I feel partly responsible for this. When they announced the Spider-Man reboot something-something years ago, I personally advocated Marc Webb for the director’s chair, since his wonderful film (500) Days of Summer demonstrated a canny understanding of the mindset of modern young people (whereas most filmmakers seem willfully ignorant about our generation’s lifestyle). I figured that if anyone would “get” the teenaged melodrama inherent to the Spider-Man mythos, Webb was the guy. Unfortunately I was wrong. The Amazing Spider-Man is the kind of generic superhero pap that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, for all its many faults, brought to a close in 2002. We’ve had bad superhero movies since then (duh), but the bar had been raised, and films like Daredevil, Ghost Rider and, unfortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man no longer seem to cut it anymore.
Spider-Man, like any pop culture icon, has a static cling of subjectivity about him. The character means different things to different people, and can survive all manner of reinterpretations relatively unscathed. I am forced to admit that The Amazing Spider-Man might not offend you in the same way it did me, and in fact, some folks exited the theater claiming that this, at last, was the Spider-Man movie they had always wanted. But it bothers me, it really does. Marc Webb’s attempt to bring a Batman Begins approach to the Marvel Comics character is a clunker. The efforts to spread the hero’s origin story over an entire film make the supposedly everyman hero the center of a generic conspiracy tale that makes him seem predestined for adventure. I had the same reaction when J. Michael Straczynski claimed that Peter Parker wasn’t just bitten by a radioactive spider, but was instead prophesized to be the avatar of some kind of ancient spider god. Point: missed.
The plot is familiar: Peter Parker is an orphan-type person (come to think of it, we never officially hear that his parents are dead), raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. A trip to OsCorp, spurred by the sudden discovery of his scientist father’s old research, finds him in the same room as a genetically altered spider, as well as the potentially mad scientist Dr. Curt Connors, who has been working for decades on a way to combine the DNA of homo sapiens and various animal species; a conceit which quite cleverly sets the stage of half of Spider-Man’s veritable menagerie of villains, like, potentially, anyone from The Rhino to The Vulture. But first up, Connors, played by Rhys Ifans, has to become The Lizard, a distractingly CGI creation with a formulaic plot to turn all of New York green and scaly along with him.
There are, admittedly, worse storylines to reintroduce Spider-Man into theaters. But Webb’s attempt to adapt Spidey’s origin into a grander, trilogy-establishing plot prevents The Amazing Spider-Man from having any fun. There’s too much damned work to do. Troubled though it may have been, Raimi’s original Spider-Man forced the character through many highs and lows, living out teenaged power fantasies and suffering from crippling neuroses in the aftermath of his unbridled and hormonal extempore. The Amazing Spider-Man makes a beeline from Point A to Point B straight on through Point C and then just calls it a day, leaving many plot points unresolved in the hopes of future sequels.
It doesn't help that Andrew Garfield, talented actor though he is, has been saddled with a Peter Parker with no clear identity. The neurotic and socially awkward teenager, freed by power and anonymity to become the heroic and wisecracking Spider-Man, has been reduced to a generic loner who waffles between heroism, rebellion and Twilight-reminiscent broodiness. The Peter Parker we meet at the beginning of the film is frustratingly close to how he ends it, and is only accentuated in the middle after the death of his Uncle Ben. This is not character development. The Amazing Spider-Man coasts on the assumption that you can do anything you want with the character and he will still be Spider-Man so long as the names and costumes are more-or-less right.
Case in point: the death of Uncle Ben, played now by the excellent Martin Sheen, does not loom nearly as large over Andrew Garfield’s interpretation. If anything, they bungle it completely. His death feels less like the loss of a loved one – note the absence of emotional support between Peter and Sally Field’s Aunt May – and more like the kind of action movie plot device that just exists to turn the hero vigilante. Maguire’s Spider-Man confronted his uncle’s killer quickly and found vengeance dissatisfying, and opted instead to pay his penance forward by sacrificing his own happiness for others. Garfield’s version remains motivated by vengeance throughout, and only comes to accept his own culpability for the suffering of others when he accidentally contributes to Connor’s transformation.
