ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN-- 3 STARS
Earlier this year, in a mocking editorial of Hollywood's New Year's resolutions for the movie industry for 2012, I wrote prominently and adamantly how Hollywood needs wait ten years, or at least five years, before restarting, remaking, re-imagining, or rebooting a movie franchise. When I did so, I was directly talking about The Amazing Spider-Man, just released at midnight. I stuck to three problems of reasoning. One was that it's simply too soon. We still remember Spider-Man 3 and unfamiliar audiences are going to think this new film is a sequel more than a reboot. Secondly, we are going to remember and inevitably compare the current and new incarnation with the old and familiar one. For example, just read Roger Ebert's glowing, yet steeply comparative review for this film. Finally, it just looks like the studio is beating a dead horse and looking to squeeze every last drop of name and brand recognition.
With Marvel Comics being bought by Disney two years ago and bankrolling their own movies (like The Avengers), this is the one big superhero property and cash cow that Sony Pictures can still hang its hat on. They've flaunted it too, over-marketing The Amazing Spider-Man to death. The cash grab is on. To add a little intrigue (and, in the process, a little egg on Sony's face), an internet movie writer (and Facebook friend of mine), The Sleepy Skunk, was able to edit and create a rather revealing 25-minute cut of the film just from the online clips/trailers/teasers that has taken the web and Hollywood by storm. That's maybe not the publicity they were hoping for.
Let's start by answering those three problems. With Marc Webb's new take on the comic book web-slinger, The Amazing Spider-Man is a modernized and updated new origin story, a reboot not a sequel, for Peter Parker. In that way, it's expressly working to clean the slate from the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire filth that ended with Spider-Man 3. For that, it's still a good thing. Second, thanks to dramatically different casting and no Daily Bugle setting, you really can't compare this new cast to Raimi's cast. Webb made very good choices to chance direction with many characters. More on that later, but score a second one against my reasoning. Finally, though, we're back to the cash grab. That, for sure, is unfortunately still in effect, but you'll still be glad you paid your money to see the new direction. With a score of 2-1, call this an early win.
For a new outlook on the familiar origin of the character, The Amazing Spider-Man goes into the previously-untold mystery behind Peter's scientist parents, Richard and Mary Parker, played briefly by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz. Fearing for their lives working for the ominous Oscorp alongside colleague Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), they leave their young son Peter for his own safety in the middle of a rainy night with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Never seen again, the disappearance and apparent death of his parents troubles Peter (played in adulthood by Brit Andrew Garfield) into the present day, where his aunt and uncle raise him.
As a bullied, yet noble student and amateur photographer at school, Peter carries that sulk with him around his peers. Top-of-the-class science student, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone in her natural blonde) takes notice of his demeanor, sees the smartness and goodness underneath, and develops a friendship with him. One day, Peter discovers his father's old briefcase in his uncle's basement offering clues to his father's former work at Oscorp with Dr. Connors. Seeing that he still works for Oscorp, Peter seeks Dr. Connors out and shows an equal talent for science that his father had. Dr. Connors, an amputee, is the world's foremost genetic researcher of reptiles and seeks to yoke the strength some lizards have to regrow lost appendages.
True to Spider-Man's traditional origin, Peter is bitten by (this time) a genetically-altered spider and wakes up with spider-like ability and senses. Having a blast with his new powers to a careless level, everything changes for Peter when Uncle Ben is killed by a thief that Peter had the ability to stop. That compels Peter to roam the night in search of the murderer. Soon enough, he's the costumed superhero we've come to know, deemed a public vigilante and menace by the police, led by Gwen's dad, Captain Stacy (Denis Leary). He's given his opposition when Dr. Connors begins experimenting on himself, transforming into the monstrous and powerful Lizard.
Alright, let the comparisons begin. Though a little too tall, dark, handsome, old, and acne-free to play a high school kid (just like Maguire was too in 2002) with no life and girlfriend, Andrew Garfield does capture the character's genuine exuberance, nerdiness, frailty, and angst better than his predecessor. His chemistry with Emma Stone is excellent (and it carried off of the set as they are a couple now today) and she is far more fetching than the depressing Kirsten Dunst. By going younger with Sally Field and Martin Sheen, the Aunt May and Uncle Ben characters are still stoic, but far more believable and affecting. Denis Leary's take-charge Captain Stacy can stomp mudholes in James Cromwell's version from Spider-Man 3. All of the casting is an absolute upgrade and the Garfield-Stone pairing represents the best of it.
