Just in case we missed it, the latest film featuring the web-slinger of comic book fame, The Amazing Spider-Man, ends with an English teacher telling her students that there is really only plot in literature: “Who am I?” Identity and personal responsibility have always been the burdens of superheroes, particularly those of Spider-Man, who is perpetually tormented by personal demons. In this film, directed by Mark Webb, we revisit the source of those demons, which makes an otherwise enjoyable film seem like deja vu.
Spider-Man, like Batman, Superman, and other great heroes, deserves to be resurrected every generation or so. But it was only ten years ago that the first Spider-Man film was released, with an origin story featuring a young, bookish boy being bit by an amped-up spider, finding he has superpowers, and then allowing a criminal to kill his Uncle Ben, thus dedicating himself to stopping crime. To have to go through this again so soon is completely unnecessary. Do we really need to see an actor as good as Martin Sheen go through the motions of teaching his nephew, Peter Parker, about responsibility, and then have to get offed by a street punk?
I’m fine with a reboot with new actors. Tobey Maguire is now 37, and the last film that teamed him, director Sam Raimi and Kirsten Dunst, lacked any vigor or sense of specialness. Andrew Garfield, the new Spider-Man (who is 29, but looks ten years younger) makes a terrific Peter Parker, and Emma Stone is equally engaging as his love interest, Gwen Stacy. These two make this film worth seeing, but I just wish the filmmakers had assumed we know the drill and skipped ahead to the meat of the story.
In this go-round, we are introduced to Peter’s parents. His dad (Campbell Scott), is a biologist who was working on something secret enough that after a break-in, he and his wife take off, leaving Peter with Sheen and his Aunt May (Sally Field, also solid). Later, the parents die in a plane crash, and Peter learns to think of his aunt and uncle as parents. But when a basement flood leads him to find some documents of his father’s, he gets curious and tracks down another scientist, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who is trying to work out cross-species genetics, so that a human might use traits from other species. Ifans is especially interested in this, since he has a missing arm, and would like to be able to regrow it, as a lizard might.
As with all brilliant scientific ideas, pressure from the corporate office leads to shortcuts, and Ifans, after trying out the serum, turns himself into a big lizard-man. He terrorizes the city, and the newly minted web-slinging vigilante must try to stop him, while simultaneously wooing the girl of his dreams, who happens to be super-smart, interning at Connors’ lab.
The good news is that if you had no recollection of the earlier films, you will probably like this more. A film should be judged on its own merits, but unless you are very young or were formerly Amish, it’s hard to not acknowledge the Raimi films, and in that respect this film is lacking. The scenes in which Parker experiments with his new powers were better in the first film (in that film, Spider-Man produced webs biologically, but in this film he buys the thread, hopefully wholesale). Also, this film has no mention of The Daily Bugle or J. Jonah Jameson, who was always good for a chuckle. Instead, Spider-Man’s foil here is Denis Leary as police captain Stacy (conveniently, Gwen’s father). Leary puts in a fine, droll performance, but it lacks the zip of ol’ JJJ.
As a villain, Ifans gives the Lizard a humanity that is similar to Alfred Molina’s terrific performance as Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, but the writing lets him down, with banal unscientific statements like, “Great things are on their way!” Gee, doc, speak English, will you?
As with the Spider-Man films before, this film does provide thrilling scenes of our hero zipping around the city, defying gravity. A scene in which Parker, unaware of his own strength, dispatches some evildoers in a subway car is well done, as a trio of battles with the Lizard. But by the end there is a sense of fatigue, as the reptilian villain climbs a tall building, like King Kong.
There are also some brain-dead problems. The security at Oscorp, the laboratory where Ifans works, is appallingly lax (why isn’t a door marked “Restricted Access” locked?) and I’m baffled as to how a one-armed man gets an entire lab into a sewer tunnel, by himself. I’m also puzzled as to how it works when the serum wears off. Ifans grows back his arm as a lizard, but when it wears off he goes back to being an amputee. Wear did the cells go? I should add that it seems a shame that Dylan Baker, who played Connors in all three Raimi films, didn’t get the call for this one.
I had an okay time at The Amazing Spider-Man, even though it was mostly trite and covered familiar ground, and was also far too long. Garfield and Stone have real chemistry (if the gossips are to be believed, this extended off camera) and the film has enough wonder that triggers the nostalgia of my comic book-reading days. A sequel (a post-credit sequence sets one up) will likely be better, given that the origin story can be dispensed with and we cut to the chase.
My grade for The Amazing Spider-Man: B-.