In this day and age, “adults” are also big kids who still see Spider-Man movies, and The Amazing Spider-Man faces the challenge of making both the old and new generations satisfied with a revised vision of an iconic hero. If you fall into the camp of ‘big kids who still love their Spider-Man films,’ know right from the get-go that Amazing Spider-Man covers a familiar origin story – albeit in different fashion than Sam Raimi’s game-changing film did in 2002. If you can’t get behind that idea – even in the slightest – then this movie simply is not for you.
However, for all others:
We pick up the familiar tale of Spider-Man with a re-imagined version of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), a high school geek who exists in the contemporary age of smartphones and social media, in which “the geek,” as an archetype, has become something slightly cooler and more accepted than what it used to be. Garfield’s Peter Parker – with his skateboard, contact lenses and vintage punk band tee-shirts – is definitely the epitome of modern “geek chic”; as such, the goofy nerdisms of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s 1960s Peter Parker have been replaced with deeper emotional troubles centered around Peter’s status as an orphan who never answered the question of his parents’ disappearance.
The chance discovery of his dad’s old research into cross-species genetics (a replacement for the outdated radiation experiments that originally created Spider-Man) sends Peter to the beehive-shaped halls of Oscorp, where his high school crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) interns alongside the brilliant but disabled Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who was once Peter’s father’s closest associate. That meeting results in Connors and young Parker bonding over scientific theory – and of course, Peter stumbles into the chance accident which leaves him endowed with super powers – abilities which the young man at first squanders for selfish gain, resulting in a life-altering tragedy close to home.
Meanwhile, facing coercion from his shadowy employer Norman Osborn, Dr. Connors takes a big risk testing a promising new serum, which has the unfortunate side-effect of transforming him into a humanoid Lizard. With a super-powered monster on the loose, only Spider-Man is up to the task of stopping the threat. But as both his personal and super hero lives begin to collide at every turn, Peter fears that tragedy may strike home all over again.
Amazing Spider-Man arguably gets more right than it gets wrong, but it is far from being a perfect film. At its core, the movie seems to be, in fact, two films: The hour-long teenage character drama that director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) invests great time and care in telling – followed by a standard superhero blockbuster, complete with 3D CGI battle sequences and an overly-formulaic structure. The point of debate amongst fans will be the question of which half of the film is the better one, and the answer will largely depend on the preferences and expectations of the viewer.
For my money, the first hour of Amazing Spider-Man is the more interesting half, as it presents a version of the character we haven’t seen before. Webb creates the world of Peter Parker – and the characters that inhabit it – in a way that few people before him have. In this film, Peter Parker feels like a fully-realized person; the home he shares with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) feels like a real place, and the high school he attends feels like one you could walk right into. Andrew Garfield owns the leading role, offering a mix of lanky physicality, sharp wit and carefully measured emotion – traits that are effective on both sides of the mask, and help him to wall-crawl right out of the shadow of Tobey Maguire. The rest of the cast is just as strong; on the whole, the players in this new version far outshine the original ensemble.
Raimi’s film always felt somewhat emotionally distant, while Webb grabs hold of personal turmoil and emotional connections as his primary point of interest. The chemistry between the principal actors – Garfield, Sheen, Field and Denis Leary as Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy – is very palpable and engaging, so that we actually care when reckless super-Peter has his big angry blow up at Uncle Ben and Aunt May, or when he causes tension at the dinner table trading quips with Cpt. Stacy – or the emotional punch we get as Peter listens to the last voice message his Uncle left him, professing fatherly affection. Garfield and Stone have even better chemistry, and indeed Amazing Spider-Man is often at its best when watching the two young leads trading snappy flirtatious dialogue or (in one scene) maturely discussing the dangers of Peter’s heroics. Stone is a much better heroine than Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane (smart and feisty, rather than hapless and dramatic) – though she’s still given little to actually do besides to stare into her co-star’s eyes in key scenes (which she does well).
When the first hour is up, and the film inevitably transitions into the superhero blockbuster we’ve been waiting for, the rough seams quickly start show. The studio had to know that an indie director like Marc Webb would be somewhat out of his element handling such big-budget action fare – but to his credit, Webb (with a good deal of assistance, no doubt) manages to keep things together – if only barely.
The Spider-Man action in the film is better than ever, thanks to some improved conceptualization (Spider-Man actually moves and fights like a spider) and a whole lot of superior technology. The cinematography is gorgeous and there are well-staged practical stunts that help avoid an over-reliance on CGI – and even the effects-heavy portions of the film (like the character of The Lizard) are handled reasonably well. The 3D effects are phenomenal whenever Spider-Man suits up to do some web-slinging, but are almost non-existent in the domestic scenes. You could go an hour before really needing to put on the glasses.
Pacing and editing are the two biggest issues in the film – and this is very apparent in some of the rushed set pieces that are wedged into the second and third acts. Example: a second-act sewer battle seeks to build tension and suspense, only to come to an abrupt end – followed by a speedy and awkward transition into a high school battle sequence. The entire character of “Curt Connors” becomes an extraneous narrative concern as the Spider-Man action ramps up, and a lot of the primary plot threads that galvanize the movie get pushed off onto an inevitable sequel, so that time and space are freed up for Spidey to pound on (or get pounded by) the mostly arbitrary villain that is The Lizard.
The Spider-Man action is cooler, but totally at odds with the deeper story that precedes it; the initial character and world building are handled much better than the hollow and cartoonish Raimi film, but those threads are ultimately left dangling without much resolution or acknowledgement. What we’re left with is a pastiche of scenes that are, generally speaking, all interesting, impactful or ‘cool,’ but when looked at as a whole, are clearly the rough stitch-work of an inexperienced tailor.
Whether that “tailor” is Webb, screenwriters James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Alvin Sargent (the original Spider-Man trilogy) and Steve Kloves (the Harry Potter films) – or simply some meddling studio executives, we may never know. But whatever the case, the fact is that The Amazing Spider-Man is somewhat at odds with itself. And while that might be a fitting metaphor for the character himself, as a film seeking to justify its own new beginning, Amazing Spider-Man ends up being a solid relaunch, rather than a “good” or (wait for it) “amazing” one. The potential is there for a much bigger, better, Spider-Man movie universe to come, even if this movie doesn’t fully realize that potential.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Amazing Spider-Man episode of the SR Underground podcast.
If you want to talk about the movie in detail, head over to our Amazing Spider-Man Spoilers Discussion, or rate the movie for yourself below.
The Amazing Spider-Man is now playing in theaters. It is Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.
Head to Game Rant for our review of The Amazing Spider-Man tie-in game!