A successful reboot that has its flaws, but gets a lot more right than its predecessors.
It was time for a change. Despite the fact that many fans hoped director Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures would work out their differences to produce a fourth Spider-man feature, the studio decided to go another way, rebooting the franchise completely. When Spider-man opened ten years ago in the Spring of 2002, it was a bit of a surprise that after 25 years in developmental hell, audiences strongly craved to see the famous comic book superhero on the big screen more than any other. Becoming the first film to gross $100 million in a single weekend, its box-office success proved that not only was it worth the wait, but fans had finally got the proper Spider-man film they’d been waiting decades for.
Personally, I found Raimi’s film enjoyable, but there were a number of factors that prevented me from agreeing with the masses that it was one of the best superhero films ever made. Tobey Maguire’s casting as Peter Parker, the academically brilliant but socially inept High Schooler turned superhero after being bitten by a radioactive spider seemed genius at the time. Maguire, was extremely likable with his boyish charm, but after closer observation it became obvious that he carried few of the many known traits of the character. Though Maguire’s Parker was a bit of an outcast and often a victim of school bullying, he hardly felt like an awkward, eccentric nerd who was actually a bit of a scientific genius. Despite some wonderful support from the likes of Cliff Robertson & Rosemary Harris as Peter’s adoptive parents Uncle Ben & Aunt May and Willem Dafoe as desperate scientist turned villain, Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin, the focus of Maguire’s Spider-man seemed to be entirely on girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, a character that in the comics would come into Peter Parker’s life when he was much more mature.
Rather than cast Kirsten Dunst as Gwen Stacy, the first real love of Peter Parker’s life from the comics, she was awarded the role of a character who on the page would have been way out of our hero’s league at this stage in his life. Though Dunst happens to be a fine actress, her work in Spider-man suffered because Mary Jane Watson was turned into nothing more than a damsel in distress. The hero in these types of stories not only needs a love interest who encourages him to grow, but will also grow along with him. Though Maguire didn’t make a pitch-perfect Peter Parker, he still was the most likable thing about the film, which is why when he ultimately becomes Spider-man early in the second act, the picture lost me. Parker’s development as a character ceased once he put on the costume as his primary focus became saving Mary Jane and the rest of New York from the evil machinations of The Green Goblin.
When Spider-man 2 was released in summer 2004, many declared it to be perhaps the greatest superhero film ever made. Even as the age of Christopher Nolan’s Batman/ Dark Knight trilogy is about to come to an end, Richard Donner’s Superman holds the top spot for me personally, but Spider-man 2 was evidence that Raimi and company had learned from the mistakes the made with their first Spider-man outing. There are few things wrong with this film; so may factors and story elements work together almost perfectly like a well oiled machine. Maguire’s Parker isn’t much different from the first film, but he does grow as a character a bit, waging a small inner battle within himself as he struggles with his responsibilities as Spider-man and his personal desires concerning “the one that got away”, Mary Jane. Dunst is basically the damsel in distress, again, but this sequel had a more sympathetic and understandable villain in Doctor Octopus aka Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina). The so-called “father and son” relationship between Peter and Norman Osborn – which incited the jealousy of his best friend Harry (James Franco) – they wanted us so desperately to buy in the first film rang hollow because there were barely any personal moments between the characters. Early on in Spider-man 2, there’s a wonderful dinner scene between Peter and Octavious where the two connect on a personal and academic level developing a bond between these two men who will eventually oppose one another. It also helped establish Doc Ock not as a villain, but a man who loses his way, failing to realize the destructive nature of his actions. In these types of films, if you’ve got a good villain audiences can identify with, you’ve got a good story. The action set-pieces, visual f/x and Peter’s goofy yet often sweet attempts to woo Mary Jane were all just bonuses.
As for Spider-man 3, well…I’m not really gonna talk about Spider-man 3. It’s not the worst superhero film ever made, but it was obvious that Raimi and especially Maguire were getting too old and over-the-hill for these films. I’ve seen sketches and conceptual artwork for what Raimi originally intended Spider-man 3 to be and its obvious that studio pressure forced him to make something completely different. The end result of which was a disappointing sequel.
