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.
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.
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