BRIEF SYNOPSIS: High school student Peter Parker’s investigation into his parents’ disappearance bring him to Oscorp, where he is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and begins to take on its powers.
PROS: Exceptional special effects; great chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone; early scenes where Peter learns to use his powers.
CONS: Lack of necessity in retelling the origins of the title character; inappropriate tone undermines the character’s primary appeal; too little humanity in the villain.
Haven’t we been here before? It seems like only yesterday when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man opened to rave reviews and a huge opening weekend, with the pitch-perfect casting of its title character (Tobey Maguire), love interest (Kirsten Dunst, who went red to play Mary Jane Watson), and key villain (Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin), to say nothing of scene-stealer J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, exceptional dialogue, and its…well, honestly, rather substandard effects, but those didn’t detract from the action and suspense. Raimi followed it with a superior sequel (Spider-Man 2) written by Michael Chabon and a lifeless continuation (Spider-Man 3) crammed with too many villains. Now Marc Webb, hot off the success of indie favorite (500) Days of Summer, takes the helm to continue…
No, not continue. Webb, along with screenwriters James Vanderbilt (who also write the story), Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, decided that Spidey’s origins needed a fresh retelling. Granted, ten years can seem like a long time, especially in the degraded age in which major studio releases opening to cavernous auditoriums in multiplexes around the nation wind up playing at a dollar theater a month later, but even with a decade’s passing, Raimi’s take on how Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically-modified spider and, eventually, becomes the celebrated webslinger remains fresh and energetic. This turns out to be one of the key problems with The Amazing Spider-Man, though not the crippling one. Yes, the effects are better, and yes, the cast, as in the previous iteration, is first rate. But this retelling of the friendly neighborhood crimefighter cannot outrun the sense of déjà vu permeating every CGI shot and tossed-off quip. We know this story; we’re familiar with the basic setup. Do we really need to go through it all again?
Apparently we do, and we need to mix a little of the anguish and torment Bruce Wayne felt at the death of his parents into Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) teenage psyche, in this case by having Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davitz) suddenly drop young Peter off at his Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May’s (Sally Field) brownstone in Queens before disappearing altogether. When he finds his father’s old briefcase hidden in Uncle Ben’s basement, Peter reads through documents inside and begins searching for answers to the mystery of his parents’ disappearance. His search leads him to Oscorp and the one-armed Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), who worked with Peter’s father on genetic experiments involving DNA transference. While snooping through Oscorp he stumbles into a lab full of genetically engineered spiders; one bites him, and Peter suddenly takes on its powers. A scene in which Peter begins using his new abilities during a subway ride home is both amusing and suspenseful.
Webb’s intention of recasting Spider-Man’s origin story reveals itself from the opening frames. Garfield plays Peter Parker as a confused adolescent with some degree of intelligence and decency—he attempts to stop a bullying episode, only to have Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) make him the focus of Flash’s bullying—but seemingly lacking the innate scientific knowledge his father possessed. The object of his affection this time is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, a redhead who went blonde for the role), who sees something endearing in Parker’s gawkiness. The Amazing Spider-Man works best when it concentrates on these two starcrossed lovers, though it falters when it incorporates Gwen’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy (Dennis Leary, taking over the crusade against Spider-Man from J. Jonah Jameson, who is curiously absent this time).
Webb even changes the dynamic between Uncle Ben and Peter; the same man who always showed a great deal of understanding and compassion seems more than a little frustrated and angry as Peter stays out late and misses picking up Aunt May. Even the circumstances surrounding Uncle Ben’s death have been altered; Peter has not snuck away from home to win money in an underground wrestling match, but instead has left the house in a fit of pique, leaving Uncle Ben to follow him and ultimately die at the hands of a criminal trying to escape the scene of a robbery. Webb’s direction lends a good deal of verisimilitude to these reimaginings, but his injection of realism and Dark Knight–style darkness don’t fit the Spider-Man concept. A tongue-in-cheek element informed the comics and the first two movies (the third decided to wag its tongue at the audience), as did an element of the absurd; Spider-Man might have the ability to climb up walls and swing between New York’s skyscrapers, but he still can’t get a date, and if he happens to lose his powers he still has to beg a cabbie for a ride. The Amazing Spider-Man trades its absurdist identity for something far more grounded, and thus farther away from its original identity.
Even the villain, Conners’s Lizard, falls victim to this change in dynamic. Even when their schemes verged on the outlandish, their powers on the omnipotent, the nemeses from previous movies never lost sight of their basic humanity. Ifans, as Conners, brings a gravitas to his role that Dafoe and Alfred Molina might have lacked, but the screenwriters draw him in such broad strokes that he comes across as thin as the CGI used to render him in his reptilian guise.
Certainly The Amazing Spider-Man looks good. The effects are far more refined and convincing than they were in previous iterations. And Webb’s choreography during several of the fight scenes—as when Spider-Man and the Lizard duke it out in the corridors of Midtown Science High School—occasionally brings the excitement mandatory for a summer blockbuster. Alas, no matter how slick the design or winning the cast, The Amazing Spider-Man feels hollow and stilted, less amazing than meh.