The Amazing Spider-Man
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by James Vanderbilt
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, and Sally Field
Review by Joey Braccino
The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot of things working against it. First, Sam Raimi’s modestly successful (re: $2.5 billion dollars worldwide, multiple highest-grossing records, etc.) trilogy only recently concluded in 2007, and for a while there were rumors of a second trilogy featuring the original cast. Second, Spider-Man’s origin story—or rather just “story” in general—is pretty well known to the majority of the universe (re: Raimi’s aforementioned trilogy, Marvel’s poster boy for the last 50 years, etc.). And finally, The Avengers, but we’ll talk about that later.
Let me start by saying The Amazing Spider-Man is a fantastic film. It really is. Marc Webb ( Days of Summer) imbues the story by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) with grit, style, and youthful energy. Playing out like the original comics run by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the film features a Peter Parker whose life, for all intents and purposes, absolutely sucks. This Peter Parker is a lonely, lonely kid, and he stays that way for much of the first act. Sure, he’s a wiz-kid (more on that soon!), but there’s a numbness to Peter that is reminiscent of the isolated teenager we first met back in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962). Unlike Raimi’s trilogy, in which Peter Parker was a socially inept, po-faced nerdle, Webb and Co. present a Peter Parker filled with resentment and a longing for his deceased parents. Whereas Peter’s parents are mentioned only briefly in 2002’s Spider–Man (Tobey Maguire, choking back tears, mutters, “I missed them so much today”), Webb chooses to put the death of Peter’s parents—and the mystery it—front and center. It makes for some powerful moments in the film, especially considering that they are the only truly original moments to what is otherwise a reimagining of the origin story.
But not so hastily to the obstacles, let us stay with the overwhelming positives! The cast in Amazing Spider-Man is exceptional, and a marked improvement over the original ensemble. Yes, that will probably be a divisive remark, but this lowly critic feels that Andrew Garfield and Company excel far beyond their predecessors. Part of that is due to the writing. Andrew Garfield’s turn as Peter Parker is—I promise I’ll only use this once—amazing. The film follows his journey from social outcast to arrogant uberman to reluctant hero, and you believe every moment of it. You also believe he’s a senior in high school (despite Garfield actually being 28), which is a really big deal, because it allows Webb to keep the action of the film contained to Peter Parker’s adolescence, a vital element of the character’s original success. Once Peter gets his powers, he shows off and humiliates the school bully, Flash Thompson. Not very hero-like of our… hero, but that’s the point, and that’s why Spider-Man is one of the enduring characters in fiction: he’s a teenager. He screws up, he learns, and he keeps trying.
Andrew Garfield’s physicality also warrants recognition. A skateboarding scene in which Garfield’s Peter Parker starts experimenting with his powers helps to not only define Spidey’s skill set, but also demonstrate that Garfield himself is capable of the flexibility and dexterity seen during later fights and feats. Andrew Garfield is Spider-Man; the suit and he are one. (Iron Man joke)
Emma Stone is spectacular. She is able to keep up with and contribute to the witty banter of Andrew Garfield and Denis Leary, and her Gwen Stacy is a much stronger female lead than most that typically appear in superhero flicks. Her chemistry with Andrew Garfield (which ultimately led to an off-screen romance… adorbs!) is a crucial component to the film’s success. Mix that romantic chemistry with the thematic parallels between Gwen Stacy’s fear for her father’s safety and Peter Parker’s superheroism and his desperate search for a father figure, and you’ve got one hell of an emotional foundation for Ol’ Webhead even without the mask. I never thought I’d say this, but Denis Leary outdoes James Cromwell as Captain George Stacy, whose position as police captain puts him at odds with the vigilante Spider-Man, and his position as Gwen’s father puts him at odds with the pubescent teenage boy, Peter Parker. Fans of the comic know how the story turns out. Again, Peter Parker’s life sucks.
The rest of the cast fills their roles nicely. Martin Sheen and Sally Fields are adorable as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Some viewers will probably be surprised by how little a role the two play in this film, particularly Aunt May, but ultimately this film was designed to explore Peter’s psyche. Doing so without relying on heavy moralizing from his surrogate parents was a welcome change from most renderings of the story, and probably more in line with how teenagers act. One particularly engrossing scene comes right before the inevitable Death of Uncle Ben, in which Peter turns Uncle Ben’s “great responsibility” sermon into a “where’s my father now?” breakdown. Enthralling.
Rhys Ifans plays the redeemable villain, Dr. Curt “The Lizard” Connors. The Lizard and his grand scheme isn’t really central to the plot of this film so much as it foreshadows connections and sinister dealings still to come in this canon. Nevertheless, there are some frightening moments, some action-packed moments, and some gross-out moments associated with the Lizard’s dealings with Spider-Man and the hilarity that ensues.
Conspicuously absent is Harry Osborn. I don’t know if the character has many fans, but I just want to point out his absence, considering he played such a large role in the original trilogy, and well… James Franco.
The strongest addition to the film is the focus on Peter Parker’s scientific genius. Instead of simply seeing Tobey Maguire walking around with textbooks, we see Andrew Garfield working out equations, impressing scientists with his theories, and fiddling about with computers and technology. There are several moments in which Peter Parker as Spider-Man uses science instead of his fists to fight evil. I sincerely hope that, if anything, kids in the audience will turn to their parents and say, “Mommy and/or Daddy and/or Legal Guardian, I want to learn science like Spider-Man!” Because that would be wonderful.
Now to the obstacles. Comparisons to Raimi’s films are inevitable. They will be made by everyone everywhere. Even Andrew Garfield, who plays Spider-Man, said he loved the original trilogy and that it was his first experience with the character. And it is still the origin story. There’s no escaping it. My viewing partner for the evening said it best, “The Amazing Spider-Man is an improvement on something that pretty much worked the first time.” And it is. The actors are generally better. The action is much cleaner and more impressive. Peter and Company stay in high school (crucial!). Gwen Stacy (but really, Emma Stone) is a much better character than Mary Jane (in the first film). But it’s still the origin. It’s presented better, and when it departs from Raimi’s, it really engages the audience, but some viewers will groan that they’ve seen it before. Even if you’re not the groaning type, the fact that we have seen at least the broad strokes of the story before, and that Raimi’s Spider-Man is still somewhat fresh in our collective pop cultural ethos will prevent The Amazing Spider-Man from having the impact that I think it could. I wonder what would have happened if there was no Raimi trilogy, and this was the first we ever saw of poor Peter Parker on the big screen? One thing is for certain: Andrew Garfield is a much prettier crier than Tobey Maguire.
One final observation regarding The Avengers. This is the first superhero flick to follow the insanity that was Marvel Studios’ team-up mega-film, and it’s sad to say that one of my first thoughts when The Amazing Spider-Man ended was, “Man, this was no Avengers…” Of course it was never going to be, but now there’s no denying that the Avengers changed the landscape for superheroics on film. Not really a criticism of the film, but more an observation on the industry.
See it. It really is a great film. Fans of Raimi’s trilogy will probably gripe for a while, but fans of Spider-Man in general, particularly of everything that Peter Parker’s plight means for teenagers, outcasts, and the everyman, will be pleased with this new version of the classic mythos. The acting is superb, the effects are well-done, and the wise-cracking is gloriously abundant. After The Avengers and before The Dark Knight Rises, let’s not forget about the underdog of the summer, The Amazing Spider-Man! Also, I’m already excited for the sequel!