03 July 2012

THE PROPORTIONAL MEDIOCRITY OF A SPIDER

First impressions are lasting impressions, they say, and this is absolutely terrible for The Amazing Spider-Man, for although it ends with a 20 or 25-minute cluster of action scenes that more than passes muster as a rousing, suitably kinetic summer thrill dispensary, the first half of the 136-minute tentpole is stiff and unconvincing, not so much establishing characters and situations as it is dumps them all in a heap, hoping that some of the better bits end up on top. And even within that painfully uncompelling opening hour, the worst parts are heavily front-loaded, tracking all the way backwards until the movie's very opening scene, which is also its worst by a comfortable margin, and possibly the most irritating moment in any big superhero tentpole picture since the grueling slog of shitty CGI that stood in for the climax of 2008's The Incredible Hulk. That's a pretty bad first impression to survive, and it takes more than some reasonable entertaining disposable effects sequences that at their absolute best will cause nobody to forget that The Avengers just happened, like, two months ago.

That opening scene, by the way, throws us right into things: 4-year-old Peter Parker (Max Charles) is playing hide-and-seek with his dad, Richard (Campbell Scott), and upon looking in Richard's office, finds the window has been smashed and the room ransacked. Richard knows that This Means Something Terrible, and flees to an unknown location with his wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz), the couple leaving their son in the capable hands of his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), though Peter's hollow expression as they drive off promises a lifetime of daddy issues to come.

The fear has always been that TASM was going to be too close to Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man to be worth bothering; what nobody bothered to mention was how goddamn much it's also a retread Batman Begins.

But yes, that's the elephant in the room, isn't it? Ten years ago, Sam Raimi, writer David Koepp, and star Tobey Maguire filmed a version of the iconic story of how nervous teen geek Peter Parker was bitten by a mutated spider and given the proportional strength and reflexes of an arachnid; the movie made huge piles of money and was loved by just about everybody, and its 2004 sequel was loved even more, and it has only been five years since the largely not-loved-at-all Spider-Man 3 came out, and why exactly are we getting a reboot already?

The parsimonious answer is that, according to the terms by which Disney purchased Marvel Comics a couple of years back, if Sony didn't make a movie with Spider-Man in it by a certain point, the rights to the character would revert back to Disney without that company having to pay a single penny. In which regard The Amazing Spider-Man is nothing more than a bureaucratic gesture, exactly like the 1994, Roger Corman-spearheaded The Fantastic Four, albeit at a much higher level of artistry. Unfortunately, the film never really tries to make you forget it, either: not that it's made at any particular level of incompetence, but that it's made with absolutely no inspiration whatsoever. The trilogy of films directed by Sam Raimi all came from a specific and personal place within the filmmakers heart, even the much-derided third one, if you scrape out all the studio-imposed Venom nonsense. TASM certainly doesn't have the drive of the Raimi films, but it's not even excited to be silly fun, like the first Iron Man; it even manages to fumble the one thing that should have been absolutely the core building block of the entire project, making the 3-D images of Peter as Spider-Man thrilling and exciting on the level of raw spectacle (only about a dozen and a half shots in the entire film make even the slightest good use out of the gimmick; see it if you must, but for God's sake, do it in 2-D and save the $4 surcharge). The movie lacks energy or anything like a sense of playfulness; it has no real creative ideas to speak of other than taking the same basic core of the first Spider-Man, add the villain/hero relationship from Spider-Man 2, and add a gloss of urban grit, making it look more realistic and thus less interesting than the Raimi films, but not so "dark and edgy" that it actually feels like it's being done on purpose (indeed, the biggest step the film makes in the direction of Nolanisation is Spidey's new, more physically tangible and subdued costume; it is reminiscent of the pointlessly re-designed costume that was one of the many missteps of Superman Returns).

