By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 29, 2012 at 3:34PM
We're likely reaching something of a tipping point with the superhero movies. The first wave is ending: "X-Men" has already been reinvented, Superman is getting his second relaunch in a decade, "The Hulk" has already had its third iteration, and Christopher Nolan's Batman-trilogy, which more than anything else brought a new level of respectability to the genre, is coming to a close. We're entering the second phase of the modern superhero movie era, and it's leading to some interesting possibilities. So far, these films have essentially been a genre in and of themselves, but as new filmmakers inevitably try out fresh ideas within its confines, we're likely to see other styles brought into the mix.
And that's where Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man" comes into play, as it's arguably the first comic book movie not targeted principally at the comic book crowd. Indeed, as a comic book movie, it's pretty terrible. But as a film involving relationships between human beings -- arguably the first in the genre -- it's something of a success, just unfortunately not an unequivocal one.
For the most part, the plot won't be a surprise for anyone who saw the Sam Raimi incarnations, or is familiar with the character from comics, Saturday morning cartoons or general cultural osmosis, albeit with a few tweaks and twists that hint at the filmmakers trying to reconfigure the origin story slightly, again, to keep things fresh. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an orphan, raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), although in Webb's version (penned by James Vanderbilt, Allen Sargent and Steve Kloves), his parents, one of them a noted scientist (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) mysteriously run off in the middle of the night, fleeing some threat, before perishing in a plane crash. As a high-schooler, Parker is awkward and isolated, nursing a crush on classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and generally trying to do the right thing.
A discovery of an old briefcase leads him to his father's old employers at Oscorp (where Gwen conveniently happens to intern), and to old family friend Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), a one-armed scientist working on cross-species genetics, partly in the hope that lizard DNA might help him grow back his missing limb. Their connection, and Parker's unexpected, in-the-genes scientific genius, leads to two things: 1) Peter being bitten by a spider that gives him extraordinary powers (strength, agility, being able to stick to things) and 2) Connors, pressured by Oscorp higher-up Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), testing his serum on himself, which turns him into a creature known to fans as The Lizard.
No major story ground being broken then, as such. And that's doubly disappointing given that there is an awful lot wrong with the film. For one, despite the three credited writers, it bears the unmistakable mark of serious post-production alterations with a number of botched threads and giant plot-holes throughout. The much-hyped "secret origin" plotline, for instance, seems to have been severely truncated, for one, dropped by the end of the first act. One particular Peter Parker-led quest for retribution is similarly forgotten about quite swiftly as well. And Khan's character entirely disappears from the film after only a couple of scenes -- although he's lucky compared to Annie Parisse, cast as Connors' wife Martha, and cut from the film altogether (there's more along similar lines we could talk about, but we don't want to head too heavily into spoiler territory). It's possible to perform this kind of triage effortlessly, but that's not the case here -- much of these elements feel unsatisfying, like unfinished business, and not in a chomping-at-the-bit for a sequel kind of way.
Suspension of disbelief (SOD) issues are also a major problem throughout. Peter Parker seems to be fairly bright, just like his dad (we're shown some nifty gadgets he's made at home to remotely lock his bedroom), but when suddenly he's making web-shooters MacGyver style at home, that logic just doesn't parse. Likewise, when Parker's webshooters are first made, instead of taking them for a safe test-drive, the teenager -- who up until this point has evinced no impressions of having a death wish -- jumps off a building and swings to safety, with only a few dining tables outside of Manhattan any worse for wear. And while the film clearly takes place in present day, all the technology at Oscorp appears as it if it's from the far future of "Prometheus." Small issues, sure, but SOD problems add up, and you can only be knocked out of the movie's flow so many times before it starts to grate.
