Movie review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

It turns out that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire are a tough act to follow.  The three Spider-Man films they made together were among the most popular superhero movies to date.  Even the messy, cluttered Spider-Man 3 made absolutely insane amounts of money at the box office.  But studio politics prevented Raimi from doing Spider-Man 4… so only a few short years later, we’ve gotten a “reboot” of the entire series, with Andrew Garfield stepping in to play The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by the very aptly named Marc Webb.

Did this really have to be a “reboot?”  Couldn’t Garfield have just slipped on the costume and kept the continuity of the Raimi films moving forward?  Instead, we have what amounts to a remake of an immensely popular film from 2002, re-telling the origin of one of the world’s best-known pop-culture icons.  This time, considerably more time is spent on Peter Parker’s early life, with some vaguely sinister implications made about his parents, who worked for the vaguely sinister bio-technology firm Oscorp before they dumped little Peter into the care of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, then departed to meet a vaguely sinister fate.

It’s all very vague, and at the risk of delving into some light spoiler territory, commercials and posters declaring this film to be “The Untold Story” of Spider-Man are lying to you.  It’s more like a teaser for an untold story, suggesting we may learn Peter Parker was not randomly turned into Spider-Man by that radioactive spider bite, but was actually mutated somehow by his parent’s research.  This will all presumably be explored in the sequel, which is really annoying – an act of presumption that dissolves audience goodwill, summed up by the least satisfying post-credit “stinger” a superhero film has delivered yet.  Raimi’s first Spider-Man stood on its own, as a fine work of pop-culture entertainment that didn’t need the superb sequel its creator eventually delivered.

The new Amazing Spider-Man movie has some terrific visuals.  CGI has come a long way since Tobey Maguire periodically turned into a computer-generated cartoon in the earlier films.  There’s also a lot more practical stunt work here, which goes a long way toward making the action scenes pop.  I always thought Raimi’s films leaned too heavily on CGI, even using it to pencil Spidey into fight scenes that could have been carried off by talented stunt people.

Andrew Garfield makes a fine Spider-Man, and really throws himself into the part, delivering an angrier, more emotionally and morally confused superhero than Tobey Maguire.  He outperforms the script, and generates excellent chemistry with leading lady Emma Stone.  The only member the cast that really keeps up with Garfield is Denis Leary, a bit under-used as the police captain who dislikes masked vigilantes, and just happens to be the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen.  Leary seems on the verge of bursting into one of his trademark high-velocity rants a couple of times, and the director should have let him cut loose.

But in every other respect, the most amazing thing about the new movie is how completely it validates Sam Raimi’s creative choices.  Everywhere The Amazing Spider-Man deviates from Raimi’s decisions, it proves the earlier films superior.  Spider-Man’s web-shooters are an obvious example.  Raimi caught a lot of hell from the fan community in 2002 when he made the hero’s web-slinging powers an organic ability, but he was absolutely correct to do so, because the mechanical devices Garfield’s version of Peter Parker designs are simply absurd.  The hammer of Thor is a more believable example of “high technology” than Spidey’s endlessly versatile wrist-mounted devices.  And Spider-Man buys his webbing, via the Internet, from Oscorp?  Where does he get the money for this?  And wouldn’t his bulk orders of “bio-cable” make him fairly easy for the authorities to track down, to say nothing of his enemies?

Raimi’s original film is tight and fast-moving, shooting through Parker’s high-school years in perhaps half an hour.  Webb’s movie dawdles both before and after Spidey dons his costume for the first time.  The final cut appears to have been prepared with a chainsaw, as characters and sub-plots vanish left and right.  It’s also one of the worst examples of footage deployed in the trailers, but missing from the actual film, I can remember seeing in a while.

The as-yet-undeveloped plot thread about Peter’s parents, and the idea that he was fulfilling some sort of heroic destiny by becoming Spider-Man, threatens to undermine the most appealing thing about the character, which the Raimi films captured beautifully: he’s a regular guy who got lucky, struggling to do the right thing with incredible powers bestowed by fantastic coincidence.  This is not a character who needed a complicated backstory filled with terrible secrets.

Raimi created a life-long love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, which was filled with sudden reversals and heartbreak before something like a happy ending was implied at the end of the third film.  A great deal of the tension in Parker’s personal life came from his struggles to preserve his secret identity.  In the Webb film, Parker makes no real effort to keep his Spider-Man persona secret from anyone important in his life, he has no rival for Gwen’s affections, and he swiftly dispenses with the emotional trauma that might have induced the sort of heartache Spidey was carrying at the end of Raimi’s first film.

The first Spider-Man built an epic tragedy between our hero and his first great enemy, the Green Goblin, who was the antithesis of Spider-Man’s credo about great power carrying great responsibility.  The Amazing Spider-Man gives us the physically impressive but random Lizard, created when a well-meaning scientist decides to test some radical genetic therapies upon himself.  The movie struggles to create an emotional and moral connection between Spidey and the Lizard, but it never really works, and none of their encounters have the visceral punch of the brutal battles Spider-Man fought against the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus in the Raimi films.

The scientist who becomes the Lizard, Curt Connors, actually appears in all of the earlier movies, slowly creating a believable connection with Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker.  If he’d achieved his villainous destiny in a Raimi-directed Spider-Man 4, it would have carried more emotional weight.  Instead, we get one scene of Parker and Connors bonding over a laboratory experiment, and more vaguely sinister airs with a mysterious connection between Dr. Connors and Parker’s parents.

The new film is good-looking, and it’s always fun to watch Spider-Man do his stuff, but it lacks the emotion, goofy humor, and crazy energy of the earlier films.  It also spends a lot of time re-telling a story we already know, and which a previous creative team told better.  Maybe the “untold story” coming in the inevitable sequel will give the new star and director a better chance to dazzle us with their version of Spider-Man.