Movie Review: Swinging Into High

Andrew Garfield gives good web in The Amazing Spider-Man, an argument in favor of the ever-present film franchise reboot.


(NOTE: This review refers to the 2D version of the film.)

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast in high school, his brilliant intellect and lack of social confidence marking him as the stereotypical nerd. He harbors a crush on sweet, smart Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and constantly dodges harassment from alpha jock Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka). Peter lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) ever since his parents mysteriously fled from an unknown threat, later allegedly dying in a plane crash. When Peter is touring Oscorp, where his father researched cross-species genetic splicing with Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and begins developing strange spider-like abilities. Meanwhile, Connors tests an experimental serum on himself, making him a human/lizard hybrid that begins rampaging through the city…and only Peter can stop him.

When Sony cancelled plans for their fourth Spider-Man film in the wildly successful Sam Raimi-directed and Tobey Maguire-starring franchise in favor of a reboot of the whole series, skepticism abounded. The Raimi films had made massive amounts of money and were well-regarded by fans and critics alike, even if the third one was generally seen as something of a disappointment. However, with the Raimi films becoming more and more excessive with each film, and Tobey Maguire pushing his mid-30s, there was a certain logic to it. It turns out that Sony had the right idea, with The Amazing Spider-Man making a very strong argument for reboots in general. Director Mark Webb has not only reset the film franchise, he’s brought the Spider-Man story down to a much more earthbound place that places its focus squarely on the characters and not the heroics.

“Earthbound” in a figurative sense, at least.

The most noticeable thing about Webb’s Spider-Man is its muted palette and relatively judicial use of comic book aesthetics. Unlike the bright, colorful Raimi films, Amazing has a lovingly worn quality to the visuals that keeps the film from becoming too fantastical. Granted, this is still a film about a super-strong, impossibly-agile 17-year-old boy who sticks to walls and swings from webs fighting a hulking man-lizard, but it’s at least one that has a strong basis in reality well before it flies off into the realm of superheroics. It’s a choice that helps to sell some of the more spectacular moments of the film. It’s unfortunate that a degree of that naturalism is abandoned by the third act, when the plot starts to rush into high gear, but even then the film feels remarkably grounded.

Webb, along with writers James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, has made the very wise choice to focus first and foremost on the lives of the characters outside of the world of heroes and villains. Peter is only referred to as Spider-Man a handful of times before the final scenes, and when he finally decides on a name for himself, it’s still hard to see him as anything but Peter Parker. Similarly, Curtis Connors is never directly referred to as The Lizard in the sense of a proper name. He’s Connors, but as a massive bipedal reptile.

Warning: some side effects may occur.

The down side to this approach is that the plot is extremely predictable to anyone who’s a fan of comic books and comic book films, and nothing in Connors’ plans or Peter’s story is new or particularly original. Granted, there are things that must happen—Uncle Ben has to die, Peter has to learn about “power = responsibility” and Stan Lee has to appear in a cameo—but despite Ifans’ best efforts, Connors seems too often to be a cold-blooded variation on Ian McKellen‘s Magneto from the first X-Men film. Oscorp itself seems like Resident Evil‘s Umbrella Corporation after some PR rehabilitation, which tells you everything you need to know about it from the first visuals.

Sometimes, however, that familiarity can be a good thing. Besides the expected, and admittedly hilarious, Stan Lee cameo, a number of things in the film go right for the nostalgia centers of the fanboy brain. The scenes set in Peter’s high school are very reminiscent of scenes from the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s not just the fact that Parker is, like Xander Harris, a skateboarding misfit who’s just a little too cute to be the class outcast, or the fact that at some point the hero has to battle a reptilian monster that’s rampaging through the classrooms. The film focuses on the discovery of Peter’s powers, and his discovery that those powers begin in him. Like Buffy, he’s both defined by his abilities and refuses to define himself by those same abilities. Neither of them are really a typical hero, and both of them deal with extremely realistic and sympathetic crises of faith and the realization that they are no longer the person they were, and the person they have become is something even more removed from society. 

