Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man
swings back into action

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Put upon high-school kid Peter Parker wanders into a lab where he doesn't belong and gets bitten by some kind of mutated spider. He suddenly develops the ability to sense when things are going to happen, he has super-human strength, and he can climb walls and hang from ceilings (alas, he cannot actually shoot webs from his wrists; he has to create a device to accomplish that feat). His new-found powers also seem to be the direct cause of creating another human-animal mutation that wants to take over the world with its new-found powers, so Parker breaks out his new-found sewing skills, creates himself a snazzy/sexy skintight costume complete with mask, and takes to the streets of Manhattan as the amazing Spider-Man. Oh, yeah, he's also crushing on a girl in his class who seems to be intrigued by him as well.

You have heard this story? Of course you have! Way, way, way back in 2002, Toby Maguire donned the skintight red and blue costume to battle a scientific genius (who only wore a green mask instead of turning into a monster), and fall in love with Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst. The movie was a smash, which was followed in 2004 by an even better sequel which was followed by a far inferior sequel in 2007 that brought the trilogy to a close. But Sony, always looking for new ways to make a buck, decided that all they really needed to do was recast the main roles and produce a new film. It's certainly not unheard of (i.e. Bond, Batman), but fans we weary of a new film after the last mess, and the notion that no one could fill out the suit quite like Maguire.

So the solution was to basically pretend the previous trilogy didn't exist and start from scratch. Which is probably the biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man. Unless you're taking very young kids who have never seen any of the previous films, have never seen a cartoon or read a comic book, then the origin story of Peter Parker is pretty well-known by everyone who goes to see this movie. And it takes about an hour to tell that story, which borders on tedium for those in the know. We really just want some Spider-Man action to kick the movie into gear. The other problem with the movie is that it's all over the place. Peter (Andrew Garfield) wants to use his new powers to track down the guy who killed his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), so he scans the police radio frequencies for any hint of an assailant that matches the description of the killer. This whole plot, however, gets completely sidetracked once Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) becomes The Lizard (a result of his own scientific experiments to help people regenerate their own lost limbs), but at least this finally brings some much needed action to the movie.

I know there are people out there who hated the movie from beginning to end, but I'm not one of them. It was okay in places, you could see glimmers of what the movie could have been, but that origin story set-up just takes way too long. The big question is: Why even reboot the franchise? Why not just pick up where the last movie left off (or ignore Spider-Man III and pick up where the second left off like Warner Brothers did with Superman Returns)? I think the clue lies in a specific name that keeps being mentioned throughout the movie – Norman Osbourne. Sound familiar? Yes, Norman Osbourne was The Green Goblin, Spider-Man's nemesis in the first movie. Osbourne also died, with son Harry picking up the slack, but his issues with Peter were resolved by the end of the trilogy. But The Green Goblin is Spider-Man's most well-known adversary, so the only way to reintroduce the character back into the mythology is to completely restart the story (which means Doctor Octopus can also return). I don't know that The Lizard was the best way to go as far as a villain though, because for a movie with a ginormous budget, I was not all that impressed with the CGI or the look of the creature, especially the face. Something about it was just … off.

Besides the meandering plot, there are also things that are introduced and never followed through like the Spider-Man perspective shots. This was something director Andrew Webb (no pun intended) wanted to give the audience throughout the movie, but I can really only recall two times when this was used correctly. Also, Peter's high school nemesis, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), suddenly becomes Peter's best bud after Uncle Ben's untimely demise. It seems totally out of character and comes completely out of left field. I could see Flash maybe going easy on Peter right after the death, but for the character to do a complete 180 like that made absolutely no sense. And then there's the hunt for Uncle Ben's killer. It seems that every crook in New York has stringy blond hair, but only one of them has a tattoo on his wrist, and Peter never finds him (of course, they had to rewrite history in the original trilogy for Peter to find out who Uncle Ben's real killer was in the third movie (I think), so I suspect this plot thread will weave its way into the next film as well). And will Peter's missing (dead?) parents figure into the story at some point?

But with all that is wrong with the movie, they do get the important things right, namely the casting. Any doubts that no one could play Peter Parker after Maguire will be laid to rest after seeing Andrew Garfield's performance. He's perfect with what he's given, he plays the tortured soul extremely well, he looks fantastic in the suit, but I just wish they'd stuck to the character of the comics and let Peter/Spidey lighten up a bit. The comic character is well-known for his wisecracks while battling his foes, and there is none of that humor in this role. This isn't The Dark Knight! If the series is going to be successful, it really needs more humor. About the only times the film did lighten up was when Peter interacted with Gwen Stacy, the perfectly cast Emma Stone. Stone can do no wrong, and she has great chemistry with Garfield (better than anything Maguire and Dunst had) which brings a nice playfulness to their scenes together. Sally Field doesn't get to do much as Aunt May, but neither did Rosemary Harris in the first movie. Hopefully she'll get an expanded role in the next movie and get to do more than fret about Peter being out late at night. Martin Sheen and Denis Leary also give solid performances, but, well … don't count on seeing them in future entries in the series.

The film's biggest drawback is director Webb (500 Days of Summer), who has never helmed a film of this scope, and a script that seems cobbled together, passed from one hand to another, resulting in the tonal shifts that just throw the film into chaos. The effects, however (save for The Lizard) are spectacular and the scenes of Spidey swooping through the skyscraper canyons of New York City give you quite a rush (and there is a great 3D moment when Spider-Man literally flies off the screen just above the heads of the audience). I just wish that exuberance carried over into the rest of the movie. So is it worth seeing? I'd say yes, once in IMAX 3D. It's certainly not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it should have and could have been a lot better. At least it has probably the best Stan Lee cameo to date! And if you're one of those who sits through the credits for the sequel tease, you won't have to wait all the way to the end.

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