To find out why... join me after the jump.
Let’s start with the good. The really good. Andrew Garfield is instantly likeable as both a quirky Peter Parker and Spider-Man. He’s funny, he’s ungainly he’s erratic, and he’s serious. Yes, he cries too much but he nails it every single time. Garfield eclipses Maguire and is easy to accept as the film Spider-Man of choice. I just wish he was able to have even more fun. He would have had a blast quipping alongside the brighter and more optimistic Avengers and it’s a shame that he’ll probably never get the chance. Couple this performance with the equally quirky and lovable Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and you have a charmingly awkward couple that are very easy to root for.
And these core performances are incredibly important when it comes to keeping us engaged, because the elephant in the room here is that the first half of this film is a retread of the all-too-familiar origin story. And this is 135 minute film which feels far too long. Around half an hour into it Peter still seemed miles away from even contemplating making a suit. Even though events unfold in slightly different ways to what we have previously seen, we are very aware of all the milestones that we need to hit. We know the dots already and it can be laborious at times to wait for them to connect.
But if we can past the fact that this is a new band covering the same song, many of these new takes are very good. Parker’s gradual discovery of his powers is hilarious, and there’s still a genuine charge gained by seeing him humiliate bully Flash Thompson in creative ways. Martin Sheen is also a great Uncle Ben and, although we already know his fate, his investment in Peter is still heartfelt and affecting.
And yet for everything that this new version gives us, I also feel that it takes something away. I miss aspects of the original movie origin. I miss the Bruce Campbell hosted wrestling match, and I really miss Peter as a newspaper photographer under the tyrannical J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson doesn’t appear in this film and it’s hard to imagine how they’ll ever top the perfect performance of J.K. Simmons once they get to him. This Peter is still firmly stuck in high school, the new franchise seeming determined to take things slowly this time and not blow too much in a single film. It seems that a lot of what we love will be metered out slowly in an attempt to make it last a little longer than the last one.
Once Parker finally makes the transformation to a full-fledged Spider-Man I really did get a kick out of it. These are the most spectacular Spider-Man sequences we’ve ever seen in a film and I found his sweeps through the city to be convincing and exhilarating. (There’s a fun 3D flourish here where he swings out of the screen). In Raimi’s films I never felt the connection between Parker and Spidey. The agile CGI Spider-Man felt completely divorced from Tobey Maguire’s actual performance and it was almost like watching two different characters in two different films. That’s not the case for me here. As soon as Garfield’s Spider-Man hits a ledge I can see the actor’s performance through the suit. Even in the gymnastic fight scenes I can sense that real world presence of Garfield. It’s a good marriage of the two aspects of his character and a triumph for the film. But it does bring us back to what I keep harping on - this is a great Spider-Man, but I wish he’d been in a better story.
And that’s a handy segue to the second half of the movie. Spider-Man repeatedly clashes with a cartoon lizard.
It’s really a thankless role for Rhys Ifans. He’s an actor well known for playing rough and raucous characters but he is reigned in here. Dr. Curtis Connors is a very reserved role, serious and virtually expressionless, and he delivers most lines in almost in a faux-whisper. It seems like a waste. He’s not really a villain, and when he does do a forced 180 and transforms into a monster there’s a real disconnect for the audience. The fights are impressive but Spider-Man could be fighting anything here. The Sandman. Venom. It would make no difference. It’s all special effects with little to invest in.
And it’s the second half of the film that really gets weighed down by the Emotional Spider-Man. As a cartoon lizard rampages the fun is ironically sucked out of the film. Dramatic moments are shoe-horned and it all takes far too long to end.
Let’s talk a few spoilers for a moment.
HERE BE SPOILERS
Poor, poor Aunt May. Sally Field is awsome but she goes through hell in this film. As likeable as Parker is, he is a total dickbag to his suffering Aunt. She loses her husband and Peter never has his moment of grieving with her. Instead he repeatedly blows her off and disappears all night, ignoring her pleas for his safety. He returns every morning tired, gaunt, bloodied and bruised with zero explanation and it only serves to work her into more of a frenzy. By the end of the film she still doesn’t know he’s Spider-Man! Which is fine in terms of developing a longer story, but absolutely unforgivable for her own character arc in this film. As far as she knows, her nephew is a junkie who beats the shit out of people all night. She says something along the lines of, “If anyone is good, it’s you, Peter” but this is based on what exactly? She is living a waking nightmare at this point.
I never really understood the motivation of the Lizard. If it’s simply a matter of him losing his humanity and getting crazy in the process then fair enough, but it seems like a massive leap for a rational scientist, who has devoted his life to the search for knowledge, to suddenly decide that it’s far more appealing to be a strong, destructive, animal. He wants to use a biological agent to transform everyone in the city into similar lizard creatures but I have no idea what he would gain from such an act. It’s rushed and it’s messy and seems only to exist to create a last minute problem for Peter to solve.
We also have to suffer the cheesy, street level, real life New York City “heroes”. A group of construction workers (one of which who Spidey helped earlier in the film) band together in their cranes to help the injured Spidey across the city. It’s ham-fisted and involves a construction worker heroically rushing past an American flag to selflessly help Spider-Man. It got a giggle from our audience. If these jingoistic cliches are genuinely meaningful and inspiring to Americans then what else can I say? You’re adorable, America. Bless you.
And let’s talk about Gwen. This is ultimately such a weird romance purely because of the meta-knowledge we bring to the film. We want them to be together, and we feel like they’re perfect for each other, but the unsaid dark cloud hanging over the ending is that we know that she’s probably going to die! How comfortable can we feel at the end when we know that her devotion to Peter will probably get her neck broken and he’ll end up with a hot redhead.
I’ve been looking for an excuse to revisit my The Avengers review. I had mixed feeling about that movie on a first viewing, especially about how jokey it was, and how the over-the-top comic book nature of the plot in my mind tried to cover up some gaping holes. A second viewing of the film, under more ideal circumstances, clarified a lot of that for me and I found myself enjoying it infinitely more. The humour seemed drier and wittier, and I was far more willing to roll along with the outlandish adventure as presented.
Watching the grim, sobbing Amazing Spider-Man really only further highlights just how much The Avengers got it right. There’s a lot to be said for humour and brightness in our escapism. Spider-Man should be a character that soars, but here’s he’s too bogged down with forced emotional weight. I’m fine for Batman to be dark and devastating - that guy is a maniac - but not Spider-Man. I do want a sequel. I want to see Garfield’s Spider-Man flourish in the film he deserves. But this isn’t quite it.
The Amazing Spider-Man has promise. And if you’re curious about such things, then it is worth seeing. But it won’t come close to being your favourite superhero film of the year.