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Movie Curiosities: The Amazing Spider-Man

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Like most other people who saw it, I wasn't all that impressed with Spider-Man 3. Though it did have a few good qualities (that scene when Sandman first assembles himself was extraordinary, for example), I thought it obvious that Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, and J.K. Simmons had all outgrown their respective roles. I must also fault Sam Raimi for his foolhardy attempt to retcon Uncle Ben's backstory, and the dance sequences were evidence enough that Raimi's over-the-top directing charm had grown stale. Then again, the dance sequences can also be blamed on the involvement of Venom. Raimi stated on multiple occasions that he did not have the knowledge or inclination to bring a symbiote to the screen, and the film turned out to be proof. Then again, Venom himself was yet another symptom of yet another larger cause: Studio interference.

I've long since made my peace with the fact that Sony and Fox continue to churn out Marvel pictures in large part to spite Marvel. Sometimes this works out surprisingly well (X-Men: First Class), and sometimes it backfires terribly (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance). Either way, the rights to the characters are kept away that much longer, so Marvel can't make the studios look bad by collecting money they could've made. Then again, now that Marvel has the third-highest domestic grossing movie of all time, the studios now appear quite interested to get in on that action.

Anyway, I completely expected The Amazing Spider-Man to be a disappointment. It smelled of a film that Sony made for no other reason than to keep the rights going in perpetuity. Yes, the trailers looked great, and yes, the cast looked awesome. But answer me this: If Sony really expected this film to make huge amounts of money, why the hell did they choose to release it only two weeks before The Dark Knight Rises?!

More than that, does anyone else remember the summer of 2008, when The Incredible Hulk was released between Iron Man and The Dark Knight? Two of those movies were phenomenal hits with sequels and far-reaching effects on pop culture at large, while the other one was quickly forgotten and doomed to be a one-off (for the time being). Oh, and let's not forget that the latter film was a weird reboot/sequel hybrid to a film that misfired only a few years prior. Flash forward to 2012, when The Amazing Spider-Man is released between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. See a pattern here?

Anyway, all of this is pure conjecture, and the time for conjecture is over. The Amazing Spider-Man is in theaters, and all that's left is to judge the movie on its own merits. And on its own merits, the film is better than I expected.

To start with, the reboot is yet another telling of the Spider-Man origin story, but with a few interesting new twists along the way. Quite often, the film succeeds at capturing the source material's more iconic moments while presenting them in some new and fresh context. Peter's late-night "visit" to an abandoned boxing ring is a fine example, ditto for the scene in which Spider-Man "saves" Gwen Stacy at school. Yet my favorite example has to be Uncle Ben's death. This movie tells a very streamlined reinterpretation, hitting all the essential beats and nothing but. The result is a very novel portrayal of the event, one that's over quickly but nonetheless carries emotional repercussions that last through the rest of the narrative, especially where Peter is concerned.

On the other hand, the filmmakers decided to give Spider-Man mechanical web-shooters instead of biological ones. This is fine in theory, since it goes back to the source comic while also giving this movie a huge difference from Raimi's trilogy. In practice, however, it makes no goddamn sense. We're explicitly shown that the synthetic webbing is being produced by genetically engineered spiders, and it's one of these spiders that bites Peter. Given this context, why the hell wouldn't Peter be able to make the stuff himself? Furthermore, this means that Peter has to order his web cartridges directly from the manufacturer. It's hard to believe that this stuff would be available for commercial purchase, and harder still to believe that one teenager could order whole crates of it without anyone raising a red flag.

Moreover, the knowledge that this webbing could be so easily obtained by anyone in the world makes it a lot less special. If Peter could order whole crates of webbing and make a shooter out of scraps, what's to stop some other industrious guy from doing the same? God forbid, someone else could figure it out, post a how-to video on YouTube, and we've suddenly got a whole nation of webslingers!

What's even more unfortunate is that this movie didn't set itself apart from Raimi's films in the way that mattered most: Spider-Man still takes his mask off all the friggin' time. This film is loaded with instances in which Peter is doing something strange in full public view. This is even more stupid with the realization that Spider-Man is a wanted man in this movie, and the whole city is supposedly out looking for him. Yet Peter is web-slinging with his face clearly visible to the audience, but only selectively visible to everyone else. This isn't just New Yorker apathy, this is full-blown Sunnydale Syndrome.

Speaking of New York's reaction to Spider-Man, let's talk about Cpt. George Stacy (Denis Leary). He's there to represent the notion that Spider-Man is a criminal and should be treated as such. Yes, that's basically what J. Jonah Jameson was there for in the previous films and in the comics. In fact, I understand that the George Stacy of the comics couldn't have felt more differently about Spider-Man. This heel-turn, plus Stacy's position as a cop, smells of the filmmakers trying to emulate the "hero/vigilante" dilemma of the Nolan Batman films. Alas, given the film's black/white presentation of the conflict and its lack of anything new to say about the matter, the dilemma doesn't work here.

