama threaded through the film. Peter and Gwen's romance takes up a good portion of the story, which clearly aims for a high-school and college demographic. Their chemistry is palpable (for good reason: The pair are dating in real life). Another clue to the film's target audience is the slower pace. Middle-school kids (or, for that matter, discriminating adults) will likely grow a bit bored with the sturm and agnst of emo-Spidey, no matter how much we root for Peter and Gwen to be together.
So what does this movie do well? In one of Garfield's earliest scenes in full costume, he nails Spider-Man's insouciance. Among the wise-cracking-est of heroes, Spidey loves to stick it to his villains (not to mention the stodgy cops who give him a hard time). That sarcasm gets one chance to shine when he plays with a would-be car thief, just like—well, just like a spider does with a fly. And the sequences of him zipping through the corridors of Manhattan on his web-lines are truly thrilling. (Perhaps that's in no small part because many of those shots are actual stunts filmed live, not CGI effects.) If only the whole film captured this fun attitude and these daring thrills.
The Amazing Spider-Man is now playing in cinemas everywhere.