(by Dustin Putman
When a studio reboots a franchise, starting from scratch while unavoidably having to repeat much of the same subject matter, comparisons are inevitable. Usually, though, the turnaround doesn't occur five quick years down the line (well, okay, this also happened with 2003's "Hulk" and 2008's "The Incredible Hulk"). In keeping this rather undesirable ritual going, Columbia Pictures has found a new creative team, a new cast, and added an adjective to the title ("What's better than 'Spider-Man'?" one studio exec probably said during pre-production. "How about 'The Amazing Spider-Man'?"). While 2002's "Spider-Man," 2004's "Spider-Man 2," and 2007's "Spider-Man 3" marked that rare trilogy that remained consistently successful over three films, its particular story and character arcs involving Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson, and Harry Osborn had admittedly played themselves out by the end of the last one. For this so-called "re-imagining," director Sam Raimi is out and Marc Webb (2009's "(500) Days of Summer") is in, taking on a daunting summer tentpole about one hundred times bigger in size than his lovely indie debut. Meanwhile, screenwriting duties fall to sole returnee Alvin Sargent, and is extended to James Vanderbilt (2010's "The Losers") and Steve Kloves (2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"). As for the lead actor, 28-year-old Andrew Garfield (2010's "The Social Network") has been chosen to play 17-year-old Peter Parker because, apparently, there are no talented actual teenagers in Hollywood. Article continues below
If the original "Spider-Man" films were colorful, slightly heightened, and played up their Marvel comic book roots, then "The Amazing Spider-Man" goes for a grittier, more morose tone. And if the very first "Spider-Man" detailed how high-schooler Peter Parker turned from clumsy outcast into a crime-fighting superhero after getting bit by a genetically-enhanced spider, well, that's pretty much spot-on what this one's about, too, right down to most of the same narrative beats. Watching it, one cannot avoid a feeling of déjà vu, a creeping weariness that gradually sets in over having to sit through material that was covered perfectly well—and better, for the most part—a decade earlier. For a filmmaker whose only major previous credit was for a winning, albeit low-budget, romance, Marc Webb acquits himself commendably. It's a generally well-made picture, better for its visuals than its human component. But did it need to be made, and so soon?
When Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) was just a young boy, his parents - scientist Richard (Campbell Scott) and wife Mary (Embeth Davidtz) - mysteriously fled in the night, leaving him in the care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Roughly ten years later, Peter is a loner at school, but not afraid to stick up for himself and others even if it means getting pummeled by the hotheaded Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka). His attempt to help out a fellow student getting beat up puts him in the same orbit as comely classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Peter is helplessly smitten, but his crush is put on the temporary backburner following two life-changing events: he is bitten by a spider while attending an intern day at biological company Oscorp - the catalyst for suddenly gaining super-strength and extra agility - and his Uncle Ben is gunned down by a thief that Peter blames himself over not stopping. Hungry for vengeance, he first begins to prowl the nighttime streets of Manhattan in search of the culprit, then eventually transforms into a mysterious, web-slinging masked crusader of the city. As he and Gwen fall for each other, much to the chagrin of her father, Police Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), the newly-labeled "Spider-Man" faces his first majorly dangerous foe: his father's former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose molecular invention has transformed him into the psychopathic Lizard, hell-bent on infecting the entire city.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" is better than the former alternate universe of "Spider-Man" flicks in one minor, but not insignificant, way: the special effects involved in our title hero's high-flying jaunts through New York City as he perilously web-slings from one skyscraper to the next look markedly realer - and scarier. If Raimi's pictures concentrated on the uplifting grandeur of Peter Parker's abilities, this new film sees them as serious death-defying feats, at any moment threatening to give out. With one false move, with one web that does not properly attach itself to a structure of some sort, it could be all over. The threat of this - and the seamless computer effects that place Peter in his metropolis surroundings - should give anyone with a fear of heights or a case of vertigo the armrest-clenching heebie-jeebies. Any time Spidey is dangling hundreds of feet in the air, chasing after bad guys or trying to reach citizens in need, the film figuratively and quite literally reaches genuinely rousing heights.
The rest of the picture, while ably handled enough to be worth the while of fans and popcorn movie enthusiasts, is a mixed bag. Because the first act will be particularly familiar for those aware of the characters and general premise, director Marc Webb spends too much time organizing all the chess pieces leading up to the title alter-ego reveal. Peter's relationship with his aunt and uncle, leading to Ben's untimely death, is about what is to be expected, if a tad harsher in playing up Peter's subsequent guilt. His school life, where he is more an outsider than an outright nerd, feels like an uninspired John Hughes wannabe. As for his eventual romance with Gwen Stacy, the narrative plays by the obligatory numbers. Whereas Peter and a more complicated Mary Jane felt like soul mates in the earlier "Spider-Man" movies, aided by Tobey Maguire's and Kirsten Dunst's substantial chemistry, the bond with Gwen lacks the same gravitas, replaced by a lot of almost sleazy heavy petting that becomes rather overbearing in the second half.
When Andrew Garfield was cast as the lead last year, the immediate reaction many had was that he was too old and not quite right for the part of a teenage Peter Parker. Yes, Tobey Maguire was roughly the same age when he made "Spider-Man" in 2002, but he had a more immediately youthful and disarming quality about him. Having now seen "The Amazing Spider-Man," Garfield still looks too old, but the actor does his best capturing the mannerism and speech of someone ten years younger. There is a rougher edge to his version of Peter and Spider-Man, less completely likable than faithful and businesslike, but it works fine. As Gwen, there is nothing negative to say about the usually radiant Emma Stone (2011's "The Help") other than that her character should have been better developed and beefed up to avoid the temptation of categorizing her as a mere "love interest." Martin Sheen (2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") and Sally Field (2003's "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde") are steadfast and comforting as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, respectively, while Rhys Ifans (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement") gets to play with different shades and darker intentions as Dr. Curt Connors, his mostly well-meaning side radically overtaken when The Lizard comes out to wreak havoc. As villains go, he's not quite as indelible as Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, but comes close in at least one scene where he stalks a hiding Gwen in a laboratory to the piano-crunching chords of James Horner's (2009's "Avatar") horror-tinged score.
If not as tightly paced or even as emotionally gratifying as its forefather, "The Amazing Spider-Man" delivers spectacle and a hard choice near the end that suggests this rebooted series, like Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy, may fully come into its own with a superior second entry that has already gotten the familiar setup out of the way. This one must be judged alone, however, and there is no getting around its been-there-done-that tedium and underlying reason for being: Columbia Pictures was desperate to add another surefire franchise release to their schedule, even if it meant returning to a well dipped into a measly half-decade ago. "The Amazing Spider-Man" can be immersive - the climax is certainly pulled off on an ornate scale - but does it also capture a comparable pure heart and freshness to Raimi's vision? No. Its creation and conception simply smell of too much cynicism.