That said, this film's plot is structured in such a way that Jameson could only have been crowbarred in via a completely unnecessary story thread. George Stacy, on the other hand, could be introduced much more naturally by way of the existing Peter/Gwen arc. Also, it must be said that Leary plays his part surprisingly well, and he even gets an occasional funny line. Bonus points are also due for not making the character a complete idiot. When Peter comes to him with what's admittedly a ridiculous-sounding lead, Stacy at least has the courtesy and the good sense to follow up on it. Moreover, even if he does tend to be way more focused on the wannabe hero than the giant reptile, Stacy does have the guts to back Spidey up when it counts. This makes it all the more disappointing that his character arc ends in a way that's rushed, unnecessary, and plain stupid.

Moving on, Martin Sheen puts in a surprising amount of screen time as Uncle Ben, and he does a fine job with the role. Even if his morality speeches come off as a little forced, Sheen still imbues the character with a huge amount of heart. As Peter's main father figure and the emotional core of why Peter becomes Spider-Man, the character absolutely works. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Sally Field as Aunt May. There's not a doubt in my mind that she could've played the character elegantly, if only the screenwriters had any idea of what to do with her. It's like the filmmakers tried to deliver an Aunt May who could be a sweet little old lady while also being a strong independent woman, but the two approaches aren't brought together in any way that meshes. As a mentor to Peter and as a character in herself, I just couldn't get a grasp on Aunt May. And I don't think Sally Field could, either.

Most regrettably, I must include Rhys Ifans in that same boat. Ifans is a solid actor, and I'm sure he could have delivered a fine Jekyll/Hyde performance, but Dr. Curt Connors was terribly handled from start to finish. Seriously, we first hear about the character by way of an internet search, in which we learn about his goal for "a world without weakness." He hasn't been turned into the Lizard yet -- hell, we haven't even met the character yet! -- and he already sounds like a two-bit mad scientist.

For an example of this character done right, we need only look to Alfred Molina's performance as Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2. With just a few minutes of screen time, Molina established Octavius as a role model for Peter better than Ifans ever did with Connors. Additionally, Octavius was given a loving wife who died in the lab accident, which provided him with a level of pathos and regret. By comparison, Connors gets absolutely nothing. So far as we know, the guy doesn't have a life outside his research. Most importantly, Octavius was a man with great and noble ambitions. Even when he started working together with the immoral AIs of his tentacles, there was always a well-intentioned man to struggle against them when the time came. Meanwhile, Connors starts out as a scientist who wants to rid humanity of all weakness, and he ends by actively embracing his inner beast.

No, Ifans' portrayal of Connors is actually closer to Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin. There's another character who started out with bold ambitions, only to take increasingly gleeful pleasure in his villainous persona. The problem is that Dafoe can play a very unique kind of crazy. Nobody can chew scenery quite like Dafoe can. Ifans certainly tries when Connors starts making grandiose speeches, but it's not nearly as entertaining.

This brings me to Oscorp, which is practically a character in itself in this movie. Anytime the plot needs a scientific gadget or chemical, Oscorp will provide it without fail. This is obviously a huge sign of things to come in future movies, particularly since Norman Osbourne is a prominent offscreen presence through the whole film. All of that would be perfectly fine... except for Dr. Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), Dr. Connors' boss. This character never existed in the comics, which means that the filmmakers could have crafted him in any way they wanted. So they made him into a corporate suit devoid of any nuance, played by an Indian actor with a thick accent. Cartoonishly evil and possibly racist to boot. Oh, joy.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but the best villain in the movie is easily Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka). Yes, the character starts out as your basic two-dimensional bully (in a terribly-staffed high school, I might add). But later on, Peter gets him back in a scene that very nicely develops our protagonist as a character. And every time we see Flash after that, we start to see that he's maturing into less and less of a douchebag. It's really quite interesting to see this character arc play out, especially opposite Peter's development. It's a little thing, but presented in a novel way.

Next up, we've got to talk about Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. I'd honestly thought that Stone had moved past playing high-schoolers, but I'm glad she went back to that well one more time. Not only is her chemistry with Andrew Garfield absolutely perfect (turns out the two of them are now dating off-camera), but Stone portrays Gwen as a surprisingly strong character who isn't defined solely by her relationship with Peter. She's a very smart character with a budding career of her own, and her actions help drive the plot forward in some essential ways. Best of all, there's only one brief moment when she needs to be rescued, and that's only because she had the backbone and the initiative to get involved in the first place.

My only major problem with the Peter/Gwen arc is that it feels like we came in at the middle of it. Their first scene together was structured in such a way that I couldn't tell if it was a "meet cute" or not. Did they already know each other? Were there any feelings between them before now? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure.

