Can there be a regular cinemagoer, male or female, who has yet to fall head-over-heels in love with Emma Stone? She’s witty and pretty for sure and has eyes big enough to meet the manic pixie dream girl specifications. But she’s so far beyond a tag like that. She took the smart-tongued protagonist in Easy A and imbued everything with nuances and depth the script probably didn’t even call for. In The Amazing Spider-Man (Hollywood’s quickest ever turnaround for a reboot) she takes the standard superhero girlfriend, and – with only a few scenes to do so – creates a compelling, empathetic, completely charming character. She’s ably assisted by multiple other cast members, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
This film is liable to met with a healthy portion of scepticism. It’s only a decade since Sam Raimi dipped his toes into the Spidey world and he did so with immense success. His three movies, including the insane, possible-parody third installment, did crazy money at the box office and nobody’s forgotten them yet. Spider-Man 2, in fact, is regularly in the conversation when discussions occur about the best comic book movies of all time. So, rebooting right now is definitely going to raise eyebrows and questions. Not only that, but the story – barring a changed villainous presence – is the same origin story we were told in the first movie. There are changes to the details, but the basic and major plot points are the same. That’s surely a problem.
Except, well, it’s not.
See, for all that aforementioned scepticism, The Amazing Spider-Man is a surprisingly affecting, witty and, most important, fun adaptation. In fact, this is a much more interesting and compelling world to live in than that created by Raimi. His Spider-Man movies are terrific in execution, the action scenes in particular. This one doesn’t have action set-pieces staged with the same level of skill or energy, but the actual world created around all that is better.
A big chunk of that success has to be attributed to the casting. Stone, as already gushed, is brilliant. But she’s always brilliant. So is Martin Sheen. No one delivers potentially schmaltzy dialogue and sells it as well as Sheen. As seen in The West Wing and seen briefly here too, he’s also brilliant at banter. Throw this man into a screwball comedy and he’d light up the screen. His scenes with Sally Field let you witness two actors taking a couple of two-dimensional characters and drawing them out into the open, going well beyond the script.
Maybe a little more surprising is how good Andrew Garfield is. Certainly at Screen Siren, he’s a divisive figure. Beth thinks he’s good sometimes (and in this) but he has an odd vibe that puts her off. I think he’s got the stuff. Here, his enthusiasm for playing Peter Parker is infectious. Also, he plays Peter not as a super-geek getting bullied all over the place, but as just an everyman and a nobody in school. That’s another improvement from the character Tobey Maguire and Raimi gave us. Peter shouldn’t be such a loser. He’s just invisible. They get that right here.
Beyond the generally good cast, there is a cartoony tone and style to the script and the action. If anything of this character’s past incarnations is recalled, it’s the Saturday morning cartoons, albeit with a little extra wit. But this is not a winking or a postmodern Spider-Man. This is an earnest piece of work, one that feels driven by a genuine love for the character and a desire to find a new way to tell his origin story.
That said, any weaker points come from the action set-pieces. They are cartoony, and that sometimes works for a movie which has such strong performances in the forefront to push the story forward, but put these up against the more impressive action directors, and they would undoubtedly pale. As with the Raimi films, the use of New York is crucial both for the configuration and technicalities of Spider-Man’s web-slinging and swinging around. But you could certainly argue that, for all their gusto, the sheer volume of CGI used in those scenes distracts just enough to prevent them being exhilarating in a way they need to be. Yes, it works for the cartoon-style tone, but that’s a double-edged sword.
Equally problematic is the villain, The Lizard. A full CGI creation indeed, but one that in this interpretation feels like it was pulled from the second-graders’ handbook of comic book baddies. The scenes with Rhys Ifans just playing the doctor are all good, but the conception of the monster is dull, the design is uninspired and his eventual demise is so heavily foreshadowed that the end can be seen coming well before.
Earlier this year, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers showed the world that you can create a big, fun, silly comic book movie in a post-Christopher Nolan world and succeed. You don’t have to ignore the conventions of the comic books and you don’t have to exhibit any embarrassment at being involved in a comic book movie. Instead, you can embrace the medium and its style, you can create something straightforwardly fun. This is a movie less interested in the internal psychological struggles of its characters. That’s there and it’s done pretty well, but that’s not the whole movie. The Amazing Spider-Man is not any kind of socio-political allegory. It does not seek to explore anything beyond the subtext of the original stories. Instead, it’s just a really, really good Spider-Man movie.