California Literary Review

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

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July 4th, 2012 at 9:32 am

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Movie Poster: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man

Directed by Marc Webb
Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves

Starring:
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Chris Zylka

How long is The Amazing Spider-Man? 136 minutes.
What is The Amazing Spider-Man rated? PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.

CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone Elevate This Insecure Reboot

Boasting about presenting “The Untold Story behind Spider-Man,” The Amazing Spider-Man shows us that the hidden truths of Peter Parker are parsley. They might add color and fill out a canvas, but they serve no substantial purpose. And I guess the same can be said for The Amazing Spider-Man itself. It’s not a bad movie, but, ignoring everything about Sony wanting to keep the rights to the character, it’s an unnecessary one.

Arguably, the biggest change to our new Spider-Man universe is the increased importance given to Peter Parker’s parents, who were S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents in the comics. We begin with Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) sending a juvenile Peter Parker to live with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field) after the elder Parker discovers that someone tried to steal the research he performed while working for Oscorp, home of future Green Goblin Norman Osborne (who does not appear…or does he?) and future Lizard Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). It’s also implied that Richard was somewhat responsible for the mutant spider that bit his son, thus giving the film a hurts-more-than-it-helps “child of destiny” angle. From the earliest trailers, this element has been oversold. Belabored for the first part of the movie, it’s ignored for most of the rest of it, which isn’t a bad thing since this concept simply does not work. Falling into the “Don’t you tell him about that thing that I won’t be specific about!” category, it feels like a cynical attempt to fool the audience into thinking that the film has depth or is part of a grander universe rather than something organic.

Once we get that backstory out of the way, we move to high school where an overaged Andrew Garfield plays the bullied Parker and an overaged Emma Stone plays charming science whiz Gwen Stacey. Garfield’s Parker is more angsty/angry/cry-y than Tobey Maguire’s, but he’s also more of a wisecracker and certainly good in the role. As the love interest, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy brings an intelligence and spunkiness to the character. Their performances and chemistry are the high point of the movie, and they play so well off one another that you accept the speed at which their relationship develops and trust forms. Differentiating their roles from those played by Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (as the depressive love interest Mary Jane Watson) is probably The Amazing Spider-Man‘s greatest strength as a reboot.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is a pretty typical origin story. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, especially when it comes to Spider-Man. The film doesn’t fill the proceedings with enough of its own internal life. It plays the origin story annoyingly safe by hitting the major plot points without deviating from a simplistic path to where it feels plodding for long stretches and only serves to remind us that we’ve seen this all before.

As the main villain, Dr. Curt Connors comes across as a stand-in, as in Spider-Man needs a supervillain to fight, might as well be this guy. Ifans doesn’t have the energy or personality of Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, or even Dylan Baker (who played Connors in the Raimi films), and The Lizard himself is mostly unmemorable. His evil scheme, which involves turning people into human-lizards, makes little sense and seems included to force a timeline for the final battle…and possibly because drugging an entire city as the climax worked for another reboot. However, many of the action sequences are well done, and the fight scene between Spider-Man and Lizard in the high school is what you’d want from a live action Spider-Man movie…though, the webslinger still has mask removal issues.

One of the film’s biggest problems is that it’s too dark. It’s not Batman dark, but darker than Spider-Man should be. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the movie took place at night, and I’m hard pressed to think of a non-school action sequence that occurred in the sunlight. I’m not against darkness in my films, but I couldn’t shake the impression that this more serious and “grounded” approach came as a result of the popularity of the Nolan Batman films rather than because it fit the character. I wonder what would have happened if they knew the take for The Avengers before making this one.

Comparing it to its hugely successful predecessor, part of the reason why the Raimi films — and when I say Raimi films, I refer only to the first two Spider-Man movies — worked was their tone. They are bright and colorful films that are probably the only ones in the modern superhero movie era to approximate the vibe that made (and makes) the Donner Superman films so beloved. Even though Spider-Man is thankfully more of a smartass in this installment, The Amazing Spider-Man lacks the joy and fun of its previous incarnation.

Rhys Ifans as The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man

The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Oddly enough, despite the insistence on Mysteries! Angst! Secrets! Tragedy!, The Amazing Spider-Man also lacks emotional resonance. The death of Uncle Ben, the catalyst for Peter to don the mask, seemed included only because of its importance to canon, but it was not something director Marc Webb and writers James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves really wanted to deal with. Parker’s relationship with his Aunt May similarly lacks a heart. I think the film was aiming for some sort of father figure in Dr. Connors, but it never pulls it off. The additional couple of minutes of conflict between Stacy and Parker at the end pointlessly add more drama just to pad out the film.

Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man is not an all-together bad movie. It avoids the self-destructiveness of Spider-Man 3, the lack of direction/over-ambition of Superman Returns, the laziness of X-Men: The Last Stand, and the shocking level of incompetence of Green Lantern. But there’s an insecurity and lack of confidence about it that prevents it from being the movie it can be and needs to be.

When I first left the theater, I was ambivalent about this movie but hopeful about the sequel. The franchise has good leads in Garfield and Stone, and now that the origin is out of the way, the filmmakers may be more willing to take this Spider-Man in their own direction. Nevertheless, there’s something disheartening about a movie whose primary reason for existing seems to be as a placeholder for a sequel. Not to mention the concern that this unwillingness to rock the boat might persist throughout the rest of the franchise.

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The Amazing Spider-Man Trailer

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