Review: 'The Amazing Spider-Man'
You're Getting A New Spidey Whether You Want Him Or Not
A pair of comics-based movies from both Marvel and DC will be bookending Comic-Con this year: "The Amazing Spider-Man" opens July 3 and "The Dark Knight Rises" opens July 20. "The Amazing Spider-Man" reminds me a lot of "Let Me In" (the American remake of the exquisite Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In") -- neither one's a bad movie yet both are rather unnecessary.
Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" came out in 2002 with a sequel in 2004, and the final film in 2007. Raimi's first two films rank among the top comic book movies ever. What I love about the first two films (let's pretend there wasn't a third) is that even though there was a lot of action and visual effects eye candy what you enjoy most is the story of Peter Parker's life. You come to truly like and appreciate him. Raimi deserves credit for making an action film that takes time for emotions, something that may make younger viewers grow impatient but which makes the film richer and more satisfying for more mature viewers.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" re-launches/reboots the franchise after just a few years of inactivity (mainly driven it seems out of a desire to not lose the rights to a highly lucrative brand and to use some new state of the art technology). In this new film directed by Mark Webb, the story starts with little Peter Parker on the night he loses his parents, and is left with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, totally right) and Aunt May (Sally Field, totally wrong). The story quickly jumps to a teenage Peter (now played by Andrew Garfield) struggling with bullies in high school. But even as he's being beaten up by Flash (Chris Zylka), he catches the eye of the lovely Gwen (Emma Stone). Then while trying to investigate one of his father's colleagues, Peter gets bite by a specially engineered spider and suddenly has super human strength and can walk up walls and hang upside down. This eventually leads to some web-slinging vigilantism and a run in with Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist turned mutant lizard.
Webb (I did wonder if he was hired merely for his appropriate name) approaches the material less as a comic book geek and more like a kid let loose in a candy shop of visual effects. Everything is bigger, brighter, shinier, and flashier than Raimi's film. But that doesn't necessarily make it better. The 3D falls flat and simply doesn't work well with fast moving action (although I will admit the theater I saw the film in does not have the best 3D projection, try Cinepolis for the brightest screen). The 3D effect seems mostly saved for the web-slinging scenes, but Spidey is moving so fast against such a busy background that the 3D doesn't really read well. The ground level fights, though, are better staged and choreographed here, with Spidey being far more acrobatic in his technique and much faster. Plus this new Spidey really takes some abuse. But in comparing the old and the new, I have to say I enjoyed the web-slinging better in the first two Raimi films.
The CGI in the new "Amazing Spidey" film is a mixed bag. For some of the web-slinging it works fine (and probably looks better in 2D), and some of the creature work on The Lizard look great. He ends up with a nice expressive face that blends the human and the reptile well (there's also a funny gag reference to Godzilla although Big G is hands down the better creature). But when Spidey and The Lizard version of Dr. Connors battle each other in big, wide angle shots, it all looks cartoonish and silly, and that pulls you out of the action.
The script by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves is long (2 hours plus) yet tends to breeze over information and complexity. So Peter gets bit, gets his super powers, and masters them in essentially a couple of montages. On the one hand it's nice to get through familiar material quickly but on the other it misses out on some nice details. I miss seeing the process of Peter trying to figure out what he's going through and the changes that are happening to him. He never has time to be concerned over the changes because he understands and masters them so quickly.
More so than DC Comics, Marvel Comics seems to specialize in seriously conflicted characters who carry on a kind of existential inner dialogue about their place in the world and the meaning of what's happening to them. Raimi's film got that better than Webb's film. In this new "The Amazing Spider-Man" Peter doesn't seem as troubled in high school; sure he gets picked on but he stands up to bullies and still gets the attention of the cutest girl on campus. He's also less tormented by guilt over his uncle's death (that shouldn't be a spoiler since it's a well known comics fact), doesn't really make any effort to keep his secret identity a secret, and even makes light of a very serious promise he's asked to keep. So this Spidey seems less conflicted and troubled than both Tobey Maguire's Peter/Spidey and the character in the comics. It's surprising that Webb fails to get these elements because he did such a good job directing "(500) Days of Summer."
The casting in the new film is a mixed lot. Andrew Garfield seems better suited to the Spidey persona than Peter Parker. I liked Garfield's wise-cracking and super agile Spidey better than Maguire's but I think Maguire was better at conveying the conflicted emotions of Peter Parker. But then Maguire also had the benefit of Rosemary Harris' absolutely perfect Aunt May. Sally Field is simply all wrong in the part. She's doing her standard perky, plucky stereotype with none of the warmth, compassion and respect that Harris brought to Peter's aunt. I do like Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. He provides a solid moral core and tries to pass that on to Peter. Emma Stone is a definite romantic improvement over Kirsten Dunst, and she and Garfield have a nice chemistry. Sadly there is no Bruce Campbell cameo to delight audiences but Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo in fine fashion. Ifans is competent as the scientist turned bad lizard, but not a very memorable villain.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence) feels rushed despite a long running time. It feels as it it's afraid to dwell on anything for very long for fear of losing its audience. There are some big action set pieces designed to be tense and visually awe-inspiring yet much simpler scenes but with characters that we cared more fully about would have made the film stronger. I must confess that I was more emotionally wrapped up in the scene where the stuffed Ted was in danger of getting ripped in half than I was in either the kid rescue scene or final tower showdown. I gasped when Seth MacFarlane's Ted fell off the stadium lights but I had no such reaction to any of the action in this new Spidey. But I'm sure this new addition to the Spidey franchise will draw big crowds. It's good enough to keep people entertained over the extended holiday weekend but for me it doesn't improve on Raimi's first 2 films or offer a radically different re-imagining so it feels a bit unnecessary.
In a random and thoroughly unscientific sampling of audience members I got what I call the Goldilocks effect: one ardent comics fan (and film critic) despised it, one ardent comics fan (and comics bookstore owner) adored it, and one teenager just starting to read the Spidey comics thought it was okay and entertaining enough tomake him forget he had to go to the bathroom.