Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.
–Stella (Thelma Ritter), Rear Window (1954)
“I’m not following you,” Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) insists. He’s scrambling to explain to his high school classmate Gwen (Emma Stone) why he’s stolen an id tag to get inside the fancy corporate-funded lab where she’s leading a tour group. She fixes her gaze on him as he stammers, “I love science.”
It’s cute and silly and simple, this answer, reminding you how much Peter wants to impress Gwen, admit his love for her, and also pursue the mystery of his own identity, a mystery that begins with his missing scientist father (Campbell Scott). At the same time, as the answer is also allusive and potentially smart, an indication of Peter’s wit, and maybe even that of The Amazing Spider-Man.
Alas, it’s not long before the possible multiplicity of this reference to “science,” its mythic and emotional layers, its most expansive and deliberate comic book dimensions are lost. This is a movie determined to revisit and double down, not to challenge expectations, but to reinforce them. On a most obvious level, this determination has to do with The Amazing Spider-Man‘s origins, or, perhaps more likely, a general perception of its origins. A much-discussed franchise reboot, it comes with the baggage that most everyone knows the story it’s telling, about how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, owing to a radioactive spider bite. You know it from Stan Lee’s 1962 comic, from any number of cartoons and lunchboxes and Halloween costumes over the 50 years since, and, of course, from the Sam Raimi movie trilogy, not quite obliterated by the very concept of the franchise reboot.
This familiarity means that no one is going to be surprised by anything in the new movie, not even the much-promoted 3D spidey-slinging effects (apps available for phones and iPads). Peter will be bitten, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) will be shot dead, and this version’s designated girlfriend Gwen will be charmed and also distressed by her cool but decidedly odd boyfriend’s divided attentions. She’s impressed even before he’s super-powered, as when he intervenes in a bully’s assault on a nerdy boy (“I thought that was great what you did,” she says, “It was stupid but it was great,” urging him to see the school nurse), then pleased to learn that he keeps her picture as a screen saver.
Here the movie uses Gwen to stand in for you — to intuit and reward Peter’s heroic inclinations, to gape appreciatively at his increasingly visible superpowers. In this she’s pretty much doing what superheroes’ girlfriends always do, with the added value of having a police captain dad (Denis Leary), who predictably resists Peter’s virtues before he believes in them. (When Gwen uses “cramps” to convince dad to leave her alone in her bedroom with the secretly visiting Peter, she exhibits fine comic timing as well as the ability to handle old-school authority figures, an ability the fretful, self-involved Peter lacks.)
Gwen seems a smart-enough Spidey girlfriend, if only because she works in the lab for Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). But her role is soon reduced to damsel in distress, as Peter is increasingly distracted by her boss, who is an exceedingly standard Spidey villain, that is, a researcher whose work make him crazy (“I long to fix myself, I long to create a world without weakness,” he speechifies before he injects himself with lizard genes and is transformed into a yellow-eyed, gigantically powerful monster). Connors is in this movie also a former colleague of Peter’s missing dad, an affiliation that leads Peter to Connors’ lab (and Gwen), in hopes of finding out why his dad disappeared.
Peter’s dad business is as conventional as Gwen’s. And while the film spends too much time on both of these, it offers precious little insight into a more disturbing power dynamic, one that is not literally, but more metaphorically familial, concerning Connors and his employer, the apparently ruthless but curiously under-motivated Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan). Dressed in an expensive suit and rolling into Connors’ lab unannounced, Ratha is mostly deployed here as the corporate boogeyman, demanding a product (return on an investment) from Connors before it’s ready and when he doesn’t get it, taking the first available version, which he threatens to use on a selection of specifically politically charged human guinea pigs, hospitalized military vets. Oh, the odium!
Ratha’s generically corporate bad-guyness is vaguely inspired by his unseen own boss, a man in need of immediate regenerative “fixing,” but mostly it serves to make Connors’ anxiety seem similarly vaguely inspired. In a panic to stop Ratha from experimenting on vets, Connors experiments on himself, and instantly turns all reptilian and demented, in turn bringing us all back (at last) to Peter, who has previously delivered the formula to Connors. And it’s this moment — the sharing of his father’s formula with his father’s partner, leading directly to a monster who does exactly what his father didn’t want done — that brings the movie back around on itself, too, for when Peter jots down the formula for Connors (which he mas memorized from his dad’s newly uncovered secret journal), the researcher is suitably daunted. How did the boy come up with this, he wonders, as he’s been chasing it for decades. “I like science,” explains Peter.
This is the story the movie can’t sort out. Peter’s a geeky high school student, whose excellent wall-climbing, web-zinging superpowers only make more vivid his kid’s combination of inelegance and daring. He wears his dad’s glasses and keeps a Rear Window poster on his bedroom wall, appreciates his incredibly patient Aunt May (Sally Field) and works out his science with a paper and pencil. As quaint and intelligent as these details may be, they can’t save this franchise-regeneration from itself, its own corporate bum rush.