Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man," the second of this summer's three massive superhero movies, is now in theaters. And while so far it's performing behind "Spider-Man 3," the film's doing reasonably well (expected to haul in somewhere in the neighborhood of $130 million by Sunday) given the lack of enthusiasm from hardcore fans, and the widespread dislike of the final Sam Raimi film, which in part helped to push things toward a blank slate again. And reviews have been pretty severely divided, with some hailing it as one of best examples of the comic book genre to date, and others loathing every frame of it.
Of course, this is normal for the polarized era we live in; as far as we're concerned, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Webb's film does many things terribly, but others rather well, we wanted to dig into the picture a little further, to really dissect the good, the bad and the ugly of "The Amazing Spider-Man." As such, **major spoilers are ahead** -- if you haven't seen the film yet, best to stick with our spoiler-free review for now. And if you have, read on, and let us know your own thoughts on the film in the comments section.
The one thing we were confident on, even if the script turned out to be a "Spider-Man 3"-style train wreck, was our gut feeling that they'd got the casting right. Way back, when it was first announced that the reboot was coming, we named Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as among our favorites for the film, and were delighted when they got the jobs. And they didn't disappoint. Some fans have argued that Garfield's take on Peter Parker -- as a little more of a brooding bad boy -- is too much of a departure from the comics, but we found it refreshing, and certainly when put up against Tobey Maguire's wide-eyed innocent, who felt like he'd walked out of "Pleasantville." And Stone, while arguably not given enough to do, was a far more compelling female lead than we're used to seeing in a film like this, bringing her unique brand of goofy humor (the hot chocolate scene with her father being a particular highlight), but always in an organic way. It felt like the characters were actual people, and not just archetypes lifted from the comic -- although Stone is spookily identical to the comic-book Stacy. We figured the actors would do good jobs (and a good chunk of that A- CinemaScore has to be down to them, right?), but what couldn't have been anticipated, beyond the two being two attractive single people, was their real-life hook-up, and the chemistry is palpable in a way that's all too rare in screen romantic couplings. In the Raimi films, you mostly got the sense that the two romantic leads barely tolerated each other; here, they're visibly trying to resist the temptation to tear each other's clothes off, mid-scene.
2. Denis Leary, Martin Sheen & Sally Field
Webb's smart casting didn't end with his two leads; the elder generation are well represented, giving new spins to characters who'd featured in earlier films. Coming off the best is Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, bringing the same Catholic gravitas that made President Bartlett the finest-ever screen president, to a more blue-collar kind of character. There's far more of a sense of Ben as surrogate father than was in the earlier films, and Sheen brings a great sense of humor to the part as well, relishing the opportunity to do more than spout off about responsibility. He's so good in the part that we hoped he might be spared in the reboot to let him return for later installments; but alas, it isn't so, but his death is all the more wrenching for it. Sally Field has less to do, but she gets notes to play beyond simply being Peter's conscience, and hopefully will have more to do in future installments. The most pleasant surprise was Denis Leary, who's often been fine, but outside his TV appearances on his own show "Rescue Me," hasn't always given performances that live up to his stand-up charisma. Here, it's the kind of part he's played many times before -- Irish cop! -- and he does have to get behind some of the dimmer direction in the film (that palatial apartment suggests that Captain Stacy is wildly corrupt...) But he's also slyly funny, gruffly paternal, and establishes a sweet relationship with his screen daughter Stone that makes his heroic death sting more than it should.
Reversal is a somewhat technical term that you might not be aware of -- it means a flip of expectations, a surprising moment that might end up as one of the film's best moments. Historically, one of the best examples is "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" -- think Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman, or leaving Marion tied up after rediscovering her. There's not a lot of these moments in "The Amazing Spider-Man," but there's a couple, and their presence goes to show that however much of a mess the finished film is, some very smart writers worked on the script at some stage (even if it's impossible to give credit to any one of James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent or Steve Kloves, the three credited writers). The most memorable scenes come near the end. Gwen Stacy hides from The Lizard in a locker, with some kind of MacGuffin he needs. You brace yourself for yet another moment where she becomes the damsel in distress, dragged up a skyscraper by the villain as a hostage, but in fact, The Lizard simply takes what he needs and goes. Not earth-shattering, exactly, but a refreshingly smart decision from a character whose motives and behavior are mostly ridiculous. There's an even better moment a little later; Peter, having promised a dying Captain Stacy to stay away from his daughter for her own safety, is giving her the cold shoulder, even skipping the funeral. Gwen comes his doorstop, but Peter is shut off -- and at that moment, we scribbled furiously in our notes "Why doesn't he just tell her?" And yet almost on cue, Gwen, walking away, turns around as says to Peter "He made you promise, didn't he." It's a moment that makes us adore the character's smarts, and a refreshing antidote to the usual kind of contrivances that keep a screen couple apart. More next time, please.
4. The little moments
Along similar lines, when we spoke to Marc Webb recently, he said one of the most important things for him was to be able to add some looseness and improvised character moments to a movie hedged in by technological (newfangled 3D cameras) and mythological constraints (fifty years of elaborately embroidered character back-story). These are arguably the best moments in all of "The Amazing Spider-Man." We're thinking specifically of two conversations Peter Parker has in the hallway of his high school – one with Uncle Ben and another with Gwen Stacey. Both moments feature what seem like improvised dialogue and a caught-in-the-moment freshness that much of the movie lacks, thanks largely to uninspired action set pieces and an abundance of unconvincing computer imagery. Another great moment is when Spider-Man, after setting up an elaborate web trap to alert him of the movements of evil super-villain The Lizard, absentmindedly plays a videogame on his smart phone. It's brilliant shorthand to say, "Hey, he's a human underneath that mask!" and one of the few moments we can grasp onto as an audience, since most of the movie is awash in loud noises and things crashing to the ground or exploding into glittery bits. Showier, but just as entertaining, is the Stan Lee cameo, a now-traditional moment that might give the elderly comics creator his best moment yet, as a librarian oblivious to the fight playing out behind him. It pretty much got the biggest laugh in the film from our crowd.
As good as some past superhero movies have been, it's hard to think of one that's actually placed emphasis on the relationships between people. Bryan Singer's "X-Men" movies got some of the way there, and Christopher Nolan's Batman pictures had character depth, but mostly focused on internal angst -- the way that Bruce Wayne interacted with Rachel Dawes, or Batman with Commissioner Gordon, have never been the film's strongest moments. But here, the relationship stuff is the best thing in the film, with Webb clearly bringing his "(500) Days Of Summer" strengths onto a bigger canvas. The instant chemistry and awkward, faltering courtship between Gwen and Peter feel authentic, and like "21 Jump Street" earlier in the year, the film resists fitting its high-school characters into archetypes -- bully Flash Thompson is as much victim as attacker, and in another nice reversal, shows real compassion to Peter after Ben's death. And Webb's feel for the surrogate parent relationship with Peter's aunt and uncle is good; again, it feels, when not truncated, as though their conflict, and love, comes from reality, rather than because that's what it says in the comics. So much in the film falls flat, but we'd almost rather see Webb tackle a straight, action-sequence-free version of these characters than take on a sequel where he half-heartedly tries to go through the CGI motions again.