Wishing for Thicker Webbing

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3, 2012)     ★★★

Directed by Marc Webb (Columbia Pictures)

The dynamic of critical analysis has changed for superhero films, and since the explosive release of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ten years ago, the differences have never been more noticeable. For example – in 2002, no one would have possibly thought that movies starring men and women in tights could ever warrant a Best Picture nomination, as was nearly accomplished with The Dark Knight in 2008. As a result, these films are being made with the recurring desire to be grounded in a more realistic, onscreen environment, which might have seemed nearly impossible a decade ago. But they found a way. You will no longer see the flamboyant visuals of Ang Lee’s Hulk, but instead movies that veer more toward dramatic naturalism. While this often results in films that are better scripted, they surely look and feel less like they originally did; in other words, we no longer feel immersed within a comic book. Instead, highly capable directors visualize comics and portray them as “serious films,” and thus, critics now judge them that way.

So how do we begin to compare Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man to Raimi’s original trilogy, and what exactly justifies this reboot of such an incredibly influential series? It’s only been five years since Spider-Man 3, a sequel that buried itself amongst a mess of villains and subplots. Raimi and his star, the terrific Tobey Maguire, were not compelled to return for the webslinger’s next installation.  So Columbia decided to completely restart its colossally successful enterprise, injecting it with a less cartoonish vibe, and one more tonally similar to the superhero flicks we are now seeing. By today’s standards of spandex judgement, Webb’s Spider-Man may be a “better film” than Raimi’s first, but it is far less successful in fulfilling the goals it suggests, and is certainly no match for Spider-Man 2, which has enough heart, character, story depth, and visual splendor to rival Nolan’s Dark Knight as the best superhero movie ever made.

Webb, who directed the popular (500) Days of Summer, sure knows his romance. The chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone is wonderful, as are the performances from each of these increasingly accomplished actors. This triumphant casting was no accident – The Amazing Spider-Man presents a love story that is more intimate and believable than that in Raimi’s trilogy. Everything else, however, is quite underwhelming; we go through Spidey’s origin story all over again, and as if the filmmakers sense our incoming frustration (or in an attempt to be “contemporary”), they barely give weight to other elements of the film.

Yes folks, Peter Parker (Garfield) is in high school once again, living with Aunt May and Uncle Ben (played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen). He has a crush on Gwen Stacy (Stone), who happens to be interning at OsCorp, where Peter is drawn once he learns that his mysteriously deceased parents once worked with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Through respective biological incidents, Peter becomes Spider-Man, Connors becomes The Lizard, and shenanigans ensue. In the midst of his transformation from high school outcast to superhero, Peter also falls in love with Gwen, and must face the plot complications presented by her father, George Stacy (Denis Leary), who happens to be captain of the NYPD.

Garfield, who gave an Oscar-worthy performance in The Social Network (and in which the Brit also had to fake an American accent), brings unprecedented depth to the character of Peter Parker, so much so that the filmmakers could have utilized his abilities to craft a far more compelling character story, rather than one that feels halfheartedly redundant. In the generation of Mark Zuckerberg, one does not have to be a “nice guy” to be successful. In fact, one can be socially inept, or even cruel in his relationships. But if you are a truly smart or creative person, opportunities abound if you make the right business decisions. The new Peter Parker is also part of this generation; the kid is a genius, but he is arrogant, socially awkward, lonely, and curious. That said, he is also a good person, and Gwen, who shares his love of science, instantly finds a companion.

When these two share the screen, sparks fly. And by that, I mean Fourth of July, Washington DC, Katy Perry-style fireworks. As if she hasn’t proved it countless times, Stone is more than ridiculously cute; she has an instantly charming, highly intelligent presence. The problem lies in how these performances make all that surround them seem considerably less amazing. As previously mentioned, Peter is significantly curious; he longs to discover the circumstances of his parents’ life and death, and understandably questions his new abilities. But in his transition from boy to man, I never felt him ask the question, “Am I a good person?”

There is outstanding subtlety and emotional credibility to the relationship between Peter and Gwen, but the narrative never gives justice to the former. This kid isn’t creating Facebook, he isn’t attempting to make billions of dollars. He is attempting to save lives. The film is effective in its motivations for how Garfield’s character transforms, but it doesn’t make evident the difference between those two things. Peter’s intentions as Spider-Man begin selfishly, but become broader after Dr. Connors’ reptilian accident. But what if they didn’t? What if Peter actually had to struggle to make this decision; to put himself in danger for the purposes of others, not just himself? And how would this struggle effect his relationship?

Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man hints at these wonderful instances of storytelling, but unfortunately, never goes down that path. Peter simply moves into Spidey-mode like clockwork. As for similar flaws, there is an unfortunate event that brings forth Peter’s webslinging in the first place, but after that occurs, we completely lose touch with a theme that the first act (and even the film’s trailer) heavily imposes – the secrets hidden by Peter’s parents.

This narrative element, while serving as a catalyst for nearly all the events to follow, turns out to be a gigantic tease. After Peter suffers another tragedy in his life, motivations become rather hazy, considering that we are never sure which of these events drive Peter to do anything whatsoever. We never do find out much about Peter’s parents after all, and in addition to the other event mentioned, these sorry occurrences in Peter’s life appear to be strands of plot placed aside for sequels, rather than important factors that develop the film we are currently watching.

This explains why it was such a mistake to retell Spider-Man’s origin story; none of us really want to see it all again, so many scenes are handled with a lazy demeanor. Even Aunt May and Uncle Ben feel misplaced, although Field and Sheen give heartfelt performances. If we wish to be enthralled by The Amazing Spider-Man as a standalone film, these things are surely a problem, albeit ones that cannot be easily solved. While setting a new Spider-Man film in a different universe than the first three, it would be interesting had this film only alluded to a newish tale of origin, rather than feeling compelled to haphazardly tell it.

But for some reason or another, we essentially have a more naturalistic (there’s that word again) remake of 2002’s Spider-Man, with both positive and negative consequences. Webb proves himself as a solid director; action is shot and edited with tight-knit skill, but still allows each frame to breathe. Unfortunately, there are few supremely memorable sequences; those which do occur serve to drive forth the story, but never provoke utterings of “wow” as we leave the theater. For a movie that wants to be taken more “seriously” than its predecessors, the effects are surprisingly cartoonish, but still quite exciting. The main motivation for this is obviously 3D; with these CGI renderings appearing far different from other elements within the frame, they pop off the screen even in two dimensions. Yet one cannot help but feel that as Spidey swings toward the screen in slow-motion, Marvel’s geek squad counted on this gimmick to make up for other shortcomings.

Yet another is The Lizard, a less than formidable foe. Dr. Connors has been living life with only one arm, and plans on using DNA from other species to help himself, among others. Based on an equation that is solved by Peter, things don’t quite go as planned. I never quite felt Peter’s guilt of helping transform Connors into a giant lizard (although it is certainly alluded to at least once), nor did I appreciate the design of this pompous creature, which never provokes fear or intensity, but is instead, rather humorous-looking. There is also little evidence of the man underneath, which was done so well by Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2.

The Amazing Spider-Man Lizard Still 3

The relationship that Connors had with Peter’s parents also has little effect on this hero-villain dynamic, which leads to a letdown in several instance of plot and character development. Meanwhile, Connors’ descent into villainy is virtually nonexistent. He transforms, and in what seems like seconds, threatens the entire city of New York. There could be motivation behind the madness, mainly that Connors has been matched with so much pain throughout his life that when he finally feels unable to heal it, he abandons his desire to help others recover from similar turmoil, and quickly decides that he must toss it upon a city full of people; maybe so that they may understand what has so deeply hurt him. Unfortunately, the lack of these motivations onscreen allow us little opportunity to empathize.

Soon after Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider, there is a scene in which he asks Gwen Stacy out on a first date. Despite his believable stuttering (I could only imagine the nervs of any teenager asking out Emma Stone), she says yes. In the minutes that follow, we receive the inevitable sequence where Peter tests the full extent of his powers, except this time, it addresses the matter in a manner that is far from predictable. Feeling liberated from the troubles of youth, Peter utilizes his webslinging, wallcrawling abilities as an unleashing mechanism for pure joy. It is a fabulous scene, one that feels as welcome in a superhero movie as it would in any other romantic film. Teenage girls will flock to The Amazing Spider-Man, as will everybody else. Buried in the humdrum narrative of Marc Webb’s film is a richly told story of youth in love, and people with flaws aspiring to goals greater than themselves.

It should be noted that Peter Parker is now a skateboarder. A nerd, yes, but far more hip. Luckily, Garfield and Stone bring more than enough to their roles, compensating for a film that forgot what joy it brought audiences to feel square. When I saw Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, probably when I was about 10 years old, the film was an uncanny transportation into my imagination, and will always be a recurring example of childhood nostalgia. The Amazing Spider-Man, while not quite being as far and away as Christopher Reeve’s Superman is to Superman Returns, has moments of excellence, but features potential that is consistently unfulfilled. Webb’s film certainly revisits my adolescence, but not those early years that seem long gone in the realm of superhero movies. Take it how you will, the reboot of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man feels awfully like going back to school. Therefore, it seems only just to relay on next-gen Spidey something I was told way back in the days of Spider-Man 3; a compliment that never felt like praise at the time.

You have a very promising future.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3/5

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