The Amazing Spider-Man is preceded by an awful lot of presumption and cynicism, and it is also impossible to discuss without mention of Sam Raimi’s films. A “reboot” only five years after 2007’s woeful Spider-Man 3, it has caused much ire in fanboy and critical circles. Yes, it is true that Sony needed to make another film in order to retain the movie rights, but to go back to square one has upset a lot of people, which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy in Marc Webb’s film even if it does prove to be an ultimately frustrating experience. It gets a lot right, seemingly incorporating a little more of Ultimate Spider-Man from the comics, but also steps into the error arena and, after the bar has been raised by The Dark Knight and The Avengers, many decisions are questionable.
By now, most people ought to be aware of the origins of Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) transformation into your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man but this familiar ground is covered once again by Webb. There are a few differences added to the mix but not really enough to warrant the telling: Parker’s parents are brought into the story, their disappearance having to do with the work Peter’s father has been doing for Os-Corp, along with Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).
Investigating this brings Peter into contact with Connors and a certain spider bite. So as Peter begins his transformation, so does Connors into the Lizard, courtesy of a formula Peter has found amongst his father’s hidden papers. The same events in school occur as they did in Raimi’s first film, with Peter retaliating against bullies, finding the girl, in this case Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and playing a part in the death of his Uncle Ben (a great Martin Sheen), however the tone is different this time around.
Marc Webb brings a decidedly different sensibility to the proceedings with his vision of the webslinger; Ditko’s Peter Parker this is not. Gone is the weedy victim of bullying, replaced with Garfield’s skateboarding loner. He may not be Tobey Maguire’s geek but he still has little luck with the ladies and gets his backside kicked but he stands up for others from the outset. Garfield is frankly great in the role, bringing the wise cracking Spidey fans have been clamouring for since the beginning and giving him a more believable centre as a character. He’s the best Spider-Man we’ve had yet. We root for him not just because he’s the hero but also because the relationships are portrayed so well.
Stone’s Gwen Stacy is far less wobbly than Mary Jane Watson and the core relationship between her and Garfield is one of the most convincing in a film like this for some time; one scene where a piece of information passes unspoken between them is ingenious. Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Sally Field) seem more like a genuine married couple than before, bantering, squabbling and worrying without the pontificating of previous films. In fact, a certain famous line is never uttered.
Webb seems to approach the whole thing less as a superhero movie and more of a relationship movie, something that works in the film’s favour. The tone is definitely more serious than Raimi’s trilogy without becoming dour, and even James Horner’s score is a far quieter affair than Danny Elfman’s rousing themes, focusing more on piano solo than huge orchestral bombast (which is still present), but there is an imbalance between all of this and the action of the film.
A sewer sequence where Spidey and the Lizard have their first encounter is set up very well (a great idea involving spider sensibilities) but fizzles out once a dramatic point has been made rather quickly. The other action scenes tend to work better, especially in the finale, but the threat of the Lizard and his grand scheme are the things of lesser, more conventional super hero films. The treatment of the villain, whose design is not great, is a major stumbling block for the film. Not only have we seen these origins before, we’ve seen this kind of villain before as well.
The visual effects serve the film well but the Lizard suffers from less than amazing CG, possibly due to the design which renders him more like a bulked up Visitor from the original V. However, shots of Spider-Man zipping his way through New York City have come on in leaps and bounds since we last saw him. There is still a beauty to watching him soar through the air, with the integration of the virtual and the physical one of the most effective aspects of the film, and in this the 3D works wonders, but for the rest of the film it is completely redundant.
In all, this is a frustrating affair. For all the justified complaints about retread story points, it brings us a more faithful rendition of Spider-Man as a character and ups the ante with the relationships as well, but it doesn’t completely satisfy. Parts of the film seem rushed, particularly a dinner table scene involving Captain Stacy (an engaging Denis Leary) and Parker, and one wonders how much has been excised.
With the announcement that Sony intends to make this film the first part of a trilogy, there is some hope. The groundwork has been laid with improved central characters, infinitely better casting, a more serious tone (no emo-Parker or daft dancing here) and an intriguing post credits scene with an unseen villain that teases a far greater story overall for Parker. What is needed next time around is a more exciting story, a more developed villain and more smash, bang, wallop. It seems like there were obligations that had to be fulfilled in this film, but now that the origin is over with (again), let’s see Garfield’s Spider-Man really get into it.