Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Chicks dig Spandex: Andrew Garfield (under the mask) and Emma Stone in Sony’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise.

*INSERT SCREED ABOUT UNNECESSARY REBOOTS AND CRASS COMMERCIALISM HERE*

All right, now that we’ve settled down and just accepted the way that Hollywood works, let’s get down to brass tacks. Whether it should exist or not, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is here, but does it justify itself? A reboot can be a perfectly fine thing if it reveals something new about a character – that’s why we remember both Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” fondly.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” tries awfully hard to have that kind of relationship to the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” trilogy. New director Marc Webb (of “(500) Days of Summer”) has opted for a far more somber tone than Raimi’s camp-tinged romps – with a great budget comes great responsibility. We’ve traded Bruce Campbell for Irrfan Khan, jazz club dance moves for lonely skateboarding sessions. Many people have complained about the franchise heading back to high school to re-tell the origin story of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, but it occurs to me that on some level this setting of adolescent melodrama is appropriate for such a self-serious re-imagining.

There’s honestly not a whole lot to separate Andrew Garfield’s take on Peter Parker from Maguire’s – many of the “changes” to the character are superficial plot points, such as Peter inventing his own web-shooting device rather than supernaturally exuding cobwebs from his wrists (see, that makes him really smart and stuff). Garfield simply exudes geeky charm, though with a snarky edge; this is a more bitter Peter Parker, haunted by the mysterious decade-old disappearance and apparent death of his parents.

Ah, and there we run into the first problem in a film peppered with plot holes. For most of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the audience is operating under the assumption that Peter’s father, Richard, and mother simply abandoned him one night, and Peter sulks around and yells at his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) like someone dealing with that kind of particularly angsty trauma. But about halfway into the film a single insert shot of a newspaper suddenly establishes that the Parkers were killed in a plane crash. Not a single character ever mentions this, and Peter’s anger towards his father seems rather, well, dumb and petty, if the reason his parents abandoned him was DEATH. So what’s going on here?

Well, I noticed something else odd while in the theater: several lines and shots that I distinctly remembered from the trailers weren’t in the finished film. And I’m not talking about the usual inconsequential, throwaway lines here: I’m talking about portentous dialogue like “If you want the truth about your parents, Peter, come and get it,” delivered by Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), this installment’s animal-themed villain. Doing some investigating, I found this piece (warning, huge spoilers in that link), which makes an extremely convincing argument that “The Amazing Spider-Man” experienced a massive re-edit, possibly at some point in the last month.

I won’t go through all the evidence (that blogger has already done an exceptional job of that), but the point is, “The Amazing Spider-Man” continually hints at an alternative plot line that has been extremely poorly covered up by the studio editors. The result is a rather hazily defined mess where seemingly important characters simply drop out of the narrative, critical quests are abandoned at the drop of a hat and the audience is left with just the hope that the inevitable sequel will at least attempt to pick up some of the pieces.

More than a hasty franchise reboot, that is the thing that makes “The Amazing Spider-Man” ultimately a disappointing piece of rote studio product: the reliance on delayed gratification. All origin stories are in danger of being merely exposition, but the best still find room to resolve something. Webb’s film does quite a good job of explaining what turns the newly-superhumanly-endowed Peter Parker to crime-fighting (in fact that is one area where he improves on Raimi), but fails to follow through on this characterization. Instead, Dr. Connors, played by Ifans with the Welshman’s usual charismatic glimmer, transforms into a far-less-interesting and unmotivated rampaging lizard monster, and everything else gets shunted aside for Peter to deal with that little situation. Sure it makes for some great fight scenes, but there’s only so much that such visual delights can satisfy.

The charm of the film doesn’t even lie in those spectacular CGI battles, anyway (such fights become less and less spectacular with every passing superhero flick). The truly delightful special effects sequences are the brief first-person glimpses of Spidey’s web-slinging – the untethered ballistic motion of these moments creates a true sense of hurtling through a 3D world, much better than, you know, 3D.

But most of all what keeps “The Amazing Spider-Man” afloat is the sheer adorableness of its two leads, Garfield and Emma Stone. As Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker’s other great love interest, played by Bryce Dallas Howard in “Spider-Man 3”), Stone oozes what Andrew Garfield’s friend Mark Zuckerberg might call “likability.” She makes it obvious why Peter Parker would fall for her, which is a good thing considering the script gives her absolutely no help in that department. The reverse is of course true for Garfield, whose soulful puppy eyes hint at an ocean of deep melancholy under his Abercrombie hoodie. Denis Leary, as Gwen’s father Captain (if he had an actual first name, I’ve forgotten it already), proves that he was NOT, in fact, cast just for his striking resemblance to Willem Dafoe, but has some considerable comedic timing as well (though again, he is betrayed but a simplistic script that gives his character an inexplicable 180 turn).

“The Amazing Spider-Man” is the kind of summer action flick that will breeze by you with no problem in the theater. But if you stop to think, it collapses under the weight of the studio machine. Hollywood is a forward-thinking institution: it always has high hopes for the next movie, sometimes to the point that it forgets what it’s doing with the current one.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars

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