Transitioning from small indie fare to large-scale blockbusters isn’t a challenge that should be underestimated. It worked out very well for Christopher Nolan who brought his fascination for flawed characters, already showcased in his debut Following and the acclaimed follow-up Memento, to one of the most flawed superheroes in existence. Batman Begins was a commercial and critical success. The rest is history. Same goes for Bryan Singer whose biggest claim to fame prior to X-Men was The Usual Suspects. A terrific movie without doubt and one that showcased Singer’s ability to work with a large cast without neglecting any characters. One of the earlier and probably most significant examples was the moment when Peter Jackson was entrusted with directing the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the most ambitious projects ever commissioned. In hindsight the pick seems like a no-brainer as hardly anyone can imagine Tolkien’s work being put on screen by anyone other than Jackson, but back then it was a huge risk. Jackson started his career with low-budget, over-the-top gory horror flicks like Bad Taste and Dead Alive with his only wide release in the US being The Frighteners. All these examples show how a gamble on the studio’s part can really pay off and tap into previously undiscovered talent areas.
However, it still remains a risk and some directors who feel perfectly at home within certain genres or budget ranges, can be overwhelmed when working on a production of much bigger scope than they are used to. No one is denying Marc Forster’s solid work on movies like Monster’s Ball or Stay, but his take on the most recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, was met with rightful criticism. There was little room for him to work his character sensibilities and action scenes turned out to be far from his forte as hectic editing and twitchy cinematography took the excitement out of the film’s big moments. Recently surfaced reports about troubles on the World War Z set just further underline the assumption that Forster is not a good fit for movies of such scale. Another example would be Chris Weitz who co-directed the first American Pie with his brother Paul and later did the wonderful Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy with him. However, his first solo-directing gig, The Golden Compass showed his limitations. The film’s failure is now held to be single-handedly responsible for New Line’s shutdown.
When Marc Webb was given the chance to bring a new incarnation of everyone’s favorite webslinger to the big screen, inevitably a question arose whether he’s the right man for the job (his ironic last name notwithstanding). Afterall, his only previous directorial effort was (500) Days of Summer. He gathered a lot of fans with his wonderfully different (anti-)romcom and yet he seemed a strange pick for the franchise’s reboot. Nevertheless, it was Webb’s pick that made movie fans curious about the film (though still unsure whether it’d work out). When Sony and Marvel announced back in January 2010 that Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 would be scrapped and the franchise would be rebooted just ten years after the first Spider-Man hit the theatres, a major groan went through the crowds of fans. Afterall, as disliked as Spider-Man 3 was, a reboot so soon after what is considered a great origins story and an incredible box-office success simply seemed superfluous. It’s not Hulk or Daredevil we were dealing with. The idea of retelling Spider-Man’s origins, but putting a stronger focus on the high school environment sparked fears of Sony catering to Twilight fans. It wasn’t until the announcement of the film’s director and its main leads that The Amazing Spider-Man slowly, but gradually started to gain interest from movie fans. If there had to be a focus on the love story then why not by the director who has crafted one of the most original romantic films of the last few years. Still, there was always a risk of Webb not being up to the challenge to handle this huge responsibility.
Spider-Man fans can now collectively let out a sigh of relief. Marc Webb didn’t blow it, the film has little in common with Twilight and all fans of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man should be satisfied at least to a certain degree. It might not exactly be the untold story as promised by the marketing, but it is a story well told.
