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Non-Review Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man is a jumble of clever ingredients thrown into a pot, stirred for two hours and yet never managing to produce that ideal flavour. There are moments in Marc Webb’s adaptation that are fantastic, as good as anything Raimi brought to the best of his films in the series, Spider-Man II. However, there’s also simply too much going on here for its own good. Running for two-hours-and-a-quarter, the film feels like one-part origin to two-part stand-alone adventure, unsure whether it should it is trying to rush through the motions of one of the most iconic origin stories ever told or if it’s trying to bring something a bit deeper to the table. When it gets going, it’s a solidly entertaining piece of film that does try to do something just a little new with the superhero formula, but it suffers from the same identity crisis as its lead and struggles to really find its own voice.

Peter’s not quite on top on the world…

At the heart of The Amazing Spider-Man is the idea of “cross-species genetics”, the idea that geneticists can slice together the DNA from seperate species to produce an entirely new creation. In a way, the film itself feels like an example of “cross-franchise genetics”, borrowing as much from Twilight and Nolan’s Batman Begins as it does from Sam Raimi’s two-thirds great Spider-Man trilogy. Before anybody gets too upset, and fans bristle at the mention of the “T-word” (or even the “N-word”), I’m not being overly harsh here. Though the identity crisis resulting from the mix is part of the problem, The Amazing Spider-Man is mostly free from Twilight’s muddled gender politics, substituting a slightly more sophisticated psychology.

Let’s start with the Batman comparisons. There’s the aesthetic, which owes a lot to Christopher Nolan’s Gotham. While Sam Raimi’s movies took place in New York, they weren’t set in a real-world version of the city. Hyper-saturated, they were a four-colour sketch brought to glourious life. In contrast, Webb has turned the lighting way down. Spider-Man, it seems, travels by night. There’s lots of glistening glass, and Webb’s New York seems like a decidedly less personable place to live. It feels remote, isolated and disconnected. There are no buskers singing iconic theme songs, only carjackers and muggers. The colourful wrestling arena from the first film is only revisited briefly, at night – and it’s no longer bristling with energy, but decrepit and decaying.

You’ll recognise familiar DNA…

Darker too is Peter Parker. Peter has always been an orphan, much like the iconic Bruce Wayne. Not it has never really been that big a deal. I liked the idea that the loss of his parents at an early age meant that Peter didn’t take the loss of Uncle Ben as brutally as Bruce Wayne took the loss of his parents – Peter just learned a lesson he sometimes took too seriously, he didn’t emotionally stunt himself. Here, Parker is preoccupied with his birth parents, discovering his secret origin and what happened to the mother and father who disappeared so quickly from his life. Of course there’s a sinister conspiracy at work here.

The problem with this plot development is that it undermines a lot of what the character takes for granted – and what this film also seems to like about Peter Parker. When people think of Spider-Man, they think of a kid worrying about his sickly aunt, struggling to pay rent, constantly beaten down by the world as he tries to find his place. Peter worries about money. He’s a decidedly blue collar superhero, when measured against characters like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. (Or even Thor, the son of the ruler of Asgard. Or the Fantastic Four, who own a building in Manhattan.)

Parker after a little dust-up…

One of this movie’s strongest selling points is Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, a performance that almost saves a repetitive forty-five minute origin sequence that we already know beat-for-beat. Sheen’s Ben feels like a real character, more than a sacrificial lamb to be offered to the slaughter. He’s a working stiff, and you can see why he’s important to Peter. This is a guy who probably never afforded a holiday in his life, and worked for everything he ever received. He does shift work that he can’t dodge. When he comes down to school, he can’t just duck off work, he has to readjust his shift schedule. “I’m not an educated man,” he admits, but that’s the point of the character. He’s a spiritual descendent of Sheen’s put-upon common man in Wall Street, and he teaches Peter that a person has to make something of themselves.

The problem is that the movie makes Peter’s gift an inheritance. He gets bitten by a spider carrying a formula his father worked on at Oscorp. His father’s research into spiders fuelled the research that created the spider. Peter got bitten while sneaking around Oscorp trying to find something out about his father. As such, it feels a bit like Peter got his powers by virtue of his father. It seems strange, given that the entire moral of Spider-Man is that sometimes life gives us random gifts that we must use for the greater good. It feels a little bit like Batman fighting crime using his family’s money and father’s company.

