Monday, December 17, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Directed by Marc Webb.
2012. Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

Cast:
Rhys Ifans
Sally Field
Denis Leary
Irrfan Khan
Chris Zylka
Campbell Scott
C. Thomas Howell
Stan Lee


I suppose there are plenty of kids too young to remember the first Spider-Man movie even though it’s barely 10 years old and turned into a trilogy of humongous money-makers. Despite the fact that the last of them is a mess, even that one raked in plenty of dough. It is only 5 years old. Add the fact they all play on cable fairly often. Even those kids too young to remember when any of those movies hit theaters, but interested in superheroes, have likely seen at least one, if not all of them. However, with franchise director Sam Raimi and his star Tobey Maguire no longer onboard, and new money out there to grab, the decision was made to remake, I mean, reboot the whole thing.

If nothing else, rebooting means we get another telling of our hero’s origin tale. The major aspects of the story remain the same. Peter Parker (Garfield) is a genius high-school student who ranks pretty low on the social totem pole. He manages to get himself bitten by a very special spider and develops the ability to climb walls and plenty of other things spiders can do. After his Uncle Ben (Sheen) is killed by a common street thug Peter goes through some trials and tribulations before deciding to use his powers to fight crime.

The twists in the tale are how Peter comes into contact with the fateful spider and the villain he has to battle. Both are due to Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), a scientist working to duplicate, in humans, the ability of certain animals to regenerate lost limbs. After all, he himself only has one arm. One thing leads to another and like scientists in superhero movies are prone to do, he tests his latest serum on himself. Yes, he regenerates his arm. There’s one heck of a side-effect, though. He transforms into a giant lizard.



From there, the movie proceeds as it must. There are no surprises, particularly if you’re familiar with Spider-Man lore. Therefore, what the story is isn’t important. What’s important is how well it tells that story and, unfortunately because it’s so fresh in our minds, how it compares to an original that most of the target audience is not only aware of, but has probably seen.

The Amazing Spider-Man works hard to establish Peter as an emotional kid who has not only just lost his beloved Uncle Ben, but is still dealing with the death of his parents. Of course, he’s also coming to grips with the insane physical changes he’s undergone (did someone say ‘metaphor for puberty’?). On top of all this, as there always is, he’s got some intense puppy-love going on. Garfield pulls all of it off with an excellent performance. His may be better than Maguire’s in the same role. On the other hand, this new Peter is a tad too sure of himself. His social standing seems to be of little or no importance to him even though that’s an accepted part of the character’s origin and motivation.

This movie subs out one of Spidey’s squeezes, Mary Jane, for another, Gwen Stacy (Stone). I don’t have a problem with this, in principal. I get the filmmakers want to differentiate their movie from Raimi’s as much as possible. My issue is with the execution. Stone is a talented actress and does what she can, but the role is lazily written and ill-fitting the franchise. A good deal of this goes back to how Peter is presented. He doesn’t have the same angst we’re used to because a girl like Gwen is obviously fawning over him whenever he walks by. This robs their love story of any tension. There is no chasing his dream girl and she never disappoints him. The only potential roadblock is her dad, played by Denis Leary. However, his protests are of such little consequence, it neuters the climactic scene, zaps it of any emotional heft. It feels empty. This is one of the film’s major failings in comparison to the original. That movie anchors itself to a romance that feels agonizingly one-sided for much of its runtime. It is truly something for us to latch onto between action scenes.



Another big problem with TAS is the ease with which Peter gets used to his new powers. True, this fits in with a more confident protagonist, but there is almost no transition period for him to get comfortable with the idea of being more than human. He is instantly graceful in his new movements. There’s a brief scene full of gags about his newfound strength and things sticking to his hands. How he deals with this is never addressed, he just suddenly doesn’t have those problems. He invents both his web-shooter and the incredibly strong webbing in the space of about sixty seconds. He never has any miscues, even on his first foray into the criminal underworld. I hate to beat a dead spider, but things come too easy for this guy.

By the way, I’m torn by this movie’s use of the web shooter. On one hand, I applaud it because that’s the way it is in the comics. Unfortunately, they completely ignored it as an actual part of the storyline. In the comics, Spidey would often run out and have to reload his shooters, occasionally at inopportune times. He, and the reader, was constantly aware of how many cartridges he had on him. Here, like a cowboy in a western firing 15 shots from his revolver, we’re told a cartridge holds several hundred feet of webbing then watch him shoot thousands with no problem. Still, I like that they used the device at all. On the other hand, I always thought it was silly that Spider-Man was endowed with all of the abilities of a spider except the one we most associate with the creature. It’s like Stan Lee said ‘Sure, he can climb walls, leap several stories and lift cars, but shooting webs? That’s too much.’ This is why I thought the previous movie’s addition of organic webbing was perfect.

My final issue with the new web-slinger is actually almost identical to what plagued the original. When our hero is doing heroic things he’s way too obviously the product of a team of animators and computer whizzes. When he’s swinging from structure to structure and flipping around he seems weightless. We’re not always convinced there’s a man in the suit. Like I said, the first movie had the same problem. Raimi and his team handled it better in the following two installments, but let’s call this a wash.



For all my railing against TAS, believe it or not, there are things I think it does very well. One of those things is Peter’s anguish over his uncle. This is the emotional high point of the film. It’s aided by the scenes immediately before it, demonstrating his suddenly rebellious attitude and how directly he’s responsible for what happens. At the same time, due to other events in the movie, memories of his father have risen to the surface as raw as if the wound was still fresh.

Our hero’s behavior while in action is also a plus. In the comics, Spidey was always a smart alec during the action. He constantly cracked jokes annoying his adversary and amusing himself (and us). That quality is ably captured in TAS. It adds a sense of fun to the proceedings. The scene where a guy pulls a knife on him best showcases this. It’s something sorely missing from the first two Raimi films.

The biggest plus in TAS’s favor is its villain. While I like Willem Dafoe, overall, as an actor, I always thought his handling of The Green Goblin (and the writing of the character) to be ridiculously over the top, even for a comic book movie. Aside from that, he is purely motivated by greed. In the movie, Ifans, as The Lizard, is not only much more subdued, but a sympathetic character, too. Sure, he has plenty of selfishness but there are also some altruistic reasons for his actions. However twisted they may be, we understand that he truly believes he’s working for the greater good. In addition, the cgi lizard is better looking than the infinitely goofy mask Dafoe had to wear.



One last thing, this movie has the absolute best Stan Lee cameo of all the Marvel flicks. ‘Nuff said.

Okay, this went way too long. I couldn’t quite contain my passion for the character. Though I currently claim Batman as my fave superhero (do NOT tell me he’s not a superhero, not having that argument today), as a kid I actually read more Spider-Man comics than anything else. I’m dying for someone to make issues #229 and #230 from 1982 into a movie. In #230, Spidey is desperately trying to slow down Juggernaut’s march across New York City. It still ranks as one of my all-time fave books. Um…scratch that. I didn’t actually mean to say that out loud. I’m not that geeky (laughing nervously). Anyhoo, TAS is a decent time-passer but doesn’t connect on the same level as its predecessor. It also feels way too soon. While it’s not a bad comic book flick, it feels totally unnecessary.

MY SCORE: 6/10

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