The Amazing Spider-Man (review)

The Amazing Spider-Man yellow light Andrew Garfield

Not So Tangled Web

The Amazing Spider-Man? That’s a stretch. More like the Halfhearted Spider-Man. The Just-Sorta-There Spider-Man. The Familiar Spider-Man. Spider-Man 3 may be the least satisfying of Sam Raimi’s Peter Parker trilogy, but it’s still livelier than this flick, and — much more significantly — it was presented to us on the blockbuster platter a mere five years ago. Which leaves… who? For whom is 2007 the depths of unplumbed history? Today’s kindergartners, I guess, are the only fresh audience for this uncalled-for reboot. There is a generation of littles who will see The Amazing Spider-Man as their first comic-book superhero movie… and they will love it. The rest of us will have a terrible feeling of deja vu, a terrible feeling of deja vu.

Why they went the reboot route is an enormous mystery. Sure, some details are different here from the Raimi flicks, but they seem like desperate calculations to differentiate this retelling from the oh-so-recent one, because apparently the three screenwriters — James Vanderbilt (The Losers, Zodiac), Steve Kloves (all the Harry Potters but one), and Alvin Sargent (who, WTF, had a hand in Spider-Man 2 and 3) — could not find a single fresh angle that might make us actually look anew on the teenaged web slinger. Raimi’s films feel very just-post-9/11, full of the confusion of grief and revenge and resentment and hard-won wisdom. They were very much of their moment. The moment today is quite different, with the U.S. and Europe being strangled by a second Great Depression and rebellion boiling over in the Middle East… and there’s not the tiniest reflection of the civil and economic upheaval rocking the world in Amazing Spider-Man. No film necessarily needs to feel new and now… but is you’re rerunning a story that has been told so well so recently, you sure as hell had better have a good reason to retell it. Amazing utterly fails to find that reason. Poor ol’ Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen: The Way, Love Happens) is once more sacrificed to Peter’s moral development, and to what end? So Peter can crack wise at car thieves?

Even the altered details feel like a step backward. Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield: The Social Network, Never Let Me Go) spider-bite transformation this time around does not come with the new biological capability to shoot webs from his wrists — this he achieves via technology, having stolen some new high-tech cabling genetically engineered from spiders from scientific think tank Oscorp. Why no one at Oscorp makes the connection between their new toy and the guy in the spider spandex flying around Manhattan is a mystery… but the bigger disappointment is how Amazing Spider-Man has lost the delicious metaphor for male adolescent embarrassment that Raimi’s Peter represented, as he learned how to cope with all the sticky white fluid his body was producing. And the substitution of girlfriend Mary Jane Watson for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone: The Help, Easy A) involves a demotion for the stereotypical love interest from Interesting Girl with a Life of Her Own to Pretty Girl to Make the Hero Stammer. Oh, Gwen gets to wear a lab coat in her position as intern at Oscorp, and she gets one scene in which to Do Science (as part of, clearly, the Best Internship Ever, which gives her unfettered access to Oscorp’s most toppest secretest facility), but Gwen is much less a character with her own story than Mary Jane was.

And then there’s Andrew Garfield: I’m generally a fan of his, but he’s a tad miscast here. He lacks Tobey Maguire’s dorky charm, and his own smoother charisma isn’t an adequate replacement: it’s tough to see him as the high school outsider Peter Parker is required to be. At 29 years old, Garfield may not be much older than Hollywood generally gets away with casting as “teenager,” but he does evince far too adult and sophisticated a presence to genuinely work as “awkward adolescent.”

Best reason to see Amazing Spider-Man? Rhys Ifans (The Five-Year Engagement, Anonymous) as Dr. Curt Connors, an Oscorp scientist who is coping with tricky conflicts between his genetic engineering work and the demands of rigorous science on one side, and his own personal desire and professional pressure to make breakthroughs on the other. Ifans gets damn near to being heartbreaking in some moments — in the moments when the lazy, rushed script doesn’t leaving us scratching our heads wondering how, for instance, Connors could have single-handedly (literally: Connors has only one arm) hauled a mad-science lab’s worth of equipment from the heights of Oscorp Tower to the depths of the New York City sewer system without anyone helping him, or anyone noticing.

Overall, though, the most engaging thing about The Amazing Spider-Man lies in finding reasons not to hate it. The film is not terrible; it has moments of humor and drama that work; the cast, also including Sally Field (Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde, Forrest Gump) as Aunt May and Denis Leary (Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs) as an NYPD police captain and Gwen’s father, isn’t hard to watch; it features the best Stan Lee cameo yet. But it’s almost as if director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) went out of his way to make it hard for us to like his reboot. There’s an overpowering lot of CGI, and it looks more cartoonish than it needs to (unless Webb realized his main audience would be five-year-olds). The movie is frantic for you to find it heroic and epic: the obnoxious score is overbearing and obvious. The whole shebang isn’t awful, but awfully slick and awfully emotionally simplistic. It’s enough to make you wish they had just left well enough alone.

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