Was it all a dream? After twenty-five years of creative and financial struggles, Sony and director Sam Raimi finally struck gold and started a successful Spider-Man franchise. The first Spider-Man, an idea first conceived when Richard Donner’s Superman movies determined that there was a future for comic book heroes in mainstream cinema (after the Batman serials of the 40, which nobody took seriously in the first place, were largely forgotten and action heroes segregated to television), smashed the box office during the summer of 2002 and the franchise never waivered since, not even with the heavy handed third installment which even Sam Raimi held in disdain. It was an uneven body of work, to be sure, but always fun. The high point was part two, an endless fountain of energy of a movie.
A fourth film was inevitable and, indeed, went into production soon after the release of Spider-Man 3, with at least two more sequels intended. There were talks of introducing The Lizard, but the final villain of choice seemed to be The Vulture. Then, as if out of nowhere, Sam Raimi announced he was pulling the plug and dropping his involvement. He cited a restrictive time schedule with Sony as the cause, but his quick return to home territory with Drag Me to Hell suggests he had tired of the franchise. Too bad, because the arc, as far from perfect as it was, was left unfinished and good things seemed to be coming its way. A fine cast including John Malkovich as Vulture and Anne Hathaway as Felicia Hardy (who would eventually become Black Cat) were in the line-up. Ah, what could have been. We shall never know beyond some very limited conceptual art depicting Spidey fighting what appears to be a giant gargoyle. Be that as it may, Sam Raimi went to Oz, Malkovich got to play super baddie in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Anne Hathaway did become a feline nemesis not to Spider-Man but to Batman in Dark Knight Rises.
Perhaps, though, Sam Raimi’s take had run its course. The second movie is widely considered the best Spider-Man yet, but his third disappointed most fans. When he closed the door, Raimi gave Sony his best wishes for a reboot that had been in discussion as a potential backup when production troubles became evident. The film that came of this, The Amazing Spider-Man, is not so much a rethinking as a clean start. Both The Amazing Spider-Man and the first Spider-Man strike close to Stan Lee’s heart, though in different ways. Raimi’s vision was almost pure fantasy, not too far removed from basic vampire lore. Peter Parker becomes a human web-slinger after being bitten by an ordinary spider. Lee, it seems, was taken in by the grandiose of myth, though Spider-Man himself was a product of a time when suspicions of unregulated government testing ran high.
The Amazing Spider-Man, however, operates almost entirely on science-fiction, not too far flung from real science according to research conducted at Nexia Biotechnology in Quebec where spider genes were inserted into mammal glands to produce artificial silk. Parker is again bitten by a spider but under different circumstances. In the first movie the bite occurred during a school trip to a museum, in this movie Parker is stung while exploring the Oscorp facility, where his long lost father was conducting covert genetic research. Director Marc Webb makes a big deal out of the possibilities of cross DNA, but is also cautionary about its dangers. If the original trilogy had the soul of Dracula, the reboot bears the warnings of Frankenstein. Tellingly, Raimi’s work was tinted in the golden hues of a sun baked New York, while Webb paints his backgrounds in cold shades of blue and red. It feels like an awe inspiring walk through a state of the art science institute.
Chronologically, The Amazing Spider-Man (as the title, taken from the first comic book series Spidey appeared in, suggests) follows Lee’s footsteps more rigidly. Spidey’s heart has been turned to Gwen Stacy, his love long before Mary Jane came into the picture. True, much of the picture is a rehash as it would need to be if it is to start at the hero’s origin once more. One could argue that a remake of a movie just ten years old was unnecessary. Indeed, no concrete reason was put forward by Sony why they couldn’t just pick up where they had left off with a new director on helm. But, this was the movie that was made and the only question that really matters now for a reboot so close to the original is, how does it hold up? Fortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man can hold its own against a lot of what was done before.
Webb’s emphasis on the human factor far exceeds the forced mechanics of the first movies and he has an excellent cast to work with. Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are talented actors offering much to admire, but in The Amazing Spider-Man, Garfield is allowed to absorb us in all the angst, insecurities, and even the joys of being a teenager. The common complaint, in fact, that the movie is half over before Parker wriggles into the skin tight blue and red suit (and that he is hardly seen in the mask even then) is really hardly noticeable since it is as a common teenager and not as a soulless CGI creation swinging in between the buildings, that Garfield truly shines. The shots of Spider-Man standing high and mighty above the city he protects are nowhere near as triumphant as those of Peter Parker, an ordinary young man who has found his purpose, looking out courageously from atop a skyscraper at the world before him. The former scenes celebrate the triumph of special effects; the latter to the spirit of youth and a repressed loner’s liberation.
Even at thirty, Andrew Garfield is fast rising as one of the most talented embodiments of the all-American teen. His Peter Parker is a loner by choice and not unreasonably so. He was abandoned by his parents when very young and left to the care of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. What little Parker knew of his father is shrouded in mystery. All he is certain of is that his Dad was a scientist working on genetic research at Oscorp. But he fills the void of an empty past with a passion for photography.
He shares a common dilemma with many young boys; he likes a pretty girl that he is too scared to talk to. But Gwen Stacy has a kind heart and reaches out to him after he is humiliated by a bully. Emma Stone is also a bit old for a high school sweetheart but her warmth is so effective we can’t help but want her there. It just so happens that Gwen is an intern at Oscorp and the daughter of the police chief, two compromising positions to be in considering what’s to come.
Stone and Garfield’s shared moments of teenage love are relatively free of the common over-pumped emotion and revel in the endearing awkwardness and timidity so many of us remember so vividly. Even the choice of soundtrack is commendable, suggesting Webb took the caliber of human emotion straight from Indy pics and not the kind of teen romances that seem to be the only market action movies know to borrow from. When she first asks him over for dinner, Gwen exposes herself to be as shy as Parker. Stone works wonders and the whole scene is a beautiful tribute to American young love.
Rhys Ifans’s Dr. Connors seems a promising performance for a new sort of superhero nemesis. He is no lunatic bent on world domination. His studies are motivated by good enough intentions. He wants to rid the world of pain. There is something in it for him, of course. He wants to replace his amputated left arm, but he is scrupulous. In fact, he only injects himself with the serum that transforms him into The Lizard when his conniving boss threatens to test it on unsuspecting veterans. He had some history with Peter Parker’s dad, both having researched in transgenetics at Oscorp, but the movie is foggy about the extent. Supposedly, a deleted subplot hinted that Dr. Connors may have been behind the death of Parker’s parents and that Mr. Parker had injected Peter with spider serum years earlier, marking his destiny early on. All this was scrapped, however, and what remains is puzzling.
The depiction of Dr. Connors as an ethical, if naïve, scientist raises hope for a new, complex direction for superhero movies. Alas, The Amazing Spider-Man is not it. As soon as Dr. Connors morphs into the rampaging Lizard he loses everything we admired about him and becomes a generic movie monster trashing a city. When he faces off with Spidey, the movie goes into autopilot and their battle through the buildings of New York is indistinguishable from the ending of The Avengers or so many other action movie showdowns, mixing an unsavory blend of spectacular destruction with attempts at wit. Spider-Man’s attempts to get through to him (“This isn’t you. You aren’t thinking straight.”) touch upon the humanity we first noticed in Dr. Connors but do little else. What a waste of innovation.
Martin Sheen had little knowledge of the material before taking on the role of the doomed Uncle Ben, but he does play it with uncharacteristic gentility. It’s not his fault that Uncle Ben’s inevitable death scene (when he crosses paths with an armed shoplifter) is staged and shot so sloppily, with jumpy editing and forced dialogue, that it becomes almost comical in its familiarity. It’s good to see Sally Field again as Aunt May but she appears less and less as the movie goes on. Still, she gives the movie an emotional cushion. She is old enough for maternal advice, but youthful enough for spunk. Her presence is an asset and it’s a shame there wasn’t more of her.
Denis Leary is miscast, it seems. He is hardly recognizable, but not because he is disguised. No, his physical similarities to Willem Dafoe are too obvious for the movie to pass up the chance for a subtle homage to Dafoe’s Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s first movie. Rather, he is so out of his league as the surly Captain Stacy that his influence is minimized. He is a gruff commander of authority and an overprotective father, but he carries none of Leary’s dry wit or reluctant cloyingness even in his dying moments. The less said about a failed attempt at whimsy, Gwen’s ardent refusal to accept his invitation for hot coco downstairs while she hides a wounded Spider-Man in her bedroom is best forgotten.
But it’s Garfield and Stone that make this movie an overall improvement over the original trilogy. Fans recognize with some wariness that, judging by the comic books, Gwen Stacy’s days are numbered. This means the loss of Emma Stone and that’s the real cause for dismay. But if Marc Webb proved something in The Amazing Spider-Man it’s his eye for casting and utilization of his cast. Mary Jane will likely be a welcome addition no matter who takes the part.