I went into the theatre very dubious about the prospects for The Amazing Spider-Man being any good. I adored Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies. I felt they captured the character of Spider-Man absolutely perfectly, and they were a heck of a lot of fun. Spider-Man 3 was a huge mis-step, but I felt there was still plenty of life in the series, so I was disappointed when Mr. Raimi and Sony parted company. I would have liked to have seen him have an opportunity to make a great Spider-Man 4 that would erase the bad memories of the third installment.
But as disappointed as I was to hear that Mr. Raimi wouldn’t be returning to the series, and that Sony planned on re-casting all of the main roles, I was even more disappointed to hear that they planned to start the series over from zero, and re-tell Spidey’s origin. What is the point of that? Why waste half a movie re-telling an origin that everyone knows, and that everyone saw so recently in the wildly successful first Spider-Man film?? I would have vastly preferred had they just re-cast the roles, maybe spent five minutes at the start of the film (maybe during the opening credits) re-establishing the origin, and then gone on to tell a great new Spider-Man story with these new actors.
So I was greatly surprised that I actually quite enjoyed the first hour of The Amazing Spider-Man. This revamped version of Spidey’s origin wasn’t dull or ridiculous, I found myself surprisingly taken by it, and by the family drama we were watching unfold. I don’t think the perfect origin story crafted by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko all those years ago needed all the added drama of making a big deal about the disappearance of Peter Parker’s parents (the movie suggests that they were up to big secret things, and that they left young Peter in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May because they feared for their lives), but as executed in the film I didn’t have a problem with this new version of events. The film totally re-works the chain of events leading to Uncle Ben’s death, changes that were totally unnecessary bordering on baffling, BUT somehow I still felt it all worked. The moment is powerful, and I liked the new way they found to made Peter culpable (in not stopping the criminal, earlier, when he had a chance). It’s a dreadful, horrible moment, and it works.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of The Amazing Spider-Man is such a disappointing mess!
I have a lot of problems with the film, but they boil down to three main mistakes.
1. They got Peter Parker all wrong. Andrew Garfield is great in the role, but I don’t recognize this Peter Parker. Let me say that I don’t immediately object to this more glum version of Peter. Since the film has chosen to play up his childhood trauma of his parents’ disappearance/death, it makes sense that this wouldn’t be a happy-go-lucky Peter Parker. I am OK with that. But I am not OK with this sort of jerky, brash version of Peter. I like that he stands up for the kid getting humiliated by Flash early in the film. But I don’t like that, for instance, he picks a verbal fight with Gwen Stacy’s dad over dinner. (I expected that scene to play out with the tough-as-nails Captain Stacy harping on Peter until he was drawn into an argument — instead, Peter is just rude and provocative to the Captain.) And I found him to be shockingly brash and forward with Gwen. Suddenly he’s in her bedroom, she’s in a nightgown, and they’re making out?? That didn’t work for me at all.
2. They got Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy all wrong. Just as I thought Andrew Garfield was well cast as Peter Parker, so too was Emma Stone fantastic as Gwen Stacy. Their scenes together really sparkle. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter, because their romance — and, indeed, their whole relationship as characters — seemed totally bungled to me. At the start of the film, it’s clear Peter and Gwen know one another, but so distantly that it’s plausible to Peter that Gwen doesn’t know his name. I can believe that Peter’s courage in standing up to Flash sparks some affection towards him from Gwen, but in the film she suddenly seems to throw herself at Peter for no plausible reason.
There are two main ways that the comics played Peter’s relationship with his love-interest. In the original comics from the ’60s, Peter loved Gwen but it took a while for her to return those affections, and of course he kept his costumed identity secret from her. When Brian Michael Bendis relaunched the Spider-Man character a decade ago with Ultimate Spider-Man, he crafted Peter and Mary Jane (he replaced Gwen with Mary Jane as Peter’s original love interest) as long-time childhood best friends. In Ultimate Spider-Man, when young Peter becomes Spider-Man he almost immediately shares the secret with Mary Jane. I love that version of the characters, and it makes total sense to me that if this happened to a young high school kid he would immediately rush to share the secret with someone. The Amazing Spider-Man tries to have it both ways. In the film, Peter and Gwen quickly wind up a couple, and he tells her his secret. I like that! But what I don’t like is that the relationship doesn’t feel earned. I don’t really buy why Gwen would want anything to do with Peter, let along why she’s suddenly madly in love with him. This is a big let-down for me.
(I should also add that none of the character relationships among the high school kids in the film are clarified enough to suit my liking. What is Peter’s status in the school? Is he the ultimate outsider? He seems too cool for that. What is his prior relationship with Flash (who seems to be the coolest of the cool kids)? Speaking of Flash, what exactly is his relationship with Gwen? When Gwen steps into his early toussle with Peter, I sort of assumed she was his girlfriend, but as the film unfolds it becomes clear that’s not the case. Since the filmmakers decided it was important to reboot the film series and put Peter back into high school, it would have been nice had they actually fleshed out Peter’s high-school friends and their relationships — something Mr. Bendis did brilliantly, by the way, in those early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man...)
3. They got the Lizard all wrong. Through all three original Spider-Man films, they kept hinting at the Lizard by including the one-armed Doc. Connors in each film. I’m bummed that actor Dylan Baker never got to see his character through to his becoming a central villain, but Rhys Ifans is terrific as the brilliant but tragic doctor. However, I was very disappointed by the character’s design and realization once he becomes the Lizard. I really didn’t care for the look of the Lizard’s face (not at all like that from the comics), and there was a lot of pretty dodgy CGI used in bringing the character to life. Even worse, I never got the Jekkyl and Hyde sense of Connors struggling with his alter ego that I had been expecting. Instead, he just turns into a dim-bulb super-villain, with a ludicrous take-over-the-world plot of releasing a gas that will turn everyone into lizard-men/women. Huh? I hate when super-hero films feel they need to give their villains a big take-over-the-world plot in the third act, and this is one of the stupider ones I’ve ever seen. (Plus, didn’t we all see the exact same plan in Bryan Singer’s X-Men twelve years ago…?)
I could go on and on. The film is filled with story-lines that go nowhere. There’s a whole sequence, after Peter gets his powers, in which he is hunting down criminals who resemble Uncle Ben’s killer. What happens to that story? Where was the scene in which Peter realizes that he’s using his powers selfishly, and then decides to work to service the greater good? Late in the film, Peter talks a lot about feeling responsible for the creation of the Lizard, and that it’s his responsibility to stop the creature, but we never see the moment in which Peter really wrestles with that dilemma and chooses to use his powers for good.
What happened to the Osborn minion who threatens Doc. Connors? We see him trapped in his car when the Lizard attacks on the bridge, then he vanishes.
There’s a big moment late in the film in which the Lizard unleashes his lizard-gas on a bunch of poor SWAT guys, and they start to turn into Lizards. Then we don’t see them again until the very end, when we see they’ve been returned to normal by the magic antidote that Gwen Stacy magically whips up (ugh, don’t get me started on that particularly stupid plot-point). Why go to the trouble of including a plot point in which the Lizard creates a bunch of Lizard side-kicks, and then not use them in the story at all??
(UPDATE: Devin at badassdigest.com has a great post illuminating these and many other dangling story-points from The Amazing Spider-Man here. He also spells out something that had been bothering me about the film: how, despite a headline glimpsed in the middle of the film that says that Peter’s parents were killed in a plane crash, I had to that point believed they’d just vanished and that no one knew what happened to them. Indeed, Peter and Ben and May seem to act as if that is the case throughout the film. Devin suggests that headline was a late addition into the film to mask other plot-points related to Peter’s parents that were excised from the film late in the game, and I bet he’s exactly right. It’s a frustrating idea, though, since one of the major changes made by this reboot was to focus on Peter’s parents, so that the filmmakers then decided to cut major revelations about his parents out of the film is very annoying and sort of makes the whole reboot pointless.)
OK, I’ve been bashing this film for many paragraphs, was there anything I liked? Sure!
Martin Sheen was fantastic as Uncle Ben. Pretty much a perfect depiction of the character. Similarly, Dennis Leary was phenomenal as Captain Stacy. Also perfect, and I wish he’d had far more to do in the film.
Though I found the Lizard visual effects to be weak in the extreme, I loved the visualizations of Spider-Man in flight (web-swinging around the city) or in fight. A very dynamic, kinetic, new look to the Spidey sequences. Very cool. I also liked the look of Mr. Garfield in the Spider-Man costume. I liked his sleek, skinny version of Spidey — he feels more like a young kid in a costume now, as he should, rather than a bulked-up super-hero. I also liked the in-costume Spidey wise-cracks, a staple of the character in the comics. (Though as well as those moments worked on their own, they seemed very out-of-place when compared to all the scenes of dour, sullen Peter Parker out of costume. The idea should be that, behind the mask, Peter feels free and can cut loose, but I don’t think the film at all sold that idea.)
The Stan Lee cameo was great.
Campbell Scott was great in the brief scenes in which we saw him as Peter’s Dad. (Was his secret project the same super-science-discovery that got him into so much trouble in The Spanish Prisoner?)
There are parts of The Amazing Spider-Man that work really well, and I do have some hope for the series’ continuing with this new cast. But I’m also very let-down by everything in the film that misses the mark by a wide margin, and I’m bummed to consider what might-have-been had Sam Raimi been given another turn at the helm. After having seen so many fantastic super-hero movies over the past few years, having the latest Spider-Man adventure turn out so mediocre is a shame.