Now that “The Amazing Spider-Man” has finally made it to the big screen we can finally answer that question which has been nagging at us constantly: isn’t it far too soon for a franchise reboot or remake or whatever the hell you want to call this? Well, the answer ends up going both ways here as Marc Webb’s film does tread a lot of familiar ground, but it gets better as it goes on. This time, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (does his name really have to be split up like that?) has a lot more edge to him, and he is far more complex than he was in the Sam Raimi-directed movies.
This version of the web slinger starts off with a very young Peter Parker being left in the company of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his parents, Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), as they are forced to leave town under mysterious circumstances. Forward several years later, and Parker is now a sullen teenager played by Andrew Garfield, one of several actors who should have been nominated for their work in “The Social Network.”
Like before, Parker is portrayed as an outcast who is not exactly the most popular person on the high school campus. But unlike Tobey Maguire’s interpretation, Parker is a more complex character this time around; sensitive and shy while dealing with anger at the life he has been dealt which is anything but normal. In essence, Parker is more of a real life teenager than he was in previous incarnations; confused about his place in life and unsure of himself. “The Amazing Spider-Man” hence becomes the story of a young man on a journey to find himself, and that helps ground this superhero in a reality we all know and understand.
We of course get put through the usual motions of Peter getting bitten by a genetically engineered spider, and of his body going through a strange metamorphosis. Seeing Peter on a subway quickly gaining ability to take out a bunch of pricks with unforeseen self-defense movements and getting his hands caught on things he cannot immediately release, gives you an idea of how quickly things will move along. I couldn’t help but think of Chevy Chase in “Christmas Vacation” when he got all that sap from the Christmas tree on him, and he ends up getting his hands caught on magazine pages and his wife’s hair.
The first part of “The Amazing Spider-Man” did make me a bit impatient as it travels through all the things leading up to Parker adopting his alter-ego. Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie may have come out ten years ago, but its images are still fresh in our minds. We’re not just talking about Kirsten Dunst kissing Maguire while he hangs upside down; everything else from Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin to Rosemary Harris’ Yoda-esque character of Aunt May are things we still feel like we just saw yesterday.
Director Webb and company however do their best to make the material their own. The moments where Garfield develops his power to swing from place to place is exhilarating to watch, and whereas Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies were like a comic book brought to life, Webb manages to bring the character of Peter Parker down to earth in a way not previously seen.
Speaking of Garfield, he has been saying over and over in the press just how happy he was to get this role, and the thrill he gets from playing this iconic comic book character can clearly be seen. Throughout “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Garfield looks to be having the time of his life, and he certainly has earned the right to enjoy himself based on his excellent performance here as he more than makes this role his own.
What I also really liked was how Garfield wasn’t afraid to make Parker at times unlikable. Clearly this is a young man with issues, having lost his parents in a way no child should, and the actor makes Parker’s confusion over what is expected of him all the more palpable.
Matching Garfield scene for scene is the wonderful Emma Stone who plays his highly intelligent love interest, Gwen Stacy. Stone shares a strong chemistry with Garfield, and she gives the role a feisty kick which makes her so much fun to watch.
Rhys Ifans portrays Dr. Curt Connors, once a friend of Parker’s father, who is developing ways to regrow limbs and human tissue. Something goes terribly wrong however with an experiment, and Connors is soon turned into The Lizard. The dilemmas this character faces are not too different from what Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin character dealt with. Ifans however makes the character an interestingly complex one as his intent to test his experimental serum on himself is not about proving oneself to a whole bunch of doubters as it is about taking responsibility for one’s creation when others are more interested in results and profit at everyone else’s expense.
While I miss the late Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, both Martin Sheen and Sally Field fill the roles wonderfully. I also really liked Denis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy, who gets into an argument with Parker as to why he considers Spider-Man a vigilante. After watching him on “Rescue Me” and as an endlessly cynical standup comedian all these years, Leary once again reminds us of just how effective an actor he can be in playing an upstanding citizen and a strong family man.
Director Webb is best known for directing many music videos, and the only other motion picture he made before this one was “(500) Days of Summer.” You can’t help but wonder what the studio executives were thinking when they took Webb from making a $7.5 million indie movie (one of the best of 2009 by the way) to helming a summer blockbuster with a reported budget of over $220 million. Maybe all the other big name directors were busy or something.
Then again, when you look at both “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” there are strong similarities in their stories. Both feature main characters that are in the process of figuring themselves out while moving on to the next stage of their lives. They also have them romancing a female who is as intelligent as she is attractive, and each movie succeeded in giving us relationships that were not the usual kind which inhabit dopey romantic movies.
With “(500) Days of Summer,” Webb showed a keen understanding for how important it is for the audience to be emotionally involved with the characters in a movie. This ended up making him an ideal choice to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man” as we need to care about these characters in order for the movie’s story and its special effects to really work. Webb succeeds in getting us emotionally involved in what goes on in this movie, and it makes it all the more successful.
One other thing about “The Amazing Spider-Man” which I have to point out is the film score by James Horner. Danny Elfman had done such a brilliant job defining the sound of Spider-Man in Raimi’s movies, and that gave Horner a very hard act to follow. But Horner succeeds in giving us music that is as adventurous and invigorating to listen to as Elfman’s was. Of course, this doesn’t keep Horner from ripping off his own music, and there is a musical cue from “Star Trek II” that is instantly recognizable to those who have listened to that soundtrack over and over again like me.
It would have been nice for Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire to make a “Spider-Man 4” if for no other reason than to make up for the huge disappointment that was “Spider-Man 3.” But in retrospect they must have seen the writing was on the wall as there was nowhere else for them to take the character. While a reboot still feels way too soon for this franchise, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a very entertaining movie that gets this series back on track. Now that we got the origin story out of the way again, we can now get to an even more exciting chapter in Peter Parker’s and Gwen Stacy’s lives.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
By the way, be sure to stay through the credits for an additional scene. And yes, there is a Stan Lee cameo, and it may be the best and most hilarious one he has ever done!