Movie Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

08 Jul

I love Spider-Man. When I was younger, he was by far my favorite superhero…even topping Batman. I’ve been a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s film trilogy as well (yes, even including the oft-maligned third installment). Raimi’s Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Batman are the two sides of the modern superhero coin: one relatively lighthearted and energetic, the other dark and brooding. Both are meritorious in their own way.

When I heard that the Spider-Man series was being “rebooted” with a new cast and new director, I was immediately skeptical. Remaking a film only 10 years old feels like a poor idea at best, and a naked cash-grab at worst. That being said, I was willing to give “The Amazing Spider-Man” a chance.

The verdict? Mixed to negative.

(Note: this review will contain some spoilers, but nothing giving away major plot points).

The plot is familiar – very, very familiar. Orphaned Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, take your pick) is bitten by a genetically modified spider, which gives him various heroic superpowers. Through a tragic accident, Peter’s inaction results in the death of his Uncle Ben, forcing Peter to accept that “with great power comes great responsibility.” (The reboot goes out of its way to avoid saying this explicitly, instead opting for a clunky synonym). A supervillain, (insert your preferred antagonist here), promptly emerges with a nefarious plan.

I’ll start with the positives. Uncle Ben (played by Martin Sheen) is a vast improvement upon his predecessor. His interactions with Peter get substantial screen time, which adds a lot to the film’s depth. Director Marc Webb (responsible for the indie rom-com “500 Days of Summer”) excels at depicting relationships, and the love angle between Peter and main squeeze Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is a highlight. The actors (apparently an item in real life) have real chemistry, and their repartee is immensely entertaining to watch – though, to be fair, there’s nothing here quite as iconic as the famous upside-down kiss. All told, however, Webb outdoes Raimi in this area by a handy margin.

On to the negatives – and there are, unfortunately, quite a few.

For starters, the film’s entire narrative is a structural train-wreck. A superhero film may take one of two forms: origin story, or “in medias res” (in the middle of things). Tim Burton’s “Batman” is a perfect example of the latter: little time is spent developing Batman’s backstory, and the movie’s focus is on the immediate conflict with the Joker. Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” conversely, is an origin story. Those seeking to reboot a superhero franchise should generally opt for the opposite of the original (example: 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk” dispensed with its origin story in a series of fast-cuts during the opening credits). “The Amazing Spider-Man” spends its first hour rehashing old plot points the audience has seen before.

And this is saying nothing of the overall plot – a derivative, unoriginal fight-the-villain story that feels like it was written by a committee. The film’s villain – the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) – is entirely devoid of character depth or development. There’s no fascinating Jekyll/Hyde angle, as in the case of Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin…as soon as Ifans steps onscreen, it’s obvious he’ll be the bad guy. What’s more, he appears to lack any consistent motivation.

That lack of motivation carries over to Peter Parker himself. Parker has obviously attended the Holden Caulfield school of adolescent angst, and seems to lack any overall plan for his life. Whereas Raimi’s Spider-Man struggled to make his way as a student/photographer/pizza deliveryman, Webb’s Spider-Man enjoys skateboarding to the strains of Coldplay. Webb will surely score some hipster/indie points for this, but it reflects an unfortunate immaturity in the character. One of the most gratifying elements of the original trilogy was its bildungsroman subtext; this is lost in the reboot.

The film is also riddled with blatant plot devices and holes. In a pivotal scene, Peter infiltrates the Lizard’s lair and finds his entire nefarious plan outlined there. A computer simulation – so simplistic an idiot could interpret it; this is supposed to be a Ph.D. scientist’s work – explicitly details what the Lizard plans to accomplish. (There are several more, but that’s the worst.) At no point does Peter have to work to advance the plot; a series of coincidences (rising to the “deus ex machina” level) advance the story for him.

The most egregious problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” however, is the glaring lack of a moral compass.

Foundational to the Spider-Man character is Peter Parker’s strong sense of right-and-wrong. Raimi’s films, love them or hate them, dealt with this head-on. This is completely absent from Webb’s vision.

Here’s a key example. In the original film’s closing scene, Peter Parker chooses not to pursue a relationship with Mary Jane Watson, for fear it will endanger her. In the reboot, Peter is told by Gwen’s father not to pursue a relationship, for fear it will endanger her (and a closing scene hints he plans to flout this request). Throughout the reboot, Peter’s only sense of morality comes from external sources telling him what to do. No personal convictions are ever demonstrated, or even implied. At one point, Aunt May calls him a “good” person…but this just isn’t backed up by what we see onscreen.

Technically, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is proficient but not particularly remarkable. It’s probably fair to say that if you’ve seen the trailer for this film, you’ve already seen most of the striking moments. “The Avengers” set the bar for superhero epics rather high…and there’s not enough flashy spectacle here to outweigh the structural deficiencies.

Objectionable content is par for the course. There’s plenty of stylized action violence, some mild romantic elements, and the occasional profanity – all approximately on the level of its predecessor (if anything, things have been toned down in the reboot). Worldview elements (minus the aforementioned dearth of morality) are nonexistent.

Is it worth seeing?

Taken purely in isolation, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is not a terrible movie. But given the short interval between Raimi’s trilogy and this reboot, comparisons are inevitable…and on balance, the original wins out. For $15, you could probably purchase the first two “Spider-Man” DVDs and a pack of popcorn to boot. That will likely provide more entertainment and edification than this unnecessary, fundamentally flawed reboot. Some elements are strong, but not enough to justify the high price of admission. Wait for the video.

A serviceable, but uninspiring, reimagining of the beloved character. Not worth the anticipation or hype.

Normalized Score: 1.6

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Posted by on July 8, 2012 in Sci-Fi


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