Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man
The folks at Columbia Pictures did two things when they named their film The Amazing Spider-Man. First, they made a lot of comic book fans really happy by using a Spider-Man book title. Second, they set themselves up for potentially massive ridicule based on the film’s inherent lack of amazing-ness. Yes, Spider-Man is back whether or not you were ready for a reboot of the franchise.
I think everyone can agree that Spider-Man – the character, the comic, the concept – is great. And if you don’t: GET OUT. Just kidding, don’t leave, I still love you! There’s a reason that Spider-Man has a lasting appeal. Part of that appeal is Peter Parker, the super hero who just can’t catch a break as himself or as Spidey. Personally, I feel that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (well, aside from the abysmal Spider-Man 3) did a great job of balancing that aspect of Spider-Man. Spend too much time with Parker web-slinging and you remove the down-to-earth honesty of the character. Spend too much time following a hangdog Parker as he mopes around New York City and you lose the fun of the superhero story. It’s the second mistake that Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man falls into and never really recovers from.
That balancing act isn’t the only thing that Webb’s foray into the Spidey world fails, but it is perhaps the most egregious.
The biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man is the simple fact that it’s a reboot. Now, I’m firmly in the camp that says that a reboot of the series this soon after the Raimi series is unnecessary, but as a comic book fan I understand that this happens all the time in that medium. If the Marvel comic line can support several main line Spidey books as well as an Ultimate Universe Spider-Man book (even though the Ultimate Spider-Man is no longer Peter Parker, he was for years) then we should at least be able to entertain the idea that there are multiple filmic Spider-Men. That’s not the issue here, the issue is that everyone knows Spider-Man’s origin.
Whether it’s a genetically altered spider (such as Raimi’s films) or a radioactive spider (like the comic and mmmmaybe this new film), we know Peter’s gonna get bit and gain the proportionate strength of an arachnid. It takes twenty-three minutes of the film before Parker is bitten by that spider and an unacceptable fifty-five minutes before he is seen wearing the costume. For a movie that runs 136 minutes, spending almost an hour setting up a story we all know already is ridiculous. Even half that time would seem extravagant. Again, we’re talking about a reboot of a franchise that’s only ten years and two months old based on a fifty-year-old comic series.
Now, these times align roughly with what we saw in Raimi’s film, but the problem here is that the main villain isn’t established until after Peter is up and running as Spidey. In Raimi’s film the Green Goblin was going through his own origin at roughly the same pace as Spider-Man was, and so by the time Peter was slinging webs all over Manhattan, there already was a super-villain to fight. Here, the Lizard doesn’t really appear until after Parker is in-costume; after the first hour. Not to mention that we’ve already done this before. Regardless of whether or not this is considered a new “universe”, it’s still silly that we spend nearly half the film following roughly the same story as Raimi’s film and the comic books.
Using audiences familiarity with Spidey could have (and frankly should have) been a license for Marc Webb to produce a Spider-Man origin story… without all the origin. Instead we have a film that doesn’t feel sure enough of itself to be anything more than a springboard for future sequels. Even if certain iconic moments in Peter Parker’s story are tweaked (there’s no crooked wrestling promoter, and Uncle Ben doesn’t explicitly use the “Great power” mantra, for instance) the new additions hew so closely to the original stories that it seems silly to even attempt an adjustment. It’s almost as if some studio executive mandated that these changes be made in an attempt to quell any complaints about this film being a simple “reboot”.
Not to mention that promotional materials for the film stated that this movie would tell “the untold story” of Spider-Man. Evidently Sony decided that they would wait to tell that untold story in the sequel since there are no surprises for audiences in this film. Threads about Peter’s parents’ mysterious vocations and subsequent disappearance are introduced and then promptly ignored. In fact, entire plot points from the trailers regarding this “untold story” don’t seem to exist in the finished product at all, making the tag line an even bigger joke than it seemed initially. Speaking of dangling plot threads, the script introduces many mysteries and characters that have no resolution. Entire characters disappear after seeming important in pivotal sequences.
It’s clear that between the script by James Vanderbuilt and direction of Webb Amazing Spider-Man is more interested in telling us about Peter Parker, the dark, sullen, skateboarding teen who has a crush on Gwen Stacy. Peter just flat-out reveals his secret identity to Gwen without any real reason, just because he likes her and probably wants to impress her. It’s not because he needs her help, or that she’s in danger; it’s because he’s just had an argument about Spider-Man’s vigilante tendencies with her father.
We spend more time building their relationship than anything else in the film. Parker spends a disproportionate amount of time out of costume, and there are really only two to three major action sequences with Parker as Spider-Man (contrast that with Raimi’s film which managed to tell a similar story while packing in five to six in-costume sequences within the second hour). When Peter learns he has powers he trains with a skateboard while a Coldplay tune plays in the background. It all seems a little too precious to be in a Spider-Man film, but considering Marc Webb’s resume only includes this and indie romance film (500) Days of Summer, it’s probably not too shocking.
The new Peter is a slight departure from the traditional nerdy Parker in comics and Raimi’s film, and Andrew Garfield does his best to impress as the ‘ol Webhead. Despite the inane script, the acting is actually the highlight of the film. Garfield has said multiple times that he’s a nerd and playing Spidey is a dream come true. He doesn’t disappoint; he manages to deliver quippy dialog both as Parker and in costume that sounds believable. Most Spider-Fans will still yearn for a more quip-happy Spidey, but this is a good first step. Emma Stone as Gwen does what Emma Stone does best: deliver a strong, well rounded, and believable character. Gwen is always likable and Stone’s performance is a big part of that. Rhys Ifans’ double duty performance as Dr. Curt Connors and The Lizard isn’t as successful as I’d like it be, the performance is okay, but his character is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, which hurts the performance. The rest of the cast is great as well; Denis Leary’s character arc as Captain Stacy isn’t perfect, but Leary’s trademark smouldering rage is always there making Stacy a fierce character. Sally Field plays a stronger, younger version of Aunt May that works incredibly well despite the lack of screentime devoted to her, and Martin Sheen steals every scene he’s in as Uncle Ben.
But, for every minor thing that Amazing Spider-Man does right, there are a number of things that it does wrong. Peter Parker isn’t really a science whiz, at best he’s a mechanical savant. Despite adhering to the mechanical webshooters of the early comic book days, Peter doesn’t create the web fluid, instead he steals it from Oscorp in a very unheroic manner. The climax of the film revolves around the tired “average people stand up for Spidey” trope and in an incredibly laughable way; I literally laughed out loud in my theater for a solid couple of minutes at the absurdity of this twist. The finale relies on a scientific macguffin that borders on deus ex machina. The Lizard is, for all intents and purposes, a scaly version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s villain the Rat King (he lives in the sewer, and for some strange reason all kinds of regular lizards are drawn to him and he wants to mutate the populace). And, if you really want to have the Lizard ruined for you, google “Super Mario Bros Movie Goomba” and compare the design of the two creatures; for some weird reason they are incredibly similar and no director wants their movie compared to the Mario Bros movie.
In the end, I have to question whether Marc Webb was the best man for the job. Amazing Spider-Man is a servicable film, but in a summer that’s already seen the spectacular Avengers break all kinds of box office records, being servicable isn’t good enough. And with The Dark Knight Rises just around the corner, I suspect that Spidey is going to be left in the dust. It takes guts to use a name like Amazing Spider-Man when the film is nothing short of mediocre. I have some hope that future sequels can make the material something special again, but here the film isn’t “amazing”, hell, considering the amount of time Peter actually spends in-costume it’s barely Spider-Man.