Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: James Vanderbilt,
Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
Cinematography by: John Schwartzman
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Sally Field,
Martin Sheen, Rhys Ifans, Dennis Leary, Irrfan Khan
I was thirteen in 2002; just thought you all should know that.
The film presents the origin of Peter Parker into Spider-Man, and from the opening scene, it is clear that he will be far from the “friendly, neighborhood” type. After his parents leave him under mysterious circumstances, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is taken in by his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). We get a glimpse of his high school life, meet love interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), school bully turned best friend Flash Thompson (oddly, no Harry Osborne to speak of, and only passing references to his father), and Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Before long, the story sets into motion everything most of us already knew was coming: ties to OsCorp, a spider bite, and oh, did I mention a giant, genetically altered, mutant Lizard?
Adequate. I walked out thinking what I had just seen was strictly adequate. That’s not a knock against it by any means; in fact, it’s rather rare that I find a film so middle of the road. For a reimagining of a highly successful Marvel franchise, I found myself caring for all the wrong things and everything else that maybe should have made some lasting impression, I found to be dull, mere afterthoughts in the narrative.
It would seem that every film, at least those caged in the so-called “superhero” genre, takes its inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). The inspiration however, has become a running joke, because other than name dropping that particular title, that rebooted DC’s Caped Crusader for the masses, as a way of lending credibility to a more “dark and realistic tone,” no one ever finds it necessary to follow up on what made Begins good: it’s a true origin story. It’s not just the first half hour of an origin story, but a fully realized origin story, that’s happy to be and do just that: lay out the character’s beginnings, and nothing more. It’s reminiscent of another great origin story: M. Night’s Unbreakable (2000), one of the greatest comic book films (and origin stories) ever made.
By now, anyone reading this knows the tale: “with great power comes great responsibility” (never once uttered in this film), guilt for Uncle Ben’s death, and the complication of being Spider-Man, having enemies, and being in love. The Amazing Spider-Man was being touted as “the untold story,” yet it is precisely that “untold” story that I didn’t care about. Why? Because neither did the film. It didn’t care to tell you anything. It chose instead to remain untold until most likely the sequel in two years. Also, it’s called The Amazing Spider-Man, yet I couldn’t care less that Spider-Man was even in it. So while I didn’t care about how he got bitten, I enjoyed the discovery of powers scene in the subway.
The absolute biggest thing this film has going for it is the chemistry between Garfield and Stone. Gwen Stacy is finally realized from comic to film and its amazing and tragic (for those familiar with her comic arc) to watch. To bring Gwen into the narrative alone was probably all the persuasion one would need to accept this reboot. I found myself more engaged in the Gwen/Peter/Gwen’s father arc, than I was in whatever the Lizard/Connors was doing under the watchful (yet never seen) eye of Norman Osborne. The entire film could have been Spider-Man going vigilante to find Uncle Ben’s killer and crossing paths with Captain Stacy at every turn, sprinkling hints of Connors and Osborne, and the rest. Instead, Peter finds himself riddled with guilt at every turn: his parents left him, he thinks he’s the cause for Uncle Ben’s death, and on top of that, he helps create the Lizard. The only thing going right (and simultaneously wrong) is his relationship between Gwen (and her father), respectively, which to me, was far more engaging. So while each arc is presented to the best of its ability, each arc also suffers because it isn’t presented quite as fully as it should be.
It’s a shame really, because everything about this film, from the direction to the actors is uniformly excellent. Garfield brings a whole new level to Peter Parker that we’ve never seen before. He’s an absolutely natural actor, capable of displaying Peter’s angst, yet never failing to get cocky with his abilities. Stone is perfectly cast as Gwen, a character that hasn’t really been given a fair shake in this particular medium. Rounding out the solid cast is Sheen and Field, who do the best with what they’re given, and even Dennis Leary nails Captain Stacy. Director Marc Webb gets it. He gets a free pass from me, due to (500) Days of Summer (2009) alone, but he understands character dynamics, and the relationships between them. It’s somewhat telling if I’d rather watch Parker and Gwen on screen, or Parker and Captain Stacy, or Parker and Uncle Ben, than Spider-Man swinging around the city, preventing robberies, and fighting the Lizard on a bridge or in a high school.
