Jul 9, 2012

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

No upside-down kissing this time around.
Nobody was asking for a Spider-Man reboot. Or, at least, very few people were clamoring for a Spider-man reboot. Two of the three Spider-man films which already exist (starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi) are actually pretty great films. The second film, AKA Spider-Man 2, is one of the best Marvel movies of the past few decades. Unlike the The Incredible Hulk movie that followed the unremarkable and overly artsy Hulk movie
before it, there was really no reason to re-invent the wheel.

Nothing good happens at High School
Yet, rolling down the hill comes The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield and the beguiling Emma Stone. The story is very familiar: boy is quiet high school nerd, boy gets super powers from radioactive spider, boy uses powers to defeat school bullies and win the favor of his longtime crush, boy learns lesson that power begets responsibility, boy tries to stop gene-splice lizard-monster from destroying city. And the movie is full of very similar touchstones from the Spider-Man film of ten years ago: nerdy protagonist, a semi-sinister medical conglomerate, young love, teen angst, and, of course, web-slinging and wall climbing. You know, spider stuff.  In this film the love interest is Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane Watson, there's some more family drama added into the mix, and the villain is The Lizard instead of the Green Goblin, but the differences pretty much end there.

It may seem obvious by now, but it’s difficult to look at the film without comparing it to the Spidey films that came before it. On the positive column, the acting is much better. Tobey Maguire is a fine actor (we quite liked him in all those movies where he played Elijah Wood), but his Peter Parker seemed more dorky than nerdy (a small distinction, but we it's think an important one). Andrew Garfield has a certain bumbling charm, and he is simply a much better actor. Sally Field is a quite good Aunt May, and Martin Sheen (President Bartlet forever!) is a much stronger Uncle Ben than the original film’s Uncle Ben. We would go so far as to put him above the deliciousness that is Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice

Shiny Emma Stone
The real gem, though, is Emma Stone, who is so much better than the material she’s given and certainly better than Kirsten Dunst, who was pretty ‘blah’ overall in the original series of films. Stone practically sparkles. Her Gwen Stacy is a much more compelling female lead than Dunst’s Mary Jane and certainly better than Bryce Dallas Howard’s version of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3. She’s smart, capable, and gets herself into sticky situations because she’s trying to help, not just because she happens to be rocking a kimono on a balcony while Macy Gray rocks out down below. And Emma Stone plays the part with just the right amount of teenage naïveté and old school charm. She’s got the energy and unexpected gravitas of film stars of yesteryear, with the ageless charisma of Katherine Hepburn or Claudette Colbert. The girl is freaking incredible. Of course, Garfield isn't lacking in the charisma department either:

Despite its superb acting, the film is far from flawless. The writing is lazy and overworked, the direction is overly cutesy and clunky, and the film spends too much time on characters that don’t really matter (did we need an extended scene about crane operators - probably not). Mostly, though, it’s a movie in desperate need of some fun. When Peter Parker receives his super powers, he barely spends any time enjoying them before he’s thrust into the world of revenge and pain. Even scenes where Peter is goofing off are used to prove that he is immature and unready to handle his power. Everyone else is similarly afflicted. Villains in superhero films are usually allowed to have a bit more fun than the hero, because they aren’t tied down by morality or socially acceptable behavior. Lex Luthor gets to strut around his opulent underground mansion while his girlfriend swims in a giant pool filled with Kryptonite, Two-Face gets to hang out in an awesome apartment with two attractive women who fulfill his needs for both darkness and light. Villains just want to have fun. Suffice it to say, The Lizard does not engage in any kind of fun times. He’s pretty depressed, actually, and a bit of a loner. And his rampages through the city are less about having a good time and more about killing, maiming, and mutating the general public. He barely even has time to engage in a witty tête-à-tête with our masked protagonist. He’s too busy trying to kill the greedy Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan).

Arachno-philia and You
Still, one thing that the film explores well is what makes a villain. With most superhero films, the villain is defined by what he wants. Loki wants world dominion in The Avengers, Red Skull wants something similar in Captain America, etc. In Spider-Man films, however, the villain isn’t defined by what he wants but solely by the fact that he wants. They are pure, unrestrained Id. In Spider-Man (2002), Norman Osborn (Green Goblin) is a barreling monster of greed that has no clear target. In Spider-Man 2, Doctor Octavius (Doc Ock) loses the chip that governs his conscience when he loses the love of his life.  In Spider-Man 3, Flint Marko (Sandman) takes his desire to help to unnecessarily violent heights. And in this reboot, Doctor Curt Connors (The Lizard) can’t stop his quest for personal ‘growth’ long enough to see the damage he’s doing to himself and those around him. They aren’t villains because of what they want, but because they can’t put the needs of others above their own. They are out of balance, which is probably why so many Spider-Man villains end up talking to themselves. This constant struggle for balance is what makes Peter Parker such a great protagonist, because he grapples with the same issues and ultimately decides to do ‘Good’ instead of doing what most benefits himself. This is also why films like this will always be welcome, because there’s nothing more universal than that struggle.

In the pantheon of Marvel films, this movie isn’t exactly near the top of the list. At times, it’s almost as if the stellar acting throws the weakness of the material into sharper relief, as audiences wish Stone and Garfield could have more to do than make eyes at each other and occasionally stop a city-wide virus. Still, the film does at least make a case for its existence through wonderful performances, cracker-jack fight sequences, some fantastically well-posed moral quandaries, and interesting deviations from the original film. It may not quite reach to the ‘amazing’ heights promised by the title, but this is a film worth seeing. 

Film Grade: 8 out of 10 creepily mutated lab rats.
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