Much time and energy has been spent bemoaning the existence of The Amazing Spider-Man when three financially successful Spider-Man films were released all within the last decade. In particular, Spider-Man 2 was exceptional, with many feeling, and count me amongst them, that the film belongs on the top shelf of the greatest superhero adaptations ever made. After scoring the series’ biggest financial success, but also the loudest and most jagged critical response yet, 2007’s Spider-Man 3 left many people cold. Lead actor Tobey Maguire had taken the character of Peter Parker as far as he felt he could and director Sam Raimi fell into “creative differences” with Columbia Pictures over the direction a fourth film would take. Spider-Man, as a franchise, was placed on the shelf.
After much delay and discussion, Columbia Pictures opted to reboot the entire Raimi franchise, almost unheard of for a series so young, and commissioned director Marc Webb ((500) Days Of Summer) to helm the project. After a screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Losers) was rebooted in its own right by Alvin Sargent, who has had a hand in writing all of the Spider-Man films, and Harry Potter adaptator-extraordinare Steve Kloves, The Amazing Spider-Man arrived in July 2012 to much anticipation, tilted-head confusion, and the curiosity of whether Andrew Garfield can slide into the Spider-Man suit effectively.
The Amazing Spider-Man is saddled not only by its unnecessary existence but also by the fact that that adjective in its title – Amazing – sets it up to fail. While not a bad movie, it is contentedly mediocre and you feel every second of its 136 minute running time. There are some excellent sequences and moments that make this passable, with the film barely rescued by a great supporting cast and two excellent performances from Garfield and Emma Stone.
Essentially, we are reintroduced to how Peter Parker goes from an awkward, misfit, slightly unstable, photography-obsessed high school kid to the iconic superhero who captivates the world. A bite from a genetically modified spider at the ominous Oscorp research facility induces incredible spider-like abilities in Peter and initially he uses them to exact revenge on the kid who bullies him, Flash (Chris Zylka). However, Peter does a little investigating and discovers that his father, Richard (Campbell Scott), has a connection to Oscorp and lead scientist, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who is working on a way to regenerate limbs. Connors, himself needing regeneration, is given an algorithm from Peter, devised by his father. Connors and Peter discover the serum they have developed works on laboratory mice and human trials are immediately ordered by the mysterious Dr. Ratha (Irfan Khan).
Ratha has ulterior motives but Connors begins to see the power in what he has designed when the serum regenerates his missing arm. As Peter comes to terms with his abilities and continues to catch the eye of the alluring Gwen Stacy (Stone), an escalating series of events leads his crime-fighting alter-ego on a collision course with Oscorp and Dr. Connors, who has now transformed into a superhuman hybrid human/lizard creature and seeks to use his new found abilities to transform everyone into hybrid lizard people.
Read that again, I will wait.
Superhero films, by their very design, must be somewhat outlandish. But alongside the fantastical elements of what is happening, motivations have to exist in some tangible form. For Curt Connors, or The Lizard, there is nothing unique, intriguing, or revelatory in how he becomes the Bad Guy. Sure, you can certainly argue with me that on a surface level his motivations make sense, but the screenplay never moves beyond the surface in establishing any depth to Connors’ character. In previous entries, we had some understanding of what made Norman Osborn become The Green Goblin in Spider-Man and the Doc Ock storyline was expertly written and performed by Albert Molina in Spider-Man 2. Even as Spider-Man 3 overstayed its welcome with countless plotlines and too many villains to keep track of, you could still navigate through the motivations of the Sandman, Venom, and the New Goblin. Sadly with The Lizard, we just have a guy who is nice and means well, but turns bad and espouses dialogue and actions that are all way too familiar and convenient.
Where the film excels is in the work of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. Garfield was a curious, but ultimately fantastic choice to embody this relaunched Spider-Man. Although it is hard to get past the fact that he looks too old to play a high-school aged Peter Parker, Garfield balances emotional angst, despair, and frustrations, and a curious innocence better than Tobey Maguire could and in their initial moments together, it becomes quite clear how Garfield and Emma Stone fell for one another in real life making the film. Stone is terrific and in pointing out positives, her Gwen is held back from the happenings just enough to see her character grow and prosper in what is inevitably going to be The Amazing Spider-Man 2. If you can structure the series around Garfield and Stone, there is still some hope that this series of films will, in totality, become special or perhaps even better from start to finish than the Raimi/McGuire/Kirsten Dunst franchise.
Supporting turns from Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Parker’s grandparents work well and Denis Leary delivers a surprisingly effective turn as Gwen’s father, George, the police chief looking to capture the elusive Spider-Man. And while Marc Webb again shows he can handle depth of character, even in a summer blockbuster movie event, he buckles a bit with scope and scale; his action sequences and maneuvering through the story rather weak and repetitive.
I vacillate on whether or not to recommend The Amazing Spider-Man. In many ways, it underwhelms and even disappoints, especially in its slow beginnings and the lackluster personality turn by Connors into The Lizard. It is almost unforgivable that a terrific performance from Andrew Garfield is nearly wasted from the mundane and dialogue-heavy first hour. And yet, there are enough moments to draw you in and perhaps Marc Webb is simply trying to get his legs under him for more Amazing Spider-Man films in the future. While that is somewhat understandable, the risk here is that you have rebooted a franchise that will draw largely the same audience who just watched three of these films less than a decade ago. Despite the good moments and fine acting, there is never any profound statement as to why this relaunch exists. Unfortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man does nothing to make that thought process go away and as wonderful and engaging as Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are here, they can only do so much.
The Amazing Spider-Man is akin to a contestant doing a good and entertaining cover of a tried and true hit song on a singing competition show. Sure, their version is passably entertaining and reminds you of the original. You might even download the new cover version from iTunes and listen to it a few times. Inevitably though you tire of the remake and drift back to the source material, remembering why you liked the original so much in the first place. I cannot help but think that the same fate will befall this film.
Despite two fantastic lead performances, there is nothing really to take away from this Amazing Spider-Man and people likely will go back and fondly revisit the Sam Raimi films. And whoever directs this new film’s sequel, good luck. Your film will be compared to Spider-Man 2 and you best deliver something special. If not, your cover version will likely be deleted from memory like that cover version from that contestant whose name you forgot over time and whose song sounds less and less exciting as days and months pass you by.