The Amazing Spider-Man

August 17, 2012

There have been too many cynical studio cash-ins to count.  If they see a proven franchise sitting in front of them, executives will do whatever they can to milk it for all its worth.  The Amazing Spider-Man is one such property, although instead of milking it for every last cent, the motivation here was simple: keep the rights.  Due to a deal with Disney and Marvel, Sony had to produce a film featuring the Spider-man character before a certain amount of time for them to retain the rights, and here it is.  As a result, there’s a somewhat antiseptic quality to the film.  However, it feels less like a blatant cash-in a la Alien vs Predator than it does a protective measure.  The studio handprints are all over it, but they’re more concerned with protecting the property (and not messing up a new version of a popular franchise) then they do with duping the public into a hastily thrown-together profit squeeze.

Directed by Marc Webb, whose only previous feature was the visually playful (500) Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man is a full-on reboot.  With no mention at all of the Sam Raimi iteration that began just a decade ago, it begins when Peter Parker still lived with his parents, and the mysterious events that brought him into the care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, giving a full-on folksy charm performance) and Aunt May (Sally Field).  Adding the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, which will go onto play role in the plot that will bring Parker (now played by Andrew Garfield) in contact with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and then, inevitably, the spider bite, the film replays the origin story we saw not ten years ago.  The bug bite and the realization of powers, an altercation with Flash Thompson in school, and then the killing of Uncle Ben, for which Parker feels a degree of responsibility.  It’s not a poorly done sequence, but the problem with rebooting such a recent series is that, even if handled competently, there’s an element of “get on with it” that pervades every repeated plot point.  This is something of a problem for the film as a whole:  it isn’t that it’s badly done; it just isn’t done in a way that is new or interesting enough to overcome been-there-done-that vibe.

The major new element here is that instead of Mary Jane, we get Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), which is how the comics started but fidelity to the source material doesn’t really enter into it anymore anyway.  There’s a degree to which this looks to Batman Begins for inspiration, but all we get from that is a hackneyed emphasis on father issues and a darker palette.  Indeed, a lot of this film takes place at night – presumably to anchor it in a more realistic world and thus differentiating itself from the brighter, more comically fantastical realm of Raimi’s pictures – but it isn’t a setting that befits such a naturally sunny and vibrant city as Spider-man’s New York.  There’s a scene in Raimi’s version where, in the middle of the day and during a big street party, the Green Goblin flies in from the distance and begins to wreak havoc.  It always felt to me like a quintessentially Spider-man moment, and there’s nothing even approaching that here.

A big, glaring issue that makes a lot of the running time drag is the lack of anything interesting going on with the villain, Connors aka Lizard.  The attempts to tie him with Spider-man’s origin are flat and unconvincing, and as such we basically have a hokey-looking CGI lizard stomping about occasionally.  There’s nothing like the dynamic between Parker and Harry and Norman Osborne that gave some heft as well as thematic congruency to the first Raimi picture.  If I squint I can see the connection, but it’s never played out in an affecting way.  In fact, I can say that about the whole picture, save for Parker and Stacy’s relationship, which also just so happens to bloom out of nowhere and is only convincing because Garfield and Stone can sell it.  They have an easy rapport that lifts their scenes far above everything else in the movie, and not perhaps coincidentally they are the scenes that it feels like Webb has given the most attention to, for they are perhaps more firmly in his wheelhouse.

The effects are fine but hardly mind-blowing, and there are some solid little action scenes here and there, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Webb has had his hands tied here.  An early teaser trailer featured a long P.O.V. sequence of Spidey leaping and crawling from building to building, and one imagines that for whatever reason Webb or the studio thought that might be the kind of visual trick to distinguish itself from its predecessors.  Alas, it wasn’t received kindly at the time and it happens just occasionally enough here to make me think its use was cut down intentionally.  Otherwise there’s virtually nothing of visual interest going on, and I imagine that the studio used the leverage it had over its relatively green director to impose its will to ensure the least amount of audience-jarring as possible.

Aside from the rather undistinguished sensibility running through it, The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t have a lot going against it.  It just doesn’t have much going for it, either.  I liked the use of the artificial webs, and I thought Garfield did well to create a more seamless move from Parker to Spider-man (he has more spine at the beginning than Maguire’s did, and he also brings the corny quipping back full force, all of which make sense character-wise).  Emma Stone could sell this in her sleep, but I like the fact that there’s a more immediate mutual attraction rather than the lifelong pining that the previous incarnation had for Mary Jane.  For a movie that was basically made at the behest of accountants, it really isn’t all that bad.  It just isn’t anything more than “just good enough”.  The elements that are in place are enough that I’ll happily see a sequel on the assumption that they’re going to raise their game knowing that this has worked enough to warrant one.  If they were going to go the Batman Beginsroute, they should have actually gone for it and tried to reinvent the character in some way, but as it stands, it’s a product of people who were only interested in playing it.

-M
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