Rebooting the Spider-Man franchise also meant re-casting the web-crawler himself, and this is perhaps the best part of the film. Andrew Garfield is almost from scene one a much better, much more realistic Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire ever was. Granted, Maguire worked well for Raimi’s pulpy, comic book adventures, but Garfield is so much more believable and sympathetic in the role. He isn’t conventionally attractive, and his awkward, lanky body practically screams “social outcast” from the start. Garfield has a very strong grasp on the character, as well, effectively portraying Peter’s awkward way of dealing with others, a result of the repressed rage and feelings of abandonment he’s been carrying since his parents disappeared. When Peter puts on the Spider-Man mask, he becomes a new person almost entirely, his confidence boosted a million times. Cracking wise in even the most inappropriate times, he’s 180 degrees removed from the shy, quiet teenager he is during the daytime.

And the rest of him isn’t so bad, either.

The rest of the cast ranges from merely good to excellent. Emma Stone is an excellent choice for Gwen Stacy in every way. Besides having much more natural, unforced charm than either Bryce Dallas Howard (who played Gwen in Spider-Man 3) or Kirsten Dunst (who played Peter’s love interest Mary-Jane Watson in the Raimi films), she has remarkable chemistry with Garfield. Like Garfield, she has an very unconventional attractiveness about her that serves to put less focus on her physical appearance and more on the content of her character. Martin Sheen and Sally Field seem like good choices for Ben and May on paper, but only Field really delivers the goods. Martin Sheen feels far too much like he’s “doing a character,” while Sally Field gives May a distinct strength fueled by her own vulnerability and the years of experience visible in her face.

When a woman loves a spider…

Rhys Ifans, for his part, does what he can with Connors, but he’s limited in what he can do and what the script allows him to do. With a missing arm and a British accent, it’s clear from the start that Connors isn’t to be trusted, no matter how genial, polite and principled he seems to be at first. Even people with no prior knowledge of the character can tell that he’s going to be trouble. Denis Leary, as Gwen’s police captain father, makes a relatively strong appearance, but again he can only do so much with the script. Leary tries valiantly to give some coloring to a character who isn’t given much to start out with. Chris Zylka does a decent enough job with Flash Thompson, but as it’s written, it’s a role anyone could have played provided they looked suitably athletic and could scowl on command. His turnabout half-way through the film seems arbitrary, but it does leave the door open for future development of the character in subsequent films. Bollywood star Irrfan Khan also shows up as a liaison for unseen, most likely sinister and no-good billionaire Norman Osborne, but while he’s intended to come off as threatening and powerful, Khan’s slurred line readings make him seem superfluous and silly.

Revenge of the nerd.

The film’s action sequences are hit-and-miss, which is another good reason that Webb focuses more on the characters and less on the set pieces. The sequences fit well into the film’s flow, and they’re never too over the top until the very end, but they’re often confusing and seem edited by a caffeine junkie with a cleaver. Peter’s fights against the typical criminal lowlifes of the city fare better than his super-fights with Connors. In fighting the average criminal, Peter becomes a parkour wizard, and even with his (artificial) web shooters, does little that a highly trained, highly gifted gymnast or acrobat couldn’t do. In fact, David Belle did work just as demanding without the use of rigs, CGI or stunt doubles in District B13

Once Peter takes to the skyline, however, things get crazier and more chaotic. A number of scenes show web-swinging from Peter’s point of view, and those are genuinely thrilling, actually benefiting form the chaos. However, the final fights between Peter and Connors devolve into a jumble of CGI and quick-cut editing. Mark Webb hasn’t had much experience in this arena at all, his only previous feature being the decidedly non-action (500) Days Of Summer, so that’s understandable, but unfortunate. In a way, the chaos sometimes serves those scenes well, if only to disguise the poor CGI rendering of Connors’ mutation.

Even Spider-Man is powerless against crappy CGI.

Despite its flaws, though, The Amazing Spider-Man is a very rare and curious thing; it’s a reboot that is both well-done and completely justified. Redirecting the series’ focus onto the characters first gives the film a new vitality and energy that Raimi’s films had used up by their third entry. The main characters are well-established and defined enough to be relatable, while still giving room for development in future films. A post-credit sequence hints at a plot much grander than this film’s script indicates, with a lot of questions yet to be answered. An excellent cast and a strong sense of self indicate a vibrant new franchise that’s as exciting to watch as it is to anticipate, even more so considering how much more appreciatively earthbound it is compared to Raimi’s thrilling, but ultimately too-spectacular-for-their-own-good films. So until Aunt May defeats Galactus with gigantic snack cakes, make mine Marvel.

Rating: 7 out of 10 / B

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and does whatever a spider can. <a href="; title="imageimage

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