By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
As far back as I can remember of my childhood, I have always been a Spider-Man fan. Whether it was watching his animated antics on Fox every Saturday morning, chipping the paint off of action figures via epic battles, bagging and boarding a comic collection that devoured countless allowances, or playing through the various video game incarnations, the wall-crawler was a constant companion of mine. Thus, when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man hit theaters in May of 2002, it was the realization of a dream that was almost too much for a kid’s heart to handle. In a theater that was packed with more people than I ever imagined it might fit, I stared awestruck at the silver screen as Spidey came to life and battled against his most sinister adversary, the Green Goblin. Two years later, I found myself enamored yet again with Spider-Man 2, a sequel that managed to best its predecessor and deliver an even more unforgettable cinematic experience. Then, in 2007, something went awry.
I left the midnight premiere of Spider-Man 3 with a deep sadness such that no other film has ever provoked in me. Two phenomenal outings had left the stage set for nothing less than sheer spectacle, but Raimi’s third and final venture with the web-slinger was an absolute catastrophe. A trite script bred stale performances from an otherwise-capable cast; three villains vied for screen time, and as a result none of them were handled graciously (especially the shoehorned and miscast character of Eddie Brock/Venom); Gwen Stacy and her father joined the supporting cast in throwaway roles that were a far cry from what the characters deserved – these were but a few among a myriad of problems. More significant than my grief, however, was what I sensed immediately upon exiting the theater: there was nowhere for the series to go from here, except back to the beginning.
Ever conscious that it is retracing steps, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot that wastes no time in getting things moving. A brief prologue shows a four-year-old Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) abandoned by his parents, left in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Then, fast forward to the present, where we find Peter (now in high school) bullied by Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) and swooning over Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). At home, Peter happens upon an old satchel that belonged to his father. Inside is a folder filled with research and a photograph of his father with a former colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) – a geneticist who works for Oscorp Industries.
Having obtained a long-desired lead in the mystery surrounding his parents’ abrupt disappearance from his life, Peter visits Oscorp posing as an intern and has the opportunity to see Dr. Connors discuss his research, which aims to combine animal and human DNA to cure diseases and re-grow limbs and tissue (including his own missing arm, perchance). Eventually, Peter wanders off and stumbles into a room where spiders are being genetically engineered to produce industrial strength webbing – one of which delivers the fateful bite that changes his life forever. What follows is a slew of quirky scenes that playfully demonstrate Peter’s newfound abilities, from an accidental subway brawl to humiliating Flash at school.
When not experimenting with his powers, Peter visits Dr. Connors. He shares an algorithm conceived by his father that serves as the missing link in Connors’ research, which leads to the two running tests on mice at Oscorp with dramatic results. All the while, though, Peter has been shirking his responsibilities at home, which ultimately culminates in the tragic death of his Uncle Ben due to Peter’s inaction. Stricken with guilt and anger, Peter prowls the night in search of the killer, using his powers to overwhelm various thugs; before too long, he adopts a full-fledged costume complete with his iconic web-shooters (which he builds himself using a couple of watches and tiny canisters of Oscorp’s webbing). While in his pedestrian clothes, Peter begins dating Gwen, whose father is none other than NYPD Captain George Stacy (Dennis Leary) – a man who is none too pleased about a masked vigilante roaming his city. Meanwhile, Dr. Connors has been under constant pressure from his superior, Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), to begin human trials in lieu of his recent breakthrough. Disgusted with Ratha’s suggestion that they begin with a VA hospital, Connors takes it upon himself to be the first human test subject. Initially, it is a success and Connors manages to re-grow his arm, but before he can truly savor the moment he begins experiencing side effects that transform him into the monstrous Lizard.
When it comes to Spider-Man facing off against this new reptilian adversary, The Amazing Spider-Man truly delivers with actions scenes that are far more sensible than most Hollywood films of today. Like its contemporaries, cutting is frequent, but here the compositions are thankfully not rendered in claustrophobic close-ups that prevent the viewer from comprehending what is happening. Framed at an appropriate distance, much of the action comes courtesy of wire rigs and clever choreography (with Garfield and Ifans performing most of their own stunts), but CGI is implemented where needed. Perhaps the most impressive digitally-created moment comes during a fight at Peter’s high school in which he crawls all over the Lizard’s body, wrapping him in webbing as he goes. In this and other artificial scenes, the CGI occasionally becomes almost overly apparent, with character movements that are a bit too perfect to be believable, but these instances are few (and remarkable) enough to prevent from dampening the experience.
