The world has become a cynical place. Here we have a massive franchise reboot of a box office certainty only 10 years after the original, and five years after the last entry in that run. Desperate to hold onto the rights to the Spider-Man name and make more money (and, more importantly, deny money to Disney/Marvel), Sony have pumped out this curious superhero origin tale, The Amazing Spider-Man (was he not amazing back in ’02?), which is at times all too familiar and at others unsettlingly new. Even Marvel had the cop-on to pick up The Incredible Hulk more or less where Hulk had left off five years previous. Did Sony really need to put us through all this again?
But audiences are as guilty of this cynicism, many assuming the worst before release and, overwhelmed by the success of The Avengers, bitter that Sony’s declaration to use the Spider-Man brand will deny us a Spidey-Iron Man crossover anytime soon. You think this is bad, wait ‘til you see what Fox do with the Fantastic Four to hang onto those rights! The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a pretty decent entry in the comic book movie canon.
The problem is that now the previous films seem like a waste of our time. All of a sudden, everything we’ve been through with Peter Parker is undone. Tobey Maguire is off with Gatsby, Sam Raimi is off in Oz and Kirsten Dunst is basking in the glow of Melancholia. So we’ll start over. I guess.
Peter Parker is a young scientifically minded but socially awkward teenager who… no. No I’m not doing this again. You know it. You’ve seen the trailer. Spider bite, magic powers, gets the girl. So what’s different?
The film opens with young Peter Parker being left with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (his traditional surrogates) by his mysterious parents, who flee for clandestine, sciencey reasons. Peter is left with abandonment issues and an identity crisis. In high-school, now played by Andrew Garfield, he begins the search for information about who his parents were, leading him to sky-scrapping science-hub OsCorp and his father’s former lab partner Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). This is where the infamous spider bite happens, although the underlining issue here is that the spiders were a project Peter’s father had been working on. Comparisons to the movie Hulk come to mind. Curiouser and curiouser and possibly disastrouser.
Now super strong and flexible Peter becomes king of the schoolyard by showing off his tricks on the basketball court (in a scene worryingly similar to one from the cinematic travesty Catwoman). He begins to woo the girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a blonde, sassy science-type herself, and Peter’s original love interest in the comics way back in the 1960s. Because these details matter. Of course all this success and cool skateboarding comes with a sacrifice, and his relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) becomes strained. Soon Ben is gunned down by an assailant who Peter selfishly chose not to stop during an earlier robbery. Racked with guilt, Peter decides to become a hero.
Well actually no, he doesn’t. He decides to go on a massive vigilante hunt tracking down goons who resemble his uncle’s killer. While doing the police a minor service, his actions are more than a little shameful and all too Batman. Thankfully a supervillain is on the way.
Dr Connors, with Peter’s help, develops a cross-species chemical thingy that might allow him to regrow his missing arm (we never find out where it went) by injecting himself with lizard DNA, but sure enough within minutes he’s a giant lizardman wreaking havoc on NYC. Determined to save the city and the man who can tell him about his parents (probably, Peter never mentions it again), Spider-Man must battle the Lizard and… well, it’s all the same from here on in.
The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot going for it. Adeptly directed by Marc Webb (who made the appealing but bafflingly overrated (500) Days of Summer), it balances strong scenes of teenage anxiety with a surprisingly believable romance and some dizzying, well-choreographed and rather amazing action sequences. James Horner’s score is suitably epic throughout.
Andrew Garfield, who has frustratingly played the tear-stained, put-upon barely-adult all-too-many times before, finally gets his day in the sun as a character who avenges all his previous geek roles by leaping into affirmative action. And he really gets into the role, convincingly balancing moments of gentle tragedy with witty retorts during his wall-crawling escapades. Emma Stone similarly gets a strong role to sink her teeth into, a character who has all the pluck the Mary Jane role lacked in the original Spider-Man trilogy. Stone and Garfield, an item since filming this movie, have a suitably awkward but intense onscreen chemistry, and with Webb’s background in romantic comedy, it is this chemistry rather than the 3D action (or the silly “the lizard knows my daddy” sub[?]plot) that carries the film. Sheen and Field are similarly fine in their supporting roles.
