image courtesy of Sony Entertainment

Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

“The Amazing Spider-Man” far too often relies on plot contrivances and hits story beats that are simply too similar to the earlier film series. And guess what? They were done better, and in a more coherent fashion, the first time around.

About midway through viewing The Amazing Spider-Man, I had the honest-to-God wish that I was watching the film while sitting alongside the producers and the screenwriters. I wished this because I wanted to turn to them and say, “Wait, if this is a reboot of the series, then why did you start by making the exact SAME movie as the first Spider-Man?”

Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one.

The Amazing Spider-Man is the restart of the VERY lucrative superhero franchise based on, arguably, Marvel’s most well-known character. It was a franchise that set box office records with its last two outings, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 and 2007’s Spider-Man 3. We now have a new cast, a new director, and a new concept of Peter Parker that Sony/Columbia execs hope will resonate with today’s audiences: Peter as an angsty, gangly skater boy. It’s a clear departure from Tobey Maguire’s timid, nerdy iteration of the character.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that’s new about this poorly-edited rehash of the original Spider-Man film that came out in 2002. I use the word “rehash” deliberately, because in FAR too many instances this movie relies on plot contrivances and hits story beats that are simply too similar to the earlier film. And guess what? They were done better, and in a more coherent fashion, the first time around.

The origin of Peter’s powers, his superhero identity, and his sense of responsibility are more or less identical–the details are different, but the result is the same. That’s not actually the problem, because you really can’t mess with that. If any superhero origin story is more or less sacrosanct, it’s Spider-Man’s. Making any real changes would be like saying that Superman was actually born on Earth, or Batman had a happy childhood–you just can’t do it. Rather, the problem lies in the story that unfolds after Spidey starts climbing the sides of New York City brownstones and swinging between skyscrapers.

As with all superhero films good and not-so-good, the story really starts with the villain. This time it’s Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a geneticist with a past connection to Peter’s long-dead (?) scientist father, whose research involves cross-species genetics and the study of lizards and their regenerative abilities. Connors hopes to grant humans the ability to regenerate living cells, organs, or even whole limbs the way lizards can, but when his funding gets cut and his project shut down, the good doctor gets desperate, and bad things happen. Meanwhile, Peter draws the interest of Dr. Connors’ brilliant intern, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), with whom he goes to school, and also that of Gwen’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) He wants to put a stop to Spider-Man’s vigilante activities. It all leads, of course, to a thrilling high-stakes battle high above New York City, and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop a good man driven insane by his own creation and his good intentions, and to save a city that doesn’t yet know what to make of him and cops that have been trying to hunt him down.

Sound familiar at all? If it doesn’t here in this review, it will when you see the movie. That feeling of deja-vu won’t just be you–you really HAVE seen this story before … in the previous series of films.

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It’s not all terrible. The visual effects work is as strong as anything we’ve seen this summer, Marvel’s The Avengers included, and director Marc Webb makes the most of 3D technology to make everything really pop off the screen. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), the new Spider-Man, more than capably takes over the role left behind by Tobey Maguire. This Peter is haunted in a way Maguire’s never was for reasons that are explained in the film’s opening, and Garfield deftly brings to life that sadness in Peter’s every look and expression without making him overly “emo.”

Emma Stone makes the most of her scenes as the bland Gwen Stacy; it must be said, however, that the love story between Peter and Gwen is probably the best example of the film’s poor editing. Their connection develops in just a handful of scenes, so quickly in fact that you can question the sense of why it’s happening at all. You get the sense that much more of Peter and Gwen was shot that didn’t make it into the final cut, and that’s a shame because it reduces Stone’s role to that of a supporting player rather than a leading lady. Kristin Dunst received much criticism over the course of three Spider-Man films for her portrayal of Spidey’s love in those movies, Mary Jane Watson, but at least those films gave audiences the opportunity to see her and Maguire on-screen together enough to understand the development of their relationship, and let Dunst earn her second billing.

In this era of endless reboots and “re-visioning” of characters and films, The Amazing Spider-Man will present an interesting challenge for viewers. After all, it’s only been five years since Spider-Man 3 set box office records as the most successful of the Sam Raimi-directed Spidey films. It’s just really soon to ask audiences to forget all that they’ve seen this past decade as far as Spider-Man films and look at this film with fresh eyes. Plus, we’ve seen reboots of other seminal franchises — Batman, 007, Star Trek — accomplished with far more originality in terms of vision and visuals that what we’re getting here. Those successful reboots never once gave us the feeling that we were seeing “more of the same”, whereas here the feeling is ever-present unless you have a REALLY short memory or are completely unfamiliar with this story.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for yourself prior to seeing The Amazing Spider-Man is avoid the previous Spider-Man films at all costs and block out any memories of them you might have as best you can. Maybe then you can enjoy what plays out on screen in front of you without making comparisons or questioning the storytelling too much.

And beware, beware of the fanboys and girls, because no doubt they will tear this one apart.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen and Sally Field. Directed by Marc Webb.
Running Time: 136 minutes
Rated PG-13 For sequences of action and violence.

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