Did we really have to see Uncle Ben die all over again?
Actually, no. Despite the studio hype accompanying the release of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a reboot of the franchise was neither inevitable nor necessary.
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Sam Raimi, who directed the original three films, was in preproduction on what would have been “Spider-Man 4,” but studio honchos jerked him around, forcing him to redraft script after script. They wanted him to include characters he disliked (as they did with Venom in “Spider-Man 3”), and they nixed characters he wanted. Their first objection was his desire to make the Lizard a villain. We don’t want a CGI bad guy, they told him. Remember that; it comes into play later.
After more than a year of this, Raimi politely (at least in public) stated he would not be able to hit the targeted release date and walked away. Less than two weeks later, the studio announced they had a new Spider-Man film in the works that would reboot the franchise with a new cast a la “Batman Begins.” In other words, they would retell the origin story for a series less than a decade old, and we would indeed have to watch Uncle Ben die all over again.
You would think director Mark Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) would get the origin story out of the way as quickly as possible. Instead, he drags it out. A full hour passes before the new Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) dons his red-and-blue costume, and he doesn’t call himself Spider-Man for another half hour after that. (He probably should have thought up the name before designing a costume with a big spider on his chest, but never mind.)
So an origin story that many filmgoers already know occupies roughly 90 minutes of the film’s two hours and 16 minutes. That’s nearly the same running time as “The Avengers,” which features four major and three minor superheroes to “Amazing’s” one. To be fair, “The Avengers” didn’t have to rehash any origins. But “Amazing” didn’t have to rehash Spidey’s origin either. The filmmakers could have recast the lead and carried on, like they used to do with James Bond.
Understandably, Webb and his screenwriters (James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves receive credit) overhaul the origin so audiences won’t complain about watching the exact story again. But by revamping the origin, they make changes that fundamentally alter the character.
The two biggest changes involve the spider bite that gives Peter his powers and the circumstances leading up to Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) death. I won’t spoil the Uncle Ben stuff, but the spider bite really bugs me (sorry).
Gone is the notion that Peter receives his powers from a random accident. Instead, Peter plays junior sleuth in the Oscorp chemical corporation headquarters and sneaks into a lab containing thousands of mutated/genetically altered/irradiated spiders (the filmmakers cover all their bases this time). He immediately starts tugging on their webs (remember, he’s supposed to be a genius), antagonizing them so that thousands of spiders descend upon him and one bites him.
In every other retelling of Spider-Man’s origin, Peter Parker is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, he is an impetuous lunkhead asking for trouble.
That follows the film’s overall desire for a younger, edgier Peter Parker. You can tell he’s edgier because he zips about on a skateboard and mopes inside a black hoodie. Garfield broods and mopes a lot. He is simultaneously whinier yet more aggressive than his counterpart in the comics and the Tobey Maguire films.
He is younger because the filmmakers, irrationally trying to tap that “Twilight” vibe, have decided Peter Parker will remain in high school indefinitely. Raimi wisely fast-forwarded the action to college as soon as he could so no one could snigger about twentysomething actors playing teenagers. Garfield, who is 28, can still pass for 17, but his 23-year-old co-star Emma Stone, playing Gwen Stacy, already looks like she’s been left back a few years to be a high school senior.
The tone and atmosphere suggest the filmmakers wanted to make a Batman movie, but since the Dark Knight was spoken for, they settled for Spider-Man. Cinematographer John Schwartzman drapes the screen in grim and gritty blacks and grays. Most of the action takes place at night or underground, as it would for Batman. When Spidey begins his crime fighting career, he is a flat-out urban vigilante using his web shooters (mechanical this time, as in the comic) as weapons and insulting muggers way below his power level. The wisecracking is supposed to make him closer to the comic character, but Spidey comes across as a sadistic jerk.
Most of the films based on Marvel superheroes have hewed close to the spirit of the company’s 1960s heyday, that rambunctious era when Stan Lee and collaborators Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (every other character) reinvented comics. Webb and the producers are too cool for old school, though. “Amazing” reflects the dour worldview of the current Marvel Universe, a world where Captain America can be assassinated by a sniper and Spider-Man can (and did) make a deal with the devil to erase his marriage to Mary Jane Watson from history.
Apparently that worked, because Mary Jane is nowhere to be found. Neither is cantankerous newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson. Their roles have been supplanted by Gwen and her father, police Capt. George Stacy (Dennis Leary).
Stone is pluckier than her demure four-color inspiration, a character killed in the comic books nearly 40 years ago, but Gwen is still more grating than sympathetic. The script does Gwen few favors by making her an Oscorp intern with an alarmingly high security clearance. This is supposed to be the country’s leading military contractor, and a 17-year-old can have the run of its skyscraper headquarters?
One stalwart supporting character still around is Aunt May, now played by Sally Field. She receives little to do but cry and fret, so the role is a huge waste of an Oscar-winning actress. The way Peter comes home every night looking like a motorcycle gang took turns kicking him in the face, Aunt May also lives in a creepy denial.
Webb is too successful in creating a darker, more realistic landscape for Spider-Man. By the time Peter tells Captain Stacy, “Dr. Curtis Connors has transformed himself into a giant lizard!” our reaction is as incredulous as the captain’s. The Lizard is too much a science-fiction character for a film that looks like an episode of “Law & Order.”
And, yes, it looks like the studio executives’ objection to the CGI Lizard ended the moment they drove Raimi off the project. Peter seeks out Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans) because he once worked alongside Peter’s father running genetic experiments at Oscorp. “Amazing” further muddles Spidey’s origin by implying his father was splicing spider genes on orders from Norman Osborn, the future (?) Green Goblin who is frequently mentioned but never seen. This dangling story thread will be picked up in the second or, Lord help us, third movie.
Missing an arm, Dr. Connors is obsessed with creating a formula that will allow humans to regrow limbs as lizards do. He makes himself a test subject, and you can guess the rest. Unfortunately, the Lizard’s origin story is as longwinded as Spidey’s.
Garfield’s performance is fine as long as you don’t mind the film’s new interpretation of Peter Parker. I do. I might have forgiven some of Webb’s revisionism if it weren’t for his turtle-racing-a-snail-through-molasses pacing, particularly when we already know the major plot points of the first 90 minutes and get sick of waiting for them. Cripes, stop sulking and climb a wall already! Superhero movies should not be this boring.
The action, when it comes, is decent, but not worth seeing in 3-D because the cinematography is usually dark. The special effects for Spidey’s web swinging haven’t improved significantly, so all these sequences look the same as in the Raimi films. For me, this was nostalgia.
The filmmakers set out to create a different Spider-Man and a different Peter Parker. This they do.
Anyone desiring a more sullen interpretation will be pleased, and they can have it. I love this character dearly, I have since I was 5, and “The Amazing Spider-Man” is not Spider-Man to me. I’m devoted to the hero who lives by the motto “With great power comes great responsibility.” Webb and Garfield have reinterpreted this to “With great power comes great petulance.”
“The Amazing Spider-Man”
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Who’s in it: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen
What’s it about: Teenager Peter Parker develops super powers after a mutated spider bites him. As Peter awkwardly woos classmate Gwen Stacy (Stone) and argues with his Uncle Ben (Sheen), a scientist (Ifans) develops a serum he hopes will regrow his missing arm, but it turns him into a giant lizard.