Amazing Spider-Man, The (United States, 2012)July 02, 2012
Where to go with Spider-Man? That's the billion dollar question that has plagued Sony Pictures. One of their flagship franchises, Spider-Man is a proven money-maker that could not be allowed to lie fallow simply because the creative engine ran out of fuel. One could argue that, over the span of three pictures - 2002's Spider-Man, 2004's Spider-Man 2, and 2007's Spider-Man 3 - Sam Raimi took the character as far as he could go. In fact, the third film in that series might have been one too many. When it came time to develop a fourth installment, Raimi departed over "creative differences" and Sony was left with a movie that needed to go forward but no driver behind the wheel. So they followed what has become an accepted approach in Hollywood: when in doubt, remake and reboot. So, a mere ten years after Raimi brought one of Marvel's most respected titles to the screen, that vision has been scrapped for a modification. The Amazing Spider-Man isn't sufficiently different from the 2002 movie to make it interesting and it ignores two major seismic shifts that have rocked the superhero genre since then: Nolan's Batman trilogy and The Avengers. Both of those have made it almost impossible for something with the limited ambition and lazy writing of The Amazing Spider-Man to satisfy. Oh, there's little doubt it will be deemed a success on a business level, and die-hard fans of the comic book will probably respond favorably, but there's something inherently depressing about what this movie says about the state of summer blockbusters in general and superhero movies in particular. Namely, how can audiences respond to something that offers no more than a re-telling of a story we have seen done at least as well so recently?
The Amazing Spider-Man provides a regurgitation of the title character's origin story, as if we couldn't remember it from ten years ago. There was a simple elegance and charming naiveté to the way Raimi presented the story. Yes, the suspension of disbelief curve was high but that's a given with a superhero movie. Here, the matter is complicated by sloppy screenwriting. In addition to swallowing the fact that a spider bite from a "super spider" can imbue Peter Parker with powers, you have to accept that the guy is a master thief. After all, he breaks into the inner sanctum of a top secret genetic research think tank with only a fake I.D. badge. It's random, repeated acts of stupidity like this that damage the movie's ability to establish its own fragile pseudo-reality. The viewer accepts a lot of impossibilities in a superhero movie, but there are limits.
Tobey Maguire has been replaced by Andrew Garfield. No big deal. With the mask on, you don't notice the difference and Garfield is more convincing than Maguire as Peter. Okay, Garfield is too old for the part (a 28-year old playing someone in high school), bringing up thoughts of Grease, but Maguire was 26 when he put on the costume. Uncle Ben is now Martin Sheen instead of Cliff Robertson, and that's an improvement. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine a worse casting gaffe than Sally Field as Aunt May. She may be Mrs. Gump but she's not Peter's guardian. Sorry, but it's hard to beat Rosemary Harris (although I suppose she's too old by now). Mary Jane has been ditched as the love interest, replaced by original comic book girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Hair color is the differentiating characteristic. Emma Stone, like Garfield, is too old for a high school kid, but at least 23 is closer to believable. Stone and Garfield are supposedly an off-screen item, which makes it odd that Maguire and Kirsten Dunst displayed better on-screen chemistry.
The first half of The Amazing Spider-Man is almost a point-by-point remake of Spider-Man. Let's go through the checklist. Peter is shown to be a nerd in school. Check. Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Check. Peter feels sick then wakes up with new powers. Check. Peter explores his new powers in selfish ways. Check. Uncle Ben gives Peter a lecture about how "with great power comes great responsibility" (although he doesn't use those exact words this time around). Check. Uncle Ben is murdered as a result of Peter's inaction. Check. And so forth... It's a little like hearing an inelegant cover of a familiar song.
The second half replicates the rhythms of Spider-Man with a different villain. This time, it's The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) instead of The Green Goblin. They're largely interchangeable and the final battle is different primarily because the special effects are better. Really, though, after having watched Spider-Man fight The Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, and Venom, what more can be done with these generic battles? As well executed as they are by director Marc Webb (making his tent-pole debut after previously helming 500 Days of Summer), there's a repetitive quality that is perhaps unavoidable. The Avengers changed the game when it comes to superhero smackdowns and, because The Amazing Spider-Man is unable to ascend to that level, the fight scenes seem a little quaint and one-dimensional. I wrote in my review of The Avengers that it "raised the bar to a level where the more 'traditional' approach of having a single superhero tangle with a supervillain or two may no longer be enough... When something has been dialed up to an '11,' isn't there an inherent letdown to turning it back to a '7'?" A '7' may be generous where The Amazing Spider-Man is concerned.
In all fairness to Webb, most of The Amazing Spider-Man's flaws are not his doing - they come from the screenplay. His direction is assured and his handling of the special effects is smooth. He also shows a sure hand with the "smaller" scenes. The romance has its share of cute moments and there are some effective dramatic exchanges. The CGI is better here than in any of Raimi's films, although this is probably as much a result of improving technology than any other factor. One can see that, given a better script, Webb might have made this work. Might have.
The Amazing Spider-Man was filmed in 3-D, which means that the ugly conversion artifacts are absent. Nevertheless, Webb doesn't use the format effectively. More than half the movie is presented in what amounts to 2-D with just a little background contouring. Take off the glasses if you don't believe me. The only time blurring and double-vision occurs is during the action sequences. This is the kind of movie where the surcharge is a rip-off. There's no "bang for the buck." For all the things Webb does right in the technical department, his use of 3-D leaves a lot to be desired.
Another point worth mentioning relates to James Horner's bombastic score, which includes yet another instance of self-cannibalization. There is a five-second cue that's lifted directly from the composer's music for Star Trek 2/Star Trek 3, without a single note having been changed. Talk about a way to take a person "out of the moment." This is even more egregious than the steals that occurred in Aliens and, on that occasion, Horner had an excuse (although we can argue about the validity of it).
For me, this is as deflating a movie as I have seen all year. Not the worst, to be sure, but a project so utterly unnecessary that it made me want to gnash my teeth in frustration. Rebooting Spider-Man, while a questionable endeavor in its own right, offered an opportunity to do something unique with the character. Take it to a place where it hasn't been. Accomplish for this franchise what Batman Begins did for Batman. Instead, we get an unimaginative and lackadaisical repetition of the origin story with a pedestrian hero/villain battle at the end. The Transformers movies show more inventiveness. Now we have to wait two more years for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to hope the filmmakers can do something to revive a character whose pointless reboot has exposed all the weaknesses and none of the strengths in one of Marvel's best-known superheroes.
Amazing Spider-Man, The (United States, 2012)
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Music: James Horner
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures