The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running time: 136 min.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Chris Zylka, Irrfan Khan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, C. Thomas Howell, Leif Gantvoort, Stan Lee
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
I should preface this review by stating that I opted to see the 2D version of The Amazing Spider-Man rather than the 3D (or 3D IMAX). It is possible that I might be less impressed with the razzle-dazzle of the effects than some viewers and critics out there who opted for the gimmick. There is a Stan Lee cameo, in particular, I would have loved to have seen in 3D, I will admit.
Nevertheless, I am a Spider-Man fan, and a big one. I'm quite inclined to like this movie. I want to like -- no, I want to love this movie.
Alas, I did not, and I wonder how much the influence of seeing the film in 3D has to do with how much audiences feel a part of the action. The words, "Too soon", came to the minds of many other fans when hearing about the reboot of Marvel's Spider-Man franchise, just five short years after the release of the largely reviled Spider-Man 3 would effectively kill the formidable momentum generated by the wildly successful Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. The studio decided that they had painted themselves into such a nasty corner that it would not have been lucrative to continue to try to pay the high price tag to keep the cast and creative crew together when interest in seeing them again by the audience at large had diminished to near indifference, particularly when there were already long-seated creative differences between the studio and Raimi's camp. What else to do but try a new, fresh approach? Say what you will about the two different series, Raimi's take felt like a big-time movie befitting a character of Spider-Man's popularity, while Webb's does not.
The best thing about The Amazing Spider-Man is the casting of Andrew Garfield (Lions for Lambs, The Social Network) into the role of Peter Parker. Garfield has the youthful appearance (the 28-year-old actor passes for a high schooler here), the look of intelligence, the air of wit, and the dramatic acting chops to cover the wide range of emotions necessary to believe the ebullient feel of Parker and his newfound powers and the tragedy of how those powers seem to not quite be enough the stem the tide of bad things from happening to those he loves around him. Even behind the Spider-Man mask, he seems comfortable with the quips, as the film does establish that Parker feels the most confident when he is getting to use his newfound powers, despite his awkwardness in every other aspect of his life. The supporting cast are all quite good in delivering the semblance of depth in what amount to be mostly sketchy roles. The foundation is here for a very good dramatic story in between the requisite action scenes when CGI completely takes over.
Although the origin of Spider-Man will likely be known by the vast majority of filmgoers willing to purchase a ticket, The Amazing Spider-Man offers yet another take on his origin. This presents a problem, which is also one for any attempt to start a Spider-Man franchise, in that it is such a metamorphosis to go from nerdy high school dweeb Peter Parker to ultimate crime-fighting, wise-cracking bad-ass Spider-Man, complete with web shooters and perfectly detailed costume, that going to point A to Z in his metamorphosis often has to skip most of the letters in between. Between Spidey's origin, plus the origin of the main villain, there's not much left to establish adequate plotting, even though the film clocks in over the two hour and fifteen minute mark.
Here, Peter Parker is still an orphan raised by his loving child-less Aunt May (Field, Legally Blonde 2) and Uncle Ben (Sheen, The Departed), though we do see glimpses of Peter's natural parents, whose demise coincides with their involvement with what appears to be a top secret scientific project involving the tinkering of DNA between various animal species. Peter's eventual discovery of the contents of his father's (Scott, Music and Lyrics) attaché spurs him on to investigate what may have happened to him using the clues in the contents. The main clue leads him to the a high-tech laboratory in the high-rise Oscorp Industries building, where Peter assumes a false identity of an intern to get close enough to try to question Dr. Curt Conners (Ifans, Deathly Hallows Part I), who worked with Parker's dad before his disappearance and is continuing the project.
Also working for Conners is Peter's classmate and longtime crush, Gwen Stacy (Stone, Friends with Benefits), and the two become more than acquaintances. Meanwhile, in what appears to be the least secure ultra-high-tech scientific facility on Earth, Peter sneaks into a room with an experiment underway, getting caught in a contraption with genetically mutated spiders, one of which ends up biting and infecting the lad and imbuing him with enhanced strength, agility and the ability to sense danger. Meanwhile, Uncle Ben is killed by a thief (Gantvoort, "ACME Saturday Night") that Peter had a chance to nab, bringing him to search the city streets for revenge, capturing any bad guy who remotely looks like he could be the perp. His newfound fame catapults Peter into becoming the city's number one vigilante, and its only potential savior when Conners' experiments on himself with the regenerative genes of a lizard mutate him into becoming a large and dangerous beast that tears up the city streets, as well as anyone who dares get in his way.
Director Marc Webb does a nice job with keeping the look sleek, and pulling out nice dramatic and comedic moments from what ends up being a solid cast of actors. It's dark, angsty and emo, and in perfect keeping with the sad and confused state of being of teenagers who go through the same feelings of being misunderstood and underappreciated in a world that's often bullying and cold. Just as Webb did with his terrific (500) Days of Summer, there is a natural flow to the one-on-one conversations that are where the film's strengths really lie. And in the way that he is able to tap into how teens really relate to one another, especially in the way they naturally utilize mobile technology to contact each other, as well as fill in their time playing with their phones and such (after setting an elaborate trap, Spidey is shown playing a game app on his phone to pass the time). Webb gets the small stuff just right. Where he fumbles is when he has to give the public what they want -- a scary villain, lots of fights, chases, and a big, cataclysmic finale. It's a shame that we get wrapped up in the plight of Peter Parker only to fizzle when the boring plot rears its ugly head.
