★★★★ When The Amazing Spider-Man came out I was strongly in the camp of people who said it was too early for a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise. Sam Raimi's original trilogy was uneven, with the first one being a glorified Power Rangers movie, the second being one of the greatest superhero movies of all time and the third a much too campy take on the old web-head.
It's taken me a year to catch up with this new Spider-Man featuring Andrew Garfield in the spandex, and I'm not too proud to admit that I was completely wrong in dismissing this film. It was not too soon for a reboot, and Amazing is in contention with Spider-Man 2 for the title of best Spider-Man film of all time. I'll need to watch both films again before determining the winner of that death match.
When it comes to superhero movies I have a problem with the films that demand on rehashing the hero's origin stories. I read a lot of comic books and know most of these by heart, so the film better do something wholly original, or somehow change the established lore in an interesting way, be it tonally or story-wise. I'm open to both.
But I'm even happier when the film assumes we know the hero's origin and just jumps right in. It's like we've picked up the latest issue of the comic book off the shelves. Dredd is a great example of this idea working really well. We don't need to know why Judge Dredd is the way he is, we just need to know he's the good guy and move forward.
The Amazing Spider-Man decides to retell Spidey's origin story, and honestly, the focus on the dramatic elements of that is so good, I was happy to let the weak, sciency super-hero stuff gloss right by. I think the science-fiction on display is thin at best, but that's okay because this film is all about the characters.
We open on a young Peter Parker playing hide and seek with his father. This scene has an almost horror movie vibe to it, and Peter is very quickly dropped off at Aunt May and Uncle Ben's for an extended stay while the Parkers go on the run from an unknown enemy.
Time passes and Peter in in high school. Emma Stone rocks her role as Gwen Stacy, Peter's love interest whose wardrobe consists of a limitless supply of short skirts and knee high boots. I'm a big Kirsten Dunst fan and was happy the film decided to focus on Gwen rather than Mary Jane. Gwen is the head intern for Dr. Curt Connors, who will eventually become The Lizard.
Connors is played by Rhys Ifans, the actor previously known for his role as Spike in Notting Hill. He's great here and disappears into the role, as does Martin Sheen who plays Uncle Ben. Sheen is a perfect father-figure for Peter, so much so that when Peter rebels against him we almost don't believe it.
The film deals with Peter's abandonment issues head on, and when he uncovers some old things of his father's he begins investigating his parents disappearance, which leads him to Oscorp.
There's mention of Norman Osborne, but his character is set aside, which I was thankful for. I've never been a big Green Goblin fan and the fact that both he and Spidey have masks that cover their entire faces is what gave the first Spider-Man film that Power Rangers feel.
Peter's inevitable spider bite is done a little differently here. The Oscorp laboratory he finds himself in looks cool, but we have no idea why there are thousands of spiders spinning thousands of webs all over this neon lit equipment. We're told much, much later that it's a room manufacturing Oscorp's Biocable Tinsel String, which later on becomes Spider-Man's webbing. But when we first see it, it's a little confusing.
Of course, Peter must grow into his new powers, from his spider sense to his new found strength. There's a great skateboarding sequence where he works on his new abilities on a smaller scale, and another later that feels more like parkour than Spider-Man (although Peter Parkour is a fun spin on Spidey's name). Its great to start small. It gives us the momentary sense of realism. We know that soon Peter will be swinging through the city, but to start this way is perfect.
The writing is very clever as well. A prime example being when Peter comes home late and Aunt May ends up being mad at Ben for a comment about her meatloaf rather than being mad at Peter. It's funny and adds some levity to the film which gets pretty dark.
If you know anything about the Spider-Man mythology you know that Uncle Ben has to die so Peter can learn, "With great power, comes great responsibility." But even knowing it was coming, it still manages to be heartbreaking. I was misty-eyed throughout the entire sequence from the attack well into the grieving process.
One problem I had was with the film's treatment of grief. We see Peter dealing with his, but Aunt May (Sally Field) is largely ignored. It works in a sense that Peter is ignoring her as well, but I really wanted to see more of her working through the murder of her husband. All we're told is she can't sleep.
Peter eventually sees an old lucha libre poster for the luchador Cruzado de la Noche. It not only inspires the Spider-Man costume, but hearkens back to the comic book origin story where Peter starts out as a professional wrestler. That was a touch I really enjoyed.
Denis Leary shows up as Captain Stacy, Gwen's dad and New York police chief. He's great and plays the veteran cop with the trademark sarcastic edge that Leary does so well. "Thirty-eight of New York's finest versus one guy in a unitard?"
The film never really explains why all the little lizards are drawn to The Lizard, and when Peter leaves Gwen's house, he does so without his backpack, but in the next scene his backpack is with him. And there's an extraneous scene where Peter, who can figure out complex equations in his head, has to go to Dr. Connors to ask him facts about cold-blooded animals that a second grader would know. That scene is only there so Peter can learn Connors is The Lizard. But these are minor problems.
The good stuff far outweighs the bad, like the way Spidey uses a web in the sewer to track down The Lizard. And Stan Lee's cameo is his best in a Marvel film thus far. It's a silent movie moment in a way, as Stan is wearing headphones listening to classical music, while all hell breaks loose behind him.
There are a few first person scenes through the film which work well enough. I bet in 3D in the theater they were spectacular...or amazing, if you prefer.
There's always an element of danger to Spider-Man. We really feel like he could miss a grabbing a web, or run out of web fluid mid-commute. After all, he's just a guy with spider powers, death is not that far away. But that's what makes him great. He's just a normal guy with normal problems. It's something that elevates him above a hero like Superman, who is basically an undefeatable god.
The Amazing Spider-Man ends with a great last line that says so much and changes the state of a particular relationship between two characters in the film. It's a great way to end it because we're left wanting to see what happens next, not because there's a new monster on the loose, but because we care so much about the characters.