In celebration of his fifth cinematic iteration, this series of reviews is devoted to the only arachnid I wouldn't scream at and kill with poison. Here comes the Spider-Man!
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Few ever held the reboot to be strictly necessary in the first place, and with Amazing's rerun of half a dozen old ideas, alongside its debut of a few new, terrible ones, even the film itself seems sometimes to argue against its own existence. But in a stroke, it's all forgiven, for with a single great idea the Amazing series more than justifies the decision to begin again.
Directed by Mark Webb
Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves
With Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Denis Leary (Capt. Stacy), Sally Field (May Parker), Martin Sheen (Ben Parker), Rhys Ifans (Curt Connor), and Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn) (oh, can't we pretend?)
Spoiler alert: high
It's unlikely to do anything but bore you to recount the plot of Spider-Man in detail, so suffice it to say that I was amused that Netflix' own brief summary uses the word "chomped" to describe how Peter Parker got his powers. As it plays out, though, it's a damned understatement, and our supposedly brilliant protagonist—duly chomped by a genetically modified "super-spider" of unknown toxicity—fails to seek medical attention of any—
Well, if they get to copy themselves, why can't I?
A reboot wasn't a foregone conclusion. Even as late as 2009, two years after the semi-fiasco that was Spider-Man 3, there were still reports that Sam Raimi and Sony were developing a fourth film. But clearly the bloom had left the rose. It was over.
The director briefly retrenched to weirdo-horror before deciding that he really was going to recapitulate every last damned step in Tim Burton's career, joining forces with Disney and Harry Osborn for the mildly disappointing but massively successful Oz, The Great and Powerful. For the studio's part, there was now a real possibility that their rights to the property would revert. (And I wonder if the possibility of a fourth Raimi film under Disney's banner added any extra incentive to keep them? Oh, one supposes the prospect of billions was certainly motivation enough.)
A lapse could under no circumstances be permitted to occur, obviously. Once Raimi was out the door, Sony went for a clean slate, announcing plans for an entirely new series of films, with an entirely new cast and almost entirely new creative team. Perhaps because they liked the cut of his jib, or perhaps simply because it would save time, James Vanderbilt, who had written the numerous drafts for Spider-Man 4 that Raimi refused to film, was kept on; and he would usher in the new Spider-Man.
Same as the old Spider-Man.
Joined by Steve Kloves and Alvin Sargent—the latter no stranger to regurgitating David Koepp's plots—their Amazing Spider-Man returned to an early concept for 4 (before Raimi had set his heart, for God knows what reason, on the Vulture). The reboot's villain would be Curt Connors—the one-armed man who appeared in the form of Dylan Baker as far back as Spider-Man 2, whom the comics fan recognized immediately as the future Lizard. He is now recast, like everyone else, and reworked from Peter's college professor into an Oscorp geneticist, as well as a partner in Peter's dead father's scientific research. I'd say he's obsessed with regenerating his missing limb, but the movie doesn't really push it, so neither will I. You can find links to his important publications on Bing.
And, yes, he is Norman Osborn in all but name. Connors develops a friendly relationship with Peter Parker, but finds himself under pressure to produce results, so he must resort to unethical human trials of an untested gene therapy upon his own person, and—wouldn't you just know it!—he develops not just superpowers but a nasty case of the old fragmented psyche, represented yet again as the villain having conversations between his good and evil selves. In the end, Connors meets Spider-Man in pitched battle, and subsequently dies by his own hand, returns to sanity thanks to Peter's entreaties, or both. It doesn't really matter that much.
Yet as numbing as this seemingly endless repetition of the same Spider-tropes may be, there are new spaces to explore even within this stale dynamic.
First, and by far the least interesting, is the entirely novel (and entirely terrible) decision to render Peter Parker's parents as scientists, spies, or something like that—it's explored more fully in the sequel, with scenes cut from the script here and pasted in there, much to that film's detriment.
Richard Parker had worked for Oscorp in the past. However, realizing that making people stronger, better, and faster is evil (his motivations are, thankfully, never too deeply explored, but appear to be based off too many viewings of Gattaca), he fled, along with his wife (for some reason). The two abandon their son and die in a mysterious airplane crash only days later. This is all well and good, but Amazing's very worst decision, with ramifications beyond this film, is to tediously instill in Peter profound daddy issues. These often threaten to overshadow his far more pressing uncle issues, and they do so to a really insufferable degree.
In a wholly unexpected cross-company cameo, Robert Downey calls him a pussy.
Somewhat more interestingly, Connors had an inkling that Richard Parker had discovered more than he let on, and has spent the intervening decade failing to figure out exactly what it was Parker knew and he still doesn't. (Or it might've been two decades, depending upon how old your capacity for suspension of disbelief permits you to perceive Andrew Garfield as.)
And this is a wrinkle to their relationship I enjoy, as Connors, whose corporate pressures we easily sympathize with, cynically manipulates young Parker into giving him the formula Richard had hidden and Peter has found, doing so in a nice little touch of exploitation breeding exploitation within capitalism's war of all against all. But, since the Parker formula doesn't work (at least, not as Connors intends), we are immediately returned to the show in progress: the Spider-Man Movie Mad Scientist Mark III.
Even this sounds harsher than I intend, for the Lizard, despite a design that does not present as the absolutely ideal version of himself, remains a formidable foe. Better yet, our cartoon technology has advanced greatly since 2002. Thus, Connors' transformation makes the perfect grist for some next-level superhero battles. One of these incorporates the single best-conceived Stan Lee cameo there ever was and ever could be, in a sound design joke that would already be essentially perfect even without the web-slinger's creator in the middle of it, deafened by the classical music blaring in his headphones and blissfully unaware of the carnage unfolding mere yards behind him.
