The Amazing Spider-Man
Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dennis Leary, Martin Sheen
Stars: 2.5 (out of five)
It’s a little soon to be rebooting the Spider-Man series. Despite its flaws (mostly in the third installment), Sam Raimi’s trio of spider-flicks captured the character pretty well. Marc Webb’s revamp of the origin has some new twists, deviating from Raimi’s closer following of the comic legend, and the supervillain of the piece is an interesting take on a classic foe only hinted at in the previous series. He’s got good actors, and mostly brings a more somber, realistic tone to movie.
Yet the film is seriously flawed, primarily in a script that’s not as focused as it should be. It’s too long, bouncing through points that could be more simply and economically made, and it can’t get its tone right. Peter Parker, potential girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and custodians Ben and May Parker are interesting, well-played, and fairly realistically drawn. Yet human concerns get lost as the action plot ramps up. I was sometimes enchanted by this lower-key Spider-Man flick on a scene by scene basis, but so much either didn’t pay off or jarred with the rest of the mad-science bombast that it was hard to reconcile.
Is this a film about a boy growing up in the face of tragedy? When his incredibly earnest Uncle Ben (national treasure Martin Sheen) finally dies, his incredibly earnest Aunt May (the incredibly earnest Sally Field) is grief-stricken, which we know because she appears on camera sometimes, literally stricken with grief. But she virtually never speaks, and certainly nephew Peter never really interacts with her again. Can we argue that Peter is too traumatized himself, that like many a teen is withdrawing, and that he’s insanely busy what with trying to track down Ben’s killer and also stop The Lizard from filling New York with scaly humanoid monstrosities? Yes, we can say this, but with all the focus on character and a dramatic tone, the film’s failure to deal with the emotional side of Ben’s death is a let-down. As is its deviation from Peter’s origin: His uncle dies, he blames himself, and dedicates his life to doing right. Here, his uncle dies, he gets angry, and goes hunting for vengeance.
(If your argument is that this stuff is secondary to the action, okay, here’s one for you: The Lizard transforms half a dozen cops into mad, super-powered, violent reptile-men like himself. And they never appear on camera again. Do they rampage? Do they kill civilians? Fight each other? Order pizza? You ain’t gonna find out in this movie.)
On the crazy-comic-book-story side, the movie goes the familiar route of these kind of films by making sure everything ties together. As in the Raimi films, the accident that gives Peter his powers is tied into Norman Osborn’s corporation (though neither Osborn nor his Green Goblin identity appear), and we learn that Peter’s apparently dead father also worked there–on the same technology that ultimately transforms Peter … and the father’s former partner still works there … where his assistant is Gwen Stacy, the girl Peter has a crush on … whose father is the cop in charge of tracking down Spider-Man.
So despite the more serious dramatic tone, you have to swallow a lot of preposterous plotting, and tons of clearly bogus science. (It’s hard to take a movie’s ideas about genetic engineering seriously when it thinks that hundreds of little lizards could live in the cold, dark New York sewers.) Preposterous storytelling and science are par for the course in super-hero moves, but deliberately mixing this kind of silliness with that kind of serious drama is sort of a mistake.
Yet Webb and crew keep the film moving briskly, even when it’s technically meandering (the hunt for Uncle Ben’s killer), failing (the Lizard’s sewer-based secret high-tech laboratory) or going over-the-top (a sop to post-(9/11 NYC has construction workers preposterously saving an unnecessarily injured Spider-Man).
It feels like a cop-out to pull out this card, but here it is: A hardcore Spider-fan will be let down, as will people who like … good movies. If you’re in between–a casual fan of Spider-Man or comic book movies in general–you’ll like this. You’ll like the stunts, the very human aspect to the web-swinging, the clever shot-staging and the balance between frenetic action and visual clarity. If you care more about story and character, this film will tease you but won’t quite satisfy. That said, there’s potential here–a good script, and/or a director who knows what makes a story work, and we’d have a strong sequel.