Director Marc Webb only had the critically praised indie film (500) Days of Summer under his belt when he was approached to take the reins of the Spider-man series. A reboot of an already successful franchise with a $200 million plus budget to be shot in 3D, seems like a daunting task. Some directors jumping into the fire from humble beginnings have been up to the task, others have miserably failed. I’ve always believed that what attracted the film’s producers to Webb was his ability to work with actors to create human characters that feel like real people.
(500) Days of Summer was essentially the story of a guy whose heart was still aching after being strung along for a year and a half by a girl who didn’t share his feelings. In essence the story of Spider-man is really the story of Peter Parker. Though Raimi and company established the character in the manner they saw fit with the first Spider-man, they hardly got back to that once he donned the mask in that film’s second act or in later installments. The only additional character development they gave us was Peter once again getting hung up on the same girl or acting like a jerk after coming into contact with some weird sentient alien goo. At the end of his journey in each of those films, he was basically the same person, not changed for better or worse. Peter Parker is a flawed character still growing and evolving even after he becomes Spider-man and this new reboot has the courage to explore that.
The nearly thirty-year-old Andrew Garfield was older than Tobey Maguire when he was cast as everyone’s favorite wall crawler, yet surprisingly he looks much younger. Garfield became a part of the controversy involving British actors portraying American superheroes which includes Christian Bale’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman in the upcoming Man of Steel. The way I see it, a good actor is a good actor and though Garfield’s experience is limited, he makes a damn good Peter Parker. It doesn’t matter if he’s not an American actor.
Webb’s The Amazing Spider-man follows a page from the playbook of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films with its much darker take on Spider-man. It isn’t dark for the sake of being mysterious or cool, but in a effort to get deeper inside the mind and world of its conflicted main character. For the most part it works. Raimi’s films became too playful at times and though we always saw Spider-man in great peril, you never worried whether or not he’d survive.
In The Amazing Spider-man we actually see a young Peter Parker getting dropped off at the doorstep of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (this time played by Martin Sheen and Sally Field). The reasons his parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) mysteriously leave him and then vanish one night are never explained, leaving Peter to grow into a confused and often bitter teenager. Garfield’s Peter is not only an awkward academic genius, but is also revealed to be a bit of a scientist as we see the various electronic and mechanical gadgets he’s created.
Peter’s search for answers concerning the disappearance of his parents leads to the discovery of his father’s personal belongings and a journal that suggests Dad too was a scientist. His father’s partner was none other than Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) renowned for his work to engineer a serum that would regenerate human tissue. In an effort to get closer to the doctor, Peter passes himself off as an intern, discovering that fellow student and school crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is Connors’s research assistant. Through one of those weird mishaps that seem to only happen in the movies, Peter also accidentally stumbles into a lab where he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Guess what happens next?
The Amazing Spider-man tells that familiar story of how Peter Parker became a superhero, but in a new and unique way. The screenplay uses classic details, but incorporates new ones found in the Ultimate Spider-man comic book series. Uncle Ben’s untimely death occurs in a slightly different manner even though Peter is still indirectly responsible. The evolution of Peter’s costume has changed to a more realistic “fashion” if you forgive the pun. We see it slowly evolve, where he gets the inspiration for it and it even looks like something he could have created himself rather than some Hollywood costume designer like in the previous films.
As a Spider-man fan, its also comforting to see that the story incorporates various elements from the mythology that endeared the character to readers. Gone are the organic webs thank goodness. In this film we really get to see Peter showcase his scientific expertise as he develops the classic web-shooters through a trial and error. In one sequence we actually see Spider-man create a web for his adversary, patiently waiting to see if sudden movements nearby will trigger vibrations. Many fans of the original films did not like the fact that the smart wisecracks and humor that Spider-man is known for wasn’t incorporated. This story gives Garfield plenty of great moments where he gets to let Spidey’s smart mouth cut loose, but they wisely don’t push it too hard either. I also applaud the fact that we get to see a mask-less Garfield in Spidey gear. Having him occasionally remove the mask, as he does in one scene to comfort a young boy in peril, gives us the notion it might sometimes be Garfield underneath that suit rather than a stuntman.
