Well, that was a pleasant surprise.
Marc Webb’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, a film with the admittedly rotten luck of being shoeboxed between the two most anticipated superhero movies pretty much ever, turns out to be not at all what I expected.
Which is to say, it’s actually pretty damned good.
The notion of starting the franchise over from scratch seemed like a crazy one, only five years after the third Sam Raimi-directed film, the wildly uneven and disappointing SPIDER-MAN 3, and 10 years after the first. And yet the gamble seems to have paid off, with a film that’s as thematically true to the source material as Raimi’s original, while taking characters in new directions and exploring facets previously left alone.
Central to the success of the new venture is the casting. Andrew Garfield makes a more than convincing Peter Parker, withdrawn and unpopular, while Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is the love interest the SPIDER-MAN films have always needed but never had: beautiful, charming, funny and most of all, just plain likable in a way that Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson never was. (Then again, they didn’t make us sit through two horrible musical numbers this time.) Martin Sheen is especially good as Uncle Ben, as is Denis Leary as Gwen’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy. Rounding things out is Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. The Lizard, giving a strong performance as a man tortured by his desires and the voices in his head, simultaneously both villain and victim.
The early build-up to this film made much of “the real story behind Spider-Man,” alluding to a new spin on his origins involving his parents, and while that material is touched upon here, most likely to be developed further in successive movies, it doesn’t do so at the expense of the basic origin story of Spidey, which remains one of the three best in all of comics, and is so strong emotionally that to tamper with it overmuch does a disservice to the character.
What else worked? It’s so nice to see a smart Peter Parker in the movies; his intelligence plays a big role here, not only in his building his own web-shooters, but also in the overall storyline involving Curt Connors’ transformation into The Lizard. And speaking of his webshooters, they also get a lot more play here than they ever did in the Raimi films, with Spidey’s fighting style involving his webs to a far greater degree, and to very good effect. It’s also refreshing to have a funny, wisecracking Spider-Man here, something that Raimi and Maguire were never quite able to pull off in the previous films, in which the humor was often at Spidey’s expense instead. It also must be said that, for as much criticism as the newly modified costume received when it was first unveiled, on screen, you barely notice the difference. It just looks like Spider-Man.
As for the Lizard, while the classic Spidey-fan in me would have liked to have seen something a little closer to the original Ditko design (especially the elongated snout), the CGI-generated Lizard worked very well here (and spoke fairly often, which I was afraid they might not do), and the scenes of The Lizard grappling with the much smaller Spider-Man brought to mind many of the best Spidey/Lizard throwdowns in the comics.
And the film also had something else a good SPIDER-MAN movie needs: heart. Aside from the well-drawn and satisfying romance between Peter and Gwen, the movie is emotional in all the right places. In particular, there’s a scene in which Spidey rescues a little boy from a car hanging off the Williamsburg Bridge, and helps calm him down by taking off his mask and handing it to the boy to wear as he tries to climb out, telling him “the mask makes you strong.” Tugs at the old heartstrings, but does so honestly and without betraying the character. It works. Not only that, it sets up an equally satisfying emotional moment in the film’s third-act climax.
Admittedly, it’s not a perfect film. It feels a little too long in places, and a character and subplot or two kind of vanish about two-thirds of the way in, most likely the victim of editing necessary to get the film down to its already lengthy running time. Still, what struck me more than anything about THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was how it managed to distinguish itself from the original film, while still staying true to what it needed to be. If anything, Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN film is the Ditko Spider-Man, with its nerdy, awkward Peter Parker, while Webb’s is much more the Romita Spider-Man, with a more handsome, moody Parker and an emphasis on romance. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I say, bring on the next one.
Scott Tipton is San Diego bound. If you have questions about comics, send them here.