Repost: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

May 3, 2014

[In anticipation of The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Rise of Electro (man, I am NOT looking forward to typing that more than once in a post), here is my review of The Amazing Spider-Man, posted on July 5th, 2012.]

The existence of The Amazing Spider-Man would make you think there was a larger plan in place for why Sony would basically remake a hugely successful–if not genuinely iconic—summer blockbuster only ten years-old. Maybe there’s some new technology that makes it plausible that Spidey could operate outside of Midtown.  Or perhaps they’ve retconned the story so that Peter Parker is now a tough cop who plays by his own rules and has a super-intelligent aardvark as a partner. Or maybe this is gonna be a more adult-oriented Spider-Man, who likes a snootful of ecstasy before he punishes evildoers with his flame-webs, and then unwinds by having threesomes with Swedish stewardesses and snorting coke off their butts. Alas, the depressing truth of the matter is that Sony was going to lose the rights to Spider-Man if they didn’t make another, so they rebooted the franchise, rather than tell an original story. The result is this perfectly good, but hugely redundant, movie.

So, in TAS, Nerdy Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a high school student who…wait, why am I recounting this? Spidey’s origin story is about as well-known as the Nativity story. Basically, you got all the basics: Aunt May, Uncle Ben (for a little while), and this time around we swap out Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) for Mary Jane Watson (kind of traded up if you ask me). What got added this time was some weak broth concerning Peter’s missing scientist father (Campbell Scott in a cameo). That’s, uh, pretty much the big difference in this version.

Okay, as far as Peter’s personal growth goes, we hit all the same notes. Bitten by a spider, gains superpowers, Uncle Ben gets killed, with great power comes great responsibility…yadda yadda. The addition of the Oscorp scientific facility gives the movie a nexus, since that’s where Peter’s father, Gwen Stacy, and the movie’s villain, chief scientist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) all work. It’s a tidy storytelling device, but it also adds an extra layer of plot devices that need to be in place before Pete can become Spidey and the movie can get fun. The result is a very long run up with almost an hour of screen time before Peter dons the ol’ spandex. This is not an improvement.

This is a continuing problem with TAS. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was a very good movie, which suffers only in the advances made in special effects—like pretty much every other effects-laden movie ever made—so it’s impossible not to mentally compare TAS with that movie. It’s a long shadow and this film only emerges from it fitfully.

The casting is probably the movie’s strongest suit. Garfield and Stone are both better in their roles (and better served by their characterizations) than in the first film. Not to knock Tobey McGuire or Kirsten Dunst, but their successors are just more interesting actors and characters. Garfield, in particular, plays with more range than McGuire does, bringing more edge and greater range to a character that, in the first film, never much transcended his comic-book roots. Garfield and Stone also have a crackling chemistry that McGuire and Dunst couldn’t quite manage, despite their best efforts.

The Amazing Spider-Man also benefits by having a better villain than the Green Goblin, who was pretty much only an immobile mask and Willem Dafoe’s cackle. Ifans does a pretty good mad scientist, and the lizard-man he turns into is a scarier, more menacing adversary to watch in the movie’s action sequences. Hell, even the CGI is pretty above-par. Plus, giant reptiles are really cool.

Unfortunately, most everything else tends to suffer by comparison, mainly due to Raimi’s command of the subject matter. 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb is capable enough, but lacks  Raimi’s sure directorial touch. Raimi was well and seasoned by the time he made Spider-Man, and knew how to fit the performances, effects, and stunts into the movie he wanted to make. He was experienced enough to bring the Sam Raimi of the Evil Dead movies to the director’s chair and not the Sam Raimi of A Simple Plan. As a result, his movie had an even, rewarding tone. Having spent so much time working within genres, Raimi knew how to make a comic-book world. Webb, never quite manages the feat. Nowhere is this more apparent than in TAS’s interpersonal scenes, which seem to be dropped in from a different, more intimate film.

The result is a crippling blow to the movie’s momentum. In Spider-Man, Peter’s transformation was handled with ease and good-humor. The same scenes in TAS are overlong and focused so much on Peter’s personal journey that they grow leaden and tedious. A scene in which Peter tests his new abilities in an abandoned shipyard stops the story dead and adds nothing to the story, and just leaves you stifling the urge to shout at the screen, “When is the fucking Lizard gonna bust shit up?” And that’s really not something you should want to shout during this movie–or any movie really.

Likewise, Peter’s father issues don’t really provide much dramatic drive—again, mostly, because we saw this story work just as well without it. It only serves to complicate a straightforward narrative and character arc. And, really, do we need another superhero with daddy issues? Jesus fuck, Hollywood, man up, have a beer and get over it.

The action sequences range from the good to the botched. Again, Raimi directs action with a childish glee and abandon–whether it’s Spidey fighting atop a speeding subway train or an evil old woman menacing Alison Lohman. Webb, on the other hand, mostly just manages them like a daycare center director–he lets the kids do whatever they want as long as they don’t eat paste. They typically pay off, but every so often he lets his naturalism intrude, such as when Spidey rescues a child in a burning car, and Webb chooses to focus on Peter’s emotional state and lets all the tension drain from the scene.

As far as superhero movies go, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t bad. Unfortunately, in the wake of Avengers, the bar has been set higher, and this movie just doesn’t clear it. It’s entertaining enough, but doesn’t set any new standard. The original, on the other hand did, and pretty much maintained it until Iron Man and The Dark Knight came around. That makes this movie seem even smaller, and small is the last thing a summer action movie should be.

But, hey, at least there’s no James Franco…

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