The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) ★★★
Dir: Marc Webb, USA, 136mins
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
After The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise always seemed destined to be the poor relation in this oversubscribed superhero summer. Both counterparts at least offered something fresh, or, at least, as fresh as this fare gets. Marvel orchestrated the hype, preparing an audience with Iron Man (2008/2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011) before the unveiling of their trademark team. The much anticipated latter saw the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, an abject example in how to reboot a franchise successfully, smuggling onboard topical subtext to probe deeper questions and adding a layer of realism.
Rebooting the Batman franchise was understandable, particularly after Tim Burton left and Joel Schumacher took over, hideously substituting gothic for camp. Nolan also built from the ground up tackling character origins in more depth. The question with Spider-Man is a little more difficult to comprehend as Sam Raimi has already tackled the origins story. Admittedly this came with mixed success; the first was serviceable if overly preachy, the second a highpoint, darker with Alfred Molina excelling as villain Doc Ock, and the third an overblown mess with too many villains spoiling the broth. Although The Amazing Spider-Man works, and at times surpasses, in its own right an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu is all too apparent.
In this version Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a high school student in the care of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) after his parents mysteriously go on the run (an issue never tackled but surely to be elaborated on in further instalments). Peter discovers that his father worked with Dr Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). On a covert visit to Oscorp labs to see Connors he slips away to a high security area and is bitten by a genetically modified spider producing obvious results. Meanwhile Connors is working on a serum (with lizard DNA) to regenerate limbs, an affliction he himself has dealt with since birth, and after some self experimentation begins to undergo his own extreme transformation.
Other than minor plot tweaks this stays close to Raimi’s 1997 original, one part origins tale, one part hero-villain face off. We still go through the same beats but without the heavy handed “with great power comes great responsibility” sermonising that proved so irritating. This sentiment is still included but toned down considerably. Early action scenes are small scale, witty and decidedly old school in their execution with a vibe not dissimilar from the 1970’s TV series. Webb has a lighter touch overall even if we have seen it all before.
Garfield is also superior to Maguire in the pivotal role. Parker here is re-imagined as a cool, skater boy outsider with smarts in contrast to Maguire’s weedy, photographer, geek. This may well be a cop out to pander to mainstream crowds but nevertheless character trajectory remains the same. The exception is that Garfield can mine more emotional depth out of the material, particularly in scenes after the shooting of Uncle Ben. By contrast he also displays some arch humour as Peter adapts to his new abilities. The chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey actually manages to create much more out of something that is all too frequently mundane and is surely the reason Webb was brought on board after indie relationship dramedy 500 Days of Summer (2009).
The second half doesn’t so much fall off the wheels, just follows the blueprint religiously which makes proceedings a little drab. Rhys Ifans Connors feels like an uninspired villain and the CGI creation of The Lizard, a major issue in post production, is clumsy in rendition. Connors is a walking tick list for comic book villains. Afflicted genius who wants to do good for others? Check. Becomes a guinea pig and hatch a crackpot plan? Check. Crackpot plan equates to heavy CGI and the final scenes are nothing we have not seen before time and time again. Other than some first person shots from Spider-Mans perspective swinging through the streets of New York there is little invention in the grand finale.
As an origins tale The Amazing Spider-Man provides the set-up required in an easy going fashion, entertaining if uninspired and instantly forgettable. If a sequel is to be developed the two leads will be essential to maintain a modicum of dramatic spark. Technically it is difficult to criticise. It does what it say’s on the tin so to term it, or rather creates a shiny new label for the tin.