It is an inconvenient truth that Marc Webb’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is the version of the webslinger we should have seen ten years ago. Now, its 2012, five years out from the last Raimi installment, and Webb’s film swings into the midst of a superhero movie revolution where new entries march in Borg-like unison chanting ‘resistance is futile’ on their way into the multiplex. Should anyone care that the quality has improved, even if the story hasn’t changed much since Tobey Maguire donned the spandex and mask? Thanks to the serendipitously named Webb, the answer is surprisingly yes, they should. More or less. Pretty much.
I find it a bit curmudgeonly and revisionist to knock-around Raimi’s original series a decade later. After all, it truly ingnited—for better or worse—the comic-book flame that Blade and X-Men had sparked a few years earlier. Many of Raimi’s decisions became trail-blazing textbook on how to deliver origin stories, but the films themselves don’t hold up all that well, and only Spiderman 2 retains its pop-art relevance after the fact. They were waystation films, still breaking out of the mold of hyper-stylized kiddie-fare and finding their footing as cinematic myth-making. To the point, there was much to improve and I was never quite sold on Maguire and Dunst as Spidey and Mary Jane.
Right off the bat, Webb’s version isn’t just better cast, it’s better acted too, and the director structures his film so the actors can explore the internal spaces of their characters without slowing the pace. Garfield is a natural as Peter Parker and he embodies the comic-book persona of Spiderman (down to the quipping, snarky earnestness) in a way that creates a cohesive portrait of the web-slinger, be it in his civvies or swinging around the city in the revamped costume. Whether he’s purposefully humilating the school bully, tracking monstrous lizards through the sewer, or soaring across the New York skyline, Garfield allows Parker’s emotions to register in body language and facial expression.
It’s the kind of physical, all-in, ‘harder than it looks’ performance that simply wasn’t available to Maguire when he played the character. This is down to the visual effects, which have evolved to a place where they are seamless enough to augment real actors without taking their place completely. Garfield gets to emote his way around Spidey’s action scenes, while Maguire was mostly limited to voicing a bouncing cgi ball of red and blue. Rhys Ifans plays Dr. Kurt Connors (taking over Dylan Baker’s role in the Raimi films), a colleague of Peter’s long-missing dad, and when gene-therapy gone rogue transforms him into The Lizard, the updated technology allows Ifans to personalize the big green Godzilla without losing the trepidatious soul of his not-so-mad scientist. The battles with Spidey and the Liz have weight and gravity, particularly a skirmish in Parker’s high-school. This struggle and a spine-tingling showdown atop OsCorp tower result in framed shots as beautiful as the best panels by Ditko, Romita Sr. or McFarlane, as well as the single best Stan Lee cameo to date.
For Webb’s Spidey, who has his feet planted firmly on the ground when he’s not soaring, it’s important that the surrounding human cast also be good. Thankfully, they are just about as good as they possibly could be, with Martin Sheen, Ifans and Dennis Leary terrific as the three men who serve as moral inspiration for Parker’s blossoming responsibility. Sheen does subtle and thankless work by transforming the maudlin minefield of Uncle Ben’s death into a moment of quiet, nearly off-screen impact. He doesn’t get to say the ‘with great power’ line to Peter, but he makes Ben the kind of man whose actions have been telling the boy that very thing, every day of his life, since the moment his parents left him in the Parker’s custody. Sally Field’s Aunt May is a quiet and sensitive counterpoint to Sheen’s performance, and she gives the film warmth after he exits. Leary and Ifans, as Captain Stacy and Dr. Connors, represent the dueling components of Peter’s private and professional life. Stacy is a man who has struck that careful balance between upright enforcer of justice and protective family man that Peter longs to achieve, while Connors evokes that brooding intellectual side that must be governed itself with compassion and empathy, lest it consume everything. Both actors create characters important to the emotional impact of the film, although their screentime is both limited and precious.
Finally, there’s Gwen Stacy, as played by the radiant and beaming Emma Stone, whose energy and charm pour beating life into The Amazing Spiderman and whose chemistry with Garfield make it one of the most mature and beguiling Marvel ventures to date. Stone’s Stacy isn’t just the girl next door—an idealized prop for Garfield to drool over—she’s a helper, a confidant, a friend and a sexy encourager. Webb skips that part where she need spend the whole film blithering over whether Parker is Spidey or not. He tells her his identity early on—via a romantic gesture that is sort of Cary Grant sweet and Seth Rogen crass at the same time—and she responds with ‘I’m in big trouble.’ But it’s trouble she grows into, and her scenes with Garfield detailing the awkward but lovely courtship of young, impetuous (and in their case, ultimately sensible) high-school students is the meat of the film. Every other movement and arc orbits this partnership, and that feels right, both for the movie and the legacy of Spiderman.
Stone and Garfield represent why The Amazing Spiderman works despite the fact it’s essentially rebooting the entire first film to the point that the initial hour can be called nothing other than a remake. Webb, who also directed 500 Days of Summer, has thrown out the playbook on how to dramatically sketch superheroes and spends time just trying to make the best possible movie he can, one that has its genesis in human feeling as opposed to generic action beats. You don’t expect it, but you enjoy that initial hour of set-up and rehash as much, if not more, than the big set pieces it leads up to. This is because the filmmakers understand the secret comic-book writers and artists have known for a very long time. As long as you can bring your own sense of artistry to the story, there will always be a reason for its personal existence.
That being said, the film has come on the heels of the last franchise—which, lets face it, weren’t promptly forgotten—and it is hampered by that initial familiarity, mostly because its source is too slight to offer variation and improvisation. A friend of mine has remarked that, unlike some heroes, Spidey needs his origin to define his character, and I think that’s about right.
I quite enjoyed Amazing Spiderman because it allows the characters to demonstrate the power and value of choice and responsibility, without having downer monologues about it. I admired the action sequences and marveled at the special effects, and for once adored the third dimension that added giddy vertigo to the spiraling, canted angles of Spidey’s web-slinging heyday. Most of all, I felt grateful for a film where getting that warm, appreciative smile of the girl you dig is just as satisfyingly important as saving the city from the wrath of overgrown lizard men. A comforting and clever fusion of 50’s b-monster movies, 40’s romantic dramedys, and 90’s fx thrill rides, this Spiderman is the kind of cross-species genetics I can get down with.