Given the popularity of the Spider-Man character and his well-known origins, summarizing the movie’s plot seems almost redundant, so I’ll make it brief. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is your typical geek and outsider who has a crush on his dreamy schoolmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and carries a childhood trauma around with him. His parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz in unthankfully brief roles) inexplicably left him to live with his uncle and aunt as a child and died in a plane accident shortly thereafter. A photo of his father’s colleague Dr. Curtis Connors leads nosy Peter to Oscorp Industries where his father and Connors were working on cross-species genetics until something went awry. Soon enough, a genetically modified spider bites Peter which lends him superhuman strength, speed and the ability to crawl walls (but luckily doesn’t transform him into a spider version of Brundlefly). Initially overwhelmed by his new abilities, he quickly masters them, but doesn’t put them to real use until his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is murdered by a thug. Then it’s not long until he swings through the streets of New York in the well-known red-blue attire, searching for his uncle’s murderer, while the police, led by Gwen Stacy’s father (Denis Leary), are hot on his heels. It s not until Connors’ failed experiment transforms him into a giant lizard with the wish to bring the same fate to all of New York City that Peter finds his true calling and has to save the day.
There is little to bemoan in this new adaptation of Spider-Man’s origins. It is a well-cast, competently directed and thoroughly entertaining visual-effects extravaganza (seriously, it seems like 90% of the movie was filmed in front of green screen) that remains (mostly) true to the comic books with a particular resemblance to the visual look of the Ultimate Spider-Man series in order to distinguish itself from Raimi’s films. At the same time, there is still little new to the film to justify the reboot in the first place. Prior to Batman Begins no Batman film has ever delved into the creation of the superhero and The Incredible Hulk devoted only a very short recap to Hulk’s origins. The Amazing Spider-Man tries to put its own spin on things, but in the end, there is only this much you can do with Spider-Man’s well-defined backstory. There’s the spider, there’s Uncle Ben’s murder, there’s a difficult relationship, be it Mary-Jane Watson or Gwen Stacy and there’s the struggle between leading a normal teenager life and battling evil in a jumpsuit. It’s very well-rehashed, but rehashed nonetheless.
The film’s biggest winning point is its two charming leads. When Tobey Maguire was first cast as Peter I was weary of the decision until the first movie fully convinced me. In Garfield’s case, I was on board with the pick right off the bat and he does not disappoint. His darker and more emotional presentation of the character is more in tune with the current audience’s expectations towards such characters, but with Garfield in the role his suffering and trauma feel natural. At the same time, his Peter is slightly different from Maguire’s in that he is not afraid to stand up to the bullies at school (Flash Thompson, who else) even before his transformation. Another significant departure from Raimi’s film is the screenwriters’ depiction of Peter as a kid with nearly genius-level intelligence, whose brains are as essential to crime fighting as his brawn. This is mostly stressed by the introduction of Spidey’s home-made web-shooters. Raimi made the decision to make Spider-Man’s webbing organic and a result of Peter’s transformation, an idea I had no issues accepting. However, the web-shooters in The Amazing Spider-Man are still a welcome addition and put a limit on Spider-Man’s powers as they can be (relatively) easily disabled. At the same time, Garfield handles the film’s few funny moments with aplomb as well. All in all, there is no telling whose take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the definitive one as Maguire and Garfield both make the parts their own.
It’ll hardly surprise anyone that Emma Stone’s interpretation of Gwen Stacy is vastly superior to the underused Bryce Dallas Howard in Spider-Man 3. Like Garfield, Stone feels completely natural in the role and brings her usual wit, sarcasm and irresistible cuteness ton it. I must admit that unlike any, I was a fan of Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of MJ (at least in Raimi’s first film), but Stone easily stands her ground against Dunst. As good as the individual leads are in this film, once they are brought together and their tender romance blossoms, the movie truly finds its emotional core. For all the whiz-bang that The Amazing Spider-Man offers, its best moments come in form of Gwen and Peter’s relationship. The chemistry between Stone and Garfield is sizzling and the beginning of their relationship has all the markers of awkward teenage courting, including Peter’s mumbling and painfully authentic attempt to ask Gwen out on a date. Underneath its $230 million budget is an intimate teen love story that works better than in most straight-up teen films nowadays.
