The Amazing Spider-Man
Normally, a ground-up reboot would be seen as a mixed bag. It means that your series has gotten off-track somewhere and needs to be brought back to its roots. Or that the filmmakers have completely run out of ideas and instead have chosen to go back over familiar paths, hoping audiences will follow along, rather than risk turning them away with something new.
Sony’s relaunch of the Spider-Man franchise didn’t have the first problem so much as lack of agreement among all involved as to where it should go. It may be suffering from the second problem at its heart, but Marc Webb‘s The Amazing Spider-Man is charming and character-focused enough to make a worthy entrant in the series anyway.
The story is quite familiar, even if you’ve never read the comics. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an intelligent, shy high school student who’s good at science and photography but not at talking to people, partly because has never quite gotten over being orphaned at a young age. When he discovers that his father’s longtime colleague, Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) lives and works nearby, he sneaks into the lab to find out what his father was working on when he left Peter behind and went into hiding. There he finds Conners’ various animal specimens he’s using to try and give animal attributes to humans, including a room full of spiders…
Like the successful reboots of the last decade, Webb and his screenwriters have taken what worked from the previous films, removed what didn’t or what wasn’t to their taste, and decided to at least temporarily avoid some of the major pieces of the mythos in favor of setting up their take on the character. Gone are J. Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane Watson, and the Osborne clan.
In its place is the story of Peter Parker and his quest to figure out who he is, especially after he starts developing strange abilities. Abilities he uses to search for a random mugger after his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is killed, a search which ultimately leads him into a larger world of responsibility to use his powers once a giant lizard creature begins to rampage around the city.
Webb and his three screenwriters have taken more of a focus from the modern Spider-Man stories, particularly Ultimate Spider-Man, than from the original ’60s comic, making The Amazing Spider-Man less comic book-like than its predecessors. It’s still not aiming for “close to reality” the way the James Bond and Batman reboots have, but is certainly more modern. This Spider-Man is as likely to be playing games on his cellphone waiting for the monster he is following to show up as he is to be swinging through the skyline.
And Garfield, despite looking a bit too old for the part, makes a good Peter Parker and a good Spider-Man. He’s cast aside the comic book nerdiness Peter is often imbued with, in favor of a more realistic awkwardness befitting a teenager trying to figure out who he is, which is ultimately what The Amazing Spider-Man is all about. As a character he is both well-thought-out by the filmmakers and well-executed by Garfield, a fact that refreshingly holds true across the board for both friends and adversaries alike.
Hard-assed police captain George Stacy (Dennis Leary) may want to bring Spider-Man in, but he’s also deep down willing to believe this crazy masked vigilante may be trying to do the right thing; old high-school bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) is actually a human being deep inside who empathizes with Peter after his uncle is killed. Even Conners only became The Lizard by accident while trying to prevent his employer (Irrfan Khan) from potentially poisoning a hospital.
Parker’s also, finally, been given something of an equal in love interest in Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a brainy high school senior who works for Dr. Conners and who is resourceful and plucky enough to face The Lizard on her own without always needing saving.
Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of familiarity in the film, unfortunately, that’s where, counter-intuitively, The Amazing Spider-Man is often at its least interesting. The heart of the plot once again concerns a well-meaning scientist who begins turning into a monster — psychologically as well as physically, this time — as a result of his own work but who may still be basically decent deep inside.
The action scenes have the frenetic quality of the previous films, although the moments of first-person webslinging can be a little too frenetic, to the point of being disorienting. And there’s still an urge to make an icon out of the character he’s too irreverent to hold and which can and does turn the film from exciting to campy at moments. A drawn-out beat as a series of crane operators line themselves up to give Spider-Man a webslinging path is the worst (but not sole) infraction.
All in all, though, it holds up well. I’m not convinced we actually needed a completely re-launch of the Spider-Man series just ten years and three films after it started, but if we have to have one, The Amazing Spider-Man is a good one to have.
Cast: Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker; Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy; Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Conners/The Lizard; Denis Leary as Captain George Stacy; Martin Sheen as Ben Parker; Sally Field as May Parker; Irrfan Khan as Dr. Rajit Ratha; Chris Zylka as Flash Thompson; Campbell Scott as Richard Parker; Embeth Davidtz as Mary Parker.