Though this new reboot is trying to reinvent the character, too many things feel too familiar in tone or convenient in sequence in The Amazing Spider-Man. We've seen this origin story before so it's hard for the lead story writer James Vanderbilt (The Losers, Zodiac, The Rundown), with an assist from Alvin Sargent (who wrote all of the previous Raimi series) and a polish from Steve Kloves (the entire Harry Potter series), to give us many surprises that we don't already know are coming. This isn't a Christopher Nolan Batman Begins-level of reinvention, as some fans were hoping for, not by a long shot. By the rules and boundaries of the character, it wasn't going to be.
Unlike the world of Batman, one the biggest problems with the Spider-Man universe, that no writer can change, something that also hurt Green Lantern last summer as well, is the far-too-convenient connections and muddled family tree of all of the characters and gallery of rogues. Excuse my run of commas, clauses, and repetition for a second. Peter conveniently goes to school with and falls for Gwen, who just happens to conveniently know Spider-Man's secret identify, just happens to conveniently be the daughter to the head police captain hunting him, and just happens to conveniently work at Oscorp as an assistant to Dr. Connors, who also conveniently knows Spider-Man's identify, and just happened to conveniently work closely with Peter's parents back in the day, all for a company that is mysteriously run by the absent-but-mentioned Norman Osborn, who will, again and finally: conveniently, just happen to become Spider-Man's biggest villain, the Green Goblin, at some point. Whew! See what I mean? Batman doesn't have those necessary knots which is why a guy like Nolan can blaze new trails.
You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to go with all of that and accept the implausible plot holes and twists that come from that as well. I could go all day on matters of pace, science, and plausibility, but this is a comic book movie, making it par for the course. This all works because we love this character. While it may sound like I've been trashing the film up to this point, I'm not. I'll sure take this to Men in Black 3 or even The Hunger Games. Marc Webb, of (500) Days of Summer fame, wanted to bring a refreshing new take on the character himself and got it. The Amazing Spider-Man has the tangible teen emotion and realistic grounded heroic roots that Raimi's first origin story lacked. That 2002 movie was for the kids. This one's for the real teens, kind of like January's teens-with-powers surprise Chronicle. It's a shame that this new movie had to be (and is going to be judged as) the fourth one/ominous reboot and not the first one ten years ago.
With the ever-improving special effects and great use of 3D to show what the web-slinger can do, this film is technically superior to its predecessors. The complete package is dynamite summer entertainment, but not quite stand-up-and-cheer like The Avengers. The Amazing Spider-Man, though flawed and familiar at times, succeeds in giving us a new start for this beloved character. Of course, a sequel is teased (stay into the credits, but not all the way) and already planned. It's not a bold new direction, but a positive one.
LESSON #1: THOSE WHO HAVE THE ABILITY TO DO GOOD ARE MORALLY OBLIGATED TO HELP OTHERS-- This is this movie's version of the classic "with great power comes great responsibility" Spider-Man mantra. Supported by his aunt and uncle and framed around the idea that those who have the ability to help should, this lesson has its roots firmly planted in maintaining moral good as much as accepting and taking responsibility.
LESSON #2: SECRETS ARE NOT FREE, THEY HAVE A PRICE-- This is a great line delivered by Sally Field's Aunt May and it's truth is worthy. We think of secrets sometimes as bonus currency over others or a situation, but keeping them has a moral and difficult cost. Also, as with other heroes reliant on a secret identity, Peter learns that he will make villains and that threatens those closest to him who know his secret.
LESSON #3: THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING PROMISES-- Promises are as difficult in keeping as secrets. They too require investment and trust. Peter develops wonderful relationships in this movie with not only Aunt May and Uncle Ben, but also Gwen, and promises are involved. He experiences the toll of making promises he can and cannot keep throughout his journey and they will spur his actions beyond this origin.