Spider-Man was a pretty good movie. Spider-Man 2 was a great one. Spider-Man 3 was a major disappointment. Now, it’s time to rank The Amazing Spider-Manand address whether or not it deserves its superlative sounding title.
Amazingly, most of the time, it does.
There were reasons to be skeptical. The idea of a “re-imagining” that starts things all over again seemed unnecessary. Comic book fans (this writer included) waited what seemed like forever to finally see the wall-crawler on the big screen in 2002. By contrast, it’s only been five years since Spider-Man 3. While it wasn’t great, we were all comfortable with Sam Raimi’s directorial vision, and Tobey Maguire had established himself as our Spider-Man. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane seemed to be thegirlfriend for Peter Parker. Sure, they could re-imagine The Hulk – his movies didn’t meet expectations. But did they need to start over with Spider-Man?
To put it bluntly, no they didn’t. Sure, there were problems with the overcrowded Spider-Man 3, but we’d spent enough time with Raimi, Maguire and Dunst that it would have been interesting to see where they could go with a more grown-up Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. But, Raimi and company didn’t want to come back, and Columbia needed to make a Spider-Man movie within a certain timeframe or it would lose the rights to Marvel Studios. So they hired the ironically-named Marc Webb to tell a story over again while it was still fresh in our minds. And Webb and his team managed to pull it off.
Actually, at the risk of sacrilege, the Spider-Man origin is improved in certain instances. If you’re four-years-old or older, you know the basics. Meek and nerdy high school student Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains its abilities. He becomes Spider-Man to honor the memory of his sainted Uncle Ben and to atone for his own indirect role in his death.
Raimi’s Spider-Man was very faithful to the story created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko for Marvel Comics. Peter Parker is a bookish, bullied, shy, nice kid who only really discovers himself after he gains his powers. When the original comics were published, there had to be scores of quiet readers who instantly identified.
Raimi made one fundamental change to Stan Lee’s creation – he had Spider-Man’s webs be organic – something he could generate biologically. Let’s be blunt – the webs that shot out of his body that he needed to control were a metaphor for a pubescent boy having to control his emerging manhood.
Webb however goes back to the comic book idea that has Peter invent his web-shooters. They are an invention of a great scientific mind. Webb and his writers realize that in 2012, scientists aren’t necessarily the outcasts they might have been in the 60s. In the age of Facebook, a young guy with that kind of technological know-how can be kind of cool. Andrew Garfield’s re-imagined Peter – while an outsider – isn’t invisible. Other students kind of admire his skills. He has enough confidence to stand up to bullies, even if it means getting his ass kicked. And while some girls may not appreciate his gifts, at least one – the ultra cute Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) notices him.
And so we watch a familiar story unfold in a wholly inventive new way, just ten years since we last saw it onscreen. The first moments where Peter discovers his powers are actually very original. And without giving anything away, the new movie even manages to take the dynamic between Peter, Uncle Ben and ‘the burglar” and tighten it up and make it less convoluted. It even suggests that Peter getting his spider powers isn’t as coincidental as originally intended. The script honors Stan Lee’s original vision while updating it – then it takes the character in some of the new directions that subsequent comic writers like Roy Thomas and more recently Brian Michael Bendis did.
The A-list villains were used up in the first three movies, but Webb made lemonade out of lemons. He goes with The Lizard, a standard monster/villain character who should have only worked on the comic page. Today’s special effects make him menacing enough to give us some spectacular fight scenes. Those scenes are especially enhanced by Spider-Man’s webs – which are used much better than they ever have been. They have texture to them, and in 3-D, there are times you want to wipe them out of your face.
Audiences will be forced to compare Maguire to Garfield. Garfield may be the better Spider-Man, but their Peter Parkers are so different that it’s hard to choose who is actually better. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is as feisty and outspoken as Stone seems to be in real life. She’s also different from Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane, while being equally adorable.
And the other recastings? Honestly, there aren’t that many of them, perhaps a shrewd move by the creators to make a familiar story seem fresher. We of course have to have an Uncle Ben to have a Spider-Man. Martin Sheen is perfectly cast and is just as effective as Cliff Robertson was in 2002 (apparently you have to have played JFK to play Uncle Ben). Peter’s saintly Aunt May has the potential to be better than the little old lady in the other three movies – she’s played by Sally Field after all. That makes her being pushed to the sidelines a bit surprising.
Denis Leary is just right as Gwen’s police captain father. He brings his trademark attitude to the role while letting you know that despite his anti-Spider-Man stance, he’s deep down a good guy. And before becoming The Lizard, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is a good combination of scientific mentor to Peter and someone with a mysterious past. With these newer characters, you don’t necessarily miss the more familiar supporting characters like Mary Jane Watson, J. Jonah Jameson or Norman and Harry Osborn.
Then again – you might. This writer is a comic book fan and knew about Captain Stacy and Dr. Connors. For the more casual fans, it may feel like a Superman movie without Lois Lane or Lex Luthor – which is where The Amazing Spider-Man is a little lacking. It’s got great scenes, a good script and a solid cast – but the iconic hero doesn’t have any iconic moments. No scene in this movie will compare to the subway fight with Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2. And there is no image that will be as well-remembered as Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s upside-down kiss in the first film.
The Amazing Spider-Man will be remembered fondly by true fans, but it’s in an unfortunate position. It opens soon after The Avengers, which took super-hero movies where they’d never been before. And it opens just before The Dark Knight Rises, the latest installment in a series that transcended the super-hero genre. Without the iconography, it runs the risk of being forgotten in the long run.
We’ll see what kind of web it, but short term, it pulls off a few amazing things.