The Spider Man franchise has set a new land-speed record for the quickest reboot-ing: Spider Man 3 was released in 2007 and five years later, it’s been rebooted with a new cast, new director and an origin story that has been re-tweaked in both plotting and tonal terms. The results were worth the trouble for bean-counters but if you’re looking for a different kind of Spider Man, the changes are merely cosmetic. Despite a few changes in style, it’s still muddled and impersonal in a way that many superhero movies are.
The beginning of the film goes for an edgier, slightly mysterious feel: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is presented to us as a nerdy misfit who lives with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). A brief prologue reveals his parents dropped him off there late one night and died in a mysterious car crash later on. He starts to get hints of why they died when he discovers a briefcase his dad left behind in the cellar. Using some clues from it, he visits the OsCorp building, which is an also excuse to follow his crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). He crosses paths with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a former associate of his parents, in hopes of getting more clues.
And this is where fate intervenes: while Peter is snooping around he stumbles into a machine where an irradiated spider gives him a fateful bite. Pretty soon, he can crawl on walls and is super strong. He becomes so caught up in his new world that he butts heads with Uncle Ben, a move he regrets when Ben is shot by a robber. Peter starts to hunt for that thief while in costume, becoming the Spider Man of legend and earning the ire of Captain Stacy (Denis O’Leary), Gwen’s cop dad. As if that wasn’t enough, Peter finds himself in further trouble when Connor’s experiments cause him to transform into a crazed lizard-man that wants to take him down.
The Amazing Spider Man improves upon Sam Raimi’s Spider Man series in a few key ways: Parker is written with greater complexity, Garfield gives a better performance in the role and a lot of the dumb changes those movies forced on the character (like the “organic webslingers”) have been jettisoned. It also benefits from the advancement of CGI technology since the early 2000’s, with the scenes of Spider Man web-slinging his way around the city looking more like a human being and less like the video game cut-scene he appeared to be in Raimi’s first Spider Man film.
However, The Amazing Spider Man still gets a lot wrong. For starters, this film feels like a really lengthy first act to a larger story. A lot of time is devoted to talking about the mystery of what happened to Peter’s parents but it is never paid off in any meaningful way. Similarly, there are several scenes with Dr. Connors and an OsCorp talking in hushed tones about Norman Osborn and how his concerns drive the plot – but we never see Osborn once. These moments are obviously done to set up things that pay off in a second or third film but they take so much time and give the audience so little that it feels like shameless teasing. If you want an audience to invest in an epic story, well, you’ve got to give something to get something.
All this frontloading of backstory ensures that when The Amazing Spider Man actually focuses on its attempt at redoing the Peter Parker origin story, the results feel perfunctory and rushed because they have little time to work with. For example, Parker’s relationship with Aunt May – one of the most important element of the original Spider Man comics – is virtually thrown out here. Poor Sally Field is given an embarrasingly small amount of screen time: all she gets to do is stand in the kitchen and give Peter worried looks. J. Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane and other familiar elements of the Spider Man mythos have also been thrown out. Even worse, the film bungles the Uncle Ben’s death subplot almost as badly as Raimi’s Spider Man did, overplaying it for cheap melodrama when it should be a surprise that sneaks up on the viewer.
The Amazing Spider Man also has a big hole in its story where a meaningful villain should be. Since the makers decided to hold off on introducing the Green Goblin, viewers get stuck with the Lizard. He’s a c-list villain at best, the kind that would be a good villain for a subplot but not strong enough to carry a movie. To make matter worse, his battling with Spider Man is delayed to the second half of the film and he’s given a half-hearted “evil plan” at the last minute to juice up the finale that is dumb enough to make you laugh out loud.
Since the narrative is jumbled and going in so many directions, it should be no surprise that The Amazing Spider Man is also “all over the map” tonally. Director Marc Webb has a solid visual sense and gets good performances but has trouble managing the shifts in mood for this film. The film’s mood lurches from melodrama (Peter’s home life) to goofball humor (the Peter/Gwen romance scenes) to camp action (most of the action setpieces). Humor in particular gets overplayed here, with the scenes where Peter discovers his new strength and spider-like abilities played for a series of cheap slapstick gags instead of a sense of wonder.
The film’s multiple problems are a shame because the cast is quite good and game for the material they’ve been given. Garfield brings a newfound intensity to the Peter Parker character that it has been missing, Ifans gives an underwritten “tragic villain” role his best and Stone makes a sympathetic damsel in distress. That said, the best work comes from a few of the peripheral character: Sheen brings both wit and heart to the film’s tougher yet heartfelt re-interpretation of Uncle Ben and O’Leary gives a strong, totally dramatic performance as Captain Stacy, giving Parker a real adult authority figure to learn from.
Ultimately, The Amazing Spider Man is business as usual for the modern superhero film: it has been overloaded with marketing/franchise concerns, tries to play to too many audiences at once and doesn’t trust its own source material enough to play it straight. If you love the spirit of the original Lee/Ditko comics, don’t expect to find it here.