The Amazing Spider-man isn’t as great a film as Spider-man 2, but it succeeds in getting the essence of the Spider-man mythology right in a manner better than the first and third installments. This is a film that works because it’s focused more on character than anything. Stone’s Gwen Stacy doesn’t feel like a girl Spider-man has to constantly save, she feels like his equal. She’s not the object of his affection throughout the entire film and rather appropriately, their relationship feels like a slow burn. It remains to be seen whether or not the real-life relationship that blossomed between Garfield and Stone was a factor, but there is really strong chemistry between the two. Many of their best moment occur before she learns he’s the masked vigilante her father Captain Stacy (a well cast Denis Leary) and the NYPD have been desperately chasing across the streets of New York. It’s during his moments with Gwen where we truly see Peter emotionally connect with another person.
Sheen and Field have some rather big shoes to fill since Robertson and Harris where so memorable in the original films. They are a bit more tougher and down to earth versions of Uncle Ben and Aunt May. There comes a point in the picture, where Peter turns rebellious after gaining his new powers, shucking his responsibilities much to the chagrin of his aunt and uncle. Sheen’s Uncle Ben gives Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility” speech, but he does so in a matter-of-fact and gritty manner without using those exact words. He sees that this troubled boy has a lot of his father in him and that it’s also his responsibility to channel his frustration, anger and gifts towards doing helping those less fortunate. Late in the film, there’s also the surprising notion that Aunt May just may have an idea of how Peter is spending his nights, since every morning she sees him battered and bruised while there are news reports on TV of a web-slinging masked vigilante. Field conveys and suggests quite a lot by saying so little.
The secondary story in The Amazing Spider-man is handicapped scientist Curt Connors’ pursuit to heal his missing limb, which ultimate becomes an obsession with human perfection. Connors works at Oscorp, founded by Norman Osborn who remains a cypher hidden in the shadows in this story. One gets the notion that future installments will reveal the man that becomes The Green Goblin as Connors’ dangerous serum is engineered even further. Ifans’s best work is early on with Garfield as Peter connects with a fellow scientist and his father’s former colleague, foolishly giving him an algorithm that leads to the doctor’s transformation into the monstrous Lizard. The Lizard isn’t one of Spider-man’s most memorable foes and though he makes for a remarkable CG creation on film, there’s something that feels rather hollow about him here. It may have to do with the fact that he has no real human face as a CG monster and Ifans essentially disappears whenever he’s onscreen. Despite early character development, it feels rather false that Connors suddenly gets drunk on power when he injects himself with that serum and transforms. Still, he’s a better villain than those found in Spider-man 3 and his action set-pieces with your friendly neighborhood Spider-man are more photo-realistic than previous films.
In the end Garfield’s work as Peter Parker and Spider-man are the glue that holds this film together. The same could be said about Maguire in the original, but you don’t have to be a die-hard comic book fan to see how the role is a better fit for Garfield. His Peter is still growing and evolving even by the story’s conclusion. He still has that awkwardness and you can tell that he will be making bigger mistakes in his future, some that will even have tragic consequences. Like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, this Spider-man reboot feels like a fresh start; an origin story that can stand on its own or be the start of something grander. It’s not perfect; the film has quite a number of hokey flaws and moments that feel almost staged and even artificial. But here we have a Spider-man that’s more human than before and just as flawed as the rest of us. He bruises, bleeds and even gets injured to the point where he has to rely on fellow citizens to help. I didn’t feel like I was looking at a superhero, but a kid in a skin-tight spandex suit that has no idea what the hell he is doing and is making it up as he goes along. That is Spider-man to me and to so many others and this great start has me optimistic about the direction of the series and future installments.
Since some readers desperately need to know if the 3D in this film is good or bad, I will address it. Despite the fact that The Amazing Spider-man was shot on RED in 3D, this is one of the poorest 3D presentations I’ve experienced. There are moments where you can remove the polarized glasses and the picture looks normal. There’s some 3D depth to be found in quite a number of action sequences, but with so much motion blur, it doesn’t make a difference. Forget what you’ve read about the costume being designed with 3D in mind, the process doesn’t enhance it or anything else for that matter.
Even though it carries a higher ticket price, the IMAX Digital 3D presentation is still the way to go. It’s a brighter presentation and though the film is presented in the 2.39 to 1 scope aspect ratio, it shifts to 1.85 to 1 during the third act, revealing even more onscreen picture in the IMAX version only.