But as I’ve noted already, all this charming romance and quippery is buried in a bog-standard villain-of-the-week plot. Rhys Ifans, coasting carelessly, plays a role that has barely been sketched. Connors is not jealous of Parker (Sr or Jr), he’s not overly ambitious, and while he wants his arm back he doesn’t seem utterly traumatised by not having it. After his injection, he succumbs to a bad case of what the villains in the first two Spider-Man films fells prey to – superpower-induced megalomania. (Say what you will against Spider-Man 3 (please do, it’s wretched), but at least its villains had reasons to be bad). Once Connors becomes the Lizard, a weird CGI creature that more closely resembles Spider-Man villain the Scorpion than the traditional Lizard, he does nothing but rampage, attack children and try to poison New York.
The various other plot threads of the film are abandoned like somany threads of webbing across the skyline of Manhattan. The mystery of Parker’s parents is not left unexplained, but rather sidelined by the reptile hunt. Similarly Ben’s killer remains at large, possibly set to become the Sandman in a likely sequel (dear lord no). References to Connors’s experiments being the only thing that can “save” Norman Osborn (owner of OsCorp, villain of the first Spider-Man and traditionally the web-slinger’s arch-nemesis) are similarly discarded, with only hints that he may be connected to the Parkers’ vanishing.
And this Osborn stuff is at the root of The Amazing Spider-Man’s problems. While almost justifying itself as a reboot, it fails to do what is required of major comic book movies now: world-building. While the Avengers movies all hinted at their shared universe, even before them Batman Begins hinted at the rise of the Joker in its final reel. While Osborn is clearly part of the Amazing world, the only real hint at things to come is a mid-credits sequence about Peter’s parents. But at this stage who cares? What The Amazing Spider-Man needed more than anything was a last-minute stunt casting, having a major actor play Osborn or some other Spider-Man nemesis (or ally) to make us believe in this world. Because believing in this world requires us to believe it is better than the Raimi Spider-verse. And while Spider-Man 3 tainted that world to no end, it was still a place that we cinemagoers spent many years of our lives. So if we’re going somewhere new, you need to sell it better, and build it bigger, than this.
There is plenty of general clumsiness on display – a deus ex machina referred to early on as “gathering dust for 15 years”, but which is clearly plugged in, stands out – but we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from our blockbusters. A forced reference to Spider-Man’s traditional origin in the wrestling ring goes down like a lead balloon, while a skateboarding montage seems as desperate to be cool as the ‘Stayin’ Alive’ strut from Spider-Man 3 was desperate to be embarrassing. A scene where Parker tries to make money off photographing his alter-ego in action reaps no reward, denying a link to his traditional profession and also failing to explain how he pays for his nightly pursuits. At least the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (he created most of Marvel’s biggest heroes, in case you’ve missed him before) is amongst the cleverest yet.
The action scenes are slick and witty, although one sequence oddly falls back on the jingoism that those in the original Spider-Man films demanded in reaction to 9/11 – now in 2012 it feels very out of place. Determined to scupper the fun, the 3D effects on display are amongst the most jarring seen since Clash of the Titans, with horrendously blurred backgrounds and double imaging rife.
Needlessly overlong (it is but a few minutes shorter than Spider-Man 3!), The Amazing Spider-Man is still arguably the best Spider-Man movie yet. Its decision to set the story entirely during Peter’s high school days is a wise one, which adds to the character’s confusions and uncertainties. The love story is more believable, and Garfield’s Parker is more likeable than Maguire’s. Ironically it is in the major shifts from the original, particularly the empty mysterious parents story, that The Amazing Spider-Man falls down. Because of this, all the best bits in the film feel like retreads, even if for the most part they are pulled off with far more success than Raimi ever managed.
If 2002’s Spider-Man didn’t exists, The Amazing Spider-Man could have been one of the superhero movie genre’s greats. A truly amazing Spider-Man movie still alludes Hollywood, and probably will until Marvel get their hands on the rights.