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Theatrical Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

Directed by: Marc Webb
Produced by: Avi Arad, Laura Ziskin, Matt Tolmach
Written by: JamesVanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves (screenplay); James Vanderbilt (story)
Cinematography by: John Schwartzman
Music by: James Horner
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Chris Zylka
Year: 2012

 

A Foreword on the Reboot

Is it just me, or is cynicism the attitude of late with movie going audiences these days? I get that we’re starting to realize, more and more, that Hollywood, as a business, just really doesn’t care about the art, of their industry, or originality, or creativity as much as it does money, but, really, all the cynics should’ve realized this a lot sooner ’cause that’s how it’s always been. The attitude I’ve seen on internet discussions can hardly be called “jaded,” because there’s just too much hostility, less like a cry for higher quality entertainment and more like animosity towards any film that we really will know little about until they actually come out — primarily with films that involve the phrase “reboot.” It’s really all Christopher Nolan’s fault, to be honest. He had the audacity to reboot the Batman film franchise and turn it into gold, which in Hollywoodese means that everything must be given the gritty reboot treatment!

The reaction to his two Batman films has been largely positive, ecstatic, even, but with The Dark Knight Rises coming out soon, it seems like people are already hailing it as an inevitable letdown for some reason. Casino Royale was pretty much the first major franchise to be given the reboot treatment, and that worked out pretty well, too, though even that film had its critics — people who hated the film based on the blonde-and-blue-eyed Daniel Craig or its turn towards the gritty and serious, people who apparently longed for the days of gadgetry, Denise Richards, and James Bond in space, I suspect. Like with Batman, I’m already seeing people ready to see them crash and burn. People are apparently tired of revisiting old franchises and their stories all over again, despite the fact that they keep turning up for these films and convincing the studios otherwise. Perhaps the greatest affront to reboot-haters out there these days is the latest Spider-Man film.

Though they had their flaws, the Sam Raimi films created a largely appealing world for the Webslinger and had a largely fantastic cast in place. Scenes from the series — from the upside down kiss in the first film, the terrifying awakening of Doc Ock and the moving train sequence in the second, or even the overacted silliness of pretty much everything in the third (Peter strutting, emo Peter, James Franco’s hilarious delivery of the line “So good”) — all became iconic moments in superhero cinema. With this reboot, all that has seemingly been painted over, replaced with something new and unfamiliar masquerading as the old. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t among them for a while, but after the disastrous Spider-Man 3, I was willing to give it a chance, which is more than some were willing to give — there were actually those out there who were hoping that this would actually fail and teach Sony a lesson, largely due to the even more worrisome fact that Sony was more concerned about losing their hold on the Spider-Man license and allowing them to revert back to the now-Disney-owned Marvel.

Review

Despite being a reboot and, therefore, another origin story, The Amazing Spider-Man manages to cover enough new ground and present a familiar character and his world in new ways that it never feels like the film is aping the Raimi films while capturing that Spider-Man spirit. The continuity between the two franchises is non-existent — the stories of Peter’s spider bite and the death of Uncle Ben both get retold, as expected, but other than that, the new film is completely different in tone, style, and personality. The previous films took on a largely soap opera-like sensibility and a cartoon style for their action scenes and characterizations which emphasized their comic book origins, but director Marc Webb took this new series (and it will be a series, I assure you) in a more down-to-earth direction that manages to still be lively, retaining the heart and fun nature of the character and his world intact, though, as with the Raimi films, there are a few elements sacrificed along the way.

Peter in this film is consumed by his parents abandoning him when he was just a little boy, leaving him in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Looking for answers as a teenager, Peter’s research leads him to Dr. Curt Connors, a scientist who worked with his parents before they disappeared. Dr. Connors works for OsCorp (Foreshadowing!) in the field of genetic engineering, leading a group of scientists who have created such things as spiders that can weave super-strong materials for industrial use and a serum that would harness the limb-regenerating capability of lizards and grant the same ability to humans — a project very personal to Dr. Connors, as he no longer has his right arm.

Peter, of course, gets bitten by one of these spiders, and their abilities begin to manifest in him, though, this time around, the changes are gradual and, at first, uncontrollable. The puberty parallels are obvious, and the scenes of Peter dealing with these new abilities over time provides the film with some of its funnier scenes. As he begins to deal with the rather unusual stresses of his personal life and the implications of his newfound responsibilities, Peter begins to learn that the events of his life, though painful, may have been leading him toward a greater purpose, a destiny meant to help change the world for the better. Though the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” is never explicitly stated, the heart of that wisdom is felt throughout the film.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a coming of age story if it weren’t without a bit of romance, and the new film saw fit to give Spidey’s first love, Gwen Stacy, her time to shine in lieu of the more popular and recognizable Mary Jane. Played by Emma Stone, Gwen comes off as a kind, fun, and genuinely intelligent (as in through characterization and not Hollywood intelligence that is conveyed by a simple A+ mark on her homework). And, yes, she’s also pretty cute, too. It’s easy to see why an outsider like Peter is so drawn to her beyond just her good looks, and the romance is thankfully mostly drama-free for those who had a hard time with the melodrama of Peter and Mary Jane. Gwen, unlike Mary Jane, is given far more to do and say than scream when it’s appropriate and pine for someone to care for her. (I liked Kirsten for the most part, unlike most people, but there’s no doubt she did a lot of moping and shrieking.)

