‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ Isn’t Amazingly New, But it is Amazingly Fun
Call me a pessimist if you will, but I had a lot of misgivings going into The Amazing Spider-Man, the new Marc Webb film that reboots the Spider-Man movie franchise based on the Marvel superhero created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. For one thing, going back to the well of the origin story seemed completely unnecessary. Even though the first one is a full ten years old, director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy still feels like its part of that same crop of solid super-hero films that led into this year’s The Avengers. Beyond that, the emphasis that the trailers put on Peter Parker’s parents, as opposed to Uncle Ben and Aunt May — who longtime Spidey readers know actually raised Peter Parker — just felt wrong.
Then again, I didn’t think those first few teasers for The Dark Knight looked any good either. I definitely wasn’t quite as enamored with The Amazing Spider-Man as I was with that particular Batman film, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how good it is. Amazing is a solid movie, and it ends up doing just about everything right.I was right about one thing, though: The retread of Spider-Man’s origin does feel more than a little unnecessary. Even without the previous round of movies, there have been something like four months out of the last decade that there wasn’t a mass-media Spider-Man property out there in some form, and unless you’re going to do something weird like, say, having Garia from the Planet Spider show up to give Peter a giant robot, we probably don’t need to go over it again. We got it.
But at the same time, director Marc Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves do enough of that origin differently that it’s really interesting to see, even when you know by hearts the big dots they’re ultimately connecting. And it’s a good thing they did change it up a little because, honestly, the last time we saw Spider-Man’s origin on the big screen involved Bruce Campbell sending Peter out to wrestle “The Macho Man” Randy Savage in a steel cage. I’m going to go ahead and say that you’re probably not going to be able to top that if you head down the same road.
The whole movie’s like that. I imagine that the filmmakers were fully aware that there’s really no way to watch this film without comparing it to Raimi’s vision, so they made the effort to give Amazing a completely different feel. I don’t really want to say that it’s “darker” because of how that word conjures up the image of a grim, brooding, self-hating Spider-Man, because there’s certainly none of that. But this movie is darker in its way, if only because it’s being contrasted against Raimi’s bright, eye-popping attempt at bringing four-color melodrama to life as vividly as he could.
That was the charm of Raimi’s films, and if Amazing has a major flaw, it’s that it suffers by comparison. As solid as the new movie is, it rarely manages to live up to its name with a truly amazing, memorable scene. While there’s a handful of comedic moments, Amazing is certainly not as funny. For one thing, there’s no Bruce Campbell affecting an ovair-zé-top French accent, and they made a pretty wise choice at not even attempting to include J. Jonah Jameson and inviting a comparison to J.K. Simmons’ note-perfect performance in the Raimi trilogy. Amazing never goes for the charmingly ham-fisted eye-rollers either. There are, for instance, no subway passengers that reverently crowd-surf Spider-Man to safety after he saves their lives. It gets close, believe me, but never quite to that level, and not nearly as often.
If anything, Amazing plays things almost entirely straight, but without being dour about it. There are a few exceptions: Peter’s desire to take up recreational vigilantism stems purely from wanting revenge after Uncle Ben’s murder, and that plays out for a good bit of the film. The switch to more altruistic motives isn’t that well-developed, either — but to be fair, it does feel like a confused kid trying to figure out how to do the right thing with the power that he’s been given.
Peter’s still quippy, and the movie never takes the emphasis off of fun. It just does it in a way that’s a little more subdued and a little more serious than its predecessors. The distinction is really made in how both movies approach their main character: Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is a lot less stereotypically nerdy and awkward than Tobey Maguire’s — though he does make up for it with a truly ridiculous head of hair — but he still gets those same outsider feelings across. Garfield he manages to be really likable with it, too, although I’ll admit that I’m probably more likely to empathize with a kid who’s into skateboards and lucha libre than most. Either way, the slight amount of toning-it-down works.
Of course, in this case, “more subdued” still means “a man turns himself into a lizard monster, goes completely and immediately insane and tries to murder a teenager in a red and blue leotard,” but you get my point. All things are relative.
Another thing Amazing did to set itself apart was to go with Gwen Stacy as the love interest. Rather than just portraying her as the beautiful classmate he’s got a crush on, there’s an emphasis on Gwen being Peter’s intellectual peer — his better, actually. She’s got the top grade in science and the nifty after-school job at the cutting-edge research laboratory. While that’s a change from the source material (not to mention Raimi’s Spider-Man 3) that’s certainly in service of the plot, it also changes the way they interact in a very interesting way. It actually makes Gwen perfect for Peter in every way, making her into an even more idealized love interest for him and setting up the tragedy of her death — which I assume they’re going to get around to eventually — even more effectively. Uh, spoiler warning for a comic that came out in 1973, I guess?
Also, as much has been made about the cosmetic changes to Spider-Man’s suit, Emma Stone pretty much spent the entire movie cosplaying as the classic John Romita, Sr. version of Gwen, right down to the boots.
As for the Amazing plot, it’s pretty standard stuff. There is a greater emphasis on Peter’s parents (as scientists, not as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that they would definitely be if the Spider-Man film rights had been snatched up by Disney’s Avengers franchise) it doesn’t really get in the way. There’s a scene in the middle of the credits that hints at more and managed to wrench a groan out of me, but overall, the Parkers’ backstory is just there as a way to get Peter involved with Curt Connors.
For his part, Rhys Ifans does a pretty great job as Connors. He really sells the idea of a good man driven mad by what he’s doing to himself rather than just a guy who spontaneously goes bonkers and turns into a lizard, which is pretty tough considering what he’s given.
With respect to action, there’s an attempt made to parkour up the fight scenes a little, but the look of the battles and web-slinging scenes are still pretty close to Raimi’s versions. And that’s fine — those looked great, and these do too — but it doesn’t offer much new in that regard.
Where Amazing Spider-Man really shines are in the smaller moments. There’s a bit with Flash Thompson after Uncle Ben gets killed (uh, spoiler warning for a comic that came out in 1962?) that’s genuinely touching, and Peter’s interactions with Gwen are very nicely done, if not particularly stirring in how they’re written.
In the end, the biggest problem is that Amazing doesn’t feel like its creators went all out. There aren’t many risks, and there isn’t much to point to and say, “This was the scene that blew me away.” But then, I’m not sure if that was the point. The motivation here seems to have been to re-establish the Spider-Man character and point to a new direction, and if that meant playing it safe, then so be it. What Amazing did, it did well, and if nothing else, it left me wanting to see what they can do when they do decide to take those risks.