That is not to say that the action comes short during the film’s 136-minute running time. There’s plenty webslinging including some nifty POV-shots as shown in the early teaser. When Spidey battles the Lizard, a lot of carnage and destruction is naturally involved and the effects are, expectedly, top-notch. What is notable though is the film’s use of 3D. Shot with 3D cameras, The Amazing Spider-Man is as much a double-edged sword when it comes to the pros and cons of the new technique as they come. The positive is that the 3D effects really work here and it is obvious that it is the film’s native format. There aren’t too many coming-at-you moments in the film, so it doesn’t feel overly gimmicky (I’m looking at you, Ice Age: Continental Drift). Instead there is a good sense of depth in the visual environments when Spider-Man swings through the streets of New York. At the same time, an almost inevitable downside to 3D appears here as well – the glasses dim the brightness too much, making many scenes appear too dark. It might not be noticed in the big action scenes, but the quieter moments, where the usual 3D effects are not as much at work, it is apparent that the movie was certainly meant to be brighter than it looks through the 3D glasses. Sure, the movie on the whole is a darker affair than Raimi’s Spider-Man flicks (that’s the Nolan influence, folks), but it’s still not as dark as a 3D showing of it might make one think. James Cameron saw this problem coming with Avatar and intentionally made the film look brighter so that the dimness of the glasses would lead just to the right level of brightness. The downside to that solution is that his film works in 3D only. On the whole, however, the 3D must be commended here for being more than just a cheap money grab, but a real (and mostly successful) attempt by the filmmakers to spice up the action.
Yet for all its strengths, Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has its small share of weaknesses which ultimately leaves it behind Raimi’s first two films. First of all, as mentioned above the origins part doesn’t feel fresh at all and was frankly done better in Raimi’s film. It is amusing to see how the filmmakers struggle to show the same things from a different angle. A good example is Martin Sheen’s “With great power comes great responsibility”-speech to Peter in which he, of course, doesn’t use these same words, but pretty much every synonym to be found in the books. On top of that Peter mastering his abilities comes abrupt. At first he can’t brush his teeth without completely demolishing the bathroom. Yet when he hugs Gwen Stacy shortly thereafter, he somehow doesn’t break every bone in her body. Peter’s first experiences with his new powers are used to (good) comedic effect, but it is completely glossed over as how he actually got his powers under control. Also sorely missing from this film’s is J. Jonah Jameson, the gruff editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle, the newspaper Peter later works for. J. K. Simmons portrayal of the character was iconic and one can only hope that the filmmakers pull a Judi Dench/Casino Royale and cast him in the film’s inevitable follow-up. His replacement in spirit here is Leary’s Captain Stacey whose rapport with Peter is amusing enough, but he’s no Simmons.
The film’s second main weak point is its villain. The problem here is not Rhys Ifans who plays up Connors’ duality well (though his mental transformation is too quick) or the execution, but merely the choice of the character himself. There was no way a character like The Lizard would work perfectly in this movie. Raimi’s first two Spider-Man flicks featured humans transformed into monsters by accidents, but the monsters were still humans. In The Amazing Spider-Man, among all the realistic teen drama sensibilities and the movie’s darker edge, we are treated to a CGI’ed humanoid lizard talking to Peter in perfect English with a slight British accent. There was no way this could have worked and despite the filmmakers’ best efforts to present a frightening villain, I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of Lizard’s scenes. Sure, he is a formidable villain to Spider-Man when it comes to dueling above the roofs of New York or in the sewers, but in the end, it is still a talking giant lizard that somehow takes the seriousness that this movie otherwise strives for out of the whole thing.
The bottom line is that the Amazing Spider-Man is a well-done, even though utterly unnecessary reboot of Spider-Man’s origins. The film’s overarching mystery concerning Peter’s father shows that Webb is setting up a bigger thing here right from the start. To support this, there are several mentions of a certain Norman Osborn during the conversations between Ifans’ Connors and Irrfan Khan’s shady Oscorp employee. Stay for the end credits too as there is a mid-credits scene which strongly hints at the next movie. These breadcrumbs don’t quite amount to the ingenious ending of Batman Begins, but certainly stir enough interest for part two. One can hope that the follow-up will tread paths of its own, instead of redoing existing material.