There’s a lot at Stacy here…

There are superficial similarities to Nolan’s Batman reboot. Both films feature the villain conspiring to release a toxin over the city using a convenient device that just so happened to be ruled a weapon of mass destruction. Both heroes find themself in direct conflict with the city’s law enforcement. At one point, a minor villain even reveals that he has a manservant named “Alfred”, in what must be a conscious homage to the Caped Crusader. None of these similarities are inherently bad, they just feel like they strike the wrong tone for a character who wears the iconic red and blue.

More significant, however, are the similarities to Twilight. Much has been made of the possible appeal of the film to a female demographic. It is true that Gwen is very much the focal point here, perhaps the best developed female character in a superhero film to date. However, the film seems to follow the same model of the Twilight movies, with a daddy’s girl longing for a social outsider who sneaks into her room at night. Okay, the relationship isn’t as unwholesome as it is in those films. For one thing, Peter is less physically and emotionally abuse – he doesn’t watch her sleep, and always knocks before entering. Gwen, for her part, is far more proactive and fully-formed, introduced saving Peter from a schoolyard bully. Still, the similarities are clear.

Peter masks his emotions well…

The angst comes quick and fast. “I’m no good for her,” Peter solemnly observes when he realises that he can’t be with her, somehow summoning more self-indulgent angst than Tobey Maguire. Watching him swing away, Gwen remarks, “I’m in trouble.” Still, there’s a sense that the relationship here is much healthier. Parker isn’t emotionally or physically abusive towards her. Gwen is independent enough and capable of making her own decisions – such as facing a rampaging monster and organising an evacuation rather than fleeing herself.

That said, there is a sense that Gwen is an emotionally vulnerable young woman, who might be attracted to Peter for the qualities she admires in her father. It’s never as uncomfortable as any of the relationship stuff in the Twilight films, but it is there. I’m not using this comparison to disparage The Amazing Spider-Man – I’d actually argue that Twilight would have done well to offer this sort of psychology to its leading characters. The problem is that this element doesn’t quite gel with the other aspects of the movie.

Can she come to terms with Peter’s changes? Abs-olutely…

Arguably the area where the film succeeds most, despite the clear other influences fighting for dominance, is as a retread or a reworking of the Sam Raimi films. The Lizard is best used when shot as a movie monster (with wonderfully hammy “scare chords” provided by James Horner), much like the way Raimi shot Doctor Octopus. The film’s climax features a much more effective variation on the “New York helps Spider-Man” scene than Raimi’s first effort. Martin Sheen makes a superb Uncle Ben, and the slight changes to the presentation of his inevitable demise are the best changes from the early film, underscoring what exactly Peter learned from Ben. Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man seems to work better as variations on a theme rather than as its own distinct thing.

I am probably being just a bit harsh. The movie opens with a forty-five minute origin for the character. We all know the story, and most of the additions don’t really add up to much. We know that Peter will get bitten by a spider. We know that Uncle Ben will die. We know that Parker will learn that “with great power comes great responsibility”, even if the movie steers clear of those words. The best stuff comes after that. However, it’s a tough sell to argue that the best stuff follows an awkward introductory third.

It won’t turn the superhero genre upside down…

It might have helped if the first third were streamlined a bit. There is, for example, a completely extraneous corrupt corporate executive played by Irrfan Khan, who shows up merely to threaten old folks and to set up an inevitable trilogy about the mega-evil corporation Oscorp. And, if I’m feeling cynical, to make the film easier to sell in India, where it is opening today. The character of Norman Osborn is a phantom for most of the film, despite running the company and seemingly dying. I suspect that the production couldn’t secure a big enough actor for the role and thus kept him in the shadows so he can appear in the sequel played by a recognisable star. That said, a stand-in is used who is very recognisable to cinephiles – and I would be delighted if that actor were to continue the role into the sequel, but I doubt he’s a big enough name.

Still, there are good things about the film. Andrew Garfield is a much stronger Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, and it’s great to see a Spider-Man who is a bit cheeky and a bit more confident than Tobey Maguire’s take on the character. Garfield has a sense of wit and vulnerability to him that makes the movie his own. His version of Peter Parker is a much more damaged version than the one brought to the screen by Maguire all those years ago. There’s a sense that his searching for the missing piece of himself (in this case, his heritage), much like Curt Connors and his missing arm. Of course, the movie might work better if Peter’s lesson mirrored that learned by Connors: sometimes that sort of emptiness can turn into something truly nasty.

