Rest assured, those of you who had big problems with Spider-Man 3, and complained about it loudly on the Internet. there’s a studio executive somewhere who seemingly read every review, every blog post and every complaint. And, crucially, listened.
As such, for The Amazing Spider-Man, its focus is down to one villain. There are no moments of utter madness. The running time is still long, but the film zaps along as fast as it can so you don’t notice. It’s a straight three act story, constructed properly, that’s coherent from start to finish.
It’s also, by distance, the least confident superhero movie we’ve seen in some time. It tries so hard to be a full-on reboot, to avoid the mistakes of old, that it seems frightened to go anywhere near what the previous trilogy covered, outside of the material it absolutely has to.
It starts quite promisingly. It’s clear in quick time that Andrew Garfield is a great choice for the role. He can act, he’s an engaging screen presence, and he has an emotional range that serves the journey Peter Parker goes through well. It’s a good job, though, that we already knew how excellent an actress Emma Stone is, as her Gwen Stacy simply isn’t given the screen time she and her character richly deserve.
It’s Stacy, after all, who’s quickly drawn to the nerdy Peter Parker here, and it seems almost refreshing at first that their relationship doesn’t have to go through a prolonged ‘he’s a boy who could never talk to a girl like her’ phase. Instead, they’re brought together quickly, and it’s here where the choice of (500) Days Of Summer director Marc Webb proves inspired. At any point when the focus is on Peter and Gwen, or Peter’s relationship with his Uncle Ben (played in screen-gobbling style by Martin Sheen), there’s a clear sense that he knows just what he’s doing, and how best to do it. The film is at its best here.
When we eventually get to Spider-Man though, things go wrong. Not longer after the mask is pulled on, it’s as if the filmmakers have lost interest. Whereas the movie is patient when it’s dealing with human beings in a high school, when it has to take the superhero path, it loses its footing. Suddenly, it feels like we’re entering scenes as late as we can, and getting out early, rushing through to the next bit of the story.
Not that the story itself is much help. It’s utterly linear, from start to finish. If there’s a problem to solve, then there’s a helpful piece of paper with something circled never a million miles away, or a name tag, or a screen poised on a helpful, expository video. So determined is the film to prioritise coherence at any price, it sacrifices surprise, a generous dose of excitement, and a simple willingness to let us watch Spider-Man at work. The only real exception is in the early stages. It’s a standard genesis story we get, but in a scene where the newly-created webslinger apprehends a car thief, there’s a patience and sense of fun and mischief that’s all but missing from the rest of the movie.
Sadly, the no-risks policy brings with it further casualties. We were promised that this would be the film where Peter Parker finds out a lot more about his parents. That we’d get a rawer take on the character, given his younger age. These are promises that, at best, have barely been kept. Gone, too, is much of the humour. A pity, because some of the lighter lines that did make it work really well.
And we’ve not even got to The Lizard. Rhys Ifans is a really good actor, but he never stands a chance here. Buried under one of the most unconvincing, depressing CG monstrosities of recent cinema, it’s hard to know where to start. His genesis is equally brisk – Dylan Baker’s face if he ever sees the film would be a picture – and his execution is poor. That he has to spout out dialogue while buried under unconvincing computer graphics simply makes it worse.
Appreciating that this has so far been a collection of grumbles, there are positives. While most of the action is forgettable, some of the chase sequences work really well. The small snippets of Denis Leary we get are welcome, and no matter how ordinary his surroundings get, Garfield especially (and Stone, when she gets any space) really delivers. There are points where Marc Webb hits the mark, too, although you never, ultimately, get the feeling that this was his film.
Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man, sadly, feels like the kind of computer game where the characters all come alive when you enter the room, and freeze the moment you leave. There’s never a sense of a living world. Instead, it’s a place where security is breezed past, where questions aren’t asked, and where life-changing events don’t feel like they have deep, ongoing emotional ramifications, outside of putting a different outfit on.
It’s a disappointment. Had it been braver, and been willing to sacrifice yet more of the Spider-Man side in place of a more determined Peter Parker-centric story, then there would arguably have been a more interesting film here. That, or it could have committed to, and enjoyed, its superhero status. It doesn’t do either of those things, though.
As it is, it never escapes its boardroom shackles. With a sequel just two years away, it suggests some serious challenges in the months ahead to really find the courage this movie is lacking in.
It’s not then, ultimately, comparisons to the Sam Raimi movies that damage The Amazing Spider-Man, nor the fact that it follows The Avengers into cinemas by a couple of months (although you’d imagine that if either Raimi or Joss Whedon had been sent this script, they’d have sent it straight back). It’s just that it’s scared. And for too much of the film’s running time, it simply can’t hide it. A steadfast, ordinary film, then, and quite a disappointing one.