In The Amazing Spider-Man, the reboot of the franchise directed by Marc Webb (pun probably not intended, but fun none-the-less), the director of the incredible (500) Days of Summer, and starring Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) as Peter Parker/Spidey and Emma Stone (Easy A, Crazy Stupid Love) as high school crush Gwen Stacy, the awkwardness that is Peter Parker is put on display like never before, and it truly carries the film.
By now, we all know the story: High school nerd gets bit by a mutated/radiated/alien spider and gains extraordinary powers, for which the nerd then uses to fight crime and help people. What's new this time around is that there is an underlying story about Peter's missing parents, especially his father, Richard Parker's work in genetics; and the film's villain, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a brilliant scientist and one-time partner of Richard Parker, who, in trying to use reptile DNA to regrow his right arm, accidentally turns himself into the monstrous Lizard.
In fact, when Peter goes to find out more about his long lost father, he inadvertently helps Dr. Connors complete the sequence to make the lizard experiment work. This is important for two reasons: it gives Peter a mentor and a father figure to learn from and admire, even more so than Uncle Ben Parker (Martin Sheen) who has raised Peter along with his wife, Aunt May Parker (Sally Field) after Peter's parents are forced to go on the run. Second, it makes Peter feel responsible for everything that happens to the Lizard/Dr. Connors, which in turn gives the character of Parker/Spider-Man motivation to face the monster head on instead of running away.
The performances in The Amazing Spider-Man are what truly make it work. Andrew Garfield is near-perfect as Peter Parker. He is shy, and smart, and mouthy, and rides a skateboard while the cool kids drive to school, and he is literally a social outcast. Garfield is believable and he makes Peter believable. You can relate to him and his awkwardness. You root for him, first as a nerdy student, and later as a kid trying to land the girl of his dreams in Gwen Stacy. And you feel for him as Spider-Man as he gets beat down more often than not in the early stages of his crime-fighting career. There hasn't been a spot-on performance like this since Robert Downey, Jr. grew a goatee.
But as good as Garfield is, Emma Stone is better.
To put it simply, Emma Stone was born to play Gwen Stacy. She literally disappears into Gwen Stacy. She dresses like Gwen Stacy, right down to the go-go boots and miniskirts and hairbands and blond bangs, and delivers her lines just as Gwen Stacy would straight from the early Spider-Man comics. And when she looks at Peter, you believe that she is falling madly in love with him. With just a look, she sells the relationship. It is a marvel to behold how much Emma Stone owns this character.
Marc Webb handles the relationship angle better than most directors, and by the end of the film, we find ourselves rooting for these two kids to be together forever. In all of the comic book movie genre, there has never been a relationship this believable. It's what makes the movie shine. And that says a lot when talking about a film the features a guy in colorful tights swinging through the urban canyons of New York City.
Speaking of, the avant-garde decision to show Spidey running, jumping and swinging in POV is brilliant. Webb does not rely on it too much, and when he does roll it out, it's edited into longer sequences to create an awesome feeling of being in Spidey's tights. Also, when Peter is first trying out his new abilities, Webb adds a level of realism by tying in Peter's skateboarding skills as a natural progression into webswinging. In a short montage sequence, Webb and Garfield are able to convey Peter's growth in his new powers better than most full-length feature films. That speaks volumes for where Marc Webb is as a filmmaker, and as a storyteller.
The supporting roles by Denis Leary as Captain Stacy, Gwen's father and the aforementioned Sheen and Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May are worth mentioning, as they are so much more than window dressing. Leary does a great job as Captain Stacy, who is the authority-like foil for Parker's vigilante Spider-Man. Their character's exchanges help to build the overall story by adding a new dynamic of a stern father figure, which Peter has never had.
What doesn't work in the film is the Lizard. While so much is put into creating this wonderful dynamic between Peter and Gwen, Dr. Connors is more of a subplot, and the motivations behind the Lizard agenda is so far out there that it pulls the audience with it. For years, comic book movies suffered through over-developed villains and cardboard heroes, and The Amazing Spider-Man flips that notion on its rear end. Rhys Ifans gives a good performance as Connors/Lizard, but he wasn't really given much to work with.
Another issue that I had is that Peter Parker tends to cry a lot, which makes him more "emo" than previous versions of the character. Tears are an actor's best friend, but Garfield has this character down so well, that he doesn't need to sob as much as he does. Hopefully, as the character of Peter Parker matures, the crying will be toned down, but it was very noticeable and somewhat distracting.
The special effects in The Amazing Spider-Man look great, though they seem to happen mostly at night. In fact, it almost feels that Webb wanted to push this version of Spidey into the "Batman/Dark Knight" brooding world of shadow and lighting-for-effect that Tim Burton has made a career out of. Spider-Man has never been dark. His suit is blue and red for a reason (and it was designed for this film by Cirque du Solei), and Spider-Man flourishes in the four-color world of comic books. There is no reason to make Spider-Man a dark film.
It's hard not to compare The Amazing Spider-Man to the films that came before it. But to truly enjoy this new incarnation, one must forget. This is not a sequel. Things are different, and some comic purists will balk at the tweaks in the origin, but for what the film gets wrong, it makes up by getting things right. How Peter designs his webshooters (they are no longer organic) shows that he is a very smart kid (as it should), and even the creation of the suit (in all of its stages) is very believable. Honestly, it's a fair trade.
This new version of Spider-Man is better in many ways, and I enjoyed this film more than any of the previous Spider-Man films. The performances of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone elevate The Amazing Spider-Man to the upper echelons of the comic book movie genre, and hopefully, the inevitable sequel will have a stronger, better villain to equal the chemistry of the leads. There is a mid-credits scene that hints of a much larger tapestry that begs to be explored in subsequent films, and as long as Marc Webb is at the helm, the new Spider-Man franchise is in great hands... or webs.
- Jon Hueber
The Amazing Spider-Man opens in theaters everywhere on July 3, 2012.