After decades in development, after names as viable as ‘King of the World’ James Cameron dropped out, Sam Raimi’s take on the classic Marvel character Spider-man was seen as a weird watershed event. Instead of the struggles seen in most comic book movies, the Evil Dead director found an uneasy balance between the gee whiz feel of the aged material and the mandates of a post-modern film audience. It all came together brilliantly in a stunning sequel featuring that classic Spidey villain, Dr. Octopus. But after the fan felt fiasco that was Spider-man 3, Sony and its partners in tentpoles determined that the character needed a reboot. Cue constant Messageboad and social media bickering.
Well, it’s time to put all fears to rest. No matter what you think of Raimi’s take on title teen, no matter how you felt about Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, prepare to be wowed and sufficiently stunned. In the genre dynamic of this kind of film, there’s The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Now, The Amazing Spider-man comes along to add its name to the list of action-adventure greats. The best way to describe this astonishing effort is to argue that music video director turned filmmaker Marc Webb has made a honest to goodness movie about real characters and identifiable concepts. In the middle of such a serious study, a superhero film breaks out – and then everything comes together in an experience of near perfection.
This is not a remake of Raimi’s movie. There is no (visible) Norman Osborne, no battle with the Green Goblin or his over-privileged son. As with the recent string of Marvel movies, we get plentiful backstory, a tie to the character’s tragedy as a preamble to future films, and lots of interpersonal development. As with Webb’s last effort, the triumphant (500) Days of Summer, this is a story about a relationship strained and struggling. Our hero, Peter Parker (a terrifically moody Andrew Garfield) is an orphan being raised by his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). His parents died in a plane crash after a mysterious night of hiding from…someone. Years later, Peter discovers his dad’s old portfolio, which contains an equation involved in something about crossbreeding genetics.
Seeking answers, he sneaks into a tour of Oscorp, a 100 story center of scientific study. There, he runs into renowned researcher Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and his assistant, schoolmate Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). While investigating a lab filled with mutant spiders, Peter is bitten. Suddenly, he is gifted with superpowers. In the meantime, Dr. Connors is under pressure to produce a viable cross gene serum. Desperate to keep his job, he uses a reptilian strain of same on himself. It’s a tragic turn of events, mirroring a similar situation in Peter’s life. As our newly minted masked vigilante tries to clean up the streets, he draws the ire of policeman Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) who happens to be Gwen’s dad. While trying to avoid the law, Peter discovers Dr. Connors’ ultimate aim, and vows to stop it.
With its serious subtext, concentration of character, and teen angst angle, The Amazing Spider-man is just superb. Like Joss Whedon’s take on a ton of Marvel myths, this reworking of the insect bite rebirth is among the best of this type, ever. Starting with a situation straight out of a fairy tale (future hero left lonely and lost without his family) and building to a believable battle between super-man and beast, Webb re-enforces the emotional core while keep the categorical basics in check. We have to get the power discovery montage, the moment when a moral and ethical man makes an otherwise distressed decision, and that always tenuous tightrope walk between geek and grown-up. There will be Spidey fans who wince at some of the liberties taken, but if they wanted their favorite to be treated the same as other recent Marvel men, this movie more than succeeds.
This is the most tragic of all the superhero films. Peter suffers a couple of catastrophic losses, each one adding to his complex persona. His love for Gwen is bashful, naive, and perfectly adolescent. He’s such a dork that his best pick-up line is “I like…kissing…you.” When attempting to use his powers for good, he comes across as both conquering and confused, his trips through the skyscrapered halls of his home town indicating both joy and trepidation. Along the way, Webb remembers to reinforce this struggle. School bully Flash starts off as a foe, but makes a gesture toward the middle which messes with Peter’s mind. Similarly, a discussion about law and order with Gwen’s dad descends into a “you can’t tell me what to do” dialogue between man and boy.
Throughout, Webb’s remarkable cast complements his vision. Field and Sheen are so good as Peter’s Aunt and Uncle that we could watch an entire movie about their relationship. They come across as loaded with the life lessons our hero soon has to face. Similarly, Stone beams as Gwen, doing her smart/sassy routine with real investment in the outcome. She loves Peter, and he has a hard time making his feelings known. As our villains, Ifans is good, if not great. He was much better as the child eating Nazi in Hannibal Rising, the desire to dampen Dr. Connors madness one of the movie’s minor misfires. Thankfully, Garfield is so good as Parker, so believable as the mixed up kid who has to comprehend what his new powers actually mean, that we don’t care if everyone isn’t so deep. We root for this version of Spider-man.
With a lack of calculated comic relief (not ranting and raving J. Jonah Jameson here) and a singular focus, The Amazing Spider-man is just that. It’s a legitimate epic wrapped up in the tale of one mixed up young man. As it weaves its way through the standard cinematic expectations, it shocks and surprises. Rare is the popcorn flick that can manage real feelings, let alone a tear or two. In fact, we are so used to soulless spectacle without a moment of true meaning that its existence is fascinating. While some may prefer his first go around, this is the real Spider-man movie. Marc Webb deserves credit for taking what Christopher Nolan taught us about the category and reconfiguring it. The results are resplendent.