THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (characters)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Dennis Leary
How soon is too soon? How much time should a movie studio wait before restarting a successful franchise? In the case of Sony, the answer is two-and-a-half years. That’s how long took Sony to jettison Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire from the Spider-Man franchise. Sony gambled that Spider-Man fans would pardon, if not forgive, their decision to start over again in exchange for seeing Spider-Man on the big screen again, promising an “untold origins story” along with the best visual effects that a $200-million-dollar budget could buy. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN certainly delivers visually. It also delivers on a convincing, maudlin-free teen romance, a worthy foe in the Lizard, a classic Spider-Man character, and the pathos found in the better superhero-centered films of the last decade.
In revamping Peter Parker / Spider-Man’s origins, director Marc Webb ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER), working from a screenplay credited to James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, decided to reintroduce Peter Parker not as a high schooler and future costumed crime-fighter, but as an eight-year-old on the same night Peter’s (Max Charles), parents, Richard (Campbell Scott) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz), exit his life under mysterious circumstances and his aunt May (Sally Shield) and uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) enter his life as his guardians. Webb ties the Parkers’ unexpected departure and (offscreen) deaths to Richard’s research into cross-species genetics for Oscorp. Webb relegates Norman Osborn, the founder and CEO of Oscorp. (and the future Green Goblin), to a brief cameo, presumably saving Osborn/Green Goblin for sequel, essentially copying Christopher Nolan’s strategy to save the Joker, Batman’s most iconic villain, for the second film in a proposed/planned trilogy.
As a teenager, Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an introspective brooder, outsider, and loner in the Bruce Wayne/Batman mode, the opposite of Maguire’s semi-well-adjusted, optimistically disposed nerd-hero. Even as an outsider, however, Peter feels compelled to intervene when he spots the school’s alpha male/jock, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), bullying a smaller kid. While Parker’s willingness to stand up to Flash foreshadows his crime-fighting future, it also ends with a non-super-powered Parker predictably sprawled on the ground. Parker eventually gets his revenge, humiliating Flash publicly, but it also signals that Parker hasn’t embraced the “great responsibility” part of the “with great power comes great responsibility” equation. That happens later. Incidentally, the “great power, great responsibility” line coined by Stan Lee decades ago and repeated ad infinitum (and ad nauseum) since then doesn’t get referenced in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, but a less memorable paraphrase of the line does.
Spurred by the discovery of his father’s long-lost scientific papers, Parker sneaks into Oscorp.’s Manhattan HQ with a group of high-school interns. He crosses paths with his longtime crush, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). Not an actress or model wannabe like her Raimi-Maguire analogue, Mary Jane Watson, Gwen works as head intern and assistant to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). An associate and friend of Parker’s father, Connors seems to know about the senior Parker’s disappearance than he’s willing to share with Peter. To gain Connors’ trust, Peter offers Connors the key equation necessary to complete his research into limb regeneration using reptilian DNA. Osborn’s operative, Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), functions as a plot driver, compelling Connors to make the irrational, rash decision to test the first-gen, limb-growing formula on himself, thus becoming Spider-Man’s first super-foe, the Lizard.
Once again, genetically mutated spider bites Parker, giving him super-strength, wall-climbing and leaping abilities, and the “spider-sense” that warns Peter of impending physical danger. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN segues to the now familiar montage of Parker discovering his superpowers and, in a semi-welcome return to Parker’s comic-book origins, Parker turns his inner science geek loose and builds mechanical web shooters (Raimi made the web shooters organic, an extra bonus of the spider bite). Yet again, it’s Uncle Ben’s murder that once spurs Parker to become a costumed superhero. At least initially, Parker’s pursuit of his uncle’s killer goes nowhere. It’s not until he saves a young boy in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN’S first, extended set piece that Parker sets aside his desire for revenge and embraces the purity of acting selflessly for the public good. In another example of the long shadow cast by Christopher Nolan’s soon-to-be-concluded BATMAN trilogy, the Powers-That-Be, personified by Gwen’s Commissioner Gordon-inspired father, George (Dennis Leary), an NYPD captain, considers Spider-Man nothing more than a law-breaking vigilante who must be stopped before someone gets hurt (or worse, dies).
To distinguish (and justify) revisiting the origin story only a decade after Spider-Man’s well-received big-screen debut, Sony mandated a “darker” tone and direction for the reboot and that’s exactly what Webb delivered both thematically (Parker as an emotionally vulnerable brooder) and visually (key set pieces occur during night-time). Raimi’s lighter, more buoyant tone is all but missing from Webb’s interpretation. Parker’s more sarcastic, more sardonic, borderline unlikeable THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN than in Raimi’s take where Parker seems moderately well adjusted to the (unspoken) loss of his parents, but repeatedly beset by absurdist levels of misfortune. Grounding Parker in a less (traditionally) comic-book world of bright colors and light humor certainly helps distinguish Webb’s take from Raimi’s, but it also helps elevate THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN above “shameless and/or obvious cash grab” territory generally associated with quick reboots or remakes.
Not surprisingly, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN suffers from exactly the problem almost everyone foresaw when news broke that Sony decided to start from scratch and retell Spider-Man’s origins: reductive familiarity. And with familiarity comes, if not contempt, then indifference or something close to it. Webb tries to overcome that overt familiarity by connecting previously disparate or unrelated plot elements/threads, like the death of Peter’s father, Richard, to Oscorp., Richard’s research, the genetically mutated spider that bites Peter and gives him his superpowers, and the missing equation that leads to the creation of Spider-Man’s first super-powered antagonist, the Lizard. Other plot elements may not be as closely connected, but they’re just as familiar (e.g., the costume, Peter’s early crime-fighting career, Peter’s romance with the high-school girl of his dreams, etc.). Even worse, no one associated with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN could come up with a villain who didn’t mumble to himself constantly (like the Green Goblin did and the Lizard does) or could come up with a third-act plan that wasn’t lifted from Bryan Singer’s X-MEN practically unchanged.
On the plus side, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN benefits significantly from two factors: (1) The onscreen chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and (2) advances in computer animation that make Spider-Man’s leaps and web-slinging through the artificial canyons of New York City closer to “real” than Raimi could achieve five or ten years ago. Sony picked well when it selected Garfield, a well-respected British actor, to play Peter Parker / Spider-Man. Garfield’s expressiveness and emotional depth make Parker a more vulnerable, more believable hero. Webb doesn’t ask as much of Stone, but her chemistry with Garfield is palatable in every scene. She’s also less the damsel-in-distress than Dunst was (through no fault on Dunst’s part, of course) and more an active (as opposed to reactive) character.
More often than not, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN mostly lives up the “amazing” part of the title. Webb and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman (THE GREEN HORNET, SEABISCUIT, ARMAGEDDON, THE ROCK), smartly relied on a mix of practical effects and CG to convey Spider-Man’s exuberant web slinging in and around New York City’s skyscrapers. Webb’s inexperience handling complex, effects-heavy set pieces is rarely noticeable, likely due to the production team Sony assembled around Webb and his willingness to learn from them. As expected, several set pieces involve a rampaging Lizard, including one set piece where Spider-Man uses his underutilized web-spinning skills creatively. With one or two (or three or four) under-rendered exceptions, the Lizard-centered set pieces rarely fail to impress. Now that Spider-Man’s origin story is out of the way (again), hopefully Webb, Garfield, and Stone can make a Spider-Man film that will match technical innovation evident in practically every frame with storytelling that takes Spider-Man and his world to new or less familiar places narratively and thematically.