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Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man In Review

Much noise was made when Sony declared its intentions to start afresh with their profitable Spider-Man franchise, following three films with Sam Raimi and the decision to reboot made some way in to pre-production on a fourth instalment. To the credit of those behind the scenes the mind does boggle as to which direction Raimi and co. could have taken the existing franchise following the bloated third film in the series, with the slighter, more character driven work promised by new director, Marc Webb not only reading like a breath of fresh air, but arguably necessary in order to remain relevant in this second phase of the domination of the superhero genre within the blockbuster cinema. Spectacle has peaked, what the world demands now is character, the lifeblood of the comic-book source material and the reason that characters such as Peter Parker have remained relevant for half a century.

And thats what we get. Character. Spectacle, whilst present, is most certainly secondary with The Amazing Spider-Man. One might even say it’s shoe-horned in, and unnecessary to tell the story that Webb appears to be most interested in. It’s Parker’s relationships that take centre stage. At the centre of the film, as with all Spider-Man lore is Parker’s relationship with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. It’s in the wake of the death of his uncle that in which the Spider-Man was borne, vengeance leading to protector, and it’s in the relationship between Parker (played here by Andrew Garfield) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) that Webb’s movie really finds it’s heart and reason. This extends further to include Aunt May (Sally Field) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter’s first girlfriend, who between them form Parker’s foremost female relationships (the hangover of Gwen Stacy can still be felt in Spider-Man comics today). On a similar note, Webb introduces Peter’s parents, a pair of figures often overlooked elsewhere. 

There’s a welcome lack of postmodernity within the tone of Webb’s film (ignoring the notion that Spider-Man himself is a post-modern entity). The Amazing Spider-Man is not a deconstruction, nor is it an over-thought commentary on the state of the genre or anything of that ilk, but a straight, honest superhero flick with an emotional leaning. Some might argue that its the character driven angle thats the films greatest problem – it’s much slower than the average superhero movie, and at 136 minutes in length we’re looking at one of the longest single villain superhero movies to date. The villain himself, Rhys Ifans’Dr. Curt Connors aka The Lizard makes for an interesting counterpoint to Parker, the pair of them affected by experimentations with genetic splicing, one for the better, and the other driven insane with the potential. On a theoretical level he’s actually the perfect adversary, a Seth Brundle-esque mirror image of the protagonist, yet the performance lets the character down. Ifans’ turn isn’t bad, he just feels like the wrong man for the job. On the other hand Andrew Garfield is fantastic, and for the first time in live-action his Parker actually feels like a teenager coming to terms with great change. His extended “discovering powers” montage is updated for the now and full of the kind of whimsy one would expect of such a sequence, channeling his powers through skateboarding to great effect. Not only that, but his Parker feels like Spider-Man: the man in the suit moves like Parker, he doesn’t feel like a CGI creation or a perfectly built stuntman. He feels legitimate. 

While largely a success, the film is let down by a number of far too convenient coincidences. Though an interesting angle, the introduction and exploration of Peter Parker’s parents ultimately seems a little bit unnecessary, and even harms Parker’s relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. It also lends an unwelcome sense of inevitability to proceedings, which clashes with the core idiom of the everyman/any man nature of Peter Parker’s receiving of powers. By implying that Parker’s destiny was one long written, the tale almost becomes disingenuous. And then there’s the 3D. If ever there was an apt playground for 3D then one would have expected Spidey’s New York to be it, yet its a largely pointless affair, bar maybe a combined five minutes of swinging through the streets (Webb even cut out the awe-inspiring first person perspective long shot that so much of the films trailer hinged on). The character moments are actively dulled by the use of 3D too, both literally thanks to the light loss of the medium, and metaphorically too due to the barrier placed between the viewer and the people on screen. This is quite possibly the most character driven film shot in 3D to date, and from that perspective it really doesn’t work. That the 3D lets it down is even greater a shame given that the cinematography is so great. A nighttime SWAT team search for the Spider-Man is stunning to look at, evoking the finest paintings of Alex Ross (as opposed to the cartoony world of Marvel Ultimate universe, as some had feared). There’s a danger and a reality to the sequence, reminiscent of the opening moments of Bryan Singer’s second X-Men film, and the “Backup” sequence in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

