The response to The Amazing Spider-Man has been largely positive, considering how expectations weren’t exactly through the roof in the run-up to its release. Coming between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, the marketing was eager to pitch the film as a closer relative of the latter than of the superlative fun we got from Marvel’s big superhero team-up.
If we were to speculate upon a reason for that, it’s that the reboot is essentially a refresher for Marvel’s agreement with Sony on the rights to the characters. Just as Fox has to keep making X-Men movies if it wants to retain the rights to that property, Sony had to make another Spider-Man movie to avoid the situation where he returns to Marvel’s stable and joins the line-up in The Avengers 2.
After parting ways with Sam Raimi, who planned to make Spider-Man 4 in the same vein as his previous retro take on the series, the studio decided to go back to the beginning and reboot, but it’s only just over ten years since we last saw a version of Spider-Man’s origin story, in 2002’s Spider-Man.
Personally, I saw the film without any of the baggage of the previous films, which I liked, but it’s interesting to compare how different crews took different approaches to the origin story. How different are they in essence? Are some of the changes in the reboot simply for the sake of change? And of course, which one makes a better job of it?
Any Spider-Man movie has this young man at its centre, and it’s to Andrew Garfield’s credit that he does such a spectacular job in a role that’s already been well-established by Tobey Maguire. The two actors make very different portrayals of the character, but the overriding feeling coming out of The Amazing Spider-Man is that you want Garfield to keep playing Peter for the foreseeable future.
However, it’s an almost unique case of an actor’s performance being so likeable as to overcome any perceived problems with the character. Maguire’s Peter is a dork, through and through. He’s nerdy, perhaps set apart from his classmates by the fact that he lives with much older relatives. His parents aren’t even mentioned. Garfield’s Peter is, by contrast, an outcast, which comes with cooler connotations involving skateboards and big hair.
Garfield’s Peter is somewhat similar to Edward Cullen from Twilight, though he’s much more interesting for the virtue of spider-powers and facial expressions. Many have made the case that he acts like Spider-Man even before he’s imbued with superpowers, going by the scene in which he stands up for a fellow classmate, resulting in a beatdown from Flash Thompson.
Whatever the problems with the script, which will be discussed in more depth later, Garfield’s talents and great charisma shine through regardless. He’s different enough from Maguire that we can like both in different ways – the original Peter leaves high-school about half an hour into Spider-Man, while The Amazing Spider-Man seems to have couched itself there for the duration of its planned trilogy, and perhaps it is time for this more popular interpretation of Peter to get its dues on the big screen.
The origin story
Here’s where the reboot falls down a little. While Spider-Man zipped through the whys and hows of Peter’s dalliance with a genetically-modified spider in the first ten minutes or so, The Amazing Spider-Man expands the origin to feature-length and backwards into Peter’s childhood. Much of “the untold story”, ominously promised in the film’s marketing, doesn’t come to light in this first instalment, anyway.
In the run-up to the film’s release, it wasn’t uncommon to see messages on the Twittersphere that went along the lines of “I really don’t care about Spider-Man’s parents”, and it’s hard to disagree, given what they rustled up. There’s something to be said for the implication that Peter only got superpowers from his bite, rather than, say, a potentially lethal transfusion of spider venom because his father’s work led him to meddle with Peter’s DNA, but haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
Look at how the last big reboot of a Marvel property handled its re-telling of the origin story. The Incredible Hulk shows Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner being subjected to gamma radiation during a montage in the opening credits, with some later dialogue tying his research to the super-soldier serum that created Captain America. The Amazing Spider-Man thus takes its lead from the wrong Hulk movie – 2003’s Hulk also linked its origin story to a scientist father’s experiments.
If we count the death of Uncle Ben as part of the origin story, and we should, then the first film does a better job again, discounting the laughable retcon performed in Spider-Man 3. Even though Martin Sheen is superb as Peter’s uncle, you can see the filmmakers tiptoeing around the story as we know it – this film’s version of the classic line, “With great power, comes great responsibility” doesn’t pass muster, precisely because the screenwriters are obviously trying to say it without using those words.
