Spider-Man 2 was as close to a perfect on-screen Spider-Man movie as we've ever gotten. In my mind, The Amazing Spider-Man is a close second.
Make no mistake, this reboot of the Spider-Man mythos is kind of an odd bird. It’s impossible to watch it without thinking of the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire movies, because the last of those was in theaters just five short years ago. Warner Bros. had the wherewithal to wait eight years before hiring Christopher Nolan to reinvent Batman after the abysmal, candy-colored Joel Schumacher films scuttled that franchise. So maybe it’s a virtue of that tiny, five-year gap between Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man that the latter sometimes feels as if changes were made just for the sake of making changes.
Then again, I can’t imagine a more difficult big-screen challenge than trying to re-tell Spider-Man’s origin story for the umpteenth time while making it feel exciting and new. And many of the changes made were smart ones, opening up new story territory for these films to explore. Keeping Peter Parker in high school, for example, prevents him from growing up as fast as Maguire’s version did, and there’s still plenty of material ripe for storytelling there.
We already know the story: nerdy teenager Peter gets bitten by radioactive (er, genetically-modified) spider, and gains spider-like superpowers. He’s first tempted to use his powers for personal gain, until his beloved Uncle Ben dies because Peter refuses to act at the right moment. And thus, he learns the defining lesson of his life: With great power, comes great responsibility. And loads of drama. Before a frame of this movie unspools, we know that these things are going to happen.
So how do you retell a story so familiar in an engaging way? Well, it turns out, comic book writers have been doing this for years. It’s part-and-parcel of the superhero comic that the hero will constantly be reinvented, and that his or her origin tale will be told again and again. In this case, the filmmakers looked at parts of the Spider-Man story that hadn’t been touched on in the Raimi films (namely, Peter’s first love Gwen Stacy), as well as the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books, where a much more modern Peter has remained a teenager for years. Mix these two together and throw in a dash of intrigue regarding the disappearance of Peter’s parents, and off we go.
New director Marc Webb comes at the material from an entirely different place than Raimi did. Webb’s take is grittier and much more realistic, with an intimate understanding of how to portray modern relationships, with all their wonderful awkwardness. That bit can’t be overstated, because it fuels so much of the movie. Webb and screenwriter James Vanderbuilt smartly allow the relationships to breathe and feel organic, making the movie’s events feel completely character-driven instead of plot-driven. There’s subtlety and nuance and quite often, a lot more is communicated by what goes unsaid. Other Hollywood tentpole flicks, take note: just because you’re making a blockbuster film doesn’t mean your characters have to be dumbed-down caricatures.
Andrew Garfield brings a darker, more angsty edge to his take on Peter Parker. He’s got the awkward/nerdy vibe down cold, but this is a character with a great deal more depth than Maguire. Don’t get me wrong, Maguire’s childlike, cracking voice, his earnest face, and his surprisingly ripped physique perfectly embodied Peter Parker, so there’s no doubt he’s a tough act to follow. (I’m pretending that whole strut/dance-down-the-street thing in the third movie never happened.) Garfield’s character is a Peter who’s not just an orphan, he’s lived his entire life curious and angry about why his parents left him in the care of his aunt and uncle when he was very young. (We’re left assuming that the Parkers could still be alive, but we got very few clues about why they had to disappear. This is a thread that will surely be picked up in the 2014 sequel.) He’s got a good heart, but he starts out in more of a victimized, self-serving place than Maguire’s character did. That’s far richer dramatic soil to grow from, and Garfield mines it brilliantly.
The inclusion of Gwen Stacy is very faithful to the comic books, though it remains to be seen if this Gwen will share her namesake’s fate. The movie gets a major boost from Emma Stone‘s incredible chemistry with Garfield. The screen positively crackles every time those two share it. Their relationship is wholly different than Peter and MJ’s; Gwen is Peter’s intellectual equal, which enables her to relate to him in a more believable, grounded way. (I love MJ, but did she do anything in Raimi’s films besides getting snatched by the villain so Peter could rescue her?) They know each other very well from the moment they meet because they’re so much alike; each would do exactly what the other does in any situation.