To his credit Webb doesn’t try and shoehorn anything in, instead choosing to focus on the task at hand. The ambitious and open canvas of the Avengers films, and the intellectually driven thematics of Nolan’s Bat-movies are nowhere to be seen (although one might suspect that the foundations of a symbiotically driven future Spidey-foe have been laid in one character in particular). There’s no J. Jonah Jameson, with Denis Leary’s protective father taking on the over-the-top personal antagonist duties, and by extension no Daily Bugle bar a fleeting cameo by way of a headline. Webb dares to deviate from tradition and source for the sake of the picture, and this ought to be celebrated, although saying that, the lack of the most iconic Spidey speech is bewildering.

While a number of the films most interesting ideas remain largely undeveloped ultimately The Amazing Spider-Man is enjoyable mid-Summer fare, and at the very least makes for an interesting take on an origin we’ve all seen done countless times before: Having played witness to countless interpretations of the origins of Spider-Man across multiple mediums I can say with some degree of certainty that this is one of the better (read, most interesting) iterations. What might have been the preferred route would one stripped way back. No villains, no world to save, and no infuriatingly convenient coincidences, just a kid coping with his powers, which is the film that we get a glimpse of in here.

1 Comment

  1. In a world where the flawed but ambitious Prometheus is getting slain by just about everyone for a compromised script, awkward pacing and gaping plot holes, it is interesting to see how many people are giving Spider-Man a pass, when it is not only guilty of the same crimes, but it also lacks that aforementioned ambition.

    It is clear that if the film had a soul, it was ripped apart in editing. The story of Peter’s parents is the only thing that exists to justify another reboot of the series, and it is the thing that the editors have taken a knife too.

    In one scene Peter (seemingly and unbelievably for the first time) Googles his father’s name, and in what looks like an insert shot, we read that his parents were killed in a plane crash. Yet Peter talks about his parents as if they are alive. Plenty of clues remain that suggest Peter was the subject of a genetic experiment by his father, and his powers didn’t come from the spider bite.

    Perhaps fearing reactions, it seems Sony got cold feet here, and instead cut the film to make it as close to the traditional origin as possible. There has been a lot of praise for the first hour of The Amazing Spider-Man, and while certain scenes do work, overall there is a sense of ticking boxes. The movie almost knows that the audience already went through these scenes, and quickly moves forward. Thus we see Uncle Ben killed, but he is barely referenced in the rest of the film. Aunt May disappears from the bulk of the movie after Ben’s death. Everything is by the numbers; none of it feels like it matters.

    Comparisons are being made to Batman Begins, and it is undeserved. One of the great things about Begins, was a sense of a growing relationship between the man and the city. In Spider-Man he is just suddenly there one day. We get no sense what New York makes of it, nor whether he is having any effect on things. The reaction of the public is mostly off stage, and as such, New York, which is one of the characters of Spider-Man just feels like AnyCity USA.

    Of course there is one scene which I am sure people will bring up in reaction to this, but remember that a) that is down to one character who has a connection to Spidey and b) because we have no sense of public opinion, the scene just doesn’t come off nearly as triumphant as it should. There is a scene in the 2001 film which is similar, and while cheesy, feels like it is saying something about the character and the city.

    Performance wise, Garfield is good. But I have issues with his Peter Parker. He doesn’t seem like a kid who struggles at school against bullies. He takes pictures and skates and is into science. As 21 Jump Street correctly pointed out, nowadays this version of Peter Parker would be the cool kid, and Flash would be seen as a joke.

    There is no real arc to Parker – before he gets his powers he defends a kid from being bullied without question. The idea of Peter is a guy who is constantly trying to become the hero he wants to be. In Spider-Man he is already there before the bite, he just screws up indirectly.

