by Scott Mendelson
It's no secret that I have had major issues with the very idea of quickly rebooting the Spider-Man franchise. If the film was a smash, I have argued, then studios would basically spend the next few decades merely rebooting the same dozen franchises over and over again. Well, the Marc Webb-helmed reboot is here, and it fails in fundamental ways despite not being an outright terrible film. It fails by both not being different enough from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and not being better than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. While it is preferred to view (and review) films in a vacuum, the circumstances in this case not only prevent that but discourage it. At its core, it is an unofficial loose remake of a prior film being sold as an 'untold story' while the studio attempts to sell used goods as a new product. It is astonishingly cynical gambit and the idea behind its construction turn what is by-itself a moderately entertaining superhero origin story into something downright insidious.
The plot? Well, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is more of a brooding loner than a bubbly nerd this time around, while his token love interest (Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, not Mary Jane) is not the girl next door but a classmate who interns at Dr. Conners's (Rhys Ifans) laboratory. It's clever that Gwen Stacey is now a science nerd with ties to Conners, unless you watched the obscenely underrated Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon that aired a few years back that had the same premise. Other than that, it's the same ballgame for much of the running time, until a third act that feels stolen not from Spider-Man but from Spider-Man 2 and/or Batman Begins. The irony is that the film is actually best when it's playing in the origin story sandbox. The dramatic beats between Parker and his adaptive parents, and Parker's first encounters with Dr. Conners, are unquestionably solid. But once Parker dons the costume it turns into the most generic superhero film possible and loses much of its character foundation amid arbitrarily CGI-infused action that neither intrigues nor delights.
I don't want to go into 'spoilers' (spoiler warning -- don't watch Spider-Man), but you will be shocked at how many action set-pieces, major character arcs, narrative beats, and even climactic pay-offs are copied wholesale from the 10 year-old Sam Raimi franchise-starter. Separate from the prior film, there are things of value to be found. Andrew Garfield makes a fine Peter Parker/Spider-Man, with the best change being that he's actually shown 'doing science' this time around. The early sections intriguingly emphasize the negative effects of having 'spider-powers' more so than the positive ones. He's a moody and angry kid, and his first-act interactions with Martin Sheen's Ben Parker are arguably the highlight of the film. While Emma Stone is far more of the 'token love interest' than Kirsten Dunst was, the role allows Emma Stone to be her charming and amusing-self (Dunst basically played Mary Jane like Daisy from The Great Gatsby). Despite the emphasis on romance in the marketing materials, the romantic subplot is just that -- a side plot that occurs on the edges of the frame while Spidey learns his powers and eventually deals with a super-powered threat. Dennis Leary, as Captain George Stacey, comes off better in the film than he did in the marketing, but you wish he was given more to do than scowl and complaining about that webbed-menace.
The best thing about the movie, and the only portion that qualifies as 'new' for this genre, is the idea of telling a requited love affair that develops in the middle of a comic book action story. With all the talk about how this movie was going to be drawing from Brian Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man comic book, this is the one component that the movie successfully adapts (the issue where Peter Parker tells Mary Jane that he's Spider-Man is one of the best comic book issues over the last 15 years). The new film is actually less of a romance that the prior trilogy, but the idea of the superhero 'getting the girl' well before the credits roll is a nice change in an otherwise paint-by-numbers movie. The action sequences have a nice mix of CGI and practical web-slinging (like the first film, natch), and the 3D is rock-solid throughout. But the web-slinging action lacks the comic book pop of Spider-Man and the sheer jaw-dropping grandeur of Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3. Again, major action sequences feel lifted from Spider-Man, as does the character arc of the main villain. Rhys Ifans plays Dr. Conners but for all intents and purposes plays Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn from the first film. See if this sounds familiar: A conflicted scientist, who has become something of a role model/father-figure to Peter Parker, is pressured into experimenting on himself and turns into a periodically insane mutated super villain who takes revenge on his corporate enemies. The Lizard is not visually appealing nor is Dr. Conners particularly interesting once his transformation takes hold (Rhys Ifans is no Willem Dafoe), and this lack of a worthwhile antagonist is fatal to the film's action-filled second half.
Where the film most deviates from the prior trilogy is in the 'franchise-building' involving the mystery of Peter Parker's parents. As we see in the opening scenes, Parker's parents are scientists who abandoned him as a child, for reasons that are clouded in mystery yet somehow tied into Dr. Conners and his wealthy benefactor. But this subplot is completely dropped after the first act, and the threads are left open for no reason other than to have something to reveal in the inevitable sequel two years from now. There are any number of loose ends and dropped tangents and vanishing characters, and the film feels heavily tinkered-with during post-production. A stunning number of scenes from the marketing are not in the finished product while major events occur without any reaction or consequence. Moreover, the insertion and early emphasis on this 'lost parents' subplot turns the Spider-Man universe into a very closed world and negates the whole random every-man nature of the character. Peter Parker is no longer a normal science nerd who happened to be bitten by a radioactive spider, but rather quite possibly a proverbial 'chosen one' who was destined for great things.
Had this been the first Spider-Man film, it would have had that 'Wow, we're finally seeing a Spider-Man film!' kick that meant so much back in May 2002 (I still remember the thrill of the opening credits set to Danny Elfman's last great theme). You can't replicate the thrill of the first time, which is arguably something that this new film cannot be expected to match up to (the James Horner score here is solid, if not quite as iconic). Yet discounting its status as a reboot/remake, the picture suffers from an insertion of certain unnecessary tangents, mechanically-impressive but empty action sequences, some emotional beats that play less potent than they should, and countless plot holes/dropped subplots. Aside from some solid first act dramatics, there is little good that Spider-Man didn't do first and there is much that Spider-Man did better. This is not Batman Begins, which emphasized real-world plausibility while telling a wholly different story from Tim Burton's Batman (once the mask comes on, the film is only slightly less campy than the Raimi films) This is not even The Incredible Hulk, which had the good sense to dispatch with the origin in the opening credits and get on with a whole new story. This is closer to a Broadway revival, telling the same story as before and changing just enough to theoretically justify the new product.
Like the 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, it ultimately fails both as a film and as a fleshed-out re-imagining of a known property, rendering it irrelevant in the cinematic pantheon. By hewing too closely to what came before while mostly failing to be superior and/or notably different, it renders itself needless. In a future time, when I chose to watch a Spider-Man film, I can't imagine ever choosing this one, which is the greatest tragedy for a number of talented people who have crafted something of no real long-term artistic value. As much as I would prefer to judge the film in a vacuum, I just can't. The Amazing Spider-Man's greatest crime is not that its a corporate-mandated reboot, a relatively mediocre one no-less, of a still-vital ongoing franchise. It's greatest crime is that it is an unofficial remake of a 10-year-old blockbuster masquerading as a wholly new motion picture while attempting to take credit for what the prior filmmakers got right the first time. Spider-Man hasn't aged a day in 10 years. The Amazing Spider-Man already feels like second-hand damaged goods.