A science experiment gone wrong isn’t nearly as tragic or personal a motivation as the fallout of his own youthful hubris, so it’s unfortunate that The Amazing Spider-Man lets the external events take serious precedence over the hero’s inner turmoil. Gaining spider-powers doesn’t even have that much of an impact on Peter’s daily life. He takes school bully Flash Thompson to task, but Peter already seemed well liked and doing just fine with his love interest Gwen Stacy, played now by Emma Stone, before the Spider-Man storyline even begins. The greatest impact his powers have on this life is preparing him for the action, and the action isn’t worth it.
This particular Spider-Man hops, skips and slings his way through New York, and plays reasonably well, but The Amazing Spider-Man’s drab color schemes rarely make the action seem thrilling. It doesn’t help that our hero falls headfirst into awesomeness, developing a uniquely effective flip-kick fighting style overnight and bypassing all the growing pains that come with heroism. Raimi’s Spider-Man (it’s so hard not to compare the two) developed confidence and ability over the course of the film. His first web-slinging attempts were clumsy and awkward, so the final shot of the hero breezing gracefully across the New York skyline served to embody the character’s transformation from awkward adolescence to adulthood, with all the confidence and hardships that path entailed. That kind of character development is absent in The Amazing Spider-Man, presumably because, again, someone behind the scenes figured they would get to it in the supposedly inevitable sequels.
But such high-falutin’ criticisms would be pointless if The Amazing Spider-Man had been fun enough to overlook them, and Webb’s reboot is so focused on its insular plot that even amusing asides are few and far between. (Although Stan Lee does get one of his funnier cameos.) I’ve heard people claim that the wisecracking version of the hero is finally back in The Amazing Spider-Man, and he is… in two scenes. The rest of the time he’s moping about, looking generically handsome and ignoring the obvious emotional plight of his grieving and (supposedly) beloved Aunt May. His relationship with Gwen Stacy seems built on little besides mutual attraction and eventually an element of danger, which is fitting to the adolescent characters in a Twilight sort of way but never comes across as legitimately romantic. He never has to work for her love, or even to feel worthy of it. It’s a foregone conclusion from day one. The film’s conclusion seems to preclude their romance in a tragic last-minute development, only to reverse the respectful and sad situation right before the end credits, in a moment that can only be described as understandable but dishonorably self-indulgent.
There are little niggling distractions in The Amazing Spider-Man that are hard to get past: villains who suddenly teleport to the tops of buildings, plot holes you could web zip through and one of the most unintentionally hilarious “rousing” climactic developments I’ve seen in recent years. But the last three movies had their fair share of stupid moments too, so let’s not nitpick. There are too many genuine, crippling problems to worry too hard about the details.
The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t have to be such a disappointment. The character’s origin has been told and retold so many times already that doing it again was not intrinsically a problem. This particular interpretation just suffers from being less interested in the character than in establishing a framework for future sequels, making this motion picture feel unimportant and rushed, even at its whopping 136 minute running time. It’s not a train wreck and it’s certainly not the worst superhero movie ever made. It’s just a generic, messy and forgettable film that needed to actually amaze us in order to erase the still-fresh memories of the previous franchise. On that score, and several others, it seems to fail.
If you were looking for a streamlined Spider-Man movie, grittier and more youth-oriented, you might find The Amazing Spider-Man more satisfying than I did. If you were looking for a diverting movie, regardless of pop culture fealty or genuine drama, you just might leave the theater satisfied. But I guess I hold Spider-Man to a higher standard, and I would argue that Sony should too since it’s their top flight blockbuster franchise. In the wake of superior comic book movies spawned by the 2002 Spider-Man’s success – compared to films like Batman Begins, Iron Man or X-Men: First Class – this is an amazing dud. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t feel like a remake, good or bad… it feels like it already needs to be remade.