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The Amazing Spider-Man

Reviewed by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Director Marc Webb
Length 136 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ****------
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 2

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Trailer.

Only ten years on from the opening volley in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, Sony Pictures have released another reimagining of the character, this time with a Brit, Andrew Garfield, donning the red and blue unitard. The overwhelming question which greeted the film’s announcement was: why? Do we actually need another Spiderman when the memories of Tobey Maguire’s delicate, flawed Peter Parker - with his wounded eyes, frail frame and, latterly, jazz dancing - are still fresh in our minds? The short answer, for anyone who suffered through the indignity of Spider-Man 3, likely is: Yes, please god, yes, scour that filth from my eyeballs and make me whole again! The good news is that director Marc Webb - who, apart from being appropriately named, also helmed the indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer (2009), has largely succeeded in making a film which will bury the ghosts of that third instalment. The bad news is that, despite some moments of visual charm and some quality teen-movie shtick that points back to his roots, The Amazing Spider-Man feels more than a little underwhelming.

The film signals its deviation from the classic Spider-Man narrative from the outset, opening with a flashback sequence which establishes the mysterious circumstances behind the disappearance of Peter Parker’s parents. From this we are asked to infer that this is a superhero retelling with a difference - it will have depth and resonance and unspoken emotion. However, the idea of introducing the absentee parents in order to enhance the orphaned status of the central hero is a hoary old trope of superhero films, with its roots in Donner’s Superman (1978) and most recently attempted in the cosmically themed super-duds, Thor (2011) and Green Lantern (2011). It’s particularly ineffective when the young hero-to-be then gets to be raised by Martin Sheen and Sally Fields, surely the equivalent of a rollover jackpot win in the surrogate parent sweepstakes.

In fact, the treatment of these two veteran actors captures the film’s central problem in miniature: it simply feels rushed. Martin Sheen makes the best of it, stealing the scenes he’s in with his trademark avuncular/shamanic charm. His relationship with Peter manages to feel fully realized thanks to a few key vignettes. Sally Fields’ Aunt May, by contrast, gradually fades into the background. After Ben’s death, she only reappears occasionally to throw her hands up in horror when Peter returns home late at night. Furthermore, her grief at the death of her husband is sidelined in favour of Peter’s pursuit of his killer, a conflict which promises to teach the budding superhero something about the human cost of vengeance, but which is never really addressed in the film.

The refrain that X, Y and Z were never really addressed in the film is one which could justifiably be repeated ad nauseum in this review. The movie has a slapdash approach to plotting that keeps things moving at a heady clip, but which won’t survive the scrutiny of even a partially attentive audience. It should be said that, on occasion, the breezy nonchalance of the film’s plot makes for a refreshing change from the rote rehearsal of predictable scenes that can constitute a contemporary action movie. When was the last time you saw a film where a giant lizard was terrorizing a city and someone immediately said, ‘Hey, I bet it’s that guy who was experimenting with human-lizard hybrid DNA?’ Similarly, the film avoids the tired old business of hiding a secret identity; Parker, a horny teenager looking to impress girls, can’t wait to show Gwen his powers. Ultimately, however, The Amazing Spider-Man relies on this gambit a little too often for it to feel like a conscious, genre-bending choice, and by the time Gwen intuits the reason that Peter can’t see her anymore, it just feels like cutting corners.

All of this sounds fairly damning, but The Amazing Spider-Man does have some real strengths. Chief among these is its casting. Garfield does an impressive line in teen characterisation, from awkward flirting, to weird reclusiveness, to petulant rage, and he fills the roles of both Parker and Spiderman with an easy charm. Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey is a refugee from an indie teen rom-com, and the Easy A (2010) veteran is consistently the most watchable thing on screen (though the tortured plot requires her to be both high-school love interest and high-flying research lab intern - go figure!). Dennis Leary does his surly best with some sceptical cop dialogue that really needed another pass from the script doctor, and Rhys Ifans offers a creditable variation on the hubristic spider-squashing mad-scientist (though his performance probably still ranks below the similar offerings from Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina in the earlier franchise).

The film also contains some stunning visuals, though largely in the form of tableaux or still shots, rather than in the action scenes - which are fine, but no more than that. Individual images of Peter working on his web-shooters, or standing beneath a graffitied image of a spider insignia beneath an overpass, or an array of black umbrellas exiting a church at a funeral, show an impressive eye for composition. However, it’s not necessarily a good thing when an action film is so uninvolving that the best thing on the screen is the pretty mise-en-scene in the quieter scenes.

It would be easy to continue turning out a series of gripes about the film, but the exercise would quickly become only marginally more entertaining than actually watching the movie. Suffice it to say that, with this cast, and with the clear eye for visual detail occasionally on display, The Amazing Spider-Man ends up being probably about as bad as it could possibly have been.

Alternate Take to follow soon…

This review was published on June 29, 2012.