One other knock: the sleek look is so all-encompassing that it actually makes New York, which is one of the most distinct cities in the world, feel like a generic any-city. Both the comic, and Raimi's version, used New York to its advantage as if it were another important factor of the tale of Spidey, but in The Amazing Spider-Man, the city is merely a place where crime happens, buildings are scaled, and bridges torn up. The people of the city are also portrayed in that same cold, sterile, un-New York-like way, and definitely doesn't come close to capturing the city's melting-pot diversity.
The choice of The Lizard as main villain is interesting in terms of finding the right way to spin off Spider-Man's origin from that of his eventual nemesis, as they are both borne of science experiments gone awry. The thinking was, "Why not have them develop freakish powers from the same madhouse of experiments?" Not a bad choice, really. However, as interesting as the choice is in terms of mutual origins, the fact is that the Lizard's not one of the most compelling of villains without a nuanced backstory, which is something not much given to one-armed Dr. Curt Conners -- well, not enough to make him either a formidable foe or tragic fallen hero worth cheering or jeering, instead of just another case of scientist-turned-monster by his own devices. The worst of it is that the Lizard form is purely CGI, and not terribly impressively done at that, and fairly generic save for the fact that the beast retains Ifans' voice when the time comes for conversation. On the plus side, Rhys Ifans, an actor known more for playing cocky, comical characters, performs well staying subdued and intellectually conflicted.
The biggest problems with The Amazing Spider-Man are tied to the way it tells its story. If we're supposed to believe these characterizations, Aunt May and Uncle Ben are either the most saintly and forgiving parents there have ever been, or the most stupid. Peter's powers are initially too strong for him to control; He inadvertently smashes up his home bathroom, but nothing really comes of it in terms of an interrogation by his caretakers as to what happened that would cause such destructive behavior. Peter is always keeping them wondering where he is, especially after Ben's death, where he comes home bloodied and bruised. Aunt May, who appears to inhabit the house kitchen 24/7, is horrified and curious, but never really demands any answers. She seems more concerned with why Peter isn't bringing home the eggs she asked for.
The spider-suit goes from a simple wrestling mask with sunglasses covering the eyes to one of the most finely articulated, well-fitting and artfully-designed spandex creations without giving us any reason to think that Peter has the talent (or time, frankly) to come up with such a phenomenal garment. Then there are the problems which plague most Spider-Man tellings: not enough degrees of separation between characters. Gwen Stacy is not only Peter Parker's classmate and crush, she is also an assistant working directly for Dr. Conners, the man who worked with Peter's parents before their death/disappearance, and who happens to be the man who would become the nemesis of the film, the Lizard. Plus, she is also the daughter of Captain Stacy, the chief of police who is out to nab Spider-Man for his antagonistic vigilantism. It seems no Spider-Man villain can exist without being someone Peter Parker knows in another capacity. Even one of the Lizard's victims when rampaging on the Williamsburg bridge just so happens to be one of his cronies at work (Khan, Slumdog Millionaire). Hopefully, this trend will discontinue in future entries, but given how much it already comes into play here, it seems doubtful.
(And, perhaps most unbelievable of all, Parker, who is looking for clues as to his family history, can find just what he wants from the search engine Bing far better than I've ever been able to.)
Unlike other incarnations of Spider-Man, Peter Parker doesn't keep his secret identity completely under wraps, though one wonders if this might seal the fate of those who actually do find out. Loose ends have a way of getting tied up, and if you know the comic book history of Gwen Stacy, perhaps you'll see where things might eventually lead. Webb seems to be taking the approach of Christopher Nolan by saving the best villain for the next movie (the Oscorp connection practically assures us that we'll be seeing the Green Goblin soon). Though Peter is shown as a photographer, and we establish that there is a Daily Bugle news source (both the newspaper and a news channel on TV), there is no connection yet between Parker and his well-known comic book occupation. Also, the mystery of Peter's parents' fate, as well as the confrontation between Spider-Man and the man who murdered Uncle Ben aren't fully resolved, so we'll likely have continuing threads throughout what appears to be a set-up for a trilogy, at least.
As for where the franchise goes from here, one can only hope that, with the set-up and origin story out of the way, future entries will be able to delve a bit deeper on the psychological and emotional aspects of the Peter Parker story in a way that the original Sam Raimi films only dabbled in. I've often criticized blockbuster films for being all spectacle and little humanity. The Amazing Spider-Man delivers well enough on the humanity side, but when the spectacle comes into play, rather than go into supercharge mode, it sags. Nevertheless, while this first chapter in what is likely to be a series of several films disappoints, the groundwork is laid well enough that, if Webb can figure out how to carry the character momentum from Peter Parker's realm to Spider-Man's, we will actually feel emotion, thrills, chills, and exhilaration when the web-swinger goes into action, even when it isn't in 3D. As with the Harry Potter series, which also had been scripted by Steve Kloves, we can only hope that this series will mature along with Peter Parker and become something truly special.
©2012 Vince Leo