Structurally speaking, you can align 2002’s film with Superman: The Movie, but 2012’s reboot takes its cues, in more ways than one, from Batman Begins. It’s a much darker, mostly serious telling of a story we already know, and it’s not like there was anything wrong with the more sprightly and colourful interpretation from a decade ago. And even more troublesome is that there’s not a single superhero who seems less at home in a Nolan-ised adaptation than Spider-Man does.
Although Peter Parker is Spider-Man, there are still grounds to separately compare the film’s portrayals of him while masked, especially when it can be argued that the earlier film has a better Spider-Man, even if Garfield is a better Peter than Maguire. It’s not really down to the actors, seeing as how Spidey’s design basically precludes facial expressions, no matter how good you are at acting.
This one is more about design, direction and script, and the differences that make the original so much better. The costume in The Amazing Spider-Man is plain ugly, and frankly, it’s different for the sake of difference. Perhaps it’s a little more practical, and maybe it’s slightly more believable that a teenager with little disposable income could assemble it, but it’s an inferior version of the more colourful variant seen in the original trilogy.
The problems don’t stop with the costume, though. Much of the reboot focuses on fan service and supposed corrections of creative decisions in the previous adaptations – seeing as how the mechanical web-shooters are well handled in this one, it’s hard to declare a preference for either that kind, or the organic web seen in Raimi’s films, but there are other difficulties.
This includes Spider-Man’s tendency to make quips, a much-celebrated aspect of the comics that frequently has his villains driven to distraction (and defeat) by how annoying he is. On the big screen, the audience might sympathise with them, instead of enjoying how much he irritates his foes into submission.
Whether it’s the writing, or that aforementioned incapacity for facial expressions, Spidey’s quips just don’t come off like they’re supposed to in the reboot. I never understood why people claimed it was absent in Raimi’s version; he makes some quips throughout all three films, but he doesn’t go so far as to sound like he’s doing a bad stand-up routine either.
New Spidey has some stellar moments, though, with the scene where he saves a child from a burning car suspended from a bridge being a particular highlight. One of the really good decisions in the film is to show this moment as the point where Peter realises Spider-Man’s power as a symbol of hope, and his interaction with the young boy is lovely.
Likewise, the idea of having Peter take his rucksack out with him while crime-fighting is a nice touch that really lends an authenticity to his geekiness that might not be present through his not-so-wise-cracking and general super-heroism. It helps remind us that he’s under the mask. But honestly, I never lost that feeling when I was watching any of the original films, even though Garfield goes without the mask a lot more often than Maguire. That’s a problem with the representation of the hero, if not with Peter.
If nothing else, Dylan Baker can take comfort in the fact that his Lizard probably would have been better, had the cancelled Spider-Man 4 come to pass. Having played Dr Curt Connors in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, there was a bit more groundwork to his relationship with Peter before he accidentally turns himself into a giant lizard than the reboot musters.
Rhys Ifans does a good job, but he’s given shockingly little to chew on in his role as Connors. Aside from vague allusions to his friendship with Peter’s father, which seems to be all that’s left of the otherwise implied “untold story” after reshoots and edits, there’s not a lot to him. Certainly, there’s no feasible reason given in his brief pre-Lizard scenes with Peter for his immediate desire to turn everybody else into a lizard just as soon as his own transformation takes place.
Compare this to the villain in Raimi’s Spider-Man. Although the problems with casting the world’s most expressive actor and then putting him under a static fibreglass mask should speak for themselves, Willem Dafoe gets a lot of work to do as Spidey’s most iconic foe, Norman Osborn, also known as the Green Goblin. His arc sets up a sub-plot that would power the entire trilogy, in a way that Connors’ eventual commitment to an asylum just doesn’t.
