Considering the amount of money studios spend on their tentpole flicks, you’d think that they’d at least be able to come up with something entertaining each time. However history has told us that each summer brings a slew of movies that promise much and deliver little. The moment it was announced that Sony was rebooting Spider-man only a decade after Sam Raimi’s first arachnid flicks, the fanboys and Internet doom-mongers immediately decried the whole idea and decided on principle that the film was a middle-finger to fans and to be ignored.
While some saw Marc Webb coming on-board to direct as a sign of promise, others immediately decided his lack of experience with big budget movies spelled disaster. Well, all the naysayers and incessant prophets of pessimism had better eat their words (and hopefully find something better to do with their lives, such as wait until movies are actually made and then go watch them), as The Amazing Spider-man is great.
The film takes us back to the beginning of Peter Parker’s story and gives a slightly different take on the origins of Spidey than Raimi’s version. The basics are still there, with Peter heading to Oscorp and getting bitten by a genetically modified spider, but this time he’s there trying to learn more about Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist who used to work with his parents, before they disappeared from his life a decade before.
Mary Jane has also been replaced with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) as the romantic interest, who handily not only goes to Peter’s school, but also works as an intern for Connors. Oh, and her dad (Dennis Leary) is the police captain who will inevitably want to get Spider-man off the streets later on in the film – which is all quite handy really, at least in terms of condensing the plot.
Once bitten, Peter takes a while to get used to his new skills, although unlike Tobey Maguire’s Spidey, he has to build his own mechanical webslingers, rather than having super-strong silk spurt out of his wrists. As Spider-man lore dictates, it’s not long before Peter’s Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is killed by a thug, setting Peter off on a super-powered path of revenge, looking for the killer. However he slowly begins to realise that perhaps he can do some good as a masked hero. This becomes particularly important when Curt Connors decides to test a new serum on himself, which he hopes will regrow his amputated arm. Instead it turns him into a half-man, half-lizard monster, and his mad ravings convince him he must make everyone else part-reptile too. Peter feels responsible for this, as without him Connors wouldn’t have been able to complete the serum and become such a menace.
The Amazing Spider-man does a great job of mixing heart with humour and action with drama. With (500) Days Of Summer, Marc Webb showed an incredible knack for getting to the heart of the awkwardness and difficulties of human interaction, and he does the same with teenagers here, while also delivering on the action. Parker is a bit of a grump, sometimes socially inept, at times a bit of an ass and at other’s verging on know-it-all arrogance. But he’s also sweet, unsure, has a good heart and trying to find his way in a confusing world. It’s cleverly handled, so there’s not too much angst but enough that he feels like a real young man. His journey towards hero-dom is almost an extension of the worries of youth. It’s an outlet to take out his frustrations, which becomes something a lot more as he starts to learn responsibility.
While many recent tentpoles have favoured non-stop action in the hope of keeping the audience’s attention, The Amazing Spider-man is more interested in telling a story, with likable and empathetic characters, but interspersed with some great set-pieces. While many people have an antipathy towards 3D, the format almost seems designed to watch Spider-man swing through the urban canyons of New York. The movie has also learned lessons from Raimi’s Spider-man 2, which is that FX fireworks work best when married to a bit of emotional oomph, and that with Spidey this comes best from the sense of everyman shared connection and camaraderie that the web-slinger gives to ordinary people.
The romance between Peter and Gwen Stacy is also a lot more involving and real than the rather anaemic relationship between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. This is helped enormously by both Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who give great performances. Garfield in particular is amazing, completely disappearing into Parker in a way that’s unusual in superhero movies. While saying someone ought to be considered for an acting Oscar for a movie like this is normally ridiculous, in Garfield’s case it’s true – he’s that good. Stone meanwhile is seemingly incapable of being anything less than charming in anything she does.
I’m also pretty convinced that someone gay was involved in the writing of this movie, as the scene where Peter tries to tell Gwen his secret identity is a textbook coming out scene, right down to the difficulty of him actually being able get the words past his lips. Parker’s underdog, slightly outcast status and the realisation that he’s slightly different to other boys, certainly adds resonance for a gay audience. There’s no conscious effort to turn the film into a giant gay allegory, but as I said, I’d be surprised if there’s wasn’t someone gay who had major input into the shape of the film, and have left behind their imprint.
Sure, The Amazing Spider-man isn’t perfect. I could pick at plotholes and that fact that in common with most superhero origin stories, the emergence of the supervillain and the threat he represents comes a bit late and isn’t quite as interesting as what led up to it. Ifans does the best he can, but he slightly draws the short straw, as The Lizard’s actions seem to have a muddy motivation – does becoming half reptile turn you evil and mad, or is there more logic to it than that? However the problems are minor, as what’s around them is so good.
I was watching the 2002 Spider-man movie the other day, and it struck me as being rather dated, despite only being 10 years old. It may have seemed fresh at the time, but now it feels slightly cheesy, awkwardly paced and a bit too melodramatic for its own good. The Amazing Spider-man feels more modern and more human, as well being a lot funnier, reinserting the wise-cracking bravado that was such an important part of the comics but completely missing from the earlier films (unless you count the misjudged Emo Spidey of Spider-man 3). So if you do harbour any feelings of resentment about Sony rebooting Spidey so quickly, get over it, as the new film is great and quickly buries the rather over-hyped adoration for Raimi’s films.
Overall Verdict: A great, action-packed superhero story, which tempers the spectacle with plenty of humanity and some good laughs. Garfield is brilliant, anchoring one of the best superhero movies of the last few years.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac