The Amazing Spider-Man
Comic book superheroes are our gods now. Which I mean in the sense of ancient Greek and Roman mythologies: these are the larger-than-life figures we use and reuse to tell each other stories about who we are. In the distant past, oral tradition and the vagaries of human memory served to modify the stories as they were retold and retold; today, higher-fidelity recording and reproduction technologies mean that it takes a specific effort to retell a given story and allow it to change. And so we hand off authorship from one storyteller to another, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
I’m happy to say that as Spider-Man passes into the control of screenwriter James Vanderbilt and director Marc Webb, it’s in good hands. As much as I love Sam Raimi and his Spider-Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man may be the best version yet of Spidey’s now-familiar origin story.
The general outlines are well known: teenaged Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) lives with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) after the death of his parents. He comes into contact with a spider involved in a scientific experiment, which bites him, imbuing him with his superpowers. This version lifts different elements from the comic books than Raimi’s version did: instead of childhood friend Mary Jane Watson we have Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who turns out to be a science prodigy in her own right. Instead of muckracking journalist J. Jonah Jameson we have police captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), who is critical both of Spider-Man as a vigilante and of Peter as a potential boyfriend to his little girl. The experiment still happens at Oscorp, but rather than Norman Osborn himself we are primarily concerned with the research of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who seems to have been a colleague of Peter’s father.
Vanderbilt wisely avoids revolutionizing any major plot points, though he does tweak them to highlight the idea that the course of Peter’s story was being laid long before the usual starting point. In general, though, we know this story even if we don’t know the particulars.
This familiarity lets the cast really get to the hearts of their characters. And nowhere is this more apparent than in how Garfield handles Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire can pull off a slight dweebiness, but his Peter is primarily defined by his insouciant boy-next-door grin. And this is a fine take on the character, but Garfield touches a much deeper vein of emotion, and he is far more believable as a social outcast and as a nerd. Garfield is always a wonderfully physical actor, and it pays off big here. He transforms both psychologically and physically as he dons his mask, walking and talking differently as Spider-Man and as Peter, and we see the roots of his struggle to integrate the two.
Ifans and Leary both turn in solid performances, and Stone is as smart and wonderful to watch as always. But the biggest improvements are Martin Sheen and Sally Field. Field has been dreadfully underappreciated of late; here she is as emotionally powerful as ever. And who could possibly imagine a better Uncle Ben than Martin Sheen?
All of which proves that The Amazing Spider-Man has what it takes to transcend its genre. But how does it do as a superhero action movie? Here, Webb’s skills as a director really shine. The film is packed with wonderful images, from the spider chamber at the Oscorp tower to long swoops down New York’s urban canyons. The fights are surprisingly clean and clear for today’s action movies, and the web-swinging makes the most of the IMAX experience.
The one big hangup is the way Webb tries to use depth of field and focus cues in smaller-scale scenes. It would normally be a nice touch, but when combined with the usually unobtrusive 3D it becomes frustrating and difficult to parse the images smoothly.
But this can be avoided simply by not seeing the film in 3D. Other than that, Webb has done a remarkable job in bringing a new version of the Spider-Man legend to the screen. Raimi’s series will stand, but if what we see here is anything to go by, Webb’s will stand higher.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.