The (Not So) Amazing Spider-Man

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: it is incredibly strange that, in 2012, we are already getting a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise.  Quite simply, it feels way too soon, as Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy ended just five years ago.  Also, most people seemed to like Raimi’s films and his interpretation of Spider-Man — his ‘Spider-Man 2’ routinely ranks as one of the best superhero movies ever made.  Even if the last film, ‘Spider-Man 3,’ was something of a mixed bag, it’s not as if there was a desperate outcry from the fan base demanding a whole new version of the character*.  So, what exactly Sony is doing by giving us this reboot as if we either forgot about or completely hated Raimi’s films is a complete mystery to me.  I suppose it comes down to money and the rights to the character; you know, the dark side of capitalism.  But hey, as long as this film is a fresh, original, bold new take on the Spider-Man mythos, it’s a welcome addition in my book.

Too bad it isn’t.

Which isn’t to say that it’s completely awful, either.  It has some good things going for it, most notably the performances of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who are both exquisite in their respective roles as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.  Garfield, with his perfect mix of insecurity and bravado, has the potential to be a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, and Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a more interesting character than Mary Jane ever was in the Raimi films.  Also, the film boasts some impressive visuals and cinematography, which contribute to fun action scenes.  (If you can, see this film in IMAX 3D).  In short, it is entertaining.

But there’s one big problem here that cripples this film: plot.  Instead of taking the opportunity to give us a completely different and exciting adventure, the filmmakers decided to use the origin story from 2002’s ‘Spider-Man’ as the template for telling this one.  The result is that ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ feels almost like a carbon (but inferior) copy of ‘Spider-Man’, following many of the same plot points WAY TOO CLOSELY.  Seriously, so many of the events in this movie mirror those of its decade old predecessor, but whereas Raimi knew how to give dramatic weight and importance to those events, here they come off as shallow and derivative.  Scenes feel rushed, critical moments feel disrespected, plot threads that should be of utmost significance are dropped, never to be spoken of again; and despite the film’s impressive leads, the other characters are grossly underdeveloped and underutilized.  I cried when Uncle Ben died in 2002.  I couldn’t care less when he died in 2012.  It all comes across as a cheap imitation rather than a reinvention.

Now, before I get attacked for not knowing the comics, let me just say that maybe the filmmakers didn’t actively decide to use the 2002 ‘Spider-Man’ as a template, maybe both movies just draw on the same classic origin story of Spider-Man and this film is just being faithful to the original premise.  Ordinarily I might applaud such a thing; but, again, we’ve already seen this story and it was done better in 2002.  ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, as a reboot, is supposed to be new and different.  If they were going to do the exact same thing that Raimi did, why are they bothering to reboot this at all? (Commercial reasons, I know. It was a rhetorical question.)  Why not pull a James Bond and have this be a continuation of the Raimi series but with a different director and actor behind the mask?  Or, if it must be a reboot, why not pull a ‘Batman’ 1989 and have this story already start with Peter Parker as Spider-Man?  Why not skip the origin thing all together and just jump into an original story?  Or have the origin be in flashbacks.  Or something, anything other than spoon-feeding us a watered-down version of what we saw in 2002.

Anyways, that is the critical failure of this film, that it chooses not to take any kind of risk and instead gives us more of the same, except that it’s actually a little worse this time around.  It feels more like a remake than a reboot, and only an okay one at that.  Even without the Raimi series to compare with, if this film had come out as is, it would still seem only average.

Average, but entertaining. Despite my incredible frustration with the creative decisions behind this movie, it is fun and is worth seeing for Garfield’s and Stone’s performances as well as the action. And it is doing well, both critically and commercially, so obviously a lot of people aren’t as frustrated as I am about it; you out there might very well enjoy this film more than I did.

Personally, I actually do want this film to be a success; because then, like ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ — with which it shares many of the same problems — it might get a nice ‘Wrath of Khan’ treatment.  If and when Garfield and Stone’s characters are let loose in an all new Spider-Man epic that breaks free of the trappings of Raimi’s films, I’m all in.  Until then, I’m sticking to the older Spider-Man trilogy, which I already own on DVD.  If nothing else, at least it’s cheaper.

*None that I heard of anyways.

Spider-man

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Moral, big-hearted and accessible superhero action, lacking the strong thematic interplay that has made subsequent superhero movies great.

Review:  After 2000’s ‘X-Men’ helped resurrect the cinematic future of superheroes everywhere, it was inevitable that Marvel Comic’s flagship character would finally get his proper live action adaptation.  The project was in development hell since at least the 80’s, and at one time was attached to James Cameron — with an awful script.  Thankfully, it eventually ended up in popular cult filmmaker Sam Raimi’s capable hands, with a screenplay by David Koepp.  The ultimate result helped cement the public’s faith in this new generation of superhero movies, made lots and lots of money, and was pretty darn good.

It’s easy to look back at ‘Spider-man’ with cynicism after the uber-excellent Nolan ‘Batman’ movies, which have taken all new superhero films to the next level of expectation and story complexity.  It’s the family-friendly, sometimes comic and very high-spirited kind of ethos that defined Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ that the filmmakers draw on for ‘Spider-man’, and thank God they did, since it was a movie set in New York that was released the summer after 9/11/2001.  The angsty-ness that is present in ‘Spider-man’ is much more subdued and related to the coming-of-age story that forms its backbone.  ‘Spider-man’ was a crucial breath of fresh air after the baptism of fire that had defined the previous Fall, and the coming-of-age story, centered on personal tragedy and the loss of security, resonated with young people.  For young adults who saw the movie that summer, the classic ‘Spider-man’ moral of “With great power comes great responsibility” meant something.  With the War on Terror threatening to consume their future, and faith in U.S. homeland security dramatically lessened, I wonder how many of them drew upon their great power of courage and took up the great responsibility of a soldier?

As a standalone film, though, just how good is it?  Well… still pretty good.  Though it has some strong themes, it would’ve benefitted from greater complexity, in my opinion, but as I said, it may also be best that it didn’t try to be more.  It has its goofiness, and the Green Goblin design isn’t that great.  The optimism and strength of the performances are what sell the movie.  Special effects had not quite yet caught up with the potential of the superhero, but they would for the sequels.  Danny Elfman proved he can write more than one great superhero score.  I laud his ‘Batman’ stuff a lot, but this score is pretty close.

Highly recommended, even for fans of ‘The Dark Knight’.  It makes a good, lighter counterpoint, but lacks the epicness of Donner’s ‘Superman’.