Anyway, the plot assembled by story writer James Vanderbilt, one of three separately credited others of the final screenplay (Harry Potter specialist Steve Kloves and Alvin Sargent of Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 are the others) is pretty basic stuff; 17-year-old Peter (now played by Andrew Garfield) is full of doubts and fears and so on and so forth, and when he finds some old papers of his dad's it sends him on a quest that leads to Richard Parker's old partner, biologist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans); it is in one of the labs Connors has set up to explore cross-species gene splicing that Peter gets bit by an experimental spider and you know where it goes from there; in the meanwhile, one of Richard's old formulas proves the key to stabilising an experimental serum, and once Peter gives him the key, Connors uses it to accidental transform himself into a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster with half-human, half-lizard DNA, terrorising New York if Peter can't use his newfound skills to save the day. At the same time, the teen is falling into a nervous, sweetly awkward romance with his school's resident pretty girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whose father, Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), is the cop who has made it is life's mission to stop this spider-themed vigilante making a mockery of New York's finest.

It is, in essence, Spider-Man 1 with Gwen in for Mary Jane Watson (in keeping with the original comics) and Captain Stacy in for J. Jonah Jameson (not in keeping with the original comics at all) and Connors absorbing elements of both Norman Osborn (an unseen presence in this movie) and Doc Ock from the second picture. With, I cannot stress this enough, the lost father motif from Batman Begins jammed way the fuck in where it doesn't belong. Parts of it work okay - Garfield and Stone, who began dating on set, have lovely onscreen chemistry, and their tentative dance of teenage romance is the only character-based stuff in the movie that works at all - parts of it are insipid - everything involving Ben and May is bitterly and inauthentically forced in, 'cause it wouldn't properly be Spider-Man's origin story without them. Most of the film just feels helplessly routine and bland, and would even if we didn't have Raimi's far more excited, pop-flavored take on broadly similar material to compare it to; Marc Webb, making only his second feature after the fanciful indie romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, either does not have or was not permitted by his studio handlers to have any strong personality, and the result is a movie that feels corporate-mandated and bereft of its own perspective even by the standards of a genre that has been refined by Marvel into such a dead zone of real directorial authorship.

As I said up top, it does eventually end up at some fight scenes (one in a sewer, one in a school, one on a skyscraper) that are all mostly fun to watch, though "mostly fun" is where Raimi's first two films started; it's nice to see the character of Spider-Man given back some of his sarcastic attitude, a way with quippy dialogue that has become iconic to the point of self-parody on the page, largely absent from Maguire's performance (though I am not otherwise very fond of what Garfield does with the character; I think the script, the director, and the studio all limited him terribly, but the sight of a skateboarding, petulant emo-rock angsty Peter Parker is not at all a good thing, regardless of whose fault it was). But it's too little, too late: the aggressively uninteresting gloomy character drama of the opening act leaves a sour taste that needed much more than "mostly fun" to redeem it, and if this is the best that Sony's desperate bid at hanging on to their cash cow can be, then whatever king's ransom Disney would have to pay to grab him back for itself would be a bargain at twice the price.

5/10

N.B. On a personal note, this film comes just a year after Green Lantern was so spectacularly pointless and drab, making two of my three favorite superheroes with woefully disappointing movies in a row. We are one less-than-flawless Batman film away from me giving up on the genre entirely.

16 comments:

Mysterious F. said...

I saw this at a midnight premiere, and the entire audience (myself included) laughed at nearly everything, whether it was the intentional comedy, the unintentional comedy, or the moments that were supposed to be very serious. To me (and several others there) this was one of those movies that is really, really bad, but in a very entertaining way.

Colin said...

Disappointing. I had my doubts about the film overall, but when I first heard Garfield had been cast as Peter Parker, I thought, "Perfect!" What a waste of a good and likable actor.

Pip said...

I think you're being a tad harsh. The trouble with comparing this film to the Raimi films is that we've had ten years of super-hero films since then. That have turned the release of a Spider-man film event into a drab routine. In 2002, Spider-man had never been on the big screen and there had been ONE other Super-hero blockbuster in the past DECADE (X-men, a completely different type of movie, if you ask me). TASM is one of three this YEAR. The reason this film seems tired is because it, to not fault of its own, is tired. Honestly, if this film had been released in 2002 not 2012, would everyone feel the same way?

