It has been a long, long decade since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man debuted in 2002. The comic book film universe has been on a roller coaster of highs and lows, producing everything from drivel like Ang Lee’s Hulk and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand to blockbuster hits like Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and even genre-deconstructing films like Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. But throughout all of that, superheroes have certainly broken into the mainstream, and are no longer just reserved the nerd whose mint-condition Superman #1 sits quietly in their living room behind glass. And now, with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers having made more money than nearly any film before it, all eyes in Hollywood are on the cash cow that is the comic book world.
Needless to say, everyone at Marvel probably gets up each morning and kick themselves repeatedly every day for selling the film adaptation rights to their most popular superhero to Sony. And since Sony’s not about to let the rights revert back to their rival studio, The Amazing Spider-Man was born. Directed by Marc Webb (an appropriately-named director if their ever was one), who previously helmed the charming (500) Days of Summer, Sony looked to give a new spin to the formula by fundamentally changing Sam Raimi’s vision.
His approach, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, was the best thing to happen to the character of Spider-Man in a long time. I have never been a big fan of Sam Raimi’s franchise, with the possible exception of Spider-Man 2, for many reasons that I will largely refrain from dumping into this review. What I can say is that Marc Webb seems to be a better fit than Sam Raimi to handle “the bug,” and it shows at nearly every turn.
There is, if I can make a cross-medium reference, but one on-screen version of the webslinger that I hold as the gold standard for the masked hero: the animated television series Spectacular Spider-Man. If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to sit down and watch the first two to three episodes. It is one of the best animated shows to hit television, and it is quite possibly the best introduction one could ask for to the world of Peter Park and Spider-Man.
Notice that I said Peter Park and Spider-Man. One of the most important things that Spectacular did that so few incarnations had done before was that it made Peter Parker, the nerdy high school kid, just as interesting (if not more so) than his superhero alter ego. Even with everything he did to stop villains and fight crime, he always had to balance it with being home before curfew, his romantic relationships, and schoolwork.
So when I heard that someone who knows how to direct young drama and love so well was taking up the baton to direct the next Spider-Man movie, I was very hopeful that this basic tenet of making the boy as interesting as the spider would be upheld. This was something blatantly lacking in Sam Raimi’s trilogy, a fault harped on my many critics. But on this front, I can assure you that Marc Web has delivered.
Andrew Garfield is Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire ever was. He is an absolute revelation as an awkward, nerdy, skateboarding high school student, creating a new narrative spin that perfectly embodies what made the character so endearing in the first place. In combination with the ever-watchable, always funny Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, every scene (red and blue suit or no) is fascinating, charming, and often-times hilarious to watch. It says something that we don’t really get a look at Parker as Spider-Man until what feels like halfway through the film, and that that fact has no discernible impact on the audience’s enjoyment.
However, if Marc Webb has one major fault when it comes to directing a summer blockbuster like this, it is that he has never dealt with big set-piece action. Shot in a very similar vein to (500) Days of Summer, the aesthetic of his camerawork oftentimes feels like it would more closely fit a romcom than a superhero movie. While this doesn’t always hurt his more hectic scenes, it can make the gravity of Spider-Man’s fights seem less than epic. Nevertheless, some very inventive choreography manages to save it from being a true loss, and Spider-Man’s humorous, tricky tactics and wisecracking quips really help sell the point that this is just a smart, superpowered teenager engaging these larger-than-life villains.
Rhys Ifans gives an admirable effort as Curt Connors, the man who would become The Lizard. This is interestingly also the first story arc of Spectacular Spider-Man (really, you should see that show), but I digress. As an introduction to the world of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, he is a solid stepping stone toward a bright future of Spider-Man’s traditional rogues gallery. Compare this much more nuanced, interconnected approach to Parker’s first adversary to Spider-Man, where we have little to no connection to Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, and it quickly becomes apparent that the studio is approaching this series with the long haul in mind.
The Amazing Spider-Man should also be given some serious credit for eliciting an emotional reaction from the audience. The movie does not shy away from tragic moments and character deaths, and the result is something more profound than even my beloved Iron Man. Unfortunately, this is also where Marc Webb does run into another sometimes troubling issue with his direction. For some reason, despite its more than ample 2-hour runtime, The Amazing Spider-Man constantly feels like it’s on fast-forward during the biggest and most important emotional scenes. The audience is never given time to sit back and reflect on weighty events like Peter’s spider-bite, making it feel like Webb is rushing through them to get back to where he feels comfortable.
I really enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man. From the “amazing” epithet headlining the title to the celebration of the lovable nature of both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, this movie honors its comic book origins without totally restricting itself to those confines, and is exactly what fans of the character deserve. Little touches like a the inclusion of Flash Thompson, the choice to use the Gwen Stacy character and not Mary Jane (not yet, anyway), and the little visual jokes and spider-themed motifs sprinkled throughout the film, Marc Webb has crafted what feels like a real look at the potential the character has on the silver screen. Despite its occasional pitfalls, I am eagerly anticipating what promises to be a spectacular sequel to what is a pretty amazing movie.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Franchise – I mentioned that a believable, interesting villain was something that appreciated about this movie, something that Sam Raimi missed in his first crack at the franchise. In fairness, though, I should point out that this was something that Sam Raimi did actually achieve in Spider-Man 2 with Dr. Octopus, an aspect that I can point to as to why that movie worked so much better than its predecessor.
A Note on Responsibility – I really appreciated how Webb dances around the classic quotes from the franchise (making me very excited to see how they handle the introduction of the Mary Jane storyline – I hear she has a great personality). Even the “great power, great responsibility” line is twisted to convey the same message with a very different syntax, making the film stand out from its predecessor even more. Moreover, this theme of responsibility is elaborated on to great effect; the inner conflict Peter Parker faces on whether to help his fellow human being often takes center stage and gives more meaning to his superhero persona.
A Note on Webshooters – Another key aspect played up in the Spectacular Spider-Man series, and before that in the comics, was the idea of the webshooters; as a plot device, it helps to add more gravity to fights when Spidey runs out of fluid, and as a part of the story, it helps reaffirm Peter Parker’s extreme intelligence (not unlike Tony Stark’s brilliant design of the Iron Man suit). The Amazing Spider-Man film smartly chose to eschew the weird, organic webs from the first trilogy, and introduced the shooters in a believable manner; the first half of the film is used to periodically show the audience that Peter Parker is smart, handy, and has the capacity to create something very mechanically advanced, so when he does fashion the devices, the audience can swallow the pill more easily.