Finally, we come to the wall-crawler himself. Like with Stone, I wasn't eager to see Andrew Garfield play a high-schooler after playing college-age characters. But damned if he didn't pull it off. Garfield exceeded my wildest expectations with this role, effectively playing a very brainy guy with a ton of emotional issues to sort out. And that's before he puts on the tights. As Spider-Man, Garfield is obviously having a blast, and it's a great thing to watch. Perhaps most importantly, Garfield completely succeeds at making the character his own. A lot of things were done differently with this portrayal of Spidey, and Garfield sells every one of them.

To start with, there was the strange decision to make Peter a skateboarder. That doesn't jibe terribly well with Peter's traditionally geeky persona, but it provides a convenient excuse for why he comes home battered and bruised every night. So I guess it evens out to something that I can let slide. Additionally, Peter's other hobby as a photographer is on full display, though I found it very strange that he worked with a film camera. Hell if I know why.

Of course, probably the biggest difference between this film and the previous three is in the inclusion of Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz, respectively). Very little is known about them, except that they were Oscorp scientists working on top secret experiments that someone wanted information on. They disappeared to places unknown and never returned. So naturally, Peter has grown up with a metric ton of daddy issues (again, shades of Batman Begins. And the Iron Man film franchise as well, come to think of it). There's even a sweet little scene in which Peter takes out his contact lenses to swap them for his father's old glasses. It's a touch improbable that they should have the exact same prescription, but we'll roll with it.

Anyway, Peter stumbles onto his dad's old files, which provides the equation necessary to complete Dr. Connors' experiments. This is the one part of the Lizard's portrayal that I honestly enjoyed in the film, since it means that Peter played a direct role in the Lizard's creation. Hence, the responsibility theme. That said, I can only hope there aren't too many more trips to this particular well. The post-credits tease hinted that the Drs. Parker will have some role to play in the franchise going forward, and I sincerely hope they don't provide some scientific breakthrough for every single film. The whole backstory will be retconned into knots before anyone knows it.

But let's get back to Peter. When he first gets his powers, they start manifesting in some particularly destructive ways. It's all very slapstick, and Garfield does a good job of playing it for laughs. But then Peter gets a handle on his super-strength, and the guy becomes kind of a dick. He's a smartass who delights in taunting his opponents before humiliating them. This is a trend that only grows more pronounced when Uncle Ben dies. From that point on, Peter starts chasing down any criminals who match the description of Uncle Ben's killer. He's out for revenge, and any justice that comes as a result is purely incidental.

All the while, Peter is developing his costume, adding onto it piece by piece. We actually get to see Peter assemble his mask, order the spandex, print the logo, and so on. The end result is a costume that looks like it might conceivably have been hand-made by a teenager with a genius IQ and a minimal budget. Within suspension of disbelief, obviously.

So Peter starts acting like a total hothead until his first real showdown with the Lizard. And then something happens that really humbles Spidey. In that scene, he learns what it really means to have his powers, and what good he's really capable of. He truly becomes a hero in that moment, and the character only gets better from there.

When Spider-Man really gets on a roll, his abilities are presented in some very creative ways. Perhaps my favorite such moment comes when Spidey weaves a very large web, using its strands to track movement as a real spider would. As for the scenes when Spidey is swinging around New York, I'm thrilled to say that they're every bit as satisfying as the scenes in Raimi's films. The animators and camera operators did a fantastic job moving Spidey through the air at breakneck speeds and bringing us along for the ride. The movie also utilizes POV shots, just few enough and brief enough to enhance the scenes without becoming annoying. It's a gimmick, sure, but it's a gimmick that helps sell the illusion of making us feel like we're actually in the moment.

Of course, the grandest scene of web-swinging comes at the climax. Without spoiling anything, the climax alone is reason enough to see this film in 3D IMAX. The visuals are all quite solid (the Lizard was a little iffy, though the design was about as good as could be expected), but that climax was breathtaking.

On the other hand, while IMAX visuals do wonders for this movie, IMAX sound does not. The score for this film is far below James Horner's usual standard, unnecessarily loud and bombastic without anything resembling subtlety. The music tended to drown everything else out at times, and the booming IMAX sound system made it even more painful.

To sum up, I'd say that The Amazing Spider-Man is a good start. Aside from the mechanical web-shooters, there's little wrong with this film that can't be fixed in future sequels. Sure, the villains were terribly executed, but we'll be getting new ones for the next movie anyway. The important thing is that the series has a very capable new director, two outstanding leads in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and a solid new interpretation of the Spider-Man origin. The new continuity has been very effectively set up, which means that the hardest part is over. Time to start playing in that sandbox.

I want so badly to recommend this film in 3D IMAX, but my awful experience with the soundtrack forbids. Better to see this on a standard 3D screen, I think.

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