Having said that, I think it could be argued that this movie was, on paper (if such a term could be applied to movies, which I know many people would argue against, but hear me out) the better film: TObey was lovable and quirky, but not much of an actor, Garfield attempted to play the role with some depth, which you have to give him credit for, even though he didn't have much to work with. The Gwen-Peter dynamic was, as you said, a vast improvement on MJ-Peter. Gwen and Peter actually have a lot in common, and it, to me, actually makes sense that they got together, and I will NEVER understand what Tobey's Peter saw in bubbly, airhead, shrieky MJ. It was more serious, more ambitious, and also a whole lot less fun, which isn't exactly my taste in a Spider-man movie, but to each his own.

To sum up my thoughts on the new film, I can't really fault it artistically. It was a fine, solid effort, but it suffers from being a wholly unnecessary one. It had good acting across the board, and I think more acting talent went into it than Raimi's films (this doesn't make it a better acted film, though). Still, Raimi's film was fresher, funner, funnier, and had more consistent direction (I will argue til my death that cheese in a Super-hero movie, particularly Spider-man, is not necessarily a bad thing).

The.Watcher said...

Yeah, I'll still go see it eventually, but I have zero expectations. I recently re-watched the three Raimi films, and SM1 was much better than I remembered, 2 was just as good as I remembered, and 3 was so bad I had to FF through certain parts. It's like Raimi took his hatred for the corporate system out on the audience.

The.Watcher said...

Say what you want about the balls it takes to have 50s-style musical numbers in your blockbuster, but I'll fight to the death that it's inexcusable and the main reason why the threequel became near-universally despised by audiences. And what the hell happened to Raimi's direction all of a sudden? NONE of the B-movie charm, awesome camera-angles or interesting camera placements made an appearance... it's like it was directed by someone else entirely. /Rant

KingKubrick said...

I find the existence of this film a dispiriting confirmation of the lack of creativity endemic to the hollywood system. Tim, you're spot on noting that superhero films are becoming very, very tired and stale. Say what you will about other Hollywood trends, e.g. slasher films, but at least they didn't try to sell us stale, reused ingredients and call it fresh (they just added a number to the title to let you know what you were in for). "The untold story"? Hardly.

Rick said...

The performances saved this from being a bad film. I didn't hate it as much as you did.

I don't read comics, but couldn't they have found another way of offing Uncle Ben. I groaned when I saw how he met his end, as well as when the Lizard discovered Spidey's identity.

I still think Spider-Man is a better film than this remake in all but name. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it.

Daniel Silberberg said...

"We are one less-than-flawless Batman film away"

Dude! Don't even joke about that!

jjjonatron said...

I think it's ridiculous to put that kind of weight on TDKR's shoulders... I think anyone who has the hopes that it'll be as perfect / as great as The Dark Knight is delusional. I'm expecting it to be better than Batman Begins, but I'm almost positive it won't reach the same highs as its predecessor. So maybe I'll go in and be surprised with the results, instead of pissed off and ttly over the comic book genre

Jonathan said...

How is Captain Stacy's involvement not keeping with the comics? Captain Stacy does play a fairly important role in the early issues of "Amazing" and the eventual outcome of his character is very much a part of the comics as well.

I also don't get the "Dark Knight" comparison. The "Daddy" issues have actually been addressed many times in the comics, so I don't get how that is forced. And considering the Post (or Mid) credits sequence, obviously this is playing a role in the set-up of the next film.

As for the teen angst Parker; I'm not a huge fan of that either, but they took that from the "Ultimate Spider-man" line which this movie seems to be following more than anything with a few exceptions (such as having the traditional older Aunt May).

Overall I found the movie to be very entertaining. All of the action sequences were well handled and the sewer scene, in particular, is quite impressive in how smart the set-up and execution are. The acting is quite a bit better, for the most part, than the Raimi films so it has that going for it.

And as far as the reboot debate, "Casino Royale" and "X-Men: First Class" were accepted by the masses and are essentially major reboots just a few years apart from the previous installment. Hell, "Batman Begins" was a mere 8 years after "Batman and Robin" which is not exactly a lifetime by any means.

I think people are being way too hard on this film for issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the final project. But to each his own. There will always be haters with any genre film I guess.

Kelsy said...

You know, I saw this yesterday to stave off boredom, and was pleasantly surprised. Granted, the editing seemed inconsistent and the soundtrack was everything I hate about modern movie soundtracks, but I enjoyed myself.