Rhys Ifans‘ Curt Connors is a different kind of villain for Spider-Man; Connors is Peter’s friend and mentor, and he’s never a truly bad guy. He genuinely cares about Peter, so when Connors Jekyl-and-Hydes into the Lizard, it’s all the more gut-wrenching. Ifans gives the character such sadness and longing, but his amount of screen time takes a major backseat to Garfield and Stone. (Raimi gave these traits over to Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2.) Martin Sheen and Sally Field seem like kitschy choices for a younger Uncle Ben and Aunt May on paper, but Field in particular nails the worried/nurturing nature of May. And although he of course meets his demise along the way, Sheen sticks around long enough to give Peter a few serious talking-tos (needless to say, his speechifying skills from The West Wing are put to good use).
What made me love this one more than most of Raimi’s films is that it’s filled with scene-after-scene of affecting human emotion. Remember the scene in Spider-Man 2 where he stops the passenger train? It takes everything he’s got and he passes out afterwards, so the train passengers save him, and even give him back his mask, promising never to tell anyone who he is. The Amazing Spider-Man is overflows with moments like this. The most affecting is probably the scene where Peter realizes he’s meant to be a hero, not a revenge-driven vigilante: a small boy is trapped in a burning car that’s dangling from a bridge, but when Spidey appears to save him, the boy is frightened. So Peter removes his mask and gives it to the boy, telling him to put it on because “it will make [him] strong.” Peter is so moved by this boy and his reunion with his mortified dad that it changes him forever.
Other moments I loved: Peter telling Gwen that he’s Spider-Man on one of their first dates just because he’s a teenager and he can’t keep it from the girl he loves; Peter’s bitter argument with Uncle Ben about Peter’s absentee father, just before Uncle Ben’s tragic death; Aunt May’s unspoken knowledge of Peter’s secret, and their touching reunion at the end when he comes home after having “a rough night”; the construction workers who turn their cranes into Spidey’s path, and Peter’s dogged perseverance despite being shot; Captain Stacy’s startling discovery of Peter’s secret, and his choosing to trust the boy and help him instead of arrest him. I could go on and on.
Sony‘s standard Blu-ray + DVD + “Ultraviolet” Digital Download release includes a crisp, beautiful transfer of the movie, along with a full assortment of extras. The Blu-ray disc comes with a series of featurettes that take you behind-the-scenes both on the set and in the conceptual stages with producers Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin, who were the unlucky souls who had to figure out what to do with the franchise after the proposed fourth Raimi film fell apart. I’m a sucker for these making-of things, because there’s something about seeing the amount of thought and consideration that goes into one’s craft that helps you truly appreciate it. One of my favorite of these features — which total over an hour and a half — was a look at the radical changes that were made to the spider-suit, because I’d been curious about this since the first stills of Garfield in costume were released. Kym Barrett was an interesting choice for Costume Designer; she’s best known for her work on the Matrix trilogy. Her interpretation of the spider-suit was to create it as if it was made by a modern teenager, so it incorporates items that he has on hand, like sunglasses for the lenses and tennis shoe soles for the feet. (The shoe soles might make sense in a practical, running-and-jumping kind of way, but aren’t Spidey’s feet supposed to stick to walls? Rubber soles are anti-intuitive to wall-crawling.) It’s just fun to watch the first time Garfield emerges from his trailer clad in Spidey’s skin-tight suit. Spoiler: instead of being self-conscious, Garfield was genuinely concerned about others’ perceptions. “We’re changing it up, we really are,” he says to them with sincerity, as if afraid the cast and crew might be offended by Barrett’s reinvented costume. It shows just how much he loves this character, and makes me root for him all the more.
A selection of deleted scenes flesh out the story a bit more, and were interesting enough that I mostly found myself wishing they’d been included in the final cut. A montage of stunt rehearsals shows the stunt crew working out the fight scenes; Garfield is not on hand for this stuff. There’s also the usual pre-vis videos, art galleries, and more.
It’s a terrific film, and in many ways, it made me wish that this was the movie that kick-started the character’s big-screen popularity instead of Raimi’s first movie. (I can hear the cries of sacrilege already, so fire away.) The Amazing Spider-Man is a superior film, plain and simple, and deserves more attention than it got at theaters. I can’t wait to see where the story goes in the sequel. Might we see a reinvention of the Green Goblin, a la the Joker in The Dark Knight? (Willem Dafoe was good, but don’t get me started about that godawful costume.)
This one’s a winner.