Monday, July 2, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

After the trainwreck that was Spider-Man 3 Sony decided, rather than allow director Sam Raimi to continue with the character, to reboot the entire franchise. Together director Marc Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves were chosen to return Peter Parker to high school.

The result, The Amazing Spider-Man, at times feels very much a retread of Raimi's Spider-Man as it focuses on a very similar plot and villain. However, Webb's film makes a number of different choices that make it at least the equal of Raimi's first Spidey film.

Andrew Garfield is cast in the role of science nerd Peter Parker, a Midtown Science High School student and loner. The film begins with a scene of Peter's parents (Campbell ScottEmbeth Davidtz), scientists for Oscorp, leaving Peter with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) just before they disappear.

Years later, still searching for answers to their disappearance, Peter will discover his father's hidden research and approach his former colleague Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a meeting which will lead to the creation of two super-powered figures in Manhattan.

Although the film makes several references to Norman Osborn and spends a hell of a lot of time linking everyone to OsCorp, Spidey's arch-nemesis never appears on-screen. Neither does Harry Osborne, Peter's confidant from the comics who played such a major role in Raimi's films. Also sadly missing are J. Jonah Jameson and the rest of the cast of characters from the Daily Bugle.

The Amazing Spider-Man does introduce a pair of important characters in Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In Spidey's original comic run Gwen would be Peter's first girlfriend, and Webb's film does a much better job than Raimi's casting the female lead and keeping her true to who she was on the page (they even dress Gwen as she appeared in comics). As for Captain Stacy, those who know his role in comics, and his importance in the development of Spider-Man as a hero, won't be disappointed here.

The Amazing Spider-Man condenses three of the most important moments in Peter Parker's life to a single film. We get the (far too elaborate) spider bite, the tragic death of Uncle Ben, and a third important plot thread (ignored in Raimi's Spidey franchise) which I won't ruin here. Although it does feel a little rushed, the film is paced and edited to keep the story constantly moving forward.

One of the problems with Raimi's Spider-Man is several of the big action sequences looked too much like big action sequences shot on sound stages and in the studio's back lot. The Amazing Spider-Man does a much better job making it feel like everything is actually happening in the Marvel Universe version of New York City.

The Amazing Spider-Man is far more subtle than Spider-Man at hammering home the character's trademarked moral lesson. In fact, the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" (hamfistedly hammered home in Raimi's film at least four times) isn't quoted directly here at all. Even if the exact phrase is missing, the message gets through loud and clear.

The choice to keep Peter in high school throughout the film (rather than graduate him less than halfway through, as Spider-Man did) is a good one. Even if the leads look far to old to be high school students, the character's early days need to be kept at Midtown High.

We're also given another remarkably mean but bland version of Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) who beats up Peter on school grounds in one scene so graphic you wonder how the character didn't get expelled. And of course, just as in Raimi's film, Peter will humiliate his bully, immediately followed by a speech from Uncle Ben about the situation which he will completely ignore. I know what the script was trying to do with the Peter/Flash relationship, but the events are so condescend it turns out to be one of the more awkward pieces of the reboot.

The film uses a mix of the character's original origin and that of Ultimate universe Spider-Man. This means we don't get Peter's attempt to cash-in on his glory by becoming a wrestler (though Raimi's version of this sequence featuring "Macho Man" Randy Savage would be hard to top), but we do finally get web-shooters (which is only one instance of how the film does a far better job at showcasing Peter Parker as a science nerd than Raimi's films ever did).

There are many parallels to Raimi's films including the jokey sequences of Peter's hands accidentally sticking to things following his spider bite, forgetting promises to Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the same green goop canisters that release green gas and turn people into super-villains, the same stalking off which leads directly to Uncle Ben being shot on the street (instead of at home as in the comic origin), and the same motivations (the potential loss of funding leading to the character experimenting on himself) and whispered evil voice for the film's villain.

I've stayed away from The Lizard for the most part in my review because, much like in Raimi's Spider-Man, it's the weakest part of the story. Ifans works well as Connors, but the effects of The Lizard are average at best (and I don' see them aging well), and after his transformation he becomes far too much of the stereotypical destroy-the-world Marvel villain. And even if he isn't stuck with a ridiculous looking suit, Ifans doesn't have the same charm Willem Dafoe brought to Norman Osborn.

Garfield makes a pretty darn good Peter Parker. Although I think he's too old and too handsome for the role, the script certainly plays on his awkwardness and shyness. Given the fact that he's also much more lanky than Tobey Maguire, he looks better in the suit, allowing for the CGI to give us more weird Spider-Man web-slinging angles than the first film.

I've never been a huge fan of Emma Stone, but she's cast well here (even if the movie allows Gwen to know Peter's secret far too soon). Sheen's more blue-collar version of Uncle Ben is an interesting contrast to that of Cliff Robertson that lets him put his own stamp on the character. Given how little of the film deals with the Aunt May/Peter relationship a very good Sally Field draws the short-end of the straw with a far less memorable Aunt May than Rosemary Harris delivered in the other films.

Even though it's a Sony film, The Amazing Spider-Man fall into the Marvel Studios trap with far too many scenes of the hero taking off his mask for no reason. There's also the odd choice to make the most important person in Spider-Man's development not Ben, May, or one of the Stacys, but C. Thomas Howell in a bit role that helps crystallize the type of man Peter Parker decides to become.

You certainly aren't going to confuse The Amazing Spider-Man with The Avengers, but it's far better than I expected it to be. It's still stuck with a mostly ineffectual and forgettable villain, but Peter's story works surprisingly well and the action scenes are damn good (especially in IMAX). Fans of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man should definitely give this one a try and compare for themselves whether this version of the character works better or if they still prefer Maguire's Spider-Man.

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