By Richard von Busack
This emo and bloody reboot is about how our hero fights a nine foot tall lizard-man. But it’s so muddled that it’s hard to tell what else The Amazing Spider-Man is about.
Some of the key fighting in The Amazing Spider-Man (beginning at midnight tonight; tickets and showtimes here) occurs in sewers instead of in the air.
Its look is gritty and nocturnal, and the technology is meant to look more real-world, as if in honor of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Our hero has mechanical web-dispensers instead of mutant neo-human spinnerets on his wrists.
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is a blocked, tormented adolescent with mood swings. He rides a skateboard. Sometimes he’s dangerously cocky, sometimes he’s too shy to say a coherent sentence to the girl he loves.
2002 was not that long ago. We can prove that by how much The Amazing Spider-Man tries to emulate Spider-Man (2002), from its substantial beauty as a love story to its fairy tale motto: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. The last has been Twitterfied: “Not choice. Responsibility!”
Spider-Man (2002) explained its moral dilemmas with schoolbook sincerity. That’s not the best way to approach a story. Yet one forgave the children’s story side. The Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst worked as a fairy tale. The “Surrender Spidey” arrival of the Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, in a sky-sled with smoke belching from it, was a particularly deft swipe from The Wizard of Oz.
Even too-theatrical moments (Rosemary Harris’s Aunt May shouting “Deliver me from evil!”) fit the grander side of a fable of a gifted young man resisting the sell-out and sticking with non-profit work. As tried to lure Spider-Man into a pact to dominate the weaklings of the world, the Green Goblin was the long green in the flesh. (“I’ll make this costume my favorite color: green!” said the wealthy corporate overlord Norman Osborn in a 1966 Marvel comic.)
In its simple good and evil storytelling, Spider-Man (2002) was elemental moviemaking. But it was a trick that can’t be done often. It’s probably thought that a modern audience, worn after years of war and economic depression, would be disgusted at anyone refusing a good job offer…even Spider-Man.
So director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) has to amaze with technology. Pixel-herding has improved in the last decade, so this works about a third of the time in The Amazing Spider-Man. (The smash-mouthness of this new one makes for superb trailers. As Pauline Kael wrote of a different film: you see the coming attractions on TV and can’t wait to see the movie, and then you remember you already saw the movie.) The 3D isn’t a must for the film; it has the flat, synthetic look of Viewmaster slides. The 3D works against what IMAX does best, when depicting a plummet from a skyscraper, as in various moments in Nolan, or as in Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Get past the well-animated fight scenes, and then there’s the other two-thirds of The Amazing Spider-Man, a long and slow replay of the origin story, now with extra coincidence added.
After the mysterious disappearance of his father, Peter Parker is raised by his uncle (Martin Sheen) and his aunt. They’ve come down in the world a little. Aunt May, played by Sally Fields, she seems to have only one t-shirt, honoring the bridge worker’s union.
Fields brings more than feist to the role. The movie’s best line is May’s reaction to her nephew’s serious bruises: “Where do you go? Who does that to you?” Moments like that snapped the film out of superhero opera into believable drama.
It snaps back. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane shaped Spider-Man (2002) from beginning to end: Peter Parker said he loved her before he even knew he liked girls. Dunst has the charisma that makes conventionally pretty girls look boring; the imperfect teeth and the register of the voice, the way she found some humor in the standard Marvel Comics alliteration, even in the saddest moments (“Friends, Peter Parker?”) She was a misfit too, hated by her father, poor enough to think the weakling Harry Osborn (James Franco) would offer security.
By contrast, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy bungees in and out of the film. She goes where she’s took or where she’s put. We don’t even see the romantic ride Spider-Man takes her on around the town; Webb cuts away to some other action. In one scene, Gwen seems to be ready to become a hostage, but for some reason even the villain isn’t interested. He may have Nietzsche-sized plans, but this Lizard is too easily discouraged by an improvised weapon.
Stone, dyed blond, is, as always, as bright and merry as they come. She lights up the film when she arrives. But Gwen isn’t much of a part. Gwen Stacy is the daughter of the police chief (Denis Leary) who is waiting to put Spider-Man in jail. She’s also an intern at the Osborn Corporation, where they’re trying to implement “A World Without Weakness.”
The idea is that Peter Parker is a bad boy, who sneaks in to the Osborn Corporation with Gwen’s help. Chief Stacy wouldn’t approve of him. If Stone’s work seem uncertain, maybe it’s because she’s always there in the scenes of the Canadian cleanliness of their high school…moments that don’t match the urban world we’re seeing elsewhere. And it’s hard to understand how Gwen excuses Peter when he crawls in through her fire escape, before they really get to know each other. The Amazing Spider-Man’s biggest problem is how its views of urban life suddenly turns suburban.
It takes until The Amazing Spider-Man’s last 45 minutes to get the ball rolling, with the pursuit of a wounded Spider-Man by police helicopters. He’s a public enemy trying to save the city, helped by the Joe Lunchboxes who honor him.
“World’s leading herpetologist” Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is this installment's scientific disaster victim. Resembling Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, the transformed Dr. Connors is a realistically animated and distinguished Marvel villain at large. Watching this Lizard is a surprise. It’s like first viewing of an Alex Ross drawing, when you realize how a cartoonist’s vision a hero or villain would look in real life.
The monster looks great. What he is, though, isn’t quite as clear. We could feel for Norman Osborn’s chemical-induced schizophrenia, for Flint “The Sandman” Marko’s Jean Valjean desperation, or the catastrophe that twisted Dr. Octavius. Connors’ pain just looks like self-pity…and Peter Parker has enough of that for any movie.