You’ll notice I didn’t make much mention of the Lizard yet or Dr. Connors, played by Ifans, and that’s precisely because his character was probably the only thing that did nothing for me. He’s the film’s central villain, and I was more fascinated with Captain Stacy’s hunt for Spider-Man, Spider-Man’s hunt for his uncle’s killer, and even a Stan Lee cameo (that is probably worth the price of admission alone), to care. The Lizard isn’t just weak; he’s just, dare I say, unnecessary, because it’s not like we get any glimpse into his relationship with Peter’s father, his work for the OsCorp company in general, and within minutes of the end credits, we’re told that he was absolutely useless because after everything he did, he’s locked up in a cell and someone in the shadows is asking him if he told Peter the secret about his parents. Up until that point, even I had forgotten about the so-called secret of Peter’s parents. So sure, Connors is a flawed human being out to perfect society (and repair his missing arm), but he’s not really all that misunderstood. He becomes the Lizard and goes on a rampage to turn society into genetically altered mutants exactly like him. He’s not a redeeming villain, but then again, nor is he all that vicious. He’s just there, wreaks some havoc, and his story slightly ties in with Spider-Man.
The last scene in the film is probably the most grating to me, because it perfectly sums up what rubbed me the wrong way, about not just this film, but films like it. It’s a shot of Peter’s wall, with pictures of his parents, his uncle, and a police sketch of his uncle’s killer. Loose ends. His parents are never explained, his uncle dies without much fanfare (only a montage of Peter trying to find the killer and then just stopping once the Lizard arrives), and his uncle’s killer, who’s presumably still out there on the loose. Hell, there’s a moment in the film when the Lizard releases a toxin that turns SWAT officers into lizards themselves. But after doing so, we never see them again, until the end, when they’re turning back into humans again. There were a dozen SWAT Lizards running around and the film makes no mention of it. What was the point? Also, what the hell happens to Irrfan Khan’s Ratha? One moment, he’s on the bridge, about to be killed by the Lizard; the next he’s saved by Spider-Man, and then is never seen or heard from again. He was Norman’s right hand man, clearly his stand in during this film, and nothing is ever said. He’s just forgotten…until the sequel perhaps.
Loose ends. We’re a society now that’s absolutely comfortable with what I’ll call “set-up” films. Films used to stand on their own, even when they were part of a (usually unplanned) trilogy or franchise. But now, I have to go into the theater knowing that there will be two more parts following the film I’ve just watched, and that soon enough, all will be revealed. It just might take a decade.
I realize this review makes it sound like I absolutely despised this film, but I really didn’t. It was, as I said, just adequate. It was good enough that it’ll keep me interested in the franchise going forward, as all the actors involved do a phenomenal job at selling the story, but something just felt off. I’ve managed to go the entire review without once mentioning Raimi’s vision for the character, so I’m not about to end the review citing a “been there, done that” attitude, as I’d like to judge the film on its own merits. But that’s the one improvement I would make. I don’t want to compare the two, but look at how well developed Doc Ock was in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004). The Lizard needed more of that. Hell, even Captain Stacy needed more of that. The two characters were vying for the more dominant arc, and both of them were simply adequate, presenting just enough to get by.
For the most part, Webb, Garfield, and Stone delivered, but it’s a film that I probably won’t appreciate until I can watch it in succession with its successors.
Dear Sony, Columbia, and Marvel: Bring back J.K. Simmons. If Judi Dench’s M can cross over in the Bond universe, so can J. Jonah Jameson. Make it happen. That is all.