First, a message: To the folks who brought a baby to the screening I attended, and when that baby started crying incessantly, simply sat there and actually gave a belligerent and hostile response to the usher who eventually went over to them and politely suggested that they take the baby out of the theater until it calmed down—you are low-class, loathsome, vulgar, inconsiderate PIGS.
(Luckily for me, these low-lives were sitting way on the other side of the theater, so their little brat wasn’t TOO much of a distraction. But I felt awful for the people who were sitting near them.)
Okay, with that out of the way…
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
The Amazing Spider-Man is a flawed but effective film, certainly a big step in the right direction after the bloated, ill-conceived, and poorly executed mess that was 2007’s Spider-Man 3.
The new film is a bit moodier and darker than the previous three directed by Sam Raimi. It lacks some of the over-the-top wildness and the moments of unadulterated fun and joy that Raimi infused into his trilogy. That’s not a criticism, really, just an observation.
Amazing does share some of the same weaknesses as its immediate predecessor, however. First and foremost is the coincidental nature of how the main characters are connected to each other: We learn that Peter Parker’s scientist father was once partners with Dr. Curt Connors, who just happens to be the mentor of Peter Parker’s new girlfriend Gwen Stacy, who just happens to be the daughter of NYPD Captain George Stacy, who just happens to be leading the task force to capture Spider-Man. Admittedly, it’s not nearly as egregious as it was in Spider-Man 3, and, to be fair, even the original Spider-Man comics—as well as one of my all-time favorite films—are guilty of this kind of thing.
Also, there are too many instances of Spider-Man taking off or losing his mask, and I was alarmed by the number of characters who discover his identity, especially this early in his career.
There’s also the matter of Spider-Man’s powers. Just one example: In the first three films, director Sam Raimi was inconsistent in portraying how Spider-Man’s spider-sense worked, but at least there was never any question that Peter Parker had that super-power. That’s not the case in Amazing. In fact, I would argue that it’s implied that the spider-sense isn’t part of Spider-Man’s set of abilities in this cinematic reboot—how else could Dr. Connors, having transformed into the villainous Lizard, sneak up behind Spidey and get the drop on him in a dark sewer tunnel? (Maybe we’ll find out for sure whether he’s got the spider-sense in the just-announced sequel.)
And while I’m on the subject of Dr. Connors/the Lizard, my assessment is that he’s a very underdeveloped character, far more so than Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin from the original film, or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Part of the problem is that Connors, played by Rhys Ifans, seems so sinister and cold even before he becomes the Lizard that you really don’t feel anything for him.
You can tell pretty much from the moment you first see him that he’s bad news who’s going to turn out to be even BADDER news. You don’t get a sense of the tragedy of the character. As a result, his character arc is markedly thin—and thus its resolution is somewhat puzzling in the film’s closing minutes.
I also have to say that I’m not overly fond of the new Spider-Man costume. I very much preferred the one that Tobey Maguire wore in the previous three films, as it was very faithful to the comic-book version. I wish the designer on Amazing had stuck a little closer to that.
And then there’s the fact that this film is a flat-out reboot, a full retelling of Spider-Man’s origin. Simply put, it wasn’t necessary. This could have been just a new Spider-Man adventure, picking up more or less where the last one left off, except with new actors playing the established roles—much like has been done time and again with the James Bond movie series. There was no real reason to go back and tell the origin all over again.
Fortunately, however, this retelling differs enough from Raimi’s version that it doesn’t seem overly repetitive or completely redundant. For one thing, the mystery surrounding Peter’s parents—particularly his father—now figures into the origin, which was never the case before, not even in the comics.
And I must note, quite happily, that it doesn’t seem possible that the new creative team will reveal in a sequel that the crook who Peter lets get away in a moment of selfishness and irresponsibility ISN’T the same guy who subsequently shoots and kills Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben. (Raimi, what the hell were you thinking???)
Another deviation from the original film is the fact that, as in the comic-book series, Peter designs and builds mechanical web-shooters instead of having organic ones as a result of the spider bite. This is one of my favorite things about Amazing. For one thing, I’m a big supporter of sticking closely to the source material, so I never fully accepted the organic ones from the Raimi films. But even more importantly, having Peter create the devices shows him putting his science expertise to use. In the Raimi films, we were repeatedly told that Peter was a science whiz, but we never really got to see him demonstrate that in any major way. Good dramatic storytelling requires showing rather than just telling. And this film does a great job showing just how much of a science prodigy Peter is, from designing the web-shooters to helping Dr. Connors solve a highly complex mathematical equation that is the key to Connors’s work.
Another great thing about Amazing is that Spider-Man spouts wisecracks and mocks his opponents, as he’s always done in the comics—and as he almost never got to do in the Raimi films. I just wish there was even more of it here. Hopefully they’ll play up this aspect of his character in the sequels.