And the more comic-book/blockbuster stuff also generally falls flat here. Webb seemingly gains confidence as the film goes on, but early action sequences are choppy and thrill-free, and even the later ones mostly feel uninspired and airless, thanks to being quite CGI-heavy. Perhaps most importantly, The Lizard is a weak antagonist on every front. The design work for the transformed creature (even down to the sound) is lackluster, the character is both undefined and somewhat cliched (tragic backstory via Doctor Octopus in "Spider-Man 2," virtually motiveless evil scheme via the first "X-Men") and Ifans' performance is flat and uninspired -- it would have been far more fun if he'd simply replicated his cheeky "Five-Year Engagement" performance. Oh, and the 3D, one admittedly impressive sequence aside, is murky and not especially well executed. It's no wonder that Marvel geeks are already lining up against the film.
And yet, in more old-fashioned ways, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is quite engaging. Some could criticize the film for retreading the origin story again, but for this writer, it didn't jar, simply because Webb gives that first act the space and time to really establish the characters and relationships (and some will argue this stretch affects pacing). And Ifans aside, he's cast the hell out of it. Garfield is, as many expected, pretty close to being definitive, but what's interesting is that he gives new, unexpected texture to the role; this is Peter Parker as a moody and irritable teenager, acting out, being disapproved of, and finding a little bit of a thrill in keeping his newly-discovered-powers secret, even while clearly being an incredibly good-hearted kid. And yet it never becomes too angsty, because Garfield brings enough humor and awkwardness to the part that it stops him from becoming emo-Spidey. Oh, and he's about a million times sexier than Tobey Maguire ever was. This isn't Peter Parker as a stereotyped nerd, it's a teenage boy whose tragic past has stopped him from ever truly connecting and engaging with people, and that feels like a fresh take on the character that genuinely makes sense for a modern audience.
And then there's Emma Stone. The film could perhaps use more of her, but then we'd argue that "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" would probably be improved with a little more Emma Stone too; she's as sparky and funny as she usually is, but also gives the character real psychological depth, and the chemistry with Garfield (the two became a couple on set) is a more impressive special effect than any number of collapsing CGI skyscrapers. Martin Sheen and Sally Field, as Parker's adoptive parents, are also excellent, turning the characters into real people rather than walking targets or manifestations of Peter's conscience. And Denis Leary, as Gwen's cop father, a surprisingly prominent role, is impressive too, giving a potentially one-dimensional part real gravitas, pathos, and a little humor too.
And the film's real pleasures are in the way these actors play off each other, not in the CGI-aided punch ups. Webb wisely gives them room to breathe (indeed, you feel frustrated when things turn back to The Lizard's schemes), and for perhaps the first time in superhero movie history, the central characters don't feel like they're lifted from comics, it feels like they're actual human beings. And while the script suffers from several plot contrivances, many of them due to comic book lore or time constraints, its a great triumph is that its characters mostly behave like people, rather than pawns of a storyline, thanks in particular to some smart reversals of expectation (again, we won't spoil them, but there's one involving Gwen near the end that made our heart sing a little). Even school bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) is more interesting than he lets on.
Part of the issue is that "The Amazing Spider-Man" is at odds with itself. Webb shows an incredible affinity for characters and emotion (the reason he was hired in the first place), but much of that tone feels like it's flipping channels when we're back in action-y Spider-Man mode. Likewise, the film has a dark, brooding tone (though again, not as angsty as it might appear on the surface) that wants to be dark and realistic, yet its realism is only rooted in character, while all the science and technology is rooted in hooey and fantasy that doesn't jibe. Also in contrast to that is tone. It's a fairly serious film with some comedic elements that turn on the more traditional, goofy Spider-Man vibe (the one that Sam Raimi nailed so well), like when Stan Lee does his mandatory cameo, or when Peter Parker puts on his suit and starts firing off, what feel like prerequisite, but not earned, Spidey quips.
Ultimately, we'll take a film like this, where you care about the characters, over one that gets the spectacle right but not much else; taking the time to ground people properly just about serves as a justification for going back and telling the origin again. There's a lot wrong with the film, undeniably --- it often feels like a good romantic drama (or dramatic rom-com) struggling to get out from under a poor superhero flick. But there's also enough here to make it a fairly pleasurable watch (it was greeted with a warm round of applause at the end of our screening), and enough to make us confident that, with a more focused script, and a threat that ties into the protagonist more, the next time around could be something much more special. [C+]