I really wanted to like The Amazing Spider-man, I did. I was trying to keep an open mind going into the theater, despite having all the same fears and trepidations that every other geek on the planet had: This is completely unnecessary! Why reboot Spidey, when Sam Raimi’s excellent version is barely ten years old? Why are they changing the costume? It looks like basketball rubber! This whole thing feels like some bastard child of Spider-man, ‘Twilight,’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek!’ All of that ran through my brain for months, yet I still held out hope that it would surprise me, because the world needs fun, exciting Spider-man movies. And therein lies the big rub with Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-man — it’s beautifully acted, and stylishly shot (except for a few action scenes), but in the wake of the bright, exuberant spectacle of The Avengers, Amazing Spider-man feels like a dour slog through familiar territory; a wholly unnecessary retread that just isn’t very much fun.
The trouble begins from the very first shot, when we see a dark-haired, dark-eyed 6-year-old Peter Parker looking like someone just murdered his parents in an alleyway. Yes, the comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman reboot assault the viewer immediately, and that is not a good thing when dealing with a character as lighthearted as Spidey. It shows a distinct lack of knowledge and respect about what the character embodies, and immediately throws the audience for a loop. It’s a tonal disaster. Things improve after Peter’s parents (who are embroiled in some top-secret science espionage) dump him off with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, never to be seen again. That’s when the tremendously gifted Andrew Garfield rises above the somber muck; injecting the frame with effortless charm.
Although he is saddled with a skateboard, hoodie, fingerless gloves, and other worrisome “emo” trappings, Garfield’s affability and talent as an actor quickly erases them from memory. He’s funny and sweet interacting with his Aunt and Uncle (played here by Sally Field and Martin Sheen, who frankly just don’t have enough to do) at home. In school, his Peter Parker is not the hopelessly nerdy “Puny Parker” of the early Steve Ditko comics, but rather a shy, lost teenager who is just sort of floating invisibly through life. The students of Midtown High seem to be aware of his photography skills (an amusing scene early on has a cute girl asking if he’s busy on Friday night, only to crush him with a request to take photos of her boyfriend’s car), but he is still bullied by the school meathead Flash Thompson (a particularly brutal version played by Chris Zylka).
Despite Garfield’s ability to handle all of the high school stuff with ease, it still comes across as mundane, until Emma Stone’s beautiful Gwen Stacy pours her chemical effervescence into Peter’s home chemistry set and sparks off a wonderful reaction. Garfield and Stone are magnetic together, their huge eyes and bright smiles light up the screen, and their awkward teenage flirting is honest and adorable without being overly saccharine. The classroom scene where Gwen asks Peter if he remembers his own name is absolutely priceless.
Unfortunately, the film goes off the rails after Gwen and Peter’s initial interactions (and after Peter is bitten by the radioactive spider), primarily because Peter’s journey to avenge his uncle’s death and eventual transformation into Spider-man is handled clumsily and without a trace of the goofy glee and wonder that the Raimi films had. Almost every beat — Peter acting like a starving junkie after being bitten, Peter waking up with newfound strength and agility, Peter getting the better of his tormentor at high school, Peter learning to wall-crawl, Peter developing his web-swinging techniques, Peter making his costume, Peter hunting down Uncle Ben’s killer — is superior in the 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-man film. And Once Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard is introduced, the proceedings quickly devolve into a series of schlocky, poorly edited action sequences riddled with groan-inducing exposition and sizeable plot holes.
Though The Amazing Spider-man doesn’t quite work, There are still many things to like about the film. I thought the Lizard made for a fun villain, even if the design left a lot to be desired. Rhys Ifans did an admirable job with the character with what little material he was given; in fact, the acting all around in this movie was top-notch. Even Denis Leary held his own, imbuing Gwen’s police captain father with a nice blend of crankiness and nobility. I also appreciated that Webb finally delivered a smart-alec Spider-man who hurls verbal barbs at his opponents as fast as he shoots webs. The web-slinging shots are fantastic; topping those in the Raimi movies by adding in better CGI and vertigo-inducing POV shots from dizzying heights. (I didn’t see the film in 3D, but those shots must have been adrenaline-pumping.) Marc Webb pulled off the large-scale action sequences fairly well for a first-time blockbuster director, but there were some bad editing choices and confusing “too-close-to-the-camera” fight blurs that often plague first-timers. It’s clear from the first hour of the film (and from his previous work, 500 Days of Summer), that his talent lies in crafting strong character relationships.
The Amazing Spider-man is a tale of two films, neither of which are very good. One is a darker, more ponderous re-telling of Spider-man’s origin with flashes of a charming teenage love story; the other is a clumsy superhero action spectacle with big moments that are contrived and ultimately unearned. When you add these two disparate components together, the result is a comic book reboot that doesn’t quite come together. Still, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield are so good together, I would like to see them try again in a sequel, perhaps with a different director.