But without a doubt, it’s the romance between Peter and Gwen that The Amazing Spider-Man hinges upon, and it’s handled extremely well. This doesn’t really come as a surprise to me, as the film’s director, Marc Webb, also directed the terrific (500) Days of Summer—one of the best films about the ups and downs of young love that I’ve seen in a very, very long time. The chemistry between Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is palpable.
Speaking of Garfield, I accepted him as Peter from his very first moment on screen—and this is coming from someone who thoroughly loved Tobey Maguire in the role.
Emma Stone is simply ADORABLE. She’s great as Gwen, bringing a powerful combination of intelligence, compassion, wholesomeness, and sexiness.
As much as I liked Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson in the Raimi films—well, the first two, anyway—I think I actually prefer Stone’s Gwen. I most definitely prefer Stone over Bryce Dallas Howard, who played Gwen in Spider-Man 3. With a backstory that deviates a bit from the source material (here, her mother is very much alive and she has two younger brothers), Stone is not exactly the Gwen of the comics, but she’s darned well close enough. (Or should I say, close enough to the Gwen of the comics as she was portrayed up until recently. Unfortunately, a disturbing storyline published by Marvel a few years back revealed new information about Gwen that retroactively altered her character considerably. I was thoroughly appalled by it, and I’m very disappointed that in the years since, Marvel has not dismissed that story as a hoax or a bad dream. J. Michael Straczynski, what the hell were you thinking???)
The rest of the cast, by and large, is wonderful. Martin Sheen is every bit as effective and likable as Uncle Ben as Cliff Robertson was in the original, and he brings some new dimensions to the character. Where Robertson was more on the saintly side, Sheen is a bit more down to earth, displaying genuine anger and sore disappointment amidst great love and concern when Peter starts failing to live up to his responsibilities.
Sally Field’s Aunt May is a major departure from the character as portrayed by Rosemary Harris in the Raimi films. Harris’s portrayal was very faithful to the version in the original comic books. Taking a cue from Ultimate Spider-Man, a comic-book series launched by Marvel in 2000 that takes place in an “alternate universe” and that relaunched Spider-Man from the beginning for new readers, the rebooted Aunt May is significantly younger and far less frail. In fact, she’s downright feisty and energetic. One thing remains consistent, though: Her devotion to her nephew, whom she loves as if he were her own son. She’s not exactly the Aunt May I grew up reading, but Field does a fine job in the role.
Denis Leary is quite good as Captain Stacy, who was played by James Cromwell in Spider-Man 3. The father-daughter relationship as portrayed by Leary and Stone is very believable and even charming. And without a doubt, Leary has the funniest line in the whole film.
Getting back to the Lizard for a moment—I was pleasantly surprised that he was able to speak in the film. I went in expecting him to be a totally bestial creature, capable of nothing more than growling, snarling, and hissing. In that regard, the filmmakers once again chose to stick closely to the original source material, so no real complaints from me there.
Some closing random thoughts:
I was pleased to find that Norman Osborn was such a major presence in the film without ever showing up on screen. (Or did he?)
Keep your eyes peeled for a subtle-yet-obvious little moment that foreshadows Doctor Octopus.
There’s some major unfinished business at the end of the movie—including the mystery surrounding Peter Parker’s parents and an integral piece of Spider-Man’s origin. I’m curious to see where the filmmakers go with all of this, but I hope they don’t make the same dire mistakes that Raimi made when he got to Spider-Man 3 and decided to “expand upon” the events of the first film.
For that matter, stay through the end credits—there’s an extra scene that would seem to set up the next film.
The musical score by James Horner is surprisingly unmemorable. I mean, this guy is responsible for some of my all-time favorite movie soundtracks, but there’s not one bit of music from The Amazing Spider-Man that stayed with me once the film was over—except for the brief piece that Horner lifted from his score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After all these years, John Williams’s music for Superman: The Movie remains unchallenged as the ultimate super hero score.
I really missed J. Jonah Jameson in this movie, and I very much hope they work him in to the next one. It would be great if they brought back J.K. Simmons to play him—he was fantastic in the Raimi films. But most likely, the filmmakers won’t want to bring back anyone from the original cast. Therefore, I respectfully submit for consideration Ted Levine, the extremely versatile actor who has played characters as diverse as the serial killer “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs and the perpetually harried San Francisco Police Captain Leland Stottlemeyer in the comedy-mystery television series Monk. Just take my word for it, he’d be perfect.
So, to sum up: Overall, very entertaining. In some ways, an improvement over the Raimi films, in other ways, not. So yes, bring on the sequels—just please don’t f&*k them up.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.