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.