    Emma Stone is good as well, but she has nothing to do but nice cutesy romantic stuff with Peter. Hey studios – don’t bother clapping for not making the lead girl a damsel in distress when your other solution is to shove her in a car.

    Rhys Ifans is…fine, I suppose. For the first half at least. I didn’t get a sense of tragedy or conflict about him. He made decisions in the film because the script demanded it, not because the audience felt a struggle within Connors.

    Sheen is Sheen. He does what he does and he does it well. He is poorly served by a script that is even afraid to put the words “With great power….” into his mouth and instead gives him a less succinct alternative. Sheen has that warmth and carries with him the working class ethic seen in Wall Street, along with the nobility of West Wing. But he plays the role pretty much the same way as he did in the Departed. I love him though, so that doesn’t bother me.

    The film really comes apart in the second half of the film. In one scene the Lizard is trying to stop someone from experimenting on other humans. Yet later on he…experiments on humans. Questions abound, such as why the police need to wait for Spider-Man to get to the tower? Did no one think about shooting at the tower and bring it down?

    Why exactly was the Lizard at Peter’s school? Couldn’t he have just been getting on with his plan? Peter didn’t seem too bothered seeing as he was in the building. Was the Lizard unable to switch off his PC in the sewers, so as to not clue in anyone who might find it, about what his master plan was? That might have been helpful. The neat little lizard graphics rampaging around the city were a cute little addition that he somehow had the time to design up. I also wanted to see the scene where Connors was hauling all that equipment down into the sewers and trying to set it up.

    It was also great that the super secure building which is established as being super secure didn’t have any security cameras or security guards around the secure room with all the genetically modified spiders. Peter wanders around with ease. Why?

    Because the script has to let him wander around. I am not even sure why he went off – I suppose he couldn’t just go up to the door of the scientist he wanted to speak to and introduce himself….oh wait.

    Talking of which -
    “Peter, your father and I spent decades trying to perfect the formula, but it was all for nothing. I am still looking…hoping one day that I can…”
    “Here you go”
    “What’s this?”
    “The formula”
    “Oh, cheers!”

    The films action, what little there is of it by the way, is rote, and without much in the way of an objective. Bad guy jumps at Spider-Man, he shoots lots of webbing, Lizard breaks free. Rinse. Repeat. There is no creativity, and in fact the best moment of all the fights scenes is when it is in the background as payoff to a joke.

    Now I haven’t really gone into a comparison with the first Spider-Man but how can it be avoided when this film treads the same ground? I am not a huge fan of the Raimi films – indeed I outright hate number 3. But the first one, while dated, took time to build its world, and its relationships. Even as you knew Norman Osborne was going to be a bad guy, you were sort of touched when he seemed to take Peter under his wing. The dynamics between the kids felt real. You got to know Ben before he was taken away. The movie wasn’t seemingly devoted to setting up a sequel (Norman Osborne is dying! But we won’t show you his face. No siree). And it allowed itself to be comic book big.

    Now, no one is asking Amazing Spider Man to be a replication of the first one, but what I would like to have seen was a take distinct, yet still given time to breathe. For example both films have the bad guy doing an internal monologue to themselves. But with Lizard it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t return. With Norman it is the next step towards madness, and Dafoe really sells that moment. If you are going to repeat specific moments from the first film, you better make darn sure you can do it just as well, or better. Heck they even had a scene after the final battle where Spidey has to make a promise which causes him pain.

    And that is the problem. Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t do enough to make itself distinct, and in those areas where it repeats what has come before, it is the inferior version of those events.

    The best bit is at the end, when Spidey does his final swing around the city (as done in previous films) and it looks like he blows his load over the audience in a triumphant final shot. I doubt I could come up with a better metaphor for my feelings about this film.

    2 stars because I like the actors. And the mouse-lizard. He was awesome. Want a whole film about him.

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