Just hangin’ out…

Much has been made of the fact that Spider-Man is actually funny this time around. The character has a more acerbic wit, with Garfield himself comparing Parker’s attitude to that of internet trolls. The mask affords Parker a sense on anonymity, and that anonymity gives him an inner confidence that he simply doesn’t have without it. One of the movie’s best scenes, and perhaps one that evokes the spirit of Raimi’s earlier films best, sees Peter dealing with a small child, removing his mask as a gesture of faith and even loaning it to the little boy. It’s perhaps the most optimistic and heart-warming moment of the entire film, and it works because it eschews a lot of the darkness that creeps into the rest of the film.

That said, I do find it interesting that Parker is such a jerk to criminals. When he uses his powers to make a mockery of his schoolyard bully, his Uncle Ben is upset at the idea that Peter demeaned and abused a classmate. “Was what I heard in their true?” Ben demands. Peter insists that the school won’t make him pay for the damages, but that isn’t what made Ben so disappointed in his nephew. “Did you humiliate that boy?” Given how important Ben’s life lessons were to Peter, it seems strange that he relishes humiliating so many of the criminals he faces. Maybe it’s a sign that Peter has still room to grow as a hero. Garfield makes Peter his own.

Things are looking up…

Garfield also has a strong chemistry with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. You could argue that the film is more about Gwen than Peter – and I’d certainly be more interested in seeing a cut of the movie more firmly focused on Gwen. Stone gives a superb performance, and the film is at its strongest with the pair together. Stacy is probably the most interesting lead female character in a superhero film since Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman back in Batman Returns. Stone gives Stacy a sense of tragedy, suggesting that she’s smart enough to recognise the destructive patterns in her life, and yet not quite able to avoid them. She certainly seems more astute than Peter. The climax feels much more emotional than any of the previous films, if only because of the chemistry between the leads.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Martin Sheen is great in a small role. Dennis Leary is awesome as Captain George Stacy, the New York police officer who finds himself at odds with the masked vigilante. Leary works well with both Garfield and Stone, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Gwen and her father interacting. Rhys Ifans is grand as the Lizard, even if it feels like a “best of” performance incorporating the strongest elements of Sam Raimi’s Green Goblin (internal monologue, much?) and Doctor Octopus (he’s going to make New York a better place! he swears!).

He’s having a gas time!

The Lizard is a fun villain. I like those classic Ditko bad guys, and I think the Lizard works because he plays to Peter Parker’s sense of responsibility. He’s a menace to society, but he’s also something of a victim, and Parker has to reconcile both aspects of the character. He’s also a very cheesy, very hammy villain, and he seems almost like a tribute to the classic monster movie aesthetic that Sam Raimi brought to his original trilogy. Indeed, Captain Stacy even references his pulpy roots as Peter tries to warn him about the giant lizard rampaging around the city. “What do I look like, the Mayor of Tokyo?” Stacey demands.

On the other hand, Sally Field feels hopelessly miscast as Aunt May, and I feel somewhat glad that the character has been consciously sidelined in this adaptation, even though Peter seems to completely ignore her. (Although that may be the point, the film tends to dodge the issue – we seem to forget she exists as often as Peter does.) Although the writing is probably at least as much at fault, it doesn’t help that Irrfan Khan seems to be snacking on the scenery in the most ridiculously grandiose style. I’m surprised he didn’t just grow a twirly moustache. Given how much screen time the character eats up towards the start of the film, and how little he amounts to, it feels quite surreal.

I spy a Spider-Man…

Director Marc Webb does feel a bit strangled by the volume of material he is working with here. There’s just so much to get to that the director’s touch seems mostly lost. There are a few clever sequences, but much of it seems to be superhero-by-rote. I do like a wonderful shot sequence where Peter organises a stakeout in the sewers, with his webs springing like strings on a cello. And the 3D is put to good use during the swinging-through-the-skylines sequences. (Although the film seems pretty flat outside of those moments.) The choreography is superb, with Peter moving like he’s doing parkour, but there’s very little of the visual energy that Webb brought to (500) Days of Summer.

There are some lovely shots, to be entirely fair. There’s a shot towards the end of the film with a bruised and battered Peter staring out over the New York skyline that evokes a sense of isolation and loneliness more efficiently and effectively than any amount of cheesy plotting about his long-lost parents. There’s a fun action sequence in a school. The sequences with the Lizard in the sewers treat him like a B-movie monster in a way that would make Sam Raimi proud. However, Webb seems to spend most of his energy trying to keep a dysfunctional and chaotic script on track.