I think it boils down to a coherent plot. And the inherent charms of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. But mostly a coherent plot with a clear villain that actually has a face (even if it's a goofy lizard face). It was the first superhero movie in a while time that didn't feel like a long slog, even if it was a mediocre one.

Tim said...

Mysterious F. - Man, I wish I'd enjoyed it in a bad movie way. For the first chunk I was more bored out of my skull than anything else.

Colin- Right? Like, he should be a great Peter, and I still haven't figured out why he's not.

Pip- The thing is, though, I can re-watch the Raimi films even now, 20-odd superhero movies later, and it's still fresh and bright and fun. And I didn't get any of that with TASM at all. I think the bigger problem, specifically with Marvel properties, is that they've made a point of moving away from really inspired auteurs to people who will make a slick, competent product.

The.Watcher- Like I said, they re-watch well. Even, I though, 3 :P

KingKubrick- The difference being that you can make a slasher movie for pocket change, a superhero movie done even passably well costs $150 million+ and needs to appeal to everybody. And so there's not even the slightest possibility of doing anything original, because if one of them is too "different" to be widely-liked, that's Disney or Sony out a whole year's worth of income. So we get stale retreads.

Rick- I saw it as being the urban gritty version of Uncle Ben's death from SM1 - canonically, it has to be something like that, but there are of course good and bad ways to go about it. The Lizard thing was just a mess.

Daniel/jjonatron- I am, of course, mostly joking; I think it's more accurate to say that I've already given up on the genre through sheer tedium, and TDKR is the last chance I'll have of being reinvigorated. Also, it's worth pointing out that I think Begins is better than the first Dark Knight.

Jonathan- Maybe I've read the wrong storelines, I don't remember Captain Stacy being such a Jameson-esque "the Spider-Man is a menace who must be stopped!" ideologue. Nor have I read a page of the Ultimate Spider-Man books; the Ultimate universe on the whole strikes me as being a bit too over-the-top in its grimness.

And the Nolan comparison was because in this film, with its unmistakably Pfister-influenced cinematography, that felt to me more like a calculating marketing gesture than a true part of a character whose parents lives have never, in my experience, been an important part of his background.

Reboot-wise, I'd strenuously argue that First Class isn't, it's just a normal prequel (the Jackman cameo is a large part of my argument), and Bond is its own special thing. Batman is a good, indeed inarguable comparison; and really my only personal argument against rebooting Spider-Man is that the origin story was done so poorly here; and surely Spidey is well-known enough that they could have just started the movie after he was already an active superhero?

Kelsy- It is nicely self-contained and coherent, I'll spot you that. But I liked Captain America and Avengers enough that I can't bring myself to give the movie points just for being functional. Which is, I'll admit, a problem that the exposition-heavy Thor and Green Lantern couldn't quite overcome.

StephenM said...

I'll put in a vote for the movie, too. It wasn't as fresh and funny, true, but it was still fun and fairly satisfying. And personally, I thought the more grounded character work was the best part, and the final act felt a bit rushed. You say dumping characters in a heap, I say meeting them in an organic and believable way.

It did draw on Ultimate Spider-Man quite a bit--which I recommend, by the way. The Ultimate line as a whole has been too dark and over-the-top much of the time, but if you go back to the first few years of the series you'll find one of the best pure superhero stories of recent years, following a kid who feels like a real kid coping with powers, getting a girlfriend, etc., that's well-paced, hilarious, and generally hits my sweet-spots across the board.

Rick said...

I watched TASM with my brother Gabe. He gave it a D+, saying he had to find ways of entertaining himself as the film went on.

The best line when we saw it came not from the screen but from him. When The Lizard was attacking the bridge, he whispered, "It's Godzilla's Mini-Me." When Captain Stacy later asked Peter if he looked like the Mayor of Tokyo, we both burst out laughing and gave each other fist-bumps.

Wilgus said...

I'm so sad this movie made so much damn money.

Brian said...

Re-watching this, I liked it less than I did in the theater (and I didn't love it then) despite Stone's excellent performance.

On the other hand, I think it sets up a sequel incredibly well. There is a ton of room for it to move forward from.

Of course, if being compared to the first Raimi film hurt this one (and it did) then being compared to the best superhero movie ever made is going to make for tough sledding for the sequel.