It’s just like the old saying goes: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” The same story or adage can be told several different ways, but still take on a completely different tone. For those worrying that director Marc Webb’s re-boot of the Spider-Man franchise only ten years after the first of a three film franchise would seem somewhat redundant and unnecessary, fear not. The Amazing Spider-Man still faithfully tells the origin story of Marvel Comics’ famed web-slinger for the first half, but a stellar cast raises the material past the bar set by Sam Raimi’s franchise and the second half wisely becomes its own movie from that point onward, even if the more original second half has more problems than the part haters will probably unjustly dismiss as redundant.
Bullied everyday Queens high school teenager and photographer Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds himself abandoned by his parents at a young age and forced to live with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). One day while trying to track down one of his scientist father’s former co-workers Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) Peter stumbles into a nest of genetically modified spiders at the Oscorp building which gives him spider-like abilities to climb up walls, move heavy objects, sense when danger is coming, etc.
So far so good since the film does very little to actually make the establishing of Peter’s super powers all that redundant. There’s one scene that really sets things up and a montage showing him creating his no longer biologically produced web-slingers. Webb and the writing staff clearly understand that after three successful movies in the past ten years that audiences generally know the mechanics of Spider-Man, and if they don’t the film adheres to the sound philosophy that it doesn’t really matter how and why these things work the way they do, but that the powers are used in clever and original ways.
The actual heart of Peter’s backstory does get brought up almost beat for beat, but it’s a testament to this film’s surprisingly more talented cast that the material is able to feel fresh and new again. Only those living under a rock wouldn’t know that at some point Uncle Ben will have to die at the hands of a petty thief to make Peter into the masked vigilante he is today and that Peter will have to have a love interest of some sort to complicate matters. Here, instead of Mary Jane Watson, we get Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), Peter Parker’s actual first love from the comics with a police chief father (Denis Leary) who disapproves of Spider-man’s one-man-army tactics against local thugs and isn’t too fond of the headstrong Peter as a person, either.
Garfield shines as a different kind of Peter Parker than audiences will probably be expecting since Webb isn’t going for the sort of campy, soap opera styled puberty parable that Raimi had in mind when he cast Tobey Maguire. Easily the better of the two wall-crawlers (and this coming from a fan of the original series who thinks the second film is almost a full on masterwork), Garfield and Webb do what most great films with teenage protagonists should do in the first place. A great teen film lets their characters be people first and not a starting point for some sort of subtextual or stereotypical agenda. Parker isn’t an “awwww shucks” kind of comic character here. This is an actual person that has believable mood swings and a thoroughly justifiable level of teenage angst, even if Garfield and Stone are definitely too old to still be playing high schoolers.
Stone doesn’t really have much to do except appear worried and flirt with Peter, but she’s definitely putting her charisma and natural charm to great use here. She even gets to show off some of her trademark comedic timing in one of the film’s best throwaway scenes with her father. The film definitely also serves as a return to form for Leary and Sheen, both of whom haven’t had roles this great in years and they both convey gravitas and humour as the film’s resident authority figures.
But every superhero movie needs a villain of some sort, and here the role comes in typical Spider-Man fashion by way of a character who never truly wants to do something outwardly evil. The one armed Dr. Connors teams with math whiz Peter to work on a genetic fix to replace missing limbs and speed up the healing process, but also because he’s being pressured into coming up with a miracle cure for his company’s apparently dying benefactor, Norman Osborne. Forced into testing an unproven serum using lizard DNA on himself, the serum works but not for very long. It also just so happens to turn him into a giant, enraged beast that believes he can “cure” human kind by dispersing his serum throughout the city.
Ifans usually gets noticed for his more comedic roles, but here he gets to play someone genuinely soulful since the film honestly isn’t in any great rush to turn him into the villain right away since the focus never really wavers from the main plotline of Peter’s search for inner guidance. Still, Ifans hits the perfect level of malevolence behind some great practical makeup effects and some equally good CGI, even though his character’s rise to megalomania comes during a second half that seems to speed up only because the film seems to be going on a bit long.
While the rehashed material goes over well and seems to zip on by with the nostalgic feeling of reading a great book, Webb drops the ball slightly once the action begins to pick up and the giant set pieces need to take centre stage. A high school hallway showdown between Spidey and Lizard steals the show, but it comes almost out of nowhere and with very little set up. The final act also manages some nice twists with regard to Leary and Garfield’s character motivations, but Stone feels forgotten about and a potentially interesting development involving Lizard’s use of the serum ends up going nowhere. It’s almost as if at an already lengthy running time of 138 minutes that Webb just didn’t know what to cut and simply threw up his hands at certain points to make sure all of the studio’s budget was up on the screen. There’s also a slightly annoying and illogical callback to Raimi’s curious “I Heart NY” sentiment that rankles a little, but overall the dénouement of this film comes across as being far more emotionally resonant and heartfelt than the previous franchise.
That’s not to say that Webb’s direction is devoid of wit, but he also wisely eschews any of the stylistic touches of his previous film 500 Days of Summer to deliver a straightforward action-drama. There are sly references to pop-fiction novelists throughout, a blink and you’ll miss them shout outs to Tobey Maguire and David Fincher, and probably the best Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel related film yet.
But possibly the wittiest moment of Webb’s film comes in the final scene aimed squarely at the very critics who might find this undoubtedly money driven reboot as being redundant. It effectively restates the point I opened the review with. I’m not exactly comparing it to Shakespeare or ancient mythology, but if comics truly are our greatest sources of mythology, who says that there can’t be one or two or seven or ten thousand different iterations of the same story? As long as the material is done justice by people who love what they’re doing, what’s the harm? The Amazing Spider-Man might not be the best film of the year by any stretch, but it does conform to the standards of the best forms of pop art.