The grandeur of Spidey’s battles would be of little import to The Amazing Spider-Man, however, if not for the exceptional cast that makes the downtime a pleasure to watch. Andrew Garfield shines as both a troubled Peter Parker and a charismatic Spider-Man, and Emma Stone enraptures as his beautiful and shy love interest, Gwen Stacy. The two are simply adorable to watch, as they both are prone to nervousness and fumbling through awkward encounters that inspire heartwarming smiles and laughter in themselves as well as the audience. I would venture as far as saying that theirs is perhaps the most convincing romance I have witnessed in a superhero film – a success owed in large part, as producer Avi Arad has noted, to the simple fact that Gwen falls in love with Peter, whereas in Raimi’s films the character of Mary Jane fell in love with Spider-Man. For Dr. Connors/The Lizard, I must admit that I had been anticipating Dylan Baker – who portrayed Connors in the prior films – finally enjoying his moment in the spotlight, but Rhys Ifans is a superb replacement, even if his Lizard voice recalls Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones (from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).
While the principal trio was satisfying, I found the supporting cast and characters to be lacking. Sally Fields is a far cry Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, though in her defense she is given far too little screen time to make much of the character. Martin Sheen, on the other hand, is a fantastic and endearing Uncle Ben, but his death fell short of having the emotional impact it needed, due to both his limited presence up until that point and the forced nature of the pivotal scene. Then there is Dennis Leary, whose Captain Stacy is not only characterized far differently than what the fanboy in me desired, but he is tragically underutilized. This fault is compounded when he has Peter make him a promise late in the film, only to have it broken shortly thereafter; a rapid turnaround that completely negates any resonance the moment may have had. Other characters, such as J. Jonah Jameson, are absent from the film entirely (though The Daily Bugle does receive the briefest of nods); Norman Osborn (a.k.a. Green Goblin) is present in name only as the head of Oscorp Industries, a dying man relying on Connors’ research to save him.
Another fault lies with the sub-plots, which remain largely unresolved. Though Peter initially begins fighting crime with the selfish motivation of finding Uncle Ben’s killer, the pursuit is put on indefinite hold when the Lizard rears his ugly head (perhaps to be resumed in the sequel). Peter’s search for answers concerning his parents is also relegated to the backburner around this time, as is the fate of Rajit Ratha. What makes these drop-offs most frustrating is that glimpses can be found within the various trailers for the film suggesting that more light was to be shed on these fronts, but the footage was left on the cutting room floor. Though it has been stated that the mystery surrounding his parents will continue into the sequel(s), as it stands even the mid-credits sequence of the theatrical cut does little to satisfy the viewer’s hunger for even the tiniest morsel of information. Perhaps the home video release will contain some of the missing content, whether in a reel of deleted scenes or an extended cut. If not, then there is always hope that the sequel(s) will address these loose ends.
Blunders aside, The Amazing Spider-Man does provide clearer motivations for Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man this time around. Not only does he feel guilty over the death of his Uncle Ben (which primarily fills him with a lust for vengeance), but he also takes responsibility for his part in creating the Lizard, which quickly becomes his primary concern. As such, his ascendance to costumed superhero is not motivated by thrill-seeking or other wanton desires, but because he feels he has an obligation to act. This, along with the delightful romance and grounded action sequences, provides enough innovation amid the familiar beats to allow for a refreshing new take on the titular hero. It may not be perfect, and comic enthusiasts will find that it takes just as many liberties with the source material as Raimi’s films, but The Amazing Spider-Man is marvelous entertainment nonetheless.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Marc Webb
Screenplay James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
Based on The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Producers Avi Arad, Matthew Tolmach, Laura Ziskin
Director of Photography John Schwartzman
Editors Alan Edward Bell, Pietro Scalia
Score James Horner
With Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard), Denis Leary (Captain Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), Sally Fields (Aunt May), Irrfan Khan (Rajit Ratha), Chris Zylka (Flash Thompson)
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