More importantly, his relationship with Peter is better established. Although the movies have tended to contrive connections between Peter and the antagonist at times, hence the awful retcon with Sandman and Uncle Ben, Raimi always did it better than Webb manages. Norman likes Peter, Peter admires Norman, and so their superpowered clashes actually mean something later on, especially when Norman tries to plead with his fractured personality on Peter’s behalf.
There’s a risible attempt to do the same thing in The Amazing Spider-Man, which focuses on Connors having an agreement with himself. Not an argument, but simply an internalised discussion with his split personality on the topic of killing Spider-Man. They’re both for the idea. All of this is not to mention the awful CGI used to render Connors’ lizard alter-ego, all of which adds up to a deployment of one of Spider-Man’s most interesting foes that is underpowered, as well as overdue.
For better or worse, Twilight has come up a lot in people’s analyses of The Amazing Spider-Man. Seeing as how Gwen Stacy is a girl with a policeman father, who falls in love with a big-haired, super-powered loner, you can’t entirely deny the parallels. It’s a shake-up in comparison to the ongoing dynamic between Peter and Mary Jane in the Raimi movies.
For as far as the origin story goes, the chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst sells the romance between Peter and Mary Jane. He adores her from afar, and by the end of the movie, we’re gratified to discover that she’s fallen in love with Peter, not with his alter-ego, despite an iconic clinch in the rain. It’s only in the sequels that Dunst starts to wear on the viewer a little bit, with her problems paling into significance compared to the issues that Peter deals with every day.
Gwen isn’t the type to get kidnapped at the end of every movie and scream her arse off either. And frankly, Emma Stone’s portrayal is what will tip you head over heels in love with the actress, if you weren’t already there, after her extremely likeable turns in Zombieland and Easy A.
By making Gwen into Peter’s intellectual equal, there’s a connection that we didn’t see when he was clumsily courting queen bee Mary Jane in the earlier movies. Although the rooftop scene where Peter web-yanks Gwen into their first kiss isn’t as iconic as the alleyway in the rain – and arguably, nothing else in this film is so iconic either – the smouldering attraction between them is one of the best things about the reboot. Expect tears, if the sequels draw from the Gwen Stacy saga of the comics for inspiration.
And the rest…
The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t just make up for the lack of JK Simmons by omitting J Jonah Jameson from the story, but by having a couple of characters whose casting is equally perfect. In addition to having a better Peter Parker, the reboot supersedes the original by casting Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and Denis Leary as George Stacy.
James Cromwell’s Captain Stacy only appeared in Spider-Man 3, but accounting for how fantastic Leary is in the role, it’s not difficult to conclude that Cromwell looks worse off. Leary’s superb comic timing enlivens the film’s slower moments, even though his character’s fixation on arresting Spider-Man rather than stopping the giant lizard, even after it launches a biological attack on his turf, is part of this version’s unfortunate debt to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies.
If Spider-Man is equivalent to a Richard Donner-esque Spider-Man: The Movie, then The Amazing Spider-Man is Spider-Man Begins, but the dark, edgy take on Spider-Man doesn’t suit the webslinger one bit. Others rate the reboot more highly than we do, but it’s ultimately a pretty hollow attempt at difference for difference’s sake, with a few strokes of genius casting to make it watchable.
Adjusting for inflation and accounting for the 3D surcharge, the film’s box office take makes it the weakest performer of all of Sony’s Spider-Man features, so perhaps audiences weren’t as turned onto the idea of a darker Spidey than the critics, who largely seem to have enjoyed it. We can at least agree that Andrew Garfield should play Spider-Man again. We’d just rather see Sony cut a deal with Marvel, so that he can show up in The Avengers 2.
Ultimately, the major failing of The Amazing Spider-Man is not that it came after a largely acclaimed run with the character by Sam Raimi, but that it would still be the weaker film if it switched positions with 2002’s version of the origin story, and had came out first. Spider-Man became instantly iconic when it was released, but there’s not nearly as much to remember in this spin on the now-familiar story.
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