Denis Leary, as her protective police father Captain George Stacy, is in his typical abrasive mode, disliking this new boy in his daughter’s life just as much as he dislikes the new vigilante running around his city, though, humorously, he doesn’t know they’re the same guy. Leary’s good at the role, and as the J. Jonah Jameson surrogate, he provides even more pressure on Peter while never becoming a villain. As a police officer, he’s afforded a few moments of heroism and, as a father figure to both Gwen and, eventually, Peter, he’s also given the chance to show that he’s actually a pretty caring guy.

Similarly, Sally Field and Martin Sheen fill in nicely for the more literal parental figures in Peter’s life. Sally Field is a bit underused here as Aunt May, but since she’s probably going to be around in Peter’s life much longer than Sheen’s Uncle Ben, it’s actually to the film’s benefit that so much attention is given to building up the relationship between Ben and Peter while they are able. The decision to show the series of events and how Peter’s actions contributed to the events that led up to his uncle’s death results in something that is truly heartbreaking, more akin to the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman Begins than it is to the off-screen shooting and Uncle Ben’s quick death in Raimi’s first film, and more so than ever resonates with Peter throughout the rest of the film, given greater significance to his decision to become Spider-Man.

That’s probably the biggest departure of the film, in fact — the emotional weight throughout. Raimi was great at emphasizing the broad characterizations and emotions of his characters, making his films both more entertaining and melodramatic, and, for the most part, were better off for it. Marc Webb’s film, on the other hand, internalizes the pain and carries it around in the background, though humor is laced throughout, as well, which keeps it from falling into that worrisome “gritty reboot” territory. It feels a lot more true to life than Raimi’s films, though not necessarily more authentic.

Part of this is the way in which Peter is portrayed The Amazing Spider-Man. Here he is less poindexter nerd and more of a socially awkward outcast. What kid in high school gets ostracized for intelligence these days, after all? Though undoubtedly brilliant and generally a pleasant enough person, after being abandoned by his parents for reasons unknown and then later losing the closest thing he had to a father, Peter’s solitude and awkwardness seems more like a personal choice than anything. When he becomes Spider-Man, however, he’s given a new sense of power and, yes, a feeling of responsibility for the world around him.

A lot of the film’s success rests on rising star Andrew Garfield, but luckily, he is Tobey Maguire’s equal at his worst, his superior at his best, being both more physically suited to the role and just as likeable in his performance. He captures the sadness, awkwardness, and goofiness of a teenage social outcast as Peter and, as Spider-Man, the cocky, chatty wise-ass too — something that Maguire lacked, perhaps because he was a bit too nice to pull it off. Garfield pulls off the physical and verbal humor, but he also navigates the scientific dialogue naturally, and when it comes time to show his vulnerable side, he aces it. He has good chemistry with pretty much everyone in the rest of the cast, on top of it all. It’s hard to tell what is him, what’s computer, and what is a stuntman, but, as would be expected, he apparently went through some fairly rigorous physical training, including yoga, and what’s there on the screen is convincingly real, fluid, and seamless, so whatever he did, it was convincing. As you can tell, I can’t really think of a single criticism for him, and I definitely look forward to seeing Garfield back in action in the sequel.

Unfortunately, I cannot necessarily say the same for the film’s villain, the Lizard. Though they undoubtedly went through great pains to flesh out Dr. Connors and have him become a tragic villain in the same vein as Dr. Jekyll or even Doc Ock, his transformation into the Lizard is about as synthetic as the serum he uses and the glossy CG effects used to realize him. The fact of the matter is that his transformation into the monster isn’t gradual enough and happens way too late in the film to get its just screentime. The same care that goes into crafting Peter’s character was not given to Dr. Connors, and, sadly, this means that though the climax is action packed and filled with great moments for Peter, Dr. Connors’ actions, even when out of control as his alter ego, feel largely unmotivated and even somewhat random. Rhys Ifans does well enough with what he’s given, so it’s not as if he’s putting out Willem Dafoe-levels of overacting (though that might actually be a negative since the Green Goblin was kinda fun, if ridiculous looking).

Curiously, this likely could have been solved with better editing. Apparently a lot of subplots were pulled out or diminished, and I’m wondering if that had an impact on Dr. Connors’ character development. And yet the film is the talkiest superhero film I’ve seen in quite some time. This might not be an issue if it were nearly as clever or engaging as, say, The Avengers, but the fact of the matter is that, at times, I found myself on the verge of losing interest in what was being said and more curious about what was beyond the pontificating. It wasn’t serious enough to make the film boring, but there were slight moments of borderline tedium. Oh well!

Conclusion

Overall, I came out of The Amazing Spider-Man feeling that it was fully justified in its existence. It may just as well have been a cash-grab and means of Sony keeping its license, but the fact of the matter is that Sony is now 3:1 on the good:bad ratio of Spider-Man films, so not only have they treated the series well, they’ve also uncharacteristically learned as a studio to not interfere with a good thing like they did with Spider-Man 3 (Venom… ugh). Marc Webb was not a safe choice by any means for a director, having only directed a romantic comedy prior to being selected, which is fairly unprecedented, no matter how well received it was. However, this paid off and, as a result, we now have the film that fans deserved and, quite frankly, the film that Spider-Man 1 could have been.

If you must compare it on a scale of Spider-Man 3 to Spider-Man 2 (and, let’s face it, I’ve been doing it throughout this review and ever since I saw it), The Amazing Spider-Man falls somewhere between the first and second, having lost the corniness of the first but losing points due to the sloppy handling of the villain. Divorced from the past, however, The Amazing Spider-Man still stands as a promising and entertaining new beginning for a franchise that has the potential to surpass the last, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next! (Hint: there’s a mid-credits sequence, though don’t bother staying past the end credits — there’s nothing there.)

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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