Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

The Acceptable Spider-ManThe Adequate Spider-Man. Both of these would have been more apt titles for The Amazing Spider-Man, a film that for the most part works just fine, but ultimately shares too many plot points with Sam Raimi's original film to really stand out. There are a lot of aspects (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb gets right here, and a few that fall squarely into superhero movie mediocrity. Is it a good Spider-Man movie? Absolutely. But is it a truly great superhero film? Not quite.

The Amazing Spider-Man
Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans

Many will argue about whether or not this movie even needs to exist so soon after Raimi's take on the material. But it's becoming more and more obvious that the superhero genre is not going away any time soon; in fact, it's becoming more prevalent than ever. These stories have jumped from panels to the big screen in rapid succession over the past decade, and have become an important part of American storytelling. I'm not the first person to point out that superhero tales have essentially become modern versions of Greek myths in our culture, and with The Incredible Hulk going through three different on-screen versions in less than ten years, chances are we're going to see more retellings of these same basic stories in the years to come. While these films aren't exactly Shakespeare - although, coincidentally, Thor does share some elements with some stories of the Bard - arguing about the necessity of a remake, reboot, or different adaptation is an unnecessary battle. You don't get up in arms every time a new version of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet hits the stage; it's about seeing different visions of the same basic story.

This version of Peter Parker's origin story stars Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) as Parker, who excellently plays Peter as a shy, quiet kid who's a lot more ballsy than Maguire's timid incarnation. This version of Peter is much more in line with the interpretation of the comics, cracking jokes when he eventually becomes Spider-Man and providing a fresh perspective on one of the genre's most iconic characters. Emma Stone is great as Gwen Stacy, too, adding so much more to the story as the love interest than Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson ever did. A fellow science geek, Stone's Stacy is smarter than Peter, effortlessly charming, and - considering her impact on the events during the climax - a far cry from a damsel in distress. It's also important to note that she actually falls in love with Peter Parker, not just the superhero version of him like Dunst did in Raimi's film and Margot Kidder did in Richard Donner's Superman.

She also provides a natural lead-in to one of the film's antagonists, Gwen's police captain father played by Denis Leary. He's the stand-in for J. Jonah Jameson here, giving the public some doubt that Spidey is a good guy and generally not believing that Peter is a good dude. Hey, I can't really blame him - I'd be pissed at the kid if I walked in on him and my (fictional) daughter when he didn't use the front door, too. Leary, an actor I normally despise, did some good work here and was part of a passable supporting cast that includes Sally Field as Aunt May and Martin Sheen as the ill-fated Uncle Ben.

Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors (aka The Lizard) gives a decent performance, but this is where the movie encounters most of its problems. Fans have been calling for The Lizard, one of the ol' web head's most famous villains, to be given a proper portrayal on screen for years, and The Amazing Spider-Man might be proof positive that sometimes, wishes are better left unfulfilled. The villain subplot is frankly stupid, with Connors injecting himself with a prototype formula to regenerate one of his missing arms and turning into a reptilian beast in the process. But the stupidity comes with Connors' eventual Evil Plan That Every Villain Must Have, which entails (ha! "tails") showering the citizens of New York City with a cloud of toxins that will turn them all into...The Lizard. Wait, what? Soon after his transformation, he alludes to being at the top of his food chain, but his master plan is to make everyone just like him? It's not a well-constructed plan (despite earlier claims that he wants to make everyone equal), and The Lizard's antics translate much better in comic book form than they do in a blend of CG and live action.

But speaking of CG, that was one of the biggest elements of Spider-Man's physicality as seen in Raimi's trilogy. Here, Garfield gives a strikingly physical performance, and you feel every hit, scrape, and body slam he endures throughout the film. The web swinging is a thing of beauty, too; instead of relying totally on CG for everything, stunt men actually swung across wires above the city, giving the character some real weight and making him feel like a person instead of a pixel as he travels through New York. 

Here's one of my biggest gripes with this movie, and prepare yourselves, because this is going to get nitpicky. One of the most interesting elements of Spider-Man has always been the web-shooters. Parker is a science whiz, and watching him create his own web-shooters is an important part of his character that Webb nails in this film. (Remember the "no organic web-shooters" petition that went around before Raimi's first movie? I do.) But the reason the web-shooters are so important is because they provide opportunity for conflict in Spidey's adventures. In the comics and animated series, Peter has to take a job at The Daily Bugle as a freelance photographer in order to pay for the materials to purchase his synthetic webbing. Much to the chagrin of J. Jonah Jameson, who doesn't even appear in this film, Peter is one of the only people who consistently takes impressive photos of Spidey (duh - because he sets up the camera and takes photos of himself). This connection provides an important bridge between his superhero persona with his mild-mannered real-life identity. If Peter doesn't have any money, he could run out of webbing at any time during a fight with a bad guy and be forced to come up with a creative way around the seemingly-hopeless situation he's gotten himself into. By not addressing this aspect of the story at all, Webb and screenwriter James Vanderbilt rob the audience of the inherent drama there and basically turn the webbing into some sort of video game cheat code in which Peter is never in danger of running out. Where's the drama in that?

One of the film's strangest moments comes late in the movie, when Spider-Man is attempting to stop a virus from being blasted across New York City. He swings through the city on his way to Oscorp Tower, but is shot in the leg and injured, which slows his progress tremendously. Vanderbilt strangely chooses this time to have a "the city is banding together" sequence, in which New York's construction workers communicate among themselves and conveniently turn all of their cranes in the same direction, giving Spidey a clear path toward Oscorp. It's a less ridiculous version of what Peter Berg did in Battleship, in which old army vets are called on to help the main characters pilot an old navy vessel, and a less effective version of what Raimi does in Spider-Man 2 when civilians protect the web-slinger during the train sequence. If Spider-Man had run out of webbing, I can see why this crane tactic would make sense; he'd be able to use the chains hanging from each crane as makeshift webs to swing from piece to piece and make it to Oscorp in time. But as it plays out here, he just uses his web-shooters to swing from crane to crane, which begs the question: was the worker's sacrifice even necessary? Couldn't Peter have swung from any other nearby building and traveled as he did in the rest of the movie without any issues? It's a bizarre screenwriting choice that brings the drama to a halt and removes much of the suspense in the scene.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a fine movie, and it's actually a really good Spider-Man film. But the similarities to previous movies coupled with a fairly weak villain storyline hold it back from being a great superhero movie. Hopefully Garfield and Stone (who are currently dating in real life, by the way) get to put some of that great chemistry back on screen in a future installment that isn't weighed down by the origin story aspects and restrained by a lackluster villain. Until next time...

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