The Amazing Spider-Man – In Theatres Now
by Aaron Einhorn
As a long-time comic book fan, and a fan of superhero movies, there were any number of reasons I wasn’t looking forward to Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man. It has, after all, been barely a decade since Sam Raimi brought us his vision of the Wall-Crawler in Spider-Man, and while many fans will agree that the franchise went off the rails with the third film in Raimi’s trilogy, most will agree that the first two films staring Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were excellent, and in many ways helped spark the superhero Renaissance which has led to Marvel’s amazingly successful franchise, and Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films.
There are other reasons I had to dislike the film going in. The early shots of the costume once more reminded me of the impossibility of a teenager making that costume in his bedroom – certainly without his Aunt knowing. The redesign was subtly different from the comic-style suit, and in ways that don’t really make sense.
And, of course, the real truth is that I want all of the licensed Marvel films to eventually come back to Marvel’s direct control. I want to see Spider-Man interacting with The Avengers, and as long as the films are successful, we can expect Sony/Columbia (and Fox when it comes to the X-Men and Fantastic Four), that isn’t going to happen.
In other words, I walked into the theatre last night as about as hostile an audience member could possibly be without being someone who just hates superheroes. Director Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans and the rest of the crew involved with the production had a hefty task ahead of them. Could they win me over? Read on to find out.
One of the world’s most popular characters is back on the big screen as a new chapter in the Spider-Man legacy is revealed in The Amazing Spider-Man. Focusing on an untold story that tells a different side of the Peter Parker story, the new film stars Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, with Martin Sheen and Sally Field. The film is directed by Marc Webb from a screenplay written by James Vanderbilt, based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad, and Matt Tolmach are producing the film in association with Marvel Entertainment for Columbia Pictures, which will open in theaters everywhere in 3D on July 3, 2012.
The The Amazing Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker (Garfield), an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Sheen) and Aunt May (Field). Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. Peter is also finding his way with his first high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Stone), and together, they struggle with love, commitment, and secrets. As Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to Oscorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero.
In terms of a pure story, Raimi’s Spider-Man outdoes The Amazing Spider-Man on almost level. The origin story of Peter Parker is better played out, from his picked upon pre-superheroic days, to his friendship with Harry and MJ, to his family life with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. The only element of the background story that works better in this new film is the chemistry between Peter and his love interest (Gwen in this case). We have a less compelling motivation for Peter’s heroics, or for the villain’s actions. Visually, I also find Amazing to be the lesser film. The cinematography is much too dark, and the action is too rushed for much of the film.
The Amazing Spider-Man relies on a series of increasingly improbable coincidences for the action to work. The connection between Richard Parker and Curt Connors, the fact that his father is responsible for the creation of the spiders that give Peter his powers, the creation of the doomsday weapon that appears in the film’s climax, the connection between Gwen and the lab – each one builds upon the other in a series of cascading improbability.
The visual FX are good in Amazing, no doubt, and as a practical-effects kind of guy, I appreciated that much of the webslinging is done by stuntmen on wires instead of being created by a computer. But the Lizard effects are decidedly inferior to the appearance of the Hulk in The Avengers, and I can’t help but wish that they had made him smaller and transformed Ifans through prosthesis and make-up instead of creating a CGI 10′ tall monster.
I’m going to include both Peter/Spider-Man and Gwen here. Garfield and Stone are both absolutely incredible in this film. Garfield is much more believable as a teenager than Maguire was (despite the fact that Garfield was 30 when this film was made, and Maguire was only 27 when he made his debut as Peter Parker), and the chemistry between Garfield and Stone just works. They have an awkward charm that is far too reminiscent of so many people I knew in high school.
So, in terms of the relationship? The Amazing Spider-Man beats Raimi’s hands down. Maguire and Dunst were both very, very good, but they never had that instant on-screen connection as a couple.
Garfield does give us some elements that are missing from Maguire’s Peter Parker. Garfield is much more of a science nerd, and shows us that in a way that they often missed the mark on with Maguire (who knew science when it was convenient). We also get a Spider-Man who makes quips and jokes with villains as he battles them – something that was painfully absent in all three Raimi films.
Emma Stone also deserves note for her portrayal of Gwen Stacy. We have had many excellent pieces of casting in our superhero films, along with several painfully bad miscasts, and many acceptable casting choices. Kirsten Dunst was a fine choice to play MJ in the Raimi films. But not since Robert Downey Jr. first shaved his face into Tony Stark’s beard and mustache has an actor so perfectly embodied a character from the comic page as we see with Stone and Gwen. She literally looks as if she stepped off a page of Steve Ditko art, and she captures the camera with every scene she appears in.
Rhys Ifans is, in my opinion, one of the more under appreciated actors in Hollywood today. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Ifans since Notting Hill, and thought he was absolutely astounding in last year’s Anonymous. As such, despite the fact that I found it criminally unfair that Dylan Baker was teased as Curt Connors for two films and then cheated out of the opportunity to play the Lizard, I was looking forward to Ifans anyhow.
Overall, Ifans is good, but ultimately, unsatisfying. There is an implication that Connors feels some sort of responsibility towards Peter, but it is never fully explained. There is also a lot implied about what Curt knows about the deaths of Richard and Mary Parker, but that is left even more undefined. This is forgivable, and can be blamed more on poor editing and writing than Ifans, but is still regretable.
The motivation of the evil Lizard-brain infecting Connors is done very poorly, unfortunately. We never quite understand what has prompted the Lizard’s actions, nor do we understand how much of his actions are bestial instinct and how much still has Connor’s intellect and reasoning behind it. The film seems to want it both ways, which doesn’t quite work. The other thing that doesn’t work is the “argument” between Connors and the Lizard. There is no way to not compare it to Dafoe’s inner-monologues between Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin, and Dafoe does it much, much better.
What I find baffling is the decision to remove Connor’s family. In the comics and most of the animated incarnations of Spider-Man, the Lizard’s family has always been integral to the character and has usually been the root both for the Lizard’s desire to transform others into his state and the ultimate vulnerability Peter can exploit to achieve victory. Removing that from the character strikes me as a bizarre choice – especially after Raimi added family to Dr. Octopus with such meaning in Spider-Man 2.
The Supporting Cast
Martin Sheen and Sally Field give us great takes as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. I don’t know that I would say that they are stronger than Cliff Robertson or Rosemary Harris, but they certainly aren’t inferior. I like that they are both younger in appearance, making the idea that they are Peter’s Aunt and Uncle more plausible (instead of saying that they are his Great Aunt and Uncle).
Flash Thompson in Raimi’s Spider-Man is a presence in the High School scenes, but has no real personality and disappears. Flash in The Amazing Spider-Man is both much, much better – and much, much worse. We get some really nice, touching scenes that show Flash’s humanity and make him more nuanced, and considering that Flash ultimately becomes one of the comic Peter’s best friends, this is a great choice. Unfortunately, the first scene with Flash makes him seem less like a bully and more like a budding psycopath. There is an old adage that less is more, and Webb takes that scene way too far. I like Flash in the later scenes, but really can’t overlook the brutality he displays in the first appearance.
Unfortunately, outside of Flash, Gwen and his family, the rest of the people’s in Peter’s life don’t even seem to exist. We are teased with the existence of Norman Osborn, but there is no hint of Harry. And many of the other mainstays of Spider-Man’s mythos aren’t included at all. Compare this to the Raimi film where we get the Daily Bugle staff, including the incredible turn by J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and it makes The Amazing Spider-Man feel comparatively empty.
The one exception, of course is in Gwen’s family. The Raimi films give us an MJ without an Aunt Anna – but The Amazing Spider-Man gives us Captain Stacy. Dennis Leary gives us a solid performance here, but one that is somewhat one-note. His opposition to Spider-Man is barely as informed as J. Jonah Jameson’s, and his change of opinion is too sudden. The father-daughter relationship between Captain Stacy and his daughter is solid, but the character overall is somewhat extraneous.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a good film, but not a great one. It suffers from retelling the origin story, when it would have worked better (with some retooling) as a continuation of the Raimi series. If James Bond can be recast in a franchise without retelling his first story, as can Batman (in the Burton/Shumacker films), than why not Spidey? It would have spared us from the need for a costume redesign, or from using so much of the film giving us a story we saw just a few years ago.
This isn’t to say that the film is bad. It’s quite good. But in a summer where audience expectations were blown away with Marvel’s The Avengers, and expectations are high for The Dark Knight Rises, it’s hard to imagine The Amazing Spider-Man carving out a serious niche. It will have a solid two weeks before it is obliterated from theatres by Bruce Wayne and company, but during those two weeks there should be plenty of audience members who enjoy it. That said, if I were going to get into the theatres again between now and July 20th and wanted to see a superhero film, I would be more likely to see The Avengers a third time than to see The Amazing Spider-Man a second. I will purchase it on Blu-Ray, and I will watch it again long before I will rewatch Spider-Man 3. It’s a worthy addition to the ranks of superheroic films, and it’s much better than I feared it would be, but it’s not nearly as good as I would have hoped.