Garfield's Big Adventure
I suppose it says something about this year's blockbusters, not to mention the quantity of associated hype, when a new Spider-Man movie has been on the schedule for ages but – until recently – has received relatively little attention. There's a sense in which it's been squeezed out by the massive buzz surrounding both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (expectations for which are reaching ominously Prometheus-esque levels). This is a shame because Marc Webb's film has much to commend it.
The life of brainy teenager Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has been shaped by the death of his parents in mysterious circumstances when he was but a lad. Awkward and lonely, the chance discovery of some of his scientist father's old papers changes his life, for they contain a (hmmm) secret formula which is the secret to trans-species genetic modification. His father's old friend and unidextrous authority on genetic engineering and reptiles – must have been an interesting degree course – Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is still working on this and while visiting Connors' lab Peter is bitten by a genetically-modified spider.
Weird things start happening to Peter. He becomes much stronger and more agile, starts sticking to walls, and finds himself completely unable to climb out of the bathtub unassisted (Don't Write In Dept.: I know I used that gag writing about the first movie – if they start making original films, I'll start writing original jokes). In an attempt to discover the reason for this, Peter passes the secret formula on to Connors, who – being a scientist in a Marvel movie – sees nothing untoward in using it to inject himself with lizard DNA in the hope his arm will grow back. Unfortunate events ensue.
If we were living in a parallel world where this was the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie ever made, I imagine The Amazing Spider-Man would have received very positive reviews, for it is undeniably an accomplished piece of blockbuster movie-making. But I also suspect some critics well-versed in the lore of the comic would be nonplussed by the decision to use the Lizard as the main villain, not to mention the omission of key characters such as Mary-Jane Watson and J Jonah Jameson, and finally the decision to generally fiddle about with the Spider-Man origin story.
But, of course, this is not the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie (The Amazing Spider-Man was once set to be the title of what eventually appeared as Spider-Man 2). Sam Raimi made that, recently enough for it be reviewed in this here column. There are spiders and lizards and critters of all kinds in this film, but there's also an elephant in the room, and that elephant is Raimi's Spider-Man – as close to a perfect retelling of the classic Spider-Man origin as we're likely to see. This film is effectively Spidey Begins – an attempt at a from-scratch reboot, but one unable to use one of the classic villains. (I believe the Lizard was one of the villains set to appear in Raimi's abandoned Spider-Man 4.)
Webb's movie has a much harder job to do than Batman Begins, in that the Raimi movies were not that long ago and were, on the whole, considerably better than the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies. Setting out to do something tonally and narratively different, which was clearly part of the brief here, therefore involves intentionally moving away from something which was generally very good in the first place.
If we're going to compare Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man, and I don't see why we shouldn't, it's fascinating to see how two films which visually look very similar can actually feel totally different as viewing experiences. The most obvious thing about Amazing Spider-Man is that it plays the story a lot straighter than Raimi did, with much less comedy and weirdness. Which you prefer is really a matter of taste, but personally I think Raimi's approach was slightly more to my liking.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy in Amazing Spider-Man. The performances, from a strong cast including Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary and Sally Field, are uniformly very good. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker as less outwardly nerdy and more gauche and awkward than Tobey Maguire, but pulls this off very well and is – perhaps – better than Maguire at doing Spider-Man's wise-cracking-through-the-fights schtick. The effects work and action choreography are also top notch.
I wasn't so wild about the mystery-of-Spidey's-parents plotline, an element which the now-obligatory mid-closing-credits tag scene promises will continue in any future sequels. It's also a real shame that the only thing that Emma Stone is given to contribute to the film is a selection of short skirts and boots (and, given she's playing Gwen Stacy, one wonders if she's signed up for the same number of sequels as the other main actors). The romance in this film feels mawkish and syrupy rather than charming and it feels as if the whole thing grinds to a halt every time it goes into this mode – I felt like throwing things at the screen every time the 'romance' theme started playing. (James Horner's score suffers from the lack of a strong theme for Spider-Man himself.) And a small quibble – Spider-Man's habit of taking his mask off in public at regular intervals also makes the idea of his identity staying secret rather implausible!
It's surely arguable that we really didn't need another film telling the origins of Spider-Man only ten years after the last one – although I suppose a lot of the kids enjoying the screening I attended weren't even born back in 2002 – but given that we have to have one, The Amazing Spider-Man does about as good a job as one could imagine, and, in all honesty, a much better one than I was expecting. Hopefully with the sequel Webb and associates can do something with much more of its own identity to it; I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with.