“Um, the special effects budget hasn’t come in yet… we’ll fix it in post…”

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like a bit of a disappointment. It could have been amazing, but instead it just tries to be too much – too many different things we’ve seen before. The result is a movie that never truly finds its own voice, and one that never properly synchronises all the different voices that it is trying to emulate. I liked it better when Peter Parker was his own man.

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9 Responses

  1. I have mixed feelings about watching this film. It looks well-made, and what you’ve written about it sounds intriguing, but I have a hard time getting over the fact that it’s way too soon to tell an origin story all over again considering the first Sam Raimi movie was made only 10 years ago. We’re rebooting movies that have been made in the 21st century already! At least “Batman Begins” was held off 8 years since “Batman & Robin.”

    It always seemed like Raimi’s series was an antithesis to the darkness of the Batman movies (even Joel Schumacher’s neon Gotham films had extensive night scenes). I was struck by the vividness of the colors and the fact that Spidey swung through New York in bright daylight. The fact that this film is going dark is a bit of a disappointment, but I suppose it has to stand apart from the previous series. It’s too bad that thematically, a lot seems to be lifted from Raimi’s films. I suppose that this film (and its inevitable sequels) can be looked at as an alternate universe.

    • I think that’s a great point. Raimi-Spider-Man is like the anti-Burton-Batman superhero film(s). And I think part of why I was so disappointed was that Webb-Spider-Man is basically Nolan-Batman, but with Lizards. And I like giant lizards as much as anybody, but it just feels a bit self-defeating to offer me Spider-Man-as-Batman when I can just watch Batman-as-Batman.

      (Strangely, I think Webb is at his strongest when he does acknowledge Raimi – those monster movie shots of the Lizard, for example, Peter not knowing his own strength.)

      • I just saw the movie last night and I pretty much agree with your review. If the Raimi films had not been made, this would have been the definitive Spider-man. There were some things I liked better about this production, others that I felt Raimi did better (such as Aunt May–I love Sally Field, but she just wasn’t Aunt May). I have to admit that I didn’t catch who was in the cameo at the end, and though I suspect that the character was supposed to be Norman Osborn (it was rather obvious), it was played mysterious to keep his identity a secret. I’d love to see the sequel reveal him to be someone totally different. Also, I didn’t mind seeing the Indian exec, as it diversified the white-washed cast somewhat.

  2. Reblogged this on BookRepublic.

  3. After watching this yesterday, and realizing how ”paint by numbers” the whole plot was, it made me that much more excited for next Nolan film. While I’m perfectly happy with pop-corn entertainment, does it have to follow the exact same pattern we’ve seen 100 times now in regard to this genre? Had this film come out in 2002, I’d say…awesome! Can’t wait to see the next one, but today? I can barely remember what happened…short of its most predictable elements. We’re in a post-Dark Knight and Avengers world, time to do better.
    I\’m starting to see the wisdom in the Miles Morales/Donald Glover approach people were clamoring for…

  4. Reblogged this on Digital Pittsburgh and commented:
    Very good review from: http://them0vieblog.com.

  5. Great review as always.

    I admit I’m a bit surprised you praised Gwen Stacy so much. I like Emma Stone and she worked well with what she was given but to me she felt uncomfortably close to the use of Rachel Dawes in the Nolan Batman films – less a character in her own right than an incorruptable symbol for a hero to prove himself worthy of.

    Like Rachel, Gwen is presented as a character without much in the way of flaws. She’s beautiful (as the film reminds us again and again), highly intelligent, brave and a voice of reason. None of these are bad qualities of course but it makes her seem a little too perfect. If anything it feels like the film took a step backwards in gender terms by taking a potentially very interesting character and placing her firmly back on her pedestal. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane had many, many flaws (and a less talented actress) but that made her seem real in a way Stone’s Gwen Stacy doesn’t.

  6. This movie started out down a number of interesting avenues and either caused a cave in with stilted, uninspired action or simply forgot about almost every one of them. I’m not the kind that even needs all that much resolution but a little bit of cohesion might have helped the filmmakers pinpoint what was important to this story and thus give it some direction.

    I was thinking about “Green Lantern” an awful lot during this film, and drawing some unfortunate comparisons where execution is concerned. “Incredible Hulk” also came to mind on occasion. Neither of those are terrible films but probably not the ones Webb was hoping to emulate.

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