"The Amazing Spider-Man" Reboot A Retread But Still Solid
By STEWART SMITH
It's difficult to be fair in judging "The Amazing Spider-Man."
On the whole, I try not to judge movies based on how other movies do a similar, or in some cases identical, thing. But when a film is retreading ground that was already satisfactorily covered, it makes it challenging to not spend the whole time going, "What was the point?" It was 10 years ago in May that Sam Raimi's original "Spider-Man" movie introduced moviegoers to Peter Parker and his alter ego. The character has hardly faded from the public consciousness (it was only five years ago that "Spider-Man 3" came out) so it feels more than a little redundant that we're already getting a complete, baseline, origin story reboot of the franchise.
The most looming question going into "The Amazing Spider-Man" was if it could justify itself in retreading such ground. The answer is "kind of." "Unnecessary" might still the operative word here since there's no getting around the fact that we've been through the basics of Peter's transformation before. That said, it still manages to establish enough of its own identity that it never feels like a complete carbon copy of Raimi's work.
The most significant difference is the shift in tone. Raimi's films were far more bright and colorful and much more comic book-ish in tone. "Amazing" feels downright somber at times, at least in the first half of the film. It's something of an odd shift, but it gives us an opportunity to really see Peter's grief and anger as he deals with his loneliness as an outsider, his frustration at being abandoned by his parents and finally the death of Uncle Ben. The film is never "grim n' gritty" the way some of the advertising makes it seem, but it's certainly not as colorful as its predecessors.
The film as a whole feels more centered around Peter than Spider-Man, actually. It takes a solid hour before we ever see him do anything closely approximating "Spider-Man action." This is a good thing, actually. That entire lead up allows us to settle into this new presentation of the familiar. Andrew Garfield's Peter isn't anywhere near the outward dweeb that Tobey Maguire was. Garfield's Peter is more taciturn and far less awkward, but I found his portrayal of Peter to be much more relatable than how Maguire's version was both written and performed. Maguire's Peter at least had Harry Osborn as a social refuge, Garfield's Peter has no one. At least until he catches the eye of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).
For those who only know Spider-Man from the movies, in the comic books, Peter didn't fall in love with Mary Jane Watson until much later in the comic's run. His first love was Gwen, and she was a crucial part of how Peter developed as a character. It always bugged me that Gwen was never an integral part of the narrative Raimi developed, although some of that had to do with how little chemistry there was between Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane.
Stone and Garfield, however, are a pretty fantastic on-screen couple. Peter may stutter and stumble over himself trying to talk to Gwen, but Stone sells the notion that a gorgeous girl who dates jocks like Flash Thompson would end up going for a guy like Parker. Gwen was a girl with a soul in the comics and that's something that Stone manages to bring out in full effect here. She and Garfield work wonderfully off of each other and it's one of the most significant aspects of the film that make it feel like a more satisfying depiction of these characters than Raimi's films.
Speaking of the soul of a character, Cliff Robertson did a fine job as Uncle Ben previously, but Martin Sheen just sort of knocks it out of the park here. Uncle Ben's moral guidance is essential to how Peter decides to use his newfound powers. And even though the script sort of tapdances around Ben saying the immortal "With great power, comes great responsibility" line, the essence of that philosophy is still delivered thanks to Sheen's presence and gravitas.
It's rare that a summer blockbuster will take such care to invest the audience in its characters and to wait so long before getting to "the good stuff," but if nothing else, director Mark Webb deserves praise for allowing these relationships to simmer and settle before launching us into spectacle. When Peter does finally don the red and blue tights, his Spidey is more of a trickster and wisecracking smartmouth than Maguire's ever was and it feels much more true to the comics.
Strict adherence to the comics isn't always a good thing when it comes to these sorts of movies, but here it means there's more of a dividing line between Peter when he's in and out of costume. He uses the Spider-Man persona as a means to do and be things he couldn't otherwise, an essential ingredient to defining the character, and one that Raimi's films never quite nailed. The action scenes are also pretty fantastic and in some ways are the best depiction we've had of the character. There's a litheness to the way Webb has Spidey move that was missing previously, a level of agility that just wasn't present in Raimi's version that works wonderfully here. Webb handles the action far better than I expected from a director whose only previous feature film experience was a hipster romantic comedy.
If there's a major failing on the film's part it's that The Lizard, aka Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is simply a weak villain. Part of what makes Spider-Man such a great character is the way he finds himself personally invested in so many of the villains he faces. There's almost always a personal connection to them in some way, making his battles against them that much more difficult.
The script attempts to make that connection, but the bond never feels fully developed enough between Dr. Connors and Peter for it to have the sort of weight it attempts to project. Connors clearly admires and respects Peter's intellect, but it's missing the warm connection that Peter had with Norman Osborn or Otto Octavius in past films. Even connecting Connors to Peter via his father (they were partners developing a process of gene therapy together) can't deliver the sort of bond that is necessary. Couple that with a fairly generic "I want to take over the world!" endgame, and The Lizard just doesn't stick as well as he should.
There are some other problems as well, mostly on the script level. It was advertised from the start that this would be "THE UNTOLD STORY!" with heavy indication that Peter was genetically modified by his father to make him susceptible to gaining spider-powers. The set up for that still exists but it gets quickly ignored. The comic book purist in me is glad that the character's origins weren't so drastically altered and the movie never really stumbles, per se, by promptly ignoring said set up, but it does further emphasize that this really is a blatant do-over for a story that we already know.
Still, there's a lot to like about how this was handled. The studio pretty clearly wanted a quick cash-grab that made sure the rights to the character stayed in their grasp. But Mark Webb and his players managed to turn a cynical business decision into something that feels good. And "good" is the best way to describe "The Amazing Spider-Man." It never feels essential and it never completely justifies the need to tell us half a story we've already seen, but it works in spite of that.