When I was a kid, I had a friend who was so desperate to beat video games with all his lives intact that no matter how far in he got, if he "died" even once, he'd hit "reset" and start over. The Amazing Spider-Man, which takes us back to before the beginning of Peter Parker's webbed journey, feels a little like that. For all its multitudinous flaws, 2007's Spider-Man 3 was at most a flesh wound, and certainly didn't necessitate a ground-up restart. Nonetheless, that's what we got. And while the need for The Amazing Spider-Man's existence is certainly open to debate, it's a rewarding and worthwhile ride all the same, and a promising start to a new series.
This wasn't the original plan, of course. While Spider-Man 3 was indeed hobbled by its kitchen sink of a storyline that saw Marvel's webhead contending with three villains, two love interests, and a partridge in a pear tree, it still put enough butts in seats to become the highest grossing entry in the series globally. Thus, director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire had been webbed back in for a fourth go-round. But when Raimi ran into story problems on the proposed Spider-Man 4 that threatened to push back his start date, rather than take the time needed to work through the problems, Sony chose to cut bait and start over a la Batman Begins (the great-granddaddy in this age of the perpetual reboot).
The whys-and-wherefores of this decision ultimately come down to the omnipresent intersection between art and commerce that powers all big Hollywood productions. The rights arrangement between Marvel and Sony for Spider-Man specifies that in order for the the latter to retain their golden spider of a franchise, they need to have product in active development. That means that any lull in the Spider-Man assembly line likely means the character and his ancillary properties snapping back to Marvel (and their owners at Disney). And believe me, for as much as Disney would love that, Sony really wouldn't.
And so, once Raimi threw his hands in the air and told Sony he couldn't make their 2011 date, they quickly went into Plan B mode, pulling out a Frankensteined-together "back to basics" script by James Vanderbilt, Steve Kloves, and Alvin Sargent that was sitting in a glass box marked "Break in Case of Creative Inertia," and hiring director Marc Webb, a relative newbie to franchise filmmaking, to put it all together. And just like that, the Sam Raimi Spider-era was over. Now, knowing the mercenary nature of this business, I'm rarely surprised by anything, even cold rebooting a series that's only a decade old and had a fair amount of success the last time. If anything, that success is exactly why they're rebooting.
But while many of the story beats are, of necessity, the same, there's enough different to not make the thing entirely redundant or perfunctory. ;As embodied by Brit actor Andrew Garfield, the 2012 model Peter Parker isn't so much the nebbishy nerd Tobey Maguire played, but more an outcast loner in the James Dean mold (with an aptitude for science that borders on the preternatural). He smolders around Midtown Science High, old-style camera around his shoulder, skateboard under his arm, quietly pining for brainy beauty Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Things follow a predictable pattern when he wanders into an off-limits science lab and gets bitten by a genetically mutated spider, which ends up giving him the proportional yadda-yadda of a spider.
The story this time is really driven by Parker's desire to unravel the mystery surrounding his parents' deaths when he was a child, which leads him to track down his father's old colleague Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), a genetic researcher who makes a breakthrough thanks to Peter's help that ends up transforming him into comic book villain the Lizard (pity poor Dylan Baker, who did his time in the trenches as Connors in two of the previous films without ever getting to go reptilian). Meanwhile, poor, doomed Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, pitch perfect) meets his apportioned fate after an unfortunate encounter with a petty thief, prompting Peter to set out in search of the murderer, finally realizing that... revenge is... good?
Yeah, they never actually clarify what Peter learns from Ben's death, which is kind of an important part of the whole "Spider-Man" thing. I mentioned in my retro review of the 2002 Spider-Man that the sequence where Peter realizes his role in the tragedy is hands down one of the best parts of any superhero flick ever, but while that journey of conscience is woven through this film, it robs us of that singular "Daaaaaamn!" moment where we see the tumblers lock into place for Peter how great power and great responsibility go together. Instead, Pete's basically a good guy when we first meet him (evidenced by his helping a bullying victim), and he's basically a good guy when the movie ends. On that score, I prefer the '02 take.
(Speaking of scores, I also prefer Danny Elfman's music over James Horner's forgettable, by-the-numbers work here. Seriously, I don't think a more hit-or-miss composer is working today.)
But in other ways, the previous iteration is easily outclassed by the new formula. For starters, the filmmakers took the reboot opportunity to divest Peter of the organic webshooters Raimi had given him, and instead demonstrate his scientific and mechanical genius by having him design wrist-mounted devices utilizing artificial webs of his own making. Also showing Parker's skills is the Spider-Man suit itself, which clearly takes inspiration from Christopher Nolan's reality-driven take on Batman by foregrounding function over form, with a texture pattern that makes it look like sort of a full-body basketball. I do miss the elegant James Acheson-designed Spider-suit from the previous series, but this one is just fine too.
In fact, the influence of Batman Begins can be felt all over the place, from the casting of so many respected, familiar faces to fill out the secondary roles (Sheen, Sally Field as long-suffering Aunt May, Denis Leary as Gwen's police captain father), to the cinematography by John Schwartzman that eschews the hyper-reality of the Raimi films for something a bit more sedate. This focus on practicality also extends to the action sequences, which use man-in-suit whenever possible instead of shifting to a computer-generated cartoon when the fighting starts. The effects work here is the best in the entire run, with the seamless blending of CGI and practical as Spidey swings through New York blurring the line between the real and the illusory.
Where The Amazing Spider-Man unquestionably stands head, shoulders, and part of the chest above its predecessors is the the romance between Peter Parker and his love interest, an area where the previous series was continually tripped up. Unlike the comics, where Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson had been married for fifteen years at the time the first movie came out, having been brought together by a history of shared tragedies and triumphs, the film cast Mary Jane as the "girl next door" who Peter had pined for since adolescence. This immediately made the MJ relationship more fantasy-driven, and through three entries we never got a compelling reason for these two people being together other than that being "the way it is."
What Webb does so well is put to full use the skills he demonstrated quite well with 2009's charming (500) Days of Summer (which really put him on the map) by using Peter and Gwen to paint a believable portrait of young love in blossom. Helping immensely is that Garfield has such easy chemistry with Stone, who has charm to spare. Seeing the pair come together feels less like the pre-planned dictate of plot mechanics than it does the natural outgrowth of where their relationship takes them. Also, given that longtime readers know that things didn't end well for poor Gwen, there's an element of tragedy already in the air (though whether the filmmakers will choose to follow that thread in a follow-up is obviously up in the air).
None of the above should be taken to mean they skimp on action or pyrotechnics, by the way. The climax is suitably 'explodey,' but with a foundation of character development to make us actually care about its outcome. I went into The Amazing Spider-Man as a hostile witness. I would have been happy to see them continue the previous series rather than hit "reset" just because they lost one life. By the time it ended, though, I was won over. There are some things Spider-Man did better in '02, and some The Amazing Spider-Man does better today. However, the Spider-Man myth is more powerful than any of its individual tellings, and with Andrew Garfield behind the mask, it'll likely continue to spin for several years yet. B+