Friday, July 27, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man Movie Review

Was it really necessary for Sony to reboot the Spider-Man series only five years after the last film and ten years after the first? Is Sam Raimi’s trilogy already ancient history? Apparently for the Millenials anything older than half a decade is passé. I don’t mind a new actor in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man role or a new director at the helm. James Bond has changed hands through six actors across fifty years. The problem I find is the absurd need to retell the origin story. The Batman series went through three actors and two directors with a major stylistic shift halfway through without getting back into Bruce Wayne’s history. It was Christopher Nolan who rebooted that franchise by taking a completely new track on the mythology. Unlike Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man which is virtually indistinguishable from the first trilogy.

Webb’s version, produced from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Aaron Sargent, and Steve Kloves (his first screenplay that doesn’t involve a boy wizard in a decade) is a little lighter and more freewheeling than the previous trilogy. It’s less introspective and brooding. Andrew Garfield is a less morose Peter Parker, more easily demonstrating the character’s geekiness. Mary Jane Watson, so winningly portrayed by Kirsten Dunst before, has been excised in favor of Gwen Stacy, the comic book hero’s first love interest. Emma Stone, a bit too mature to be playing a high school girl, is nevertheless a thoroughly charming performer who injects fresh air onto the screen with each appearance.

After a spider bit sustained in a science lab researching cross genetics at Oscorp with the goal of creating impermeable people, Peter becomes stronger, more agile, and with reflexes fast enough to dodge bullets. The main difference between this Spider-Man and Raimi’s version is that this time his webbing is not organically produced but is a manufactured super strong thread that Peter fits into small ejectors on his wrists. They are a tool rather than a superpower, which I guess makes him a little more like Batman, Sony’s biggest screen rival for box office clout. Peter’s primary interest in the research is to connect with his father’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who seeks a method of regenerating limbs the way reptiles do. Peter’s father’s research holds the key to unlocking the mysteries that Connors seeks to answer. Those familiar with the comics know that Connors will unwittingly transform himself into a man-lizard that terrorizes New York City and bears more than a passing resemblance to The Hulk.

When Peter first discovers his newfound abilities, he has a bit of fun taunting an idiot bully at school. Peter gets himself in trouble with both the school and his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), the film’s beacon of absolute goodness and light. One thing I like about what this film tries to do is that there is no clear delineation between good and bad. Peter is a hero, but after Uncle Ben is killed in the aftermath of a robbery, he becomes a vigilante seeking revenge on the assailant. The bully at school turns out to be empathetic when Peter loses his uncle. Connors is seeking nothing but the best for humanity, but becomes corrupted by the strength and power of his physical transformation.

This is familiar territory for Kloves, who had to adapt similar themes throughout the Harry Potter series. But his treatment is just as clumsy this time. There is virtually no explanation of any sense for why Connors becomes aggressive when he’s a lizard but Peter is just an enhanced version of his good self. When the bully reveals that he can be nice it reeks of screenwriters playing at equal opportunity and rings false.

These flaws in the screenplay notwithstanding, I have to admit to being relieved to see a big studio movie with dialogue that was not written for the exclusive purpose of furthering the plot. Granted, there is plenty of expository writing, but the quality of it far surpasses most of what Hollywood produces. And I’m pleased to say that finally I’ve seen a mainstream movie that understands how Internet searches are conducted. It’s really about time movie producers have figured out how to include that Worldwide Interweb doohickey in films targeted at people who’ve been using it since birth. Of course then the screenplay, demanding a scene that has Peter realize that Connors is The Lizard, undermines that good work by having him ask Connors for information he could have found on a Google search or at Wikipedia. So Peter can ascertain who Connors is, what kind of research he’s engaged in, and where he works all by using the Internet? But he can’t find out how to track a lizard? This is one of the film’s most egregious examples of non-creative writing.

My biggest praise goes toward the well cast and top notch cast. Garfield is a wonderful and winning presence. Sally Field as Aunt Mary and Sheen have qualities more like gentle parents than of doddering grandparents. Rhys Ifans is a bit under-utilized, I think, possibly because the most amusing lines were given to Denis Leary as Gwen’s father, the police captain tracking Spider-Man. And there’s also a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance by C. Thomas Howell as a man whose son is heroically saved.

But ultimately The Lizard is a lame villain. If superhero movies are defined by the strength of their bad guys, then The Amazing Spider-Man should be utterly forgettable. Though much of it is, including clashes of CGI creatures that lull me to sleep and a nonsensical subplot involving Connors’ boss who won’t shut up about Norman Osborn’s illness, there was surprisingly enough to sustain the film through its problems. I don’t know that the world really needed a Spider-Man reboot complete with a new origin story, but this one has the potential to go some interesting places.

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