Is this what Ebert meant by the reptile brain?
So, in all important respects, Amazing is a more-than-serviceable action romp. On the level of effects, it's the best looking of the films so far, narrowly beating out Spider-Man 2. You may even come to
But what of Peter Parker himself, the beloved man-child we have come to see?
With Tobey Maguire having aged out of the system, we turn to Andrew Garfield, and frankly he is sort of awful, at least as Parker qua Parker. It's not only or even principally him; he plays the character as written. However, that character is written in a script that decides to abandon all traditional conceptions of Peter Parker in favor of a Generation Z hipster doofus. Key in on an early scene that is (probably) supposed to represent his profound social isolation, when a hot girl asks him to come over to her house to use his photographic expertise... so he can take pictures of her boyfriend's car!
I'm surprised this Peter doesn't cut himself just to feel, the poor babe. No, if this isn't the most enjoyable thing Peter can likely imagine doing with his camera, neither does it represent the soul-curdling oppression suffered by Maguire's Peter in the opening third of Raimi's Spider-Man. And if Garfield's Peter gets his shit kicked in by a Flash Thompson who's more brutal than his predecessor, by replacing the cruel, wealthy douche with an animalistic thug with his own subliminal abandonment issues and (we ultimately learn) a soft spot in his heart, an entire informing subtext is lost.
Of course, having cordial relationships with other humans is no patch on how Peter seduces Gwen Stacy with a quiet charm that seems more like the practiced affectation of shyness than real, butterfly nerves.
Here comes the Spider-Fonz.
Whether it's a fundamental mistake, a deliberate attempt to set him apart from Maguire and Raimi's pitch-perfect take, or both, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone's chemistry is, by consensus and pretty much objectively, so much the best part of this movie that it's practically its point. Taken on his Peter Parker's own terms, Garfield handles him extraordinarily well, playing Peter as a normally abnormal kid, whose speech patterns clearly indicate his unformed prefrontal cortex, and whose behavior belies severe impulse control problems.
The latter is brutally demonstrated in the film's most atrociously stupid scene, also very possibly the single worst moment in the franchise, when Peter shows off his spider-powers to every kid in his high school on the basketball court in a manner calculated to render the eventual donning of the mask as more of an aesthetic choice than crimefighting necessity. We get a more pleasing side of our new Peter's thoughtlessness on his very first date with Gwen, however—when, like the complete and believable idiot anyone would be when trying to impress Emma Stone, he blurts out that he is Spider-Man.
Then he webs her ass, sorely testing my commitment to my promise to not make any jokes about "web fluid."
And speaking of promises and immediately failing to keep them, one could be forgiven for groaning when Peter initially vows to the dying Captain Stacy—a surprise only to those who aren't aware of the quasi-famous fates of semi-obscure comic characters—that he would stay away from his daughter and spare her the danger of being targeted by his enemies. I groaned, anyway, for it augured yet another beat-for-beat retread of Koepp's own script—and however masterful it may have been with those characters, those characters are not even present in this film, and I had little desire to see it recapitulated in any event.
Instead, in a complete reversal of Spider-Man's depressing ending, Peter forgets about his oath to George Stacy by the end of the week. This obviation (or, so it seemed at the time) of the will-they-won't-they faux tension—because this Peter sure-as-hell-will—is my favorite moment in the entire movie. It's nice when they end on such a high note, isn't it?
"No cure for complete exsanguination, huh, asshole?"
In other regards, Amazing does mostly the same things that Spider-Man did, either more or less well: Uncle Ben's murder is more directly and arguably even better staged; Peter's revenge trip, complete with Requiem For a Dream-cam "obsession" shots, is initially bracing but a point comes when the movie just forgets about it, and—spoilers—the sequel hopes you did, too.
Spider-Man's instant status as New York's favorite son is at least as well-established—is there anyone who does not love the scene where Peter loans his mask to that scared boy on the bridge to give his little heart courage? Then there is the Brotherhood of the Crane, lampooned by many, which I counter is made almost sublime, just by sheer dint of how silly it is. Logistics aside, it's certainly damned inspiring to see.
And they say Andrew Garfield is quippier than Tobey Maguire, even though to the best of my recollection there are exactly the same number of jokes made at the expense of criminals in both first films: one.
But it is, above all, the turn to Gwen Stacy that makes The Amazing Spider-Man worthwhile, and the prospect of a reboot only ten years later ultimately the right decision. Despite whatever love I have for Spider-Man—and it is substantial—its greatest misstep, and the misstep that put its entire series on the wrong foot, was the decision to embrace Mary Jane. I say this, obviously, without derogation to M.J. the character or to Kirsten Dunst—though it is also true that Gwen is permitted to do slightly more than merely project either warmth, heartache, or mortal terror, a charge that M.J. would have a hard time escaping in any of Raimi's films save, perhaps, the third.
I say it because it represents the change in cinema that the Marvel Method has brought upon us: the age of the serialized story. It's like TV, that you pay $10 every two years to see. More importantly, it gives franchise filmmakers the opportunity to exercise patience—and pace. We'll see if they can stay the course.
Other reviews in this series:
Spider-Man: "Do what you need to with her, then broom her fast!"
Spider-Man 2: Not the superior Spider-Man
Spider-Man 3: "Dear God... kill Peter Parker"
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Electro Max likes electro music