To put a twist on the tagline from the movie that kicked off the cinematic obsession with superheroes more than 30 years ago: when it comes to The Amazing Spider-Man, you’ll believe a man can cry. Well, in this case, Peter Parker is still a boy but he’s learning to be a man and that’s never easy, even when you have super powers. While it leaves a lot on the table in terms of the action and special effects and humor we expect from superhero movies, this reboot of the Spider-Man franchise pushes certain emotional buttons in ways that the Sam Raimi version (and most other movies of the genre) can only dream about. It’s actually moving and, since it aims beyond the 13-year-old male id, it might find its audience outside of the group of people who normally go for these kinds of things.
Ever since Sony announced they were rebooting the character with a younger cast, I’ve been deeply skeptical not only of the cynicism behind the decision (it’s all about money and keeping the rights to the character alive), but also the need to go back to the well and tell the Spidey origin story yet another time. It turns out though that it was a necessary move since the franchise really is striking out in a fresh direction and it needs a solid foundation upon which to build. This is that foundation. The basic story is rejiggered and modernized somewhat – Peter’s dead parents are introduced and his father winds up figuring into the overall story – but it hits all of the familiar beats involving the school nerd who is given superpowers from the bite of a mutant spider and it dispenses with them fairly (and mercifully quickly).
Where the new Spider-Man differs most sharply from the Sam Raimi version is that Peter’s guardians, Uncle Ben and Aunt May, are much more well-developed and their arc carries a lot more weight. There is more honest emotion in Peter’s relationship with Ben and May than in about any superhero movie I can think of and the familiar climax (and repercussions) of their part of the story easily provides the biggest gut punch since Lois was buried alive in the first Superman.
Thanks perhaps in part to the sensitive direction of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), the cast is where Spider-Man really excels. Andrew Garfield is great as Peter Parker from the early scenes up through his transformation and into his difficult adjustment phase. He’s a credible high school kid and he’s got great chemistry with Martin Sheen as Ben and Sally Field as May. For their part, Sheen and Field are also terrific, helping to ground a genre that can succumb to silliness. Emma Stone meanwhile is also solid as Peter’s love interest Gwen Stacy (she’s spunky and smart and is more than capable of fending for herself) while Rhys Ifans gives a lot more nuance to his scientist/evil villain role than you normally expect to get. In short, all of the human elements of The Amazing Spider-Man are surprisingly good.
Where the film stumbles, and this is sure to be a bone of contention for people who show up expecting the usual superhero mix, is mostly in the story and the action. The thing is, Peter Parker is much more interesting without the mask on. Once he gets past his growing pains and has to save the city, the film grinds to a halt and this is just where most of these movies take off. The story is serviceable, but there’s some really silly stuff (a sequence involving a grateful crane operator comes to mind) and much of the action and special effects (especially arch-villain The Lizard) have an unappealingly rubbery CGI quality to them. They’re serviceable, but we’ve come to expect more than that from this kind of movie.
On balance though, The Amazing-Spiderman gets more right than not and the emotional chords it strikes make it easy to forgive its shortcomings. The world probably doesn’t need another Spider-Man origin story, but we have one anyway and luckily it’s pretty good and it bodes well for a fresh direction with the inevitable sequels.
Filed under: Review