Directed by Marc Webb. Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves; story by James Vanderbilt; based upon characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Avi Arad, Matthew Tolmach, Laura Ziskin. Music by James Horner. Photographed by John Schwartzman. Edited by Alan Edward Bell, Michael McCusker, Pietro Scalia. Production designed by J. Michael Riva. Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidz.
The most important question that The Amazing Spider-Man needs to answer is: “Why?” Why reboot a movie franchise that’s only ten years old? Why now, only eight years after the unanimous praise of that movie’s sequel and five years after the financial smash of the third installment? Why toss Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (not to mention director and guiding hand Sam Raimi) aside? The behind-the-curtain answer is simple: money. Facing escalating costs and a ticking clock of a licensing deal (Sony loses the rights to the character if they don’t make a movie within a set number of years), the studio has swept away ten years of continuity and started over with a new creative team. Fine. It happens. So what’s the reason for this Spider-Man reboot from the creative side? Well, that’s also very simple: no reason at all.
The Amazing Spider-Man is not a movie. It’s a product, conceived by bean counters, assembled by businessmen, and delivered to us by marketers who want us to buy Spider-Man merchandise and fund an inevitable sequel. It’s cold and calculated and cynical, and while that approach never works, it especially doesn’t work when applied to a character that’s supposed to be optimistic and cheerful. Spider-Man, since his inception in the 1960s, has been a character with spectacular superpowers and a troubled home life, but he’s never been dark or miserable. Leave that to the Batmans and Daredevils of the comic book universe; Spider-Man’s whole appeal is that he is a colorful, energetic everyman who takes his licks (at home and at work) and yet perseveres, and inspires good in others. The formula isn’t broke, but boy, has it been fixed.
Spider-Man, a.k.a. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is envisioned in this new movie as essentially a bitter, moody kid who has perfunctory troubles fitting in at school and an obsession about learning the truth behind his parents’ death, even though kindly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) tell him to leave well enough alone. Of course he doesn’t, which is what brings him into contact with a genetically-engineered spider that bites him, gifting him astonishing superpowers. He processes these events not as miracles, but as a means to various ends: tracking down a killer when Uncle Ben meets a fatal bullet, pursuing the mystery behind his parents’ death, and fighting street crime, because, well…I don’t know. At no point does anyone utter the famous Spider-Man catch phrase about power and responsibility, so we might as well assume that Spidey dons a suit and battles carjackers because he’s looking for kicks.
That tracks, because the characterization of Spider-Man in this misconceived reboot is basically that of a punk who happens to be a science whiz. He’s into skateboarding, starts fights, steals a name tag in order to slip past security at his parents’ old science lab (effectively screwing some poor kid out of his hard-earned internship), and wanders away from a tour group even after intern Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) firmly tells him not to. He yells at his aunt and uncle, runs away from home, lies about whether he’s supposed to be in class, flakes away his responsibilities, and has a downright perverse way of honoring the wishes of people he cares about. And as Spider-Man, he’s an indignant show-off who is only silenced when beaten to a bloody pulp. Granted, some of this immaturity is part and parcel of the Parker character (it’s Ben’s death that shapes him up), but none of it is given any weight here; they’re treated not as character flaws but endearing signifiers of how “edgy” this new Spider-Man is. Heaven help us.
The original Spider-Man films’ status as classics is perhaps debatable (it’s too soon, anyway). But they were fun, zippy, well-written action-adventure films that gave proper balance to the iconic character and his surrounding ensemble. This newer Spider-Man is slicker, with spiffier special effects, but also dumber, and after a point becomes disinterested in anything that isn’t a flashy effects sequence. It has no recognizable themes, no skill at juggling an ensemble, no quantifiable affection for the elements of the original comic books, just a lot of noise. David Koepp’s screenplay for the original Spider-Man may not be Shakespeare, but in its craftsmanship and ability to tell a story with many moving, developing parts, it outpaces this screenplay (credited, astonishingly, to three writers) in every way.
Never is this more apparent than in the character of Gwen Stacy. Gwen Stacy is a name of special import for anyone who knows their comics. What is she in this movie? She’s a prop in an all-too-simple love story for Peter, and that’s that. The two of them flirt too easily and fall in love too readily, and there’s no pathos to any of it. The fault is neither Emma Stone’s nor Andrew Garfield’s. It’s their paper-thin material. The only obstacle for them is Gwen’s Dad, Capt. Stacy (Denis Leary), a New York detective who leads the manhunt for Spider-Man, which is a plot that is probably realistic but casts a bit of a pallor (an additional one, that is), since the sight of Peter Parker beating the heck out of honest cops makes for a grim experience.
The overriding plot of the movie is a recycling of the familiar story beats of the first Spider-Man movie. Fair enough, since that’s the origin, give or take a few details. But here, they’re ticked through with such apathetic, “let’s just do it slightly differently” laziness that they lose every ounce of their meaning. The death of Uncle Ben, for example, is clumsily staged, and forgotten with surprising quickness, because after all it’s only the lynchpin of the entire Spider-Man saga. The film then tries to upstage the original series’ climactic displays of post-9/11 New Yorker camaraderie with a sequence that sets a new benchmark in unwelcome corniness. And then we close with a riff on the original movie’s mournful farewell between lovers that undoes itself in the final scenes, because, sure, why the hell not? Anything goes in this movie.
The villain of the piece is ostensibly a fresh face to the Spider-Man cinematic universe: Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a brilliant employee of Oscorp, a high-end biotechnology firm. Connors, an amputee who dreams of forwarding research in limb regeneration, combines his DNA with that of a reptile. Bad idea, natch. So he becomes a mutant six-foot dinosaur called The Lizard. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Lizard has a beastly disposition yet retains his smarts, still talking with Ifans’ distinctive voice in a choice that really should have been reconsidered by those involved. He yammers about how humans are weak, and everyone should want to be a lizard, although the perks of such a transformation are elusive at best.
The Lizard looks ridiculous, sounds ridiculous, and worst of all, has no semblance of depth. He ends the movie atop one of those wonderful movie contraptions planted on a skyscraper, which will disperse a magical whoosits into the atmosphere unless it can be (easily) stopped, where the thingamajig will explode and tumble off the skyscraper, threatening Peter Parker and everyone else high above (and, you would figure, below).The Spider-Man pictures have excelled at villains with extra layers: the tortured, schizophrenic Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), the corrupted genius Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), even Thomas Haden Church’s evil murderer and the space parasite Venom from movie #3 had their moments. You won’t be remembering The Lizard five minutes after you walk out of this one.
But what ultimately kills The Amazing Spider-Man is that it’s bland, timid, cheap-looking, and plays like nothing more than an exercise from a “create a Spider-Man movie” workbook. It discards many elements that would seem indispensible to the Spider-Man mythos, like Spidey’s identity as a folk hero, or New York being a character in the story (it might as well have been filmed anywhere). Even the satisfaction of a crime-fighting montage (this genre’s bread and butter) is denied us. Instead, it unwisely chases the intimate and dour scope of a Christopher Nolan movie: Batman Begins with a red and blue paint job. So determined is TASM to start a new, morose Spider-Man series that it drops tons of clues for where to go in the future, sacrificing this film’s own momentum. The thread about Peter’s parents, for example, is a red herring that never climaxes in any way, except in a lame post-credits sequence that only hints at a future, distant payoff. I’ll try to contain my excitement for the next few years as they think about working on that.
The Amazing Spider-Man has the dubious distinction of following Spider-Man 3, regarded by many comic fans as the worst of the series and one for the log of worst comic book films. The Amazing Spider-Man is worse. Yes, Spider-Man 3 had a dancing Peter Parker, was too cluttered and unfocused, was just plain stupid at times, and all the actors were showing their age. But it was trying for something. It wanted to explore classic, archetypal themes of power, revenge and corruption. It botched them, but hey. It had ambition. The Amazing Spider-Man has no ambition at all except to squeeze ten dollars out of you, with a surcharge if you want some needless 3D to boot. The movie is about…lemme check my notes…yup. Nothing.
The director, Marc Webb, made the wonderful romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer. He was picked, perhaps, because he has a good grasp on relationship dramedies, and also because Christopher Nolan was plucked from the fields of indie films when he was given the keys to Batman, so maybe that’s what Spider-Man needed. It needed something else, because Webb was a bad choice to bring any pop thrill to the material; it drags, and strikes sour notes. The only sequence that really works is a crime-fighting encounter in a car park. It makes no logical sense in its set ups, but at least it’s entertaining (the film labors to give Spider-Man a full clip of quips to sling at evildoers, and only in this scene are they funny). Of all the technical credits, the biggest disappointment is the score by James Horner, filling in for Danny Elfman. It’s a major step down into aimless noodling.
I wish to close with an illustration of how sloppy The Amazing Spider-Man is, and how little regard it has for its subject, its audience, or even much common sense. Let’s go back to Peter Parker on that exploding thingamajig on the top of that huge skyscraper. Debris hurls this way and that. Peter eventually finds himself dangling over the edge of the building, and losing his grip, and all hope is lost. He is going to die. Then a hand comes down, from an owner we didn’t expect, and offers Peter Parker a touching rescue. But wait, you’re thinking. And yes. You’re right. The filmmakers have actually forgotten that Peter Parker does not need to be rescued from dangling off the edge of a skyscraper, and cannot simply lose his grip on things. Because he is…you know…freaking Spider-Man.