'Spider-Man' Hits Refresh
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The reality of "rebooting" turns a little brutal with "The Amazing Spider-Man." The movie turns the web-spinning superhero over to an entirely new creative team a seemingly mere five years after the Sam Raimi-directed, Tobey Maguire- and Kirsten Dunst-starring "Spider-Man 3." That movie's piling-on of plotlines and supervillains alienated both the hardcore comic book-following constituency and less Parker-myth-fluent mass audiences but still managed to make a mint anyway. (The condition that allows this to be the case is, happily, not overtly the concern of this department.) Some deal with Marvel stipulating that the movie franchise remain fresh means that we now get a new "Spider-Man" origin story.
The new Peter Parker is kind of an alt-rock lite (he broods with Coldplay on the soundtrack) iteration of pop culture's most famous bookworm nerd: He skateboards, and has fluffy hair, and he's played with a well-calibrated mix of angst and self-aware smartass cool by Andrew Garfield, the Britain-born actor who made a big impression in "The Social Network." In this high school scenario, there's no Mary Jane Watson. The love interest here right off the bat is blond Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, always charming and here a slightly more probable teen than she was in "Easy A"), whose police captain dad (Denis Leary) will, of course, prove an apt foil for Spidey once he starts fighting crime his own cheeky way and is, of course, misunderstood as a delinquent by the authorities.
As more than one comic book maven/blogger/even actual writer has smartly observed, the first of the many problems with movie versions of comic book superhero sagas is that for some reason they're obligated to begin with the origin story, and that origin stories are by and large pretty boring. Comic book creators did not impose such restraints on themselves, necessarily; they would have an opening issue start in the middle of some exciting action, and then do an origin story in a flashback, or even as a special issue a little down the line.
But "The Amazing Spider-Man" is indeed obliged to retell a story most of us already know, which is that smart, sweet, nerdling Peter Parker gained the magnified powers of a spider after being bitten by a radioactive arachnid, and then tragedy struck, and he learned a lesson, and if his poor Aunt May finds out, she'll have a heart attack. One way that screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves handle the redundancy/boredom problem is by actually adding more backstory, e.g., introducing us to Peter Parker's parents, whom pretty much zero number of fans of Spider-Man evinced any curiosity about for pretty much the 50 years that the character has existed, so that's exciting. The early-disappearing folks are, however, essential in spinning the web to connect various characters into a reasonably tight albeit somewhat (some might say "completely") predictable narrative, including the not-quite-mad-but-soon-to-be-quite-irritated doctor played by Rhys Ifans, who will turn into supervillain The Lizard (creative name, always dug it).
The question of how many times you're willing to pay money to see a guy become a superhero via spider bite and design a nifty costume has, in a sense, been already answered for you (the answer could well and always be: THIS MANY!), so all I can address is how well this story is retold. I have to say that while new director Marc Webb, who was hired on the strength of "quirky" "indie" "hit" "(500) Days of Summer," doesn't bring anything galvanically new to the table (not that he would have been permitted to had it even occurred to him), he and his cast do have a keen and enthusiastic grasp of what makes the main characters tick, and that certainly gets them somewhere.
A key example is a scene in a high school hallway after a newly empowered Parker gives some hell to a bully, and he's then emboldened to ask Gwen out and of course he's too tongue-tied about it, but they still connect. The scene, were you to read it on paper, is pretty abysmally obvious and cute, but Garfield and Stone are sufficiently engaging with it to make you at least consider not hating them/it. The corrupted ideals of the film's supervillain are similarly stock. But the movie does, improbably enough, move right along. Martin Sheen is a very good post-post-Camelot Uncle Ben, the action stuff is state-of-the-art, and so on. There are clunkers -- the attempted riff on an old joke from "Midnight Cowboy" will stink up the theater, if it actually manages to be heard -- but nothing to get hung about.
People who tell you this is a disgrace are ginning up outrage, and there are in fact better things to be outraged about. This is expert studio product, nothing more or less, and the extent to which you find it egregious is relative to the extent you find it unnecessary. My own feeling, at least from a reviewer's perspective, is that if you're not sick of superhero movies by now, this is a relatively decent one. Whether or not you should be sick of superhero movies by now really isn't any of my business.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.