I’ll admit, I was not at all enthusiastic when I heard that Columbia Pictures was planning to reboot the Spider-Man film franchise, especially a mere five years after Sam Raimi’s trilogy wrapped. Those were solid films overall, aside from Green Goblin’s Power Rangers outfit, a shaky-at-best third installment, and other issues that I’ll touch on later. Regardless of any issues I might have had, however, I insisted it was too early for a reboot. I was convinced Sony was going to ride Spider-Man into the ground just to keep the rights from reverting back to Marvel/Disney, who have done the unthinkable by producing six good comic book films in a row. Sometimes though, as unthinkable as it may seem, I am wrong. I’m not ashamed to admit that this was one of those times.
With the relatively inexperienced Mark Webb at the helm, and a Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) who was a relative unknown outside a handful of indie films, The Amazing Spider-Man looked like it was going to be an extremely expensive disaster. All the early promo images did their best to make Garfield look like a refugee from a Twilight convention, even now I’m baffled when I look back on those photos. The thought of treading through the familiar origin story again after so little time seemed uniquely unpleasant. And would moviegoers even understand what they were watching with the reboot happening so soon? After all, I overheard people at a showing of The Dark Knight who were confused as to how the Joker could be in it since he died at the end of a completely unrelated movie that came out in 1989. Would the world be able to wrap its head around Uncle Ben being alive and Peter Parker getting bitten again? The whole thing just seemed risky. However, all my fears were thankfully for nothing. Nothing against Sam Raimi’s trilogy, but in 10 or 20 years’ time, this reboot will be the cinematic Spider-Man franchise that we will all refer to.
The previous trilogy was uniquely Sam Raimi, he’s just one of those directors that leaves a distinct imprint. Nobody else could have kept his particular vision going, so The Amazing Spider-Man wisely starts completely from scratch, feeling much like a mix of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era comics in the 60’s and the first few years of the Ultimate Spider-Man series. The high school dynamic is embraced wholeheartedly, and as a result Peter Parker’s various troubles come across as much more relatable. Peter is still a teenager very much in need of parents (his own having disappeared mysteriously in his youth), so when the eternally doomed Ben Parker (Martin Sheen) dies this time around, the impact is that much stronger. There is also a welcome change in love interests: after suffering through Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane Watson as a miserable and bitter sea hag, we are treated to Emma Stone’s immediately charming take on Parker’s original high school sweetheart, Gwen Stacy. Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have some amazing on-camera chemistry going on: I’m someone who will rail against comic book movie love interests for as much time as you’ve got, and yet this was among my favorite things in the film. I would watch a “Peter and Gwen” movie where we never even see the Spider-Man costume, and probably be pretty okay with that.
One would be hard-pressed to find anybody in the industrialized world at this point that would go see a Spider-Man film and NOT know how he gets his powers, but The Amazing Spider-Man does retread the origin story anyway. I guess you can’t start a Spider-Man franchise off without a spider bite and a newly dead uncle. This retelling of the familiar origin does take up a large part of the movie, but they do a good job keeping it just different enough from the last time that it never gets boring. Comic book purists will be happy to see a scene dedicated to Peter Parker building his own web shooters, rather than the organic take in the Raimi version. The new origin also serves to introduce the film’s villain, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Connors was an old colleague of Parker’s father, and is currently working for Oscorp, New York’s number one employer of mad scientists. He’s working on a serum based on reptile DNA, in an effort to regrow a lost arm. Spoiler alert, he also turns into a giant reptile in the process. The Lizard was an appropriate villain choice for the movie, being one of comic book Spidey’s first major battles (all the way back in issue #6, in 1963!), and Rhys Ifans does a great job of bringing him to life. His Curt Connors is crazy but not TOO crazy, it’s genuinely sad to see him gradually lose his grip on his humanity. The CGI is also great: Ifans himself did the motion capture work so it always looks like him moving around, and The Lizard’s face is incredibly expressive without ever being cartoony. All in all I don’t think he fills the bad guy role quite as well as Alfred Molina did as Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, but the downside of telling a good origin story is that you rarely have time for an especially complex villain.
The action in The Amazing Spider-Man is extremely well done, and while it shares the quick-cut nature of most modern action movies, the fights are very well edited and never hard to follow. One that takes place in a school hallway is particularly well cut together, and feels like it’s pulled straight from a comic. However, unlike many summer blockbusters, the action isn’t where this movie really shines. This is a story filled with multi-note characters. Peter Parker is intelligent and awkwardly charming, but still kind of a jerk around the edges, as teenagers are often inclined to be. Gwen Stacy is the pretty girl, but still vies with Peter for top grades in their class. Even Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) is immensely relatable throughout the whole movie, even as he’s leading the NYPD in a campaign against Spider-Man. I hate when reviewers use phrases like “overflowing with indie charm”, and therefore I will only use it in one sentence, where I proclaim that The Amazing Spider-Man is overflowing with indie charm. It’s a great blend of superhero action and cute high school romance that pulls off both aspects equally well: something I wouldn’t have previously thought